Walt Disney's 1961 visit to the Cleveland Zoo

Zoo plays host to entertainment legend

CLEVELAND - One of the joys of digging through the Video Vault is the occasional gem I find that makes me go “Wow!”

This is one of those “Wows!”

It’s Aug. 1961 and Walt Disney is in Cleveland – yes, Walt Disney.

The film was only 1 minute and 40 seconds long but it's just amazing.

1961 was a busy year for Disney.

He obtained the rights, after a decades-long pursuit, to "Mary Poppins" from author P.L. Travers. The movie telling the story of that pursuit, "Saving Mr. Banks" opens this week.

The visit to Cleveland was followed by trips to New York and then Europe. A movie starring Fred MacMurray was being filmed overseas and Disney went to check on production.

Researching the Cleveland  Zoo event, I discovered the entertainment legend made stops at the zoo and the Clifton Park neighborhood of Lakewood.

“It was a big deal,” said Sue Allen, director of communications for the Metroparks.

Pictures from the zoo’s archive back that up, as does the film from the WEWS archives.

The film has not been seen since its original airing in Aug. 1961.

Disney rode the zoo’s train and fed animals at the Children’s Farm.

The train’s layout has changed since his visit, while the farm is gone.

“The old Children’s Farm would have been located up a little higher, the railroad tracks have gone around,” Allen said as she pointed in the area now housing the Metroparks’ Australian Adventure.

Disney talked of his fondness for nature in an Aug. 1961 interview with a WEWS reporter.

“I think the success of the nature films I’ve made is an indication of the desire in the public to learn more about the animals of nature,” he said.

Disney went on to underscore the importance of bringing the animals of the wild and nature programs to those in urban areas.

A scene in the film looks as if Walt could be feeding Bambi, while a still photo from the Metroparks recalls images of Walt's famous elephant creation Dumbo.

The train-riding scene is pure Walt Disney.

Disney had a similar size rideable railroad layout on his Holmby Hills neighborhood of his Los Angeles home. Called the Carolwood Pacific for the street his home was on, Disney was known to entertain families and celebrities on his live steam train.

Vernon Stouffer, president of Cleveland Zoological Society and Stouffer’s Foods, brought Disney to town to get ideas for ways to improve the zoo.

“It’s sort of amazing to have an iconic figure like that knowing that he stood, probably very close to where we’re standing,” Allen said, standing by the zoo’s railroad tracks.

Disney and Stouffer’s would expand a personal and business relationship.

According to Cleveland Press clippings from the Cleveland State University Special Collections, Disney was unhappy with food service for both guests and employees at his Disneyland Park.

The two would embark on an endeavor to have Stouffer’s bring its practices of quality and professionalism to the food service at Disneyland.

Stouffer’s Lakewood home on Beach Road would play host to Disney as well.

The 1961 visit by Disney wasn’t his first to Cleveland. In 1957, he visited General Electric’s Nela Park in East Cleveland to see how the facility could help his movie production.

Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt Disney World opened in 1971. Walt Disney died in 1966.

Stouffer owned the Cleveland Indians from 1966 to 1972.

Enjoy a look back as a worldwide legend visits our Cleveland Zoo.

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