Up, Up and Away With Walt Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The very first Mickey Mouse cartoon was not Steamboat Willie (1928) but Plane Crazy (1928), which reflected Walt Disney's interest in flying stirred by the recent exploits of pilot Charles Lindbergh and his famous flight across the Atlantic.

Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon to get a wide theatrical release, so it is usually given the recognition as the first Mickey cartoon, but the silent short Plane Crazy was actually the first Mickey Mouse cartoon that Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks produced.

Inspired by Lindbergh, Mickey builds his own homemade aircraft in the barnyard and takes to the skies with Minnie who is less than pleased by his aggressive attentions to her once they are in the air.

Iwerks, who did all the animation for the animated short by himself, began work the last week of April and it was previewed at a movie theater at Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street in Hollywood on May 15, 1928. It had cost $3,528.50 to make. Iwerks remembered that it was almost a full house in the theater and that the silent short got quite a few laughs and applause from the audience.

Walt had coached the theater pianist on how to accompany the action on the screen and slipped him a little extra money to punch up the music. Walt sent a print of the film to New York to be viewed by distributors along with documentation of the positive reaction from the theater audience, but received no offers.

However, the audience reaction encouraged Walt to produce another silent Mickey short, Gallopin' Gaucho (1928) and finally Steamboat Willie that featured synchronized sound and that novelty made Mickey a superstar overnight.

So the start of the Walt Disney Company didn't just start with a mouse but with a mouse who flew the friendly skies.

Later in life when he could afford it, Walt got his own private plane and it further stirred his passion for air travel.

For each generation, there is a defining moment. For one generation of Americans, the question was "Where were you on December 7th when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?"

Certainly for a recent generation, it is "Where were you on September 11th when the Twin Towers were attacked?"

For an earlier generation, the question was "Where were you on the day President Kennedy got shot?"

Where was Walt Disney on November 22, 1963?

Walt was in an airplane flying over Florida trying to determine where he might build an east coast entertainment venue and a community of tomorrow.

On November 21, 1963, Walt Disney and several of his top executives, including Donn Tatum, Card Walker, Joe Potter, Buzz Price and Jack Sayers checked into a Tampa, Florida hotel under assumed names to avoid alerting the press that they were there.

Walt and his advisers first toured Ocala, by car, as well as other regional sites, including the single biggest attraction in Central Florida at that time, the Citrus Tower in Clermont.

On November 22, the group boarded the Disney private plane and flew up to the Orlando area. Walt asked the pilot to fly along the coast so he could confirm he was not interested in beachfront property.

As Joe Potter recalled in 1976, "Walt did not want to be on the ocean because the beach is a very attractive thing to people. The beach will use people's time and he did not want to compete with other activities on beaches. He wanted what he was going to do to be the only attraction in an area."

Reaffirming that being near the ocean was not ideal, Walt then requested the pilot fly inland westward as low as possible so he could study the landscape.

Walt wanted one more opportunity to view the land in the central part of the state that had been strongly suggested before making a final decision. He could see that Interstate 4, then under construction, and the Florida Turnpike (I-75) would bisect nicely in the vast stretch of virgin land that he could purchase and mold into whatever he wanted.

I-4 would also connect with I-95 that runs up the Atlantic coast from Key West to Maine and I-75 linked with I-10 that spanned from the Florida panhandle to California. Orlando was perfectly located for car traffic from any part of the United States and would capture tourists on their way down to Miami, the most popular vacation destination in Florida, or on their way back.

"That's it," said Walt peering down at the spot where his vision would become a reality.

The plane then flew west along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans where it needed to be refueled for the flight back to California. They landed around 6 p.m. and drove to a hotel. They noticed crowds of people huddled around radios and watching television sets in store windows and crying.

When they arrived at the hotel they learned that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated earlier that day. On the flight back the next day, the mood was glum and no one talked.

As the plane approached Burbank, Walt told the group that Central Florida would be the location and to start buying land.

In the early 1960s, Walt had acquired a company airplane. Since during this time, Walt seemed to be constantly flying all over the country on a variety of projects, it just seemed to make sense that a private plane would prove a valuable addition to allow for more flexibility and, of course, secrecy on his scouting trips for a possible second entertainment venue.

Walt contacted Harrison "Buzz" Price, the former Stanford Research Institute executive who had helped in the development of Disneyland and who had since formed his own company, Economics Research Associates, to conduct a survey.

