Saturday, December 31, 2016

Forever Remembered: The Lasting Influence of Walt Disney

By Dave Mason

In the final chapter of his four-part series on the lasting legacy of Walt Disney, historian Dave Mason provides an eyewitness account of Walt’s 1965 visit to the Walt Disney School in Anaheim, California. Join us as we travel back to 1965 and witness the lasting influence of Walt Disney...

“For most of us, there would be little meaning in life without children.” - Walt Disney

When we saw Walt Disney step toward the platform, we simply could not contain ourselves. Our fellow classmates at Anaheim's Walt Disney School stood and cheered with such abandon that it seemed to take forever for our teachers to return us to our seats on the playground. For those of us who were there, this would mark the red-letter day of our grade school experience. The President of the United States could have walked onto our campus that day and gone unnoticed. The father of Mickey Mouse was here. Walt Disney was in our midst.

Early in 1965, plans were underway for a "Founder’s Day" assembly to be held at our school. It is difficult to recall a student who cared or even knew what that meant. It just seemed to be one more required activity that the school dutifully imposed on us, their captive audience.

"Friday Nighters" dance class in multi-purpose room (cafeteria) at Walt Disney School.  Murals provided by Walt Disney and created by studio artist Bob Moore.

The aura of importance changed dramatically, however, when our teacher, Mrs. Faye Corwin, called our classroom to order. Something in her voice told us that she had some very important news. Her serious tone was quickly overtaken by that smile we all knew and loved. The wish of a thousand bedtime prayers was finally realized in this single pronouncement: "Walt Disney is coming to our school!"

Our teacher, Mrs. Faye Corwin (Room 14)

For a moment we sat in silent disbelief. Were our ears playing tricks on us? Did she really just say that? Then the rapid fire of successive questions began. Would we get to see him? Would he talk to us? Was Mickey Mouse coming too? Were we going to Disneyland? (The legend had been faithfully passed along to subsequent generations of students that when the school was dedicated on March 30, 1957, without notice to teachers, parents, or faculty, Walt declared a school holiday and invited the entire student body to Disneyland as his personal guests.)

Walt Disney dedicates Walt Disney School in Anaheim, California (Sat. March 30, 1957)

Walt Disney, using a wooden lectern borrowed from neighboring First Lutheran Church, as he invites the student body to be his guests at Disneyland (Sat. March 30, 1957) (c) Disney

For several days the Walt Disney School had been a whirlwind of activity. Cleaning a classroom had never seemed like fun before. Suddenly, "Whistle While You Work" had a brand-new meaning. Every closet, cupboard, and desk was cleaned inside and out. The checkered tile floors had a shine normally reserved only for the first day of school. The smallest bit of litter was cleared from the playground. The cafeteria even seemed to smell better.

6th grade student Deborah Smeltzer holds the keepsake book containing the signatures of each student in the school, as presented to Walt Disney

We watched as a stage was assembled on the playground and final preparations began to take shape. Signature pages were distributed for the keepsake book that was being prepared for presentation to Mr. Disney. It was probably the closest thing to a legal document that we had ever seen, and with careful deliberation, every student signed their name as if their final grade depended on it.

When the hour finally arrived, each classroom marched single-file to their preassigned places on the playground. A few sixth graders had been chosen to represent the student body on the platform. The air was thick with envy.

View of Walt Disney School administration building (left), cafeteria (right) and the playground where the platform was erected so Walt Disney could speak at the "Founder's Day" presentation.

After an eternity of waiting (at least three minutes), someone shouted, "He's here!" All eyes turned to see the Three Little Pigs along with Miss Disneyland Tencennial (Julie Reihm) actually marching down the central corridor of our school. Even if the Disneyland Band wasn't playing in the background, memory places it there now. It was an electric moment of wild anticipation and we believed that every childhood dream we had was about to be fulfilled.

Miss Disneyland Tencennial, Julie Reihm

Then, through a sea of suits, Walt Disney stepped forward with the honest smile of a man who understood us. He knew we loved him like our own fathers and he was so proud of the special place he had achieved in our hearts. To us, his simple presence had transformed our little neighborhood school into a "magic kingdom" of endless possibilities.

