Walt Disney and New Orleans

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I have only been to New Orleans once in my life and it was “on the Mouse.”

When I worked for the Walt Disney World (WDW) Travel Company, they sent me to 30 different cities in 10 weeks as their travel launch spokesman in the fall of 1997.

Accompanied by a stage manager/technician and a beautiful, upbeat PowerPoint presentation, I talked to thousands of travel agents about why they should book their clients into a WDW vacation in the upcoming year and be our “partner in magic.”

The presentation proved to be so popular that the Disney Company added in some additional cities. Since I did three different cities a week, I primarily saw the insides of airports, taxis, hotels, restaurants, and convention centers.

However, if I skipped sleeping until the return flight, I could squeeze in time to briefly visit things like the book depository in Dallas, the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta, the original exterior of the bar for the television show Cheers in Boston, and more.

In New Orleans, I got to experience my first beignet, my first (and last) Hurricane drink, some really good pralines, authentic jazz and much more. I highly recommend that everyone should visit at least once and not necessarily during Mardi Gras.

However, as I sat outside at a table, getting more beignet on the outside of me than on the inside, I mused about the many different connections this fabled city had with Walt Disney himself.

I suspect that most Disney fans would immediately think of New Orleans Square in Disneyland as the major connection. It was the first new “land” added to the theme park since it opened in 1955.

However, Walt had always wanted there to be a New Orleans-themed section in Disneyland from when it first opened in 1955.

At the opening day ceremonies, co-hosts Ronald Reagan and Bob Cummings both referred to the New Orleans flavor at the edge of Frontierland and the famous jazz band the Firehouse Five Plus Two played Dixieland jazz to inaugurate the area.

A Disneyland postcard of the area from 1956 stated: “down on New Orleans Street over in Frontierland…finest barbeque this side of the Mississippi…”

In fact, Walt planned that the Magnolia Park just around the corner from Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise would eventually develop into a New Orleans area. Wrought iron balconies, like those iconic of New Orleans architecture, decorated the exterior of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House.

The Plantation House restaurant (often referred to as the Chicken Plantation Restaurant because it featured full chicken dinners for $1.65) was designed so that the side of the building that faced the Rivers of America had a New Orleans style façade. It was reminiscent of pre-Civil War New Orleans.

New Orleans Square pin. Copyright Disney.

The side of the building that faced the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad was designed to look like a Spanish hacienda in keeping with the Frontierland theme.

In the late 1950s, the Imagineers conceived of this area as having a creepy haunted house, a pirate wax museum that guests would walk through to see tableaux of pirate history, and a Thieves Market designed for shopping.

By 1961, in order to put in as much as possible into the area, the haunted house was moved to the north taking over the land where the Plantation House restaurant originally stood.

The New Orleans area would become the Blue Bayou Mart, an enclosed area where it was always a breezy summer night with stars in the sky. There would still be a Thieves Market with the pirate museum underneath the street in a “basement.” However, there would now be an elegant restaurant overlooking the Blue Bayou.

Imagineer Sam McKim created a concept map. Because of the demands of the projects for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, Walt pulled all the Imagineers off the New Orleans project to concentrate on the pavilions for the fair.

When the fair ended, everyone had a new perspective, including changing the walk through pirate wax museum into a boat ride like “it’s a small world” and changing the static figures into Audio-Animatronics actors.

Why was it called New Orleans Square since it doesn’t seem to be a square at all, but a series of curved, winding streets?

The Vieux Carré is the historic name for the actual New Orleans French Quarter, and translates from the original French into “Old Square.”

The area at Disneyland was officially dedicated on July 24, 1966 by Walt and Victor Schiro, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1961-1969.

A reporter for a New Orleans newspaper wrote that “it’s the next best thing to being there” and repeated the information from the Disney publicity material that it was built for almost the exact amount paid for the entire Louisiana Purchase in 1803, roughly $15 million (just $2 million shy of the cost to build the entire Disneyland park in 1955).

When Schiro repeated that the Disney version was just like the real thing to reporters, a playful Walt off to the side and in a soft voice said “only cleaner.”

Walt was in an exuberant mood and kept interrupting the mayor, pointing out that they both had mustaches, and how the dollar has risen over the years since the original Louisiana Purchase.