The survey did show it was a sound business decision to purchase a company airplane. However, Walt's brother, Roy thought it was a bad idea and Walt countered by saying: "Well, I've got a little money; I'll do it myself." Roy finally agreed to the purchase of a Queen Air Beechcraft.

Over the years, there were actually three company planes connected with Walt:

1. Queen Air (Beechcraft) 2/63 - 7/65
2. King Air (Beechcraft) 1965 - 1967
3. Gulfstream (Grumman) bought in 1963 and put in service 5/64, retired to WDW 10/8/92. (This is the plane that was on the backstage tour at Disney MGM Studios.)

The FAA gave the Disney planes special call letters: N234MM--the N denotes a plane, and the MM is short of Mickey Mouse. All three planes had the same designation.

Walt had his own jump seat on the Gulfstream behind the cockpit, with an altimeter and air speed indicator on the wall next to the seat, and a telephone direct to the pilot.

Walt used the planes, not just for quick transportation across the country, but for checking out the available acreage in Florida for a theme park. After work in Florida began, the Gulfstream ferried Disney executives back and forth to the East Coast, and it was used for promotional tours for new Disney movies and for theme park promotions.

In just eight days during the fall of 1965, the Gulfstream logged 8,300 miles in 26 flying hours carrying actor Dean Jones, Disney executive Card Walker and others of the Disney sales operation to seven cities pitching the movie That Darn Cat.

The plane also flew Disney characters on goodwill tours and visits to children's hospitals around the United States. An estimated 83,000 passengers (some of whom were given a special certificate acknowledging their flight) flew aboard the plane, including Disney personnel and celebrities such as former Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as Disney Legends Julie Andrews and Annette Funicello among many others.

Disney fans can catch a quick glimpse of the plane in the live action film The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and Now You See Him, Now You Don't (1972).

The plane Walt would fly had no distinguishing "Disney" marks.

The Disney aircraft were based at what's now Bob Hope Airport—it was called Lockheed Air Terminal from 1940 to 1967—in Burbank at Pacific Airmotive Corporation's facility. They were serviced by the mechanics there, with supervision from Disney maintenance chief Ed Henderson.

Jim Stevenson as pilot and Frank Gamble as co-pilot would alternate trips with pilot Kelvin Bailey and co-pilot Jim Bissell. Disney's original Queen Air pilot, Chuck Malone, also was a Gulfstream pilot.

According to Chuck's son Mark, his father told him that Walt spotted El Morro fortress while flying over San Juan, Puerto Rico, and remarked that it would be the perfect look for the exterior of his then planned Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

In 1965, one of Walt's pilots Kelvin Bailey, a reserve Marine officer who was putting in a lot of time and trouble gathering toys for the Toys for Tots campaign, had an accidental meeting in the Disney Studio hallway with Walt and got him excited to get more actively involved in the Toys for Tots campaign. As a result, that year Walt filmed a television spot for Toys for Tots.

Bob Gurr told me that Walt's pilots would initially use the proper form of identification when they approached an airport, "two three four metro metro." Then they would try "two three four Mickey Mouse." It did not take long until F.A.A. controllers routinely called N234MM "Mickey Mouse." That's how the plane got nicknamed just "The Mouse".

Walt contributed to the plane's interior design, and his wife, Lillian assisted in selecting materials and colors. Walt had postcards of a photo of the interior produced to give as a memento to those who flew on the plane.

"Walt wanted to fly so bad," pilot Chuck Malone recalled. Although Walt never acquired a pilot's license, he often took over the plane's controls. Chuck felt confident that if he had been incapacitated, Walt could have successfully gotten the plane back on the ground.

But the Company's insurance brokers took a dim view of Walt sitting up front. Especially since Walt always liked to fly as low as possible to study the landscape.

"The co-pilot's seat is the best seat in the airplane," Walt protested. "If they don't like it, I'll get myself another insurance company." That effectively ended the discussion.

Walt became a strong advocate of business aviation, Chuck said, seeking to demonstrate to people in the Walt Disney Company how useful the plane could be.

Chuck stated, "Walt often invited eight or 10 employees who could benefit from use of the plane to bring box lunches on board. We'd leave Burbank and fly to Santa Barbara, then turn southward and head for Tijuana, and circle back to Burbank. Then the passengers could say they had flown to Mexico and back for lunch."

