Walt Goes Hawaiian

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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The Disney Company recently purchased 21 acres of oceanfront property on Hawaii's island of Oahu to be home to Disney's first mixed-use family resort outside of its theme park developments. The expansive resort, scheduled to open in 2011, will have more than 800 units including hotel rooms and villas for Disney Vacation Club (DVC), which is Disney's rapidly growing timeshare business.

Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, said at the time:

"In fact, Hawaii has been among our most requested Disney Vacation Club getaway locations beyond our theme parks. We are looking forward to building a special family resort that honors the cultural diversity of Hawaii and reflects the spirit of aloha that makes this location so unique. Clearly, Hawaii already has a special place in our hearts and in Disney's history. Building a resort hotel in Hawaii is the next chapter in our effort to create immersive Disney experiences that allow families to reconnect and recharge in the areas of the world they most long to visit."

I doubt that Jay Rasulo really knows how much Hawaii is a “special place…in Disney history.” Most Disney fans probably connect Hawaii with the animated feature, Lilo and Stitch and its various spin-offs from a television series to straight to DVD sequels, but the Disney connections with Hawaii are much richer than just that one film.

My experiences with DVC members have shown that they are deeply interested in Disney history and very appreciative of it. Their monthly e-mail newsletter and their quarterly magazine feature a fascinating column devoted to Disney history and they have had many events including special cruises themed to Disney heritage.

The person who should be writing about Disney and the Hawaiian experience is Kevin Kidney, who worked at Disney as a designer and is now a self-employed art director, illustrator, writer, and sculptor who often does some classic Enchanted Tiki Room merchandise for Disney. Check out his informative and entertaining Web site.

Once again this year, I missed Kidney’s presentation at the Hukilau at Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I am very disappointed he hasn’t included on his excellent Web site, his presentation from last year’s Hukilau that focused on the Florida Orange Bird character that was so popular when Adventureland opened at Walt Disney World in 1971.

I eventually had to write my own article on the character, but would love to see what Kidney knows about the Orange Bird. I also hope that he writes something about Lt. Robin Crusoe USN.

So while I am waiting, I guess I will share some of the things I know about Walt and Hawaii.

In L.A. Times stories and the National Archives' record called California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1893-1957, it shows that Walt Disney was in Los Angeles most of 1934 where he played a lot of polo in July and August. This is important information because Walt’s personal diary for this time period is very incomplete. Walt and his wife Lilly went to Lake Arrowhead with Walt’s boyhood friend, Walt Pfeiffer, late in July.

However, Walt and Lilly were gone on their first Hawaiian trip from August 10 to September 1, 1934. They sailed on the Matson liner, Lurline, and it was approximately a six-day cruise. It was their first of several visits to the Hawaiian Islands.

Walt and Lilly visited Oahu in 1934, decades before Hawaii became a state.

“There is film [home movies] of them at a polo game, trying to surf … mother does a lot better than dad... wonderfully comic, and a luau with other distinguished looking people,” Diane Disney Miller told me.

Actually, it was a baseball game rather than a polo game that Walt and Lilly attended.

Walt insisted to the local newspaper that he wasn't interested in attending a lot of activities: "I don't want to do anything except to lie on the beach in the sun and wiggle my toes in the sand.”

However, Walt did attend a charity event, the opening game of the U.S. Army’s baseball championship series between Fort Shafter and Wheeler Field. Walt also appeared at both Honolulu’s Princess Theater and the nearby Liberty Theater for a regular meeting of one of the “Mickey Mouse Clubs” that were popular Saturday gatherings for youngsters at many U.S. movie theaters.

Walt asked the audience, "Would you like Mickey to come to Honolulu on a surf board?"

The audience yelled and applauded.

Walt continued, "I am pleased and happy to be here. I am glad to see this enthusiasm for Mickey. When I go back I will make a Mickey'on a surf board as I have been on and off one since coming here, and I know just how he feels."

The Disneys sailed back to Los Angeles on August 25 aboard the cruise ship Malolo, arriving back in Los Angeles on September 1.

For a much fuller account of Walt’s first trip to Hawaii, I highly recommend you visit Michael Barrier’s excellent Web site with Disney history information you can trust has been researched fully.

It took Walt a couple of years to have Mickey Mouse visit Hawaii. Walt’s fascination and affection with Hawaii inspired the Disney short cartoon Hawaiian Holiday released in 1937. Mickey Mouse and the rest of the “Fab Five” (Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto) take a vacation in Hawaii. Mickey strums his ukulele while Minnie does some hula dancing. Donald attempts to hula, as well, but ends up catching his rear end on fire. Pluto plays with a starfish and a crab. While Walt had told the audience in Honolulu that Mickey would go surfing, it turned out that it was Goofy who struggled in his attempts to master a surfboard, perhaps mimicking some of Walt’s misadventures.

It is an unusual cartoon because there really is no major conflict, villain or project. All the characters do is enjoy a vacation so basically in the cartoon, they ended up just enjoying their time as Walt had originally wanted to do.

Walt also visited Oahu again in 1939 and the whole Disney family went along including Lillian; Walt's brother Roy O. Disney; Roy's wife, Edna; and all the Disney kids: Diane, Sharon and Roy Edward. There is a photo of the adult Disneys leisurely sitting in chairs and sipping Hawaiian drinks with the silhouette of Diamond Head in the background.

They left September 15, 1939 from Los Angeles and arrived back on October 4.

Walt and his family visited yet again in the Summer of 1948. They left on the S.S. Lurine for Honolulu on June 28 and returned to Los Angeles on July 19. They stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as they had on the previous trip almost a decade earlier.

The Disney family went to Kauai in 1965 for the filming of Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.. They left May 7 and returned May 12.

“We all went to Kauai for the location filming for Lt Robin Crusoe,” Diane told me, “Mother, dad, Ron, and five of our six children. Baby Ronnie was left at mother and dad's home in the care of the amazing Fou Fou. [Their housekeeper and cook, Thelma Howard] Also along were Bill and Nolie Walsh, her mother, and their two children and Dick Van Dyke's entire family. Ron and Bill were co-producers of the film. Ron and I fell in love with Kauai. I think that's the last trip my parents made to those islands, but they did go to Tahiti at one point.”

That Tahiti trip was in October of 1962 where Walt and Lily visited Bora Bora, Papeete, Tahiti, Pago Pago, Nandi, and Fiji, as well as Honolulu, Kahului and Hana in Hawaii.They left October 12 and returned October 28.

Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. did not take place in Hawaii, but like in so many other television shows and movies, Hawaii was substituting for a tropical paradise. While some of the filming took place in Hawaii, a portion of the famous Golden Oak Ranch in Southern California was transformed into a tropical lagoon for some scenes.

One of the reasons for Walt’s Hawaiian trip to see the filming was that the movie is the only one on which he receives a story credit. It is listed as “Retlaw Yensid” (Walter Disney spelled backwards) and, unfortunately, even the outstanding story team of Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi couldn’t effectively exploit Walt’s premise of a modern day “Robinson Crusoe” story.

The film might have been funnier as a one-hour television show but, at 114 minutes, it is almost a half-hour longer than most of the Disney live-action comedies of the time.

Lt. Robin Crusoe ( Dick Van Dyke) is a bumbling Navy pilot who ditches his plane after engine trouble. He finds himself marooned on a lush tropical Pacific island with a lost Naval astronaut chimp named Floyd, a gadget-rich abandoned sub, and a wild but beautiful native girl (Nancy Kwan) whom Crusoe names “Wednesday” and who is in exile for disobeying her overprotective father. There is also an audio-animatronic mynah bird that seems to have escaped from the Enchanted Tiki Room who constantly argues with Crusoe.

This film was made after the 1964 Mary Poppins to try and capitalize on Van Dyke’s comedic popularity. Van Dyke would later appear in another Disney comedy feature, 1968's Never A Dull Moment.

In July 1965, scenes for the movie were filmed on the USS Kitty Hawk over a five-day period.

On June 25, 1966, Kitty Hawk's Hangar Bay One was turned into a gala 1,804-seat theater and the world premiere of Walt Disney's Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. , was held before a host of celebrities. At the same time, in the South China Sea, off the coast of Vietnam, the picture was also premiered onboard Kitty Hawk's sister ship, the USS Constellation. This was the first time in naval history that a premiere was held aboard a ship of the line, and the first time in the history of motion pictures that a double premiere was held, one at sea and the other in port.

However, as I said, I am awaiting Kevin Kidney to provide some fascinating behind-the-scenes information about this neglected Disney live-action film.

What do I think of when I think of Disney and Hawaii? Well, it comes in 1952 short cartoon Hello, Aloha where Goofy visits Hawaii. The calm, dignified narrator intones that Goofy “knew the friendly natives wouldn't throw him into the volcano—but they did."

Goofy, of course, survives. That moment always makes me smile.