He also joked that since the mayor had just made him an honorary citizen of New Orleans (“You know I am already a Louisiana Colonel,” remarked Walt) that maybe he should make the mayor an “honorary dictator of the Magic Kingdom.”

When New Orleans Square opened, you could hear the chants and ringing bells of a voodoo queen living off a balcony on the backside of the Square near the bathrooms and the train station.

I always wondered if it was the infamous Marie Laveau who practiced voodoo in New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s. After all, her portrait could be found in both Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion when those attractions first opened.

Those chants and bells wouldn’t have bothered Walt whose massive personal apartment was being built over the Pirates of the Caribbean ride where his wife Lilly would have been able to easily visit the nearby “One-of-A-Kind Shop” down below filled with the unique antiques she enjoyed purchasing in the real New Orleans.

At the dedication, Walt said, “Disneyland has always had a Big River and a Mississippi sternwheeler. It made sense to build a new attraction at the bend of the river, and so New Orleans Square came into being - a New Orleans of a century ago when she was the ‘Gay Paree’ of the American frontier.”

However, Walt’s interest in New Orleans goes back to his childhood and his fascination of the big steamboats that journeyed from St. Louis, Missouri down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

In fact, one of the things young Walt was looking forward to doing when he returned from France in 1919 was to take a trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a homemade raft with his friend, Russell Maas.

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon took place on a steamboat and the song used in the cartoon, “Steamboat Bill,” was about a steamboat trying to beat the record of the Robert E. Lee steamboat in a race to New Orleans.

On a trip to New Orleans in 1946 with his wife, Lillian, who was an avid antiques collector and loved shopping in the collectibles shops, Walt discovered a small golden birdcage with a singing bird and wondered if this type of technology could be duplicated on a larger scale.

Most research describes this moment as the beginnings of Audio-Animatronics as he gave it to people at the studio to see if they could duplicate the movements in a human figure.

It was Walt who created “Dixieland at Disneyland” that debuted at the Carnation Gardens on October 1, 1960 and featured big name entertainers playing Dixieland Jazz.

Dixieland Jazz is more frantic and faster than Chicago Jazz or New York Jazz. Dixieland mixes elements of military bands with street parades and adds syncopation and rhythmic swing.

Postcard of Mickey Mouse and Minnie in the real New Orleans. Copyright Disney.

The following year (September 1961) saw Louis Armstrong join the performances that had been moved on board the Mark Twain steamboat. This event was filmed for the “Disneyland After Dark” television episode that was shown April 15, 1962, and later released theatrically as a short subject both domestically and overseas.

Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans, performed again in 1962 and from 1964-1967. In 1968, he even recorded an album titled Disney Songs the Satchmo Way that brought the flavor of New Orleans to Disney standards.

Louis Prima, who was the voice of King Louie in the animated feature The Jungle Book (1967), was also born in New Orleans.

However, it was not just this special event that showcased the music of New Orleans. The streets of Frontierland echoed with the sounds of the South from groups like Young Men from New Orleans (the gag being they were anything but young) who performed from 1955-1966.

Johnny St. Cyr was the leader of the small group that included vocalist Monette Moore, Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Kid Ory (trombone) Joe Darensbourg/Paul Barn (clarinet), Harvey Brooks (piano), Alton Redd (drums), and Mike Delay (trumpet).

He continued to perform at Disneyland until his death in 1966 and the Young Men From New Orleans can be seen in the “Disneyland After Dark” special, as well as clips from various Disneyland parades.

Another group was the “Royal Street Bachelors” that performed starting in 1966. The leader, Jack McVea, was personally hired by Walt Disney himself. McVea kept the job for 27 years, retiring in 1992.

McVea was a famous musician in his own right having written the song “Open the Door Richard” in 1946. The original Royal Street Bachelors, who all played string instruments, included Harold Grant (who was replaced by Ernest McLean when Grant died) and Herb Gordy.

Other groups that kept the flair alive at Disneyland were the Side Street Strutters (that had a horn section) and Bayou Brass (that had a Cajun flavor).

The Disneyland parades were even influenced by New Orleans.

Blaine Kern was known as “Mr. Mardi Gras,” because when the Mardi Gras parades were offering only dim shadows of past glories in the 1950s, Kern became an innovator at creating fanciful, outlandish floats that included storybook characters whose heads turned and whose eyes moved.

In 1959, Kern met Walt Disney, who was visiting Mardi Gras in search of new ideas. Walt was quite taken with one of Kern’s more inspired creations: an 18-foot-tall King Kong-like gorilla, with five men inside, that walked and made facial expressions.

Remember that this was when Walt was still trying to get a grip on the concept of Audio-Animatronics for his park attractions. Disney showed a clip of Kern’s gorilla in an episode of his television program (March 4, 1962) titled “Carnival Time” where Ludwig Von Drake sends Donald Duck to report on the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Walt offered Kern a job to work as an Imagineer designing floats for Disneyland, as well as working on other projects. Kern’s boss, Darwin Fenner (the son of the Fenner in the Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith) convinced Kern to say “no” to Walt.

Fenner reminded Kern of his love for New Orleans, and his passion for Mardi Gras. According to Kern, “Fenner said, ‘Son, let me tell you: You stay here in New Orleans, you’re gonna be a big fish in a little pond. You go out there, you’re gonna be a small fish in a big pond.’ He said, ‘Your fortune will be here in the future. Mardi Gras is democratizing; it’s opening up to everybody.’ ”

However, Walt’s studying of Kern’s work helped inspire the re-design of Disneyland parades. Today, Kern’s son, Barry, carries on the family tradition and he is the builder and designer of props and sculptures for Disney and other theme parks.

Of course, the most notable New Orleans influence on a Disney parade was the famous “Party Gras” parade in Disneyland in 1990 to celebrate “35 Years of Magic.” In fact, the parade was so impressive that it was shipped out to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in 1991 to help celebrate the 20th anniversary of that park.

Singer, dancers, and stiltwalkers threw beads and a special Party Gras coin to guests and occasionally the parade stopped so the guests could participate. Huge forty-foot tall floats of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto and Roger Rabbit rolled down the street and seemed to dwarf the Main Street buildings.

In the early 1980s, Dick Nunis pushed for an expansion of the Shopping Village at Lake Buena Vista (better known as “Downtown Disney” today) by creating a moderately priced themed resort to resemble New Orleans.

The Empress Lilly restaurant would have been a steamboat that had docked to unload its cargo at this riverfront town of New Orleans where the guest rooms would have been “hidden” in buildings resembling a cotton mill or a boatwrights shop. The rooms would be on the upper floors with the bottom floor reserved for shops and restaurants.

This is similar to the design that was eventually used for some resort rooms at Walt Disney World’s BoardWalk.

 A New Orleans themed resort, named Port Orleans, did appear on Walt Disney World property on May 17, 1991, thanks to Fugleberg Koch Architects of Winter Park, Florida in collaboration with the Disney Development Company.

It was themed to the French Quarter of New Orleans around the mid-1800s and was situated by the Sassagoula River, a man-made Disney waterway named after the Native American word for the Mississippi.

It was characteristic of the New Orleans French Quarter with balconies, wrought iron railings, cobblestone streets, and courtyards but with Disney touches like jazz trombone playing alligators.

The text on the back of the very first postcard released for the resort stated: “Evoking a bygone era of romance and charm, the hidden courtyards, splashing fountains and lush gardens of Disney’s Port Orleans Resort create a welcome retreat. At the heart of it all is Doubloon Lagoon, where ‘Scales’ the sea serpent invites visitors to make a splash!”

Blaine Kern Artists, Inc. were responsible for collecting and creating the many Mardi Gras props, such as the jesters. Some of the Mardi Gras decorative props were purchased directly from Mardi Gras warehouses in New Orleans.

On March 1, 2001, the resort officially merged with Dixie Landings and became Port Orleans: French Quarter (with Dixie Landings becoming Port Orleans: Riverside).

While I am unable to afford another visit to New Orleans, I sometimes content myself by visiting Port Orleans: French Quarter. Walt Disney always wanted the “flavor” of New Orleans to be part of his theme park from the very beginning and I think he would be happy at the final results.