Walt used a similar strategy to convince his brother Roy that the plane was an efficient tool for the company, not merely a frill for the executives. Walt planned a trip to redwood country of Northern California and to Sun Valley, Idaho for himself and Lilly, Roy and Edna.

Roy initially was an uneasy passenger on the plane, but Walt talked him into taking over the role of navigator during a flight. Roy, who had served as a navigator in the Navy during World War I, took over the task with enthusiasm, and by the end of the flight, Roy had become a strong supporter of the company plane.

In the book, Walt Disney: An American Original, author Bob Thomas wrote:

"Walt took delight in planning each trip, plotting the itinerary on maps in his office over his evening Scotch. When passengers arrived at the plane's home base at Lockheed Airport, he loaded their luggage aboard. During the flight, he served the drinks and supervised the galley.

"For years, Walt had yearned to pilot a plane, and on occasion, the company pilot, Chuck Malone, allowed Walt to take over the controls. Walt insisted that his sons-in-law Ron Miller and Bob Brown learn how to land the plane in case of emergency when they were flying with their families.

"After Chuck Malone became ill while piloting the plane alone, Walt established the rule that two pilots would be required during all flights."

In an interview with Lillian Disney, she commented, "[Walt's] mind was never inactive. I can remember one time when he was so interested in airplanes. We used to go to the airport and stand and watch planes land. Our first plane was a little one. We had one pilot. Walt said he wanted all his sons-in-law and everybody to learn to fly that plane. But after he had been up in it two or three times, he said, 'I don't want you to touch it. That's a business all its own. Keep away from it. We'll get pilots to fly that plane'."

Lillian was not as comfortable with flying as Walt. Lillian, who hated taking any chances or doing anything new, disapproved strongly of Walt wanting to fly the plane. However, he often took over the controls for short periods of time on long cross country flights which irritated Lillian.

One time, Walt was in the forward cabin and pilot Jim Stevenson let him have the microphone and Walt announced: "This is your captain speaking." Lillian bolted from her seat and was rushing towards the cabin when Walt boomed over the mike: "No, not the captain. This is the commander-in-chief of the whole damned outfit!"

In a 1978 WED-Way publication is the following information about the Gulfstream (Grumman) now at Walt Disney World:

"By 1978, after 14 1/2 years, the plane had logged 4,305,000 miles. That's 12,300 hours in the air, on 5,960 flights. The longest flight was from Burbank to Portland, ME, at 2,700 miles. The plane's maximum time in the air was 8 hours, 33 min."

When the 1980s began, the plane had a wide orange stripe along the windows, a small orange circle with a Mickey Mouse head on the tail, and no company name or theme park name. At the time that Walt used the plane, it looked like any other plane, with no distinct Disney markings or artwork.

Disney Archivist Dave Smith was kind enough to share this personal anecdote about flying on "The Mouse" with me:

"I remember going on trips to Florida, where it took 7 hours to fly in the Mouse; you could do it 2 hours shorter in a commercial airliner. On return flights, with headwinds, they sometimes had to stop to refuel, even though it had long-range fuel capability for transcontinental travel."

When the plane was finally retired from service in October 8, 1992, it was flown to Walt Disney World to be displayed on the backlot tour at the Disney MGM Studios.

The STOLport airport area near the Magic Kingdom was considered unsafe and too small to use. So the corporate plane landed instead on World Drive (which had been completely shut down prior to the arrival) and was towed to the movie theme park. The interior was gutted so that it would never fly again and it was prepared to be included on the guest backstage experience.

It spent many years beginning in 1993 as an exhibit on the backlot tour in the green area behind Residential Street. When the area was converted into the Lights, Motors, Action attraction, it was relocated to behind the bleacher seating where guests could still view it as they filed into the venue.

However, with the area being transformed into Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the plane was removed and no one seemed to know what happened to it or if it had even been completely dismantled.

In March 2018, the plane was located, thanks to aerial photography done by Nearmap, over a restricted backstage area near the water treatment plant off of Western Way.

The plane was completely encircled by a number of barricades. Interestingly, the plane had been repainted complete with the original big orange stripe. Whether it is still there two years later after enduring the Florida heat and humidity is anyone's guess.

Walt's love of flying is just another aspect of this fascinating man that is generally unknown to most Disney fans.