Walt Disney speaks to the parents, teachers, administrators and student body at Walt Disney School, February 9, 1965

For each person having lived through the 1960's, we will always remember those who came along side to reassure us during those turbulent times. The many highs and lows of that era are forever embedded within our memory, but even more powerful is the love, encouragement and affirmation of those who understood their responsibility as caretakers of a new generation.

It would be years before parental obligations included mandatory training in digital video technology. Though one PTA member was able to preserve Walt’s words on a reel-to-reel audio tape, unfortunately their tape has since been lost. The search for West Anaheim’s hidden treasure continues.

The week after his visit, however, it was Walt Disney himself who wrote these words in a letter to our student body, reflecting the spirit of the day:

Dear Children,
It was very pleasant being with you last Tuesday and you made me proud all over again to have my name associated with your school. I shall keep the book you gave me, with all of your autographs, as one of my favorite keepsakes.

It was kind of your parents to visit the ceremonies. I wish we could have spent more time together, but even the brief moments we did have were fun, and I thank you most sincerely.

Walt Disney

But it was in his letter to our parents that Walt Disney's respect and admiration for children came through most clearly:

“My visit with you this past Tuesday made me both humble and proud.  For most of us, there would be little meaning in life without children.” 

Fifty years later, we still feel the influence of the twentieth century's most gentle giant. Walt Disney shaped not only the future of storytelling, but at the same time he reaffirmed the critical importance of helping the next generation to discover their own sense of creativity and purpose.

Walt Disney’s eldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, understood the significance of her father’s unique role in this regard. Written while the Walt Disney Family Museum was early in its planning stages, readers will understand the impact of her affirmation:

I’ve just read your essay, and I was very touched by it...

Your first-hand account of my dad’s visit to your school, the letter he wrote to you kids, and to your parents, bear witness to the man that he was. We are assembling a “family museum” that is dedicated to just that. We are accumulating interviews and sponsoring research that will help us to build an archive that will be useful to anyone who seeks to know more about my dad… whether he is a fourth grader doing a report or a PhD candidate doing his dissertation.

Again, good luck, and thanks so much for your courtesy. I do love your story.

Diane M.

Remembering those earlier times can stir fond memories of those who are no longer with us. Possibly it was a grandparent, mother or father, neighbor, or the caring teacher who helped us discover the potential that no one else seemed to notice. Certainly, these leaders and mentors would hope that from such a remembrance might spring all that is needed in order to guide another generation toward a compassion and a purpose that as of yet has only been imagined.

Presentation of Walt Disney School student signatures (left to right):  Sharon Figg, Richard Williams, Debbie Smeltzer, Walt Disney, John Good

Postscript: Less than two years after this historic event, our school was notified of Walt Disney’s unexpected passing on the morning of December 15, 1966. It doesn’t require much imagination to understand the impact of that news. Though we were “grown-up” sixth graders by then it didn’t take long for the tears to begin to flow as the teachers and administrators gathered with us in front of the school to lower our flag to half-staff. Los Angeles television station KTLA had positioned their news cameras on the roof adjacent to that small plaza as our principal asked us to bow our heads in moment of silence. Regrettably, the news footage from that day was lost when the television station recycled their tapes, as was their practice at that time.

The small plaza at the school's flagpole where Walt Disney's passing was honored as the flag was lowered to half-staff.

Still, a clipping from the school’s PTA newsletter of a half century ago does survive; posted now for the first time as a closing tribute from the Walt Disney School of Anaheim, California:

Chapter 1: The Story of Walt Disney’s Final Official Visit to Disneyland 

Chapter 2: Walt Disney’s Final Visit to Disneyland - A Medal of Honor Family Remembers

Chapter 3: Walt Disney's Final Public Appearance


Dave Mason was born in Anaheim, California within a month of Disneyland’s grand opening premiere and dedication. Growing up in a community that celebrated every success of their adopted hometown “park", the stories of his family members serving as carpenters on Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle or sales clerks at the souvenir shops on Main Street, U.S.A. would provide for tales as wonderful as those found in Disney’s best storybooks. In fact, when Disneyland launched their summer fireworks extravaganza for the first time, the back yard of his family home on Anaheim’s Haster Street would serve as the perfect location to receive the best benefits of the Disney experience without having to buy an admission ticket.

Today, Dave Mason serves as the founder of, launched on April 1, 1994 (yes, “April Fools Day”). Among the earliest entrepreneurs to make the leap into internet sales, Dave joined a handful of Disney enthusiasts in offering auctions on AuctionWeb (later to become known as eBay). In addition, Dave is honored to serve as the Director of Development with the all-volunteer team of The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases ( He is a founding member of both the Walt Disney Family Museum and a global Disney research organization known as The Hyperion Historical Alliance.

You can find all of Dave's articles here.


  1. I went to Walt Disney, and lived only a block away. The church they borrowed the podium from was Faith Lutheran Church, NOT First Lutheran. My father, Leroy Miller, was the pastor of Faith Lutheran for 36 years. I remember the day that we mourned Walt Disney's passing. I was only in 1st grade, but still remember gathering on the front lawn to lower the flag. I loved parent/teacher conference days when the kids got to go into the cafeteria and watch....what else, but Disney movies...and get popcorn for $.10. Such good memories. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Lauri is absolutely correct. I even confirmed it before the final edit of the article and still wrote "First" instead of "Faith." My apologies...

      Dave Mason

  2. An additional note: On Saturday morning, March 30, 1957 in the presence of Walt Disney, parents, students and invited dignitaries... Leroy Miller, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, prayed the invocation for the dedication of Walt Disney School.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this!! I happened to come across your blog during my search of any information on Walt's visits to the school as I, too, was a student there and had the great privilege of being there to witness that Feb 9 event. I was in the 3rd Grade then. One of my friends sent me a picture of myself and her sitting on the playground as we were waiting for the program to begin.

    I was also one of the few to have met and help him on a previous visit and I am trying to find as many details and any photos that may exist of the presentation inside the cafeteria. I would absolutely be thrilled if any existed of any that had me on the stage with him.

    Somehow I had the honor and privilege of being selected to participate in a presentation on our cafeteria stage with Mr. Disney. At the time, being so young and so sheltered, I was bewildered and didn't quite understand the magnitude of the honor of being in his presence. I think I may have been selected because I was Asian. [More specifically, I was adopted from a well-known orphanage in Japan in 1960]. Back then, I was still trying to figure out my place in this new world called The United States of America. There were 4 or 5 of us students on the platform with him. Facing the platform I would have been positioned on the extreme right, and probably the smallest (I have always been small for my age and still am as an adult due to having suffered malnutrition).

    During a short rehearsal just before the presentation, Walt chatted briefly with me. My “very important job”, as Walt told me, was to spin a globe that was placed on its stand, while he spoke to the rest of the assembly.

    I remember that he had only one more visit to the school, several months before he passed. I will always remember his friendliness his genuine smile but also, him being shocked and taken aback when I answered his question about going to Disneyland. I replied “no” I had never been there. He had a stunned look on his face and I don’t think he knew what to say. I was never sure why my parents never took me. I should have told him they couldn’t afford it (It might have actually been true), so he could get me tickets 😊.

    Anyway, one of the things on my bucket list is to see if any photos of us of that occasion existed and try to get a copy of them. My mom took off work that day to see the presentation and she usually always had a camera to take pictures of special events but had forgotten it.

    The school will be celebrating its 60th anniversary this year (on March 31, 2017) and they have invited me to be one of the speakers to share what it was like to meet and be with Walt even for a very brief time. Thank you for providing me the wonderful memories of what it was like to have him there. If you or someone out there that has photos, memories or details of that previous presentation I had with him inside the school's cafeteria, please email me (Cindy Shimizu) at