Memorial Day Remembrance: How Walt Used Disneyland to Honor Military Heroes

Excerpted from Walt’s Disneyland by Jim Denney

Photo at the top of the page shows the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard performing at Disneyland on July 2, 2015. During Independence Day weekend each year, Disneyland invites military units to perform at the Park — a tradition that Walt himself started on Opening Day, July 17, 1955. Photo by Staff Sgt. Nichelle Anderson, courtesy of the United States Air Force.

October 14, 1966, was a special day at Disneyland. It was a day Walt chose to host a personal tribute to a select group of American heroes — all the living recipients of the Medal of Honor and their families. Entering Disneyland by the backstage entrance on West Street, they rode down Main Street aboard Disneyland’s fleet of vehicles — the Omnibus, Horseless Carriage, Surrey, and Fire Engine. At the Main Street Opera House, Walt hosted a private performance of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

Walt told his honored guests that he was personally at their service. “Around Disneyland,” he said, “I’m the top kick. I run the show here. And I’m telling you that if they don’t treat you right — you report it to me.” Walt apologized because Tomorrowland was closed for renovation at the time: “Tomorrow is a heck of a thing to keep up with,” he said. So he invited the heroes and their families to come back any time, free of charge.

Every afternoon before sundown, Disneyland performs a Flag Retreat ceremony at the Town Square, with a flag lowering, patriotic music, and special recognition of veterans.

That was Walt’s specialty — rolling out the red carpet for his guests. Walt’s highly decorated guests felt welcomed indeed. One of them, Walter D. Ehlers, a wounded World War II hero, later returned to Disneyland to work as a security officer.

According to Disney historian Dave Mason, that mid-October day in 1966 was Walt’s last official visit to Disneyland — and perhaps the last day he ever set foot in the Park.  He spent that day honoring those who had served the nation. About two weeks later, on November 2, Walt went to St. Joseph’s Hospital near the Disney Studio, complaining of neck pain. When the doctors read Walt’s x-rays, they found an ominous spot on his left lung.

A few days later, surgeons removed that lung. Surgery was too late to save him. He passed away on December 15, 1966.


Some additional thoughts, May 29, 2017 — Memorial Day was first observed after the Civil War, though it was then known as Decoration Day. American shopkeepers closed their stores and people gathered in town squares and parks and cemeteries to remember and honor those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. Families decorated the graves of fallen soldiers with flags and flowers.

In 1971, Congress turned Memorial Day into a three-day weekend. As a result, many people now consider Memorial Day to be nothing more than the unofficial start of summer, a day for cookouts on a long weekend. Let’s remember that freedom has never been free, and that we are only free today because other brave men and women paid the ultimate price. They gave up everything for us and for their country. It’s a debt we can never repay.


ABOUT JIM DENNEY AND WALT’S DISNEYLAND: Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.

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3 thoughts on “Memorial Day Remembrance: How Walt Used Disneyland to Honor Military Heroes

    1. Thank you, Mary, and I truly agree! Memorial Day is a good day to stop and gratefully, prayerfully remember that freedom isn’t free. God bless our armed forces and veterans. —Jim D.


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