Eight college students and their instructor, Dr. Christopher William Tremblay, just embarked on an incredible cross-country journey following in the footsteps of one of the 20th century’s most influential Americans, Walter Elias Disney. The Western Michigan University students left Kalamazoo early Thursday morning and headed to Chicago to kick off their trip at the place where it all began, Walt Disney’s birthplace, at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.
Aptly titled “Walt’s Pilgrimage,” the trip is offered as part of a course in WMU Lee Honors College’s Study in the States program. Students will travel to eight cities in three states to visit key locations marking some of the most significant moments in Walt Disney’s life, from birth to death.
Inside Walt Disney’s Birthplace
We caught up with Tremblay and his students at the Walt Disney Birthplace during their tour of the recently restored home, which is still in the process of being converted into an impressive museum. (Read more about the ambitious project.) Preservation architect Charlie Pipal, an adjunct professor in the Historic Preservation Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and leader of the birthplace restoration team, walked students through the years the Disney family lived in the home, which was built by Walt’s father Elias, a carpenter.
Pipal shared fascinating details about the process of restoring the home, pointing out original components like the staircase and floorboards and helping the students imagine what life would have been like there for the Disney family. He also explained the extensive restoration process and forensic analysis his team utilized to ensure the authenticity of the restored home.
During their visit to Chicago, the students, most self-professed hardcore Disney fans, also visited other significant Chicago sites including Walt Disney’s high school, McKinley High School, now Chicago Bulls College Prep High School, and the former site of the O-Zell Factory, a jelly and juice company where Elias worked (as did Walt, briefly) and invested a significant sum of money, before the company went bankrupt in 1920. Fun fact: Walt Disney Birthplace project founders Dina Benadon and Brent Young have resurrected O-Zell as the O-Zell Soda Company and are now bottling fantastic sodas with proceeds benefiting the Birthplace restoration project.
Following in Walt’s Footsteps
From Chicago, the students traveled by car to additional Walt Disney family home locations in Marceline and Kansas City, Missouri, before flying to San Francisco, where they visited the impressive Walt Disney Family Museum.
They then headed south, visiting notable places like Mineral King, the spot within Sequoia National Park where Walt Disney almost built a ski resort, and Golden Oak Ranch, a 708-acre ranch Walt Disney purchased where classic films like “Old Yeller” and “The Parent Trap” were filmed.
Finally, they will make their way to the Los Angeles area to see the key places where the true magic happened, including Walt Disney Studios and, of course, Disneyland. Here, the students will experience the past, present and future of the global empire Disney created when they not only see Walt’s original theme park, but also get the chance to experience the latest billion-dollar enhancement to the park, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Leading Walt’s Pilgrimage
The students have a worthy leader at the helm—Tremblay has been hooked on Disney since his first visit to Walt Disney World at age 5. As a student, he participated in the Walt Disney College Program and wrote an honors thesis titled “Promoting Square Feet with Character: The Influence of Fantasy on Meetings and Conventions at Walt Disney World.” Now the adjunct instructor of “Walt’s Pilgrimage,” the course he developed, he is also the author of a book by the same name. Equal parts biography, travel guide, and history lesson, “Walt’s Pilgrimage” is a must-read for Disney fans and history buffs (armchair travelers and intrepid adventurers alike).
Updated Jul. 31, 2019:
It was such a pleasure to receive the following email and photos from Elizabeth Blasko, a Better reader and one of Tremblay’s former students who was part of the original Walt’s Pilgrimage course in 2015. Blasko now works as a marketing and communications specialist for Bernie’s Book Bank, a fantastic nonprofit (and 2013 Make It Better Philanthropy Award winner!) that provides books to at-risk children in the Chicago area. Thanks for your note, Elizabeth! –Brooke Geiger McDonald
I just read your piece on Walt’s Pilgrimage and wanted to share how much I enjoyed it! I actually was a student on the very first Walt’s Pilgrimage back in 2015. Your piece brought me back to many of my favorite stops along the way. It is hard to pick a favorite, but I loved seeing the inspiration for Main Street USA in Marceline and I found the Disney Family Museum to be a fascinating collection that is a must-see for any fan of Walt.
I attached a few photos from my time on the pilgrimage. Christopher was a fantastic professor and I credit this class/trip with inspiring me to apply for the Disney College Program! I worked at Soarin’ in Epcot at WDW during the Fall of 2016 – a dream come true!
Faith, trust & dust,
More from Better:
- 13 Reasons a Disney Cruise Is Worth Every Penny
- 8 Over-the-Top Places to Stay at Disney World That Don’t Have to Break the Bank
- Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Is Now Open—Here’s a Cheat Sheet to Help You Prioritize
Editor in Chief of Better, Brooke Geiger McDonald is a Chicago native who has worked for O, The Oprah Magazine and Shape magazine in New York and for various book publishers in London. Back home in Chicago, she’s outnumbered by her husband and two sons, and the four of them are certifiable Disney and Star Wars fanatics, always counting down the days to their next Disney vacation. Her favorite nonprofits to support include The Walt Disney Birthplace in Chicago and organizations focused on environmental conservation and combatting climate change, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Shedd Aquarium. Follow her on Instagram: @brookegmcdonald