Beyond the Vacation Kingdom of the World: Springfield, Hannibal, and Marcelineby Tom Richards, contributing writer
More often than not, many well-meaning and well-educated friends scorn my affinity for Walt Disney World. "Why take your children to a fabricated world when the real world is so much more compelling?" I typically respond that Walt Disney World vacations are not the only vacations I share with my children.
One way I like to extend our journeys into the lands of Disney is by making connections between our experiences at Walt Disney World and historical locations. Last fall, we did just that. The Hall of Presidents fascinated my sons, and a wonderful book about the presidents (purchased at the Heritage House at the American Adventure in Epcot) only reinforced their interest in the lives of the men who've led our country through the years.
The other Magic Kingdom attraction that captured their imaginations was Tom Sawyer Island. While they are still too young to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I found a brief dramatization of Tom Sawyer that we read to familiarize them with the basic storyline and the main characters. At Disney's Hollywood Studios, my boys were enthralled with One Man's Dream and Walt's journeys from small Midwestern farm to Hollywood. We decided on a last minute road trip to Springfield, Hannibal, and Marceline to explore the lives of Lincoln, Twain, and Disney in more depth, and we were all glad that we did.
We began our journey in the Land of Lincoln at Springfield, Illinois. Our first stop was Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln's home, lovingly restored and maintained by the National Park Service. Our tour guide was particularly good, and she said something that will stay with us forever. Despite the regulations that visitors touch nothing in the house, she encouraged us to hold tight onto the bannister of the staircase, the one time we could break the rules. As we descended the stairs into the foyer, she remarked that Abraham Lincoln and his family held onto the very same bannister, so in effect, we were "holding the president's hand." A lovely thought, indeed.
The Lincoln home is surrounded by a carefully restored neighborhood complete with wooden sidewalks, mature shade trees, and quaint views at every corner. We followed our visit to the home with an extended stay at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, a wondrous place for kids and adults alike. Full-scale recreations of Lincoln's log cabin and the White House portico greet guests and invite them to enter Lincoln's world. These displays paint a full picture of Lincoln as a boy, young man, father, lawyer, and ultimately, president. There is also an "attic" area for kids to interact with toys, maps, rooms, and artifacts from the time of the Lincolns.
The museum is promoted as "more than 40,000 square feet of galleries, theaters, and historic displays that combine scholarship with showmanship—culminating in the world's best collection of Lincoln lore and legend." The "Ghosts in the Library" show is amazing—I won't spoil it for you by describing it or by ruining the ending—but suffice it to say that we all enjoyed it thoroughly. Much of the museum was designed with the help of former Walt Disney Imagineers, and the attention to detail and the level of interactivity are definitely up to Disney standards of "good show."
There are other sites in Springfield as well. We travelled outside of town to visit the impressive Lincoln tomb, spent a day at New Salem, an authentically recreated 1850s village, played in the Illinois State Museum's wonderful children's area, and spent a few quality hours touring the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Dana-Thomas House.
For help planning a trip to Springfield, visit the official Springfield Illinois area travel information site.
The boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens—better known to the world as author Mark Twain—Hannibal, Missouri conjures images of Frontierland and Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom. Here, guests can visit Mark Twain's childhood home, visit a "house" that Huckleberry Finn might have inhabited, and stop by the home of the girl who inspired Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's first love. All of these homes are within walking distance of downtown Hannibal, a modest, but enjoyable, stretch of shops and eateries. There are several rather good antiques shops here, an immersive Mark Twain Museum, a trolley ride, and a riverboat ride on the mighty Mississippi River.
Nearby, guests can visit the Mark Twain Caves, complete with guided tours. There are several types of tours available, one with the modern comforts of electric lights and one that features a more authentic candle-lit tour.
There are a number of reasonably priced hotels in town, some really fine bed-and-breakfasts, and even some historical hotels right on the main street.
For more information visit the Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau website.
A little less than two hours from Hannibal is the boyhood home of another famous American icon—Walt Disney. Though Walt's parents only owned a farm here for a brief time, it was to become a time of lasting inspiration and joy for Walt Disney. While the Disney home here is a private residence, the owners welcome visitors to a recreation of Walt's barn. En route, visitors can see the remains of the "Dreaming Tree" (along with a newly planted sapling) where a young Walt and his sister, Ruth, would sit, dream, and tell stories. Walt often claimed that his love for animals and animal stories could be traced to the happy hours he and his sister spent under this tree. The barn is a charming little structure, and unique as well. Guests are invited to write their names and/or messages on the inside walls of the barn.—
Nearby, just off Kansas Street, is the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Housed in the historic train depot, the museum focuses on Walt's time in Marceline as well as the ways his love of small town life found its way into his many creative endeavors through the years. Walt's youngest sibling, his sister Ruth, willed her extensive collection of family letters, photos, and memorabilia to the museum. As a result, the collection is unique and very personal.
Kansas Street, Marceline's Main Street, clearly influenced the look of Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A., and by extension, the Magic Kingdom's incarnation of this charming glorification of turn-of-the-century small town America. Marceline makes the most of this connection by marking its "downtown" streets with street signs featuring familiar mouse ears. While the Disney-created Main Streets are definitely romanticized, idealized visions of old-time downtowns, there are specific views in Marceline that are so similar to the "blocks" of Main Street U.S.A. that it will you goose bumps. Kansas Street features a few antique shops, an ice cream shop, and a diner or two. There's also a large park for the kids to run, and climb on a vintage caboose. The Post Office is another beautiful building, and visitors can ask for a special Walt Disney's Hometown cancellation available only here.
For information, visit the Marceline, Missouri website.
The American Dream Personified
There's something quintessentially American about the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Walt Disney, three self-made men who rose from obscurity with determination, hard work, and a special sense of genius. Our visits to their hometowns were quite different from our Walt Disney World vacations, but my sons (who were only five years old at the time) loved every minute of it. Climbing the stairs in Lincoln's home, exploring a Missouri cave, and standing on the train station platform where a five-year-old Walt Disney once stood gave them a sense of history, a history that might be repeated by them someday. After all, if a self taught backwoods lawyer, an incorrigible young man with a knack for getting into trouble, and an imaginative boy who scribbled drawings of animals in a notebook on his father's farm could achieve great things, why not them?