A Conversation with Disney author Marcy Carriker Smothers

by Jim Denney

In mid-October 2021, I had a delightful conversation with Marcy Carriker Smothers. She is the author of Eat Like Walt (2017), Delicious Disney (2021), and Walt’s Disneyland: A Walk in the Park with Walt Disney (releasing November 16, 2021), all published by Disney Editions.

Marcy Carriker Smothers

photo by Brendan McGuigan

Before sharing the conversation with you, I need to get one thing out of the way: Yes, Marcy’s 2021 book has the same main title as my 2017 book Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look. Is the book world big enough to accommodate two books called Walt’s Disneyland? I think so. In fact, I hope this interview helps people find Marcy’s book—and I hope people looking for Marcy’s book will also find mine. Marcy and I share a wish to see Walt Disney’s legacy live on at Disneyland, and I’m looking forward to reading Marcy’s book when it releases.

Now, please meet Marcy Smothers . . .

JIM DENNEY: Marcy, let’s begin with Eat Like Walt. That’s a marvelous book. What a great idea—giving us a portrait of Walt Disney through the foods he enjoyed.

MARCY SMOTHERS: Thank you! I really did want to humanize him. As Herb Ryman once said, it’s a privilege to write about Walt, to present him as a human being, a person you can be close to. And in this next book, Walt’s Disneyland, probably a hundred times so.

With Eat Like Walt, when I pitched it, I saw it as just a culinary history of Disneyland. I was astounded to find that the culinary history had never been written. So that’s the concept I sold to Disney. But along the way, the Disney family became a very big part of the project and they gave me three interviews.

I’ve just returned from Walt Disney World for the fiftieth anniversary, and at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, they had a very specific, pretty darn authentic eat-like-Walt menu with all of Walt’s favorite foods. So that was very thrilling to me.

Someone said to me, “It was always my dream one day that people would connect with Walt through the food in the Parks. And now Walt Disney World has brought that dream to life.” I was so excited, and I cried, of course. I’m a crier.

JIM DENNEY: And you have another book coming out in April 2022, Delicious Disney.

MARCY SMOTHERS: Actually, that was released on September 28, 2021. Delicious Disney is a cookbook in celebration of Walt Disney World’s fiftieth anniversary. It’s what they call a Park Exclusive, so it’s not available on Amazon and other bookstores until April. But if you’re shopping in the Park, you can buy it now.

JIM DENNEY: Oh, excellent.

MARCY SMOTHERS: I have a cowriter on Delicious Disney, Pam Brandon. She’s done twenty-two cookbooks. I am a Disney historian and a storyteller. We just put our two talents together and made this book. It’s the first time there’s been an official Disney cookbook that I know of that has stories and history and anecdotes about the evolution of the Parks and Walt himself. It’s a fun read, and if you’re only going to buy one cookbook. this might be the one because it covers fifty years of Disney history.

JIM DENNEY: And what about Walt’s Disneyland? Is it also a Park Exclusive?

MARCY SMOTHERS: It’s not a Park Exclusive, but it will be sold at Disneyland, which is, of course, the biggest thrill in the world. It’s already for sale on Amazon [release date: November 16, 2021], but it will also be sold at Disneyland, which is incredibly exciting. The first time I saw Eat Like Walt in the window of the 20th Century Music Company, it was such a thrill. Nothing really prepared me for that, to have the book selling at Disneyland, much less in the window. It was also at Disney Home in Downtown Disney.

I’m not sure when I’m going to be at Disneyland for the book signing, but I hope it’s going to happen in December.

JIM DENNEY: What inspired you to write Walt’s Disneyland: A Walk in the Park with Walt Disney?

MARCY SMOTHERS: I learned so much about Walt while writing and researching Eat Like Walt, and of course having that access to the archives and to the family and people who knew him. Everyone quoted in Eat Like Walt and Walt’s Disneyland knew Walt, no exceptions. I do not use third-person sources. And the archives have interviews and first-person accounts that I could call upon as well.

Marty Sklar introduced me to Disney Legend Jim Cora, who became a mentor to me. It was such a loss when Jim passed away earlier this year. He made a lot of introductions for me for Eat Like Walt. We had lunch one day, and Jim and I just hit it off. He opened the doors and counseled me in this book as well.

After Eat Like Walt was published, Jim and I were having lunch at our favorite place—Byblos, a Lebanese restaurant in downtown Orange. He said, “All right, kid. Eat Like Walt did pretty well. What are you going to do next?”

I had three ideas and I told him about them. One idea was a guide to Disneyland and Walt’s history with the Park and the people who built the Park with him. He