Join our Northeast News staff this summer as we hit the road and share with our readers a new weekly feature on where to go and what to do, just a few miles or hours away from home.
For our next adventure, Bryan Stalder and his wife Christian took their children to Marceline, Missouri.
Many Kansas Citians may be aware that Walt Disney grew up around 31st & Bellefontaine in Kansas City, and his first animation studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studios, still stands at 31st & Troost. However, before Walt’s family moved to Kansas City, they lived in the small Missouri town of Marceline, about two hours Northeast of Kansas City off of Highway 36.
Walt grew up on the small farm in Marceline and some of his earliest and best memories happened there. Main Street USA, the entrance to the Disneyland and Disney World theme parks, is said to be based on Walt Disney’s memories of Marceline. Numerous travel guides and podcasts that help families plan trips to Disney resorts often reference Marceline, although I’ve found that very few of these Disney fanatics and travel experts have ever visited the town.
My wife and I decided that it sounded like a fun adventure to take with our kids, so we packed up the minivan, made a quick stop in St. Joseph, Mo., to pick up our niece from the Missouri Western campus where she attends school, and then we headed east on Highway 36. It’s about a two hour drive from Kansas City, so the boys brought their video game systems to keep themselves occupied on the trip.
Highway 36 is nicknamed “The Way Of American Genius” because it connects St. Joseph, Mo. to Hannibal, Mo., through a handful of towns, including Marceline, along the way.
As our publisher Michael Bushnell highlighted earlier this month, the Pony Express, and the outlaw Jesse James played a role in the history of St. Joseph, but Tenor Sax legend Coleman Hawkins, retail store founder J.C. Penney, famed author Mark Twain, and yes, the legendary animator Walt Disney all have ties to towns along Highway 36.
If that doesn’t impress you, Chillicothe, Mo., even boasts that Otto Rohwedder, the inventor of sliced bread, tried out his revolutionary bread slicer in a small bakery in their town in 1928. All too much to pack into our day trip, however. There will be plenty more trips across the state of Missouri to be had.
After an hour of driving along Highway 36, we could see the Marceline water tower, and we prepared to exit the highway. I imagined that the water tower might have a pair of Mickey Mouse ears adorned, but perhaps that’s a suggestion for the taxpayers of Linn County. Alas, the water tower was just a water tower. Oh well…
On the way into the town of Marceline, we passed the farm that was once owned by Robert Disney, Walt’s uncle. The current owners of the farm have built a replica of a barn that once stood on the property when the Disneys owned it, and they have also planted a tree to replace the so-called “Dreaming Tree” where Walt was said to have spent many hours sitting in the shade, daydreaming.
A small parking lot has been built along the road to allow guests to park and make the short hike through the field to see the site of Walt’s “Dreaming Tree” and barn. The trail isn’t paved, so if it’s rained recently, it could be muddy, but the day we visited was sunny and clear. Inside the barn, guests are encouraged to write messages or sign their name, and the entire inside of the barn is adorned with scrawls of Sharpie marker and ink pen.
While simple, it’s a surprisingly fun and quick little adventure, and best of all, it’s free!
Further into the town of Marceline, we visited the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Adult admission is $10, Children 6-12 are $5, and under 6 are free. $50 covered our entrance for this trip. The museum is located inside of the town’s former train station. Trains still pass through town, right past the museum, but they no longer stop.
The museum is full of Disney history and memorabilia. It explains Walt’s life, from his brief time in Chicago, Ill., to the farm in Marceline, to Kansas City, and eventually in Burbank, Calif. Some of the more interesting or impressive items in the museum include an audio recording that Walt made with his father, recalling the time that his father was attacked by a labor union member in Chicago who was reportedly upset with Mr. Disney for breaking a picket line to go to work.
The museum also features a light table that was used by Walt Disney and his business partner, Ub Iwerks (who attended Northeast High School) when they worked together at an advertising agency at 16th & Oak streets in Kansas City. You can watch some of the “Alice’s Wonderland” films that Disney produced with Iwerks at the Laugh-O-Gram studios at 31st & Troost, and there are a series of personal letters from Walt to his sister Ruth, who lived in Portland, Ore. Each letter is typed on Walt Disney Studio letterhead and features images from the animated feature that the studio was promoting at the time the letters were written.
Walt Disney had plans to build a theme park in Marceline, but unfortunately, those plans were abandoned shortly after his death in 1966, although Walt donated one small ride, the Midget Autotopia, from Disneyland to the town of Marceline before he passed. The ride no longer operates, but the cars have been restored and they are on display in the museum.
The kids enjoyed the museum, and there were plenty of interesting Disney artifacts and images to keep them entertained while my wife and I soaked in all of the information.
After visiting the museum, we decided to walk along Main Street through the center of Marceline. It’s very reminiscent of other small towns, but aside from a few ornate clocks or street signs, there is, unfortunately, not much to do or see in the town.
Ma Vic’s Corner Cafe is a small and reasonably priced diner on Main Street, and they’re open for breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday. The five of us were able to order lunch for around $70, which included a slice of pie and a tip.
After lunch, we let the boys work off some of their energy at the park. It features a small playground that includes the infamous merry-go-round, the device that supplied numerous Boomer and Gen X youths their first scars, broken bones, and concussions. All of our children survived a few hundred spins, so then we decided to drive around Marceline to take a look at the community, and the Walt Disney Elementary School before heading back toward home.
Walt Disney had the school built for the town in 1960, and the flagpole, which still stands in front of the school, was featured in the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif.
After leaving Marceline, we made a stop at the Locust Creek Covered Bridge, which is west of Brookfield on Highway 36. The bridge is a Missouri State Historic Site, and it was built in 1868. It is the longest of four covered bridges in the state of Missouri, measuring 151 feet. Just a very short walk along a tree covered path, it was a very nice way to end our family’s day trip to Marceline.
With gasoline and road snacks, this short trip for the five of us cost around $200 total.
VISIT MARCELINE, MO
Walt Disney Hometown Museum
120 E Santa Fe Ave
Ma Vic’s Corner Cafe
122 N Main Street USA
Ma Vic’s on Facebook
Locust Creek Covered Bridge
Highway 36 – The Way Of The Genius