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Flying High with Walt

Flying High with Walt

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On the backstage tour at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, the tram passes by a plane and the guide comments that this is the plane that Walt Disney flew in to pick out the area in Florida where he was going to build Disneyworld. (It was later renamed "Walt Disney World" by his brother Roy after Walt passed away.)

One of the questions I often get from guests and cast members is if the story is true or whether it is a "Disney" story for guests. (After all, there are several items in the ONE MAN'S DREAM attraction that are not authentic even though the implication is that they are. For instance, Marceline, Missouri had already committed Walt Disney's elementary school desk to an exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Museum so it was unable to be included in the Florida exhibit and a substitute was created.)

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 the recent generation, it will be "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. He and his group flew over the coast so Walt could confirm his decision of not wanting to build the Florida project by the ocean. They traveled inland to Orlando, circling over the forests and swamps. Then they stopped off in New Orleans to refuel on the way back to Burbank where they were notified that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

On that flight back home during the night, Walt made the final decision that the DisneyWorld project would be built in Orlando and the need to start buying land, lots of land.

In the early 1960s, Walt 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 secrecy on these trips. 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 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 1963, in service 5/64, retired to WDW 10/8/92. (This is the plane you see on the backstage tour and yes, Walt did fly in it to search for a site for Walt Disney World.)

The FAA gave the plane 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 seat on the Gulfstream, 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 for checking out the available acreage in Florida for a theme park. After construction began, it ferried Disney executives back and forth, and was later used for promotional tours for new Disney movies and for theme park promotions. It was nicknamed "The Mouse." Walt contributed to the plane's interior design, and his wife, Lillian assisted in selecting materials and colors.

"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 Company how useful the plane could be. "Walt often invited 8 or 10 employees who could benefit from use of the plane to bring box lunches on board," he said. "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 was an uneasy passenger at first, but Walt talked him into taking over the role of navigator. Roy who had served as a navigator in the Navy in World War I, took over the task with enthusiasm, and by the end of the flight, he had become a strong supporter of the company plane.

In the book, WALT DISNEY: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, 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 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 that I have in my files from the Eighties, 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 son-in-laws 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."

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."

So when you take that backstage tram tour at Disney/MGM, that really is Walt's plane on display there and now you know some of the stories behind it.

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

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