When Walt Disney Opened an Elementary School
By Jake Rossen
Thanks to the itinerary, the kids knew exactly when he’d be arriving: 3:15 p.m. There were signs and banners and drawings of Mickey Mouse sticking up from the sea of diminutive bodies waiting by the train station. Seven thousand people in total huddled around the tracks.
When he arrived, he stuck his head out of the compartment to wave a conductor’s hat complementing a dark suit. As he stepped off, the children surged forward, nudging away the politicians who had come out to greet him.
It was a Saturday. The kids were headed for school. They didn’t care. Walt Disney was coming with them.
Already famous for having guided his studio into feature-length animation in the 1930s, Walt's notoriety grew exponentially when he began hosting ABC's Disneyland anthology show in 1954. That same year, when the children in the Tullytown, Penn. school district were asked who they’d like their new elementary building to be named after, officials heard a chorus: the only choice was Walt Disney.
Tullytown was part of land developer William Levitt’s burgeoning suburban stretches. (It would later be known as Levittown.) With immaculately-kept lawns, new housing, and layouts designed for families—no school was ever more than a mile’s walk, with no intersections to cross—it fit Disney’s infatuation with utopias. Coincidentally, he was mired in planning Disneyland when the school board contacted him with the proposal in the spring of 1954.
Flattered, Disney was happy to grant permission. His own school experiences had been slightly traumatic: As a youth, he was told he was the “second-dumbest” in class. Teachers discouraged his interests in drawing and storytelling. This was an opportunity to soften the educational experience and foster—not suffocate—creativity.
State Historical Society of Missouri
Disney assigned in-house artist Bob Moore to design a series of wooden character murals that could be mounted in hallways and the gymnasium; he also had Moore compile original art and animation cels to hang in the school. The children were invited to assign Disney-related names to rooms instead of numbers. The girls' bathroom was the “Mermaid Lagoon”; visitors to the nurse entered “Pegleg Point”; the name plate on the principal’s door read “Captain Hook.”
Though the school opened in April of 1955, Disney didn’t attend the dedication ceremony until September 24 of that year. Arriving from Penn Station, he was greeted by Tullytown’s kids and local and state public officials; a motorcade led him to the building bearing his name. He laid down a cornerstone on the grounds as the Walt Disney Elementary School Band played songs from his films.
Inside, kids took turns holding his hand and guiding him door to door. (Disney was amused to see the boiler room labeled “Never-Never-Land.”) When Disney stopped inside a class labeled “Bambi” or “Donald Duck,” he’d tell stories about the making of the film or do a character voice. Toward the end of his visit, the students entertained him with a show in the auditorium.
The 318 kids attending kindergarten through fifth grade at Walt Disney Elementary were the envy of the community, which housed eight public schools in total. They were further spoiled when school board president Benjamin Kine convinced a Congressman to arrange the donation of the Douglas D-558-2 Skyrocket, a rocket and jet-powered aircraft. Recently put out of service after having broken the Mach 2 barrier, the $9.5 million plane took up residence in the front yard of the school. Kids could eat lunch in the cockpit. Utopia suited them just fine.
Disney would go on to have over 60 schools named after him, including one in his hometown of Marceline, Mo. When an Anaheim school invited him for a dedication ceremony in 1958, he declared classes “canceled” and piled the students into buses bound for Disneyland.
Walt Disney Elementary in Levittown is still in operation. In 2007, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places due in part to the original artwork that still hangs in the hallways. Disney, who died in 1966, has a portrait in the lobby. It’s said that he’s not often recognized, a fact that would be unthinkable to the children who climbed over themselves for his attention back in 1955.
As Disney was led by hand from room to room that day, kids hanging on his every word, he kept one anecdote to himself. Fed up with school, he had dropped out in the ninth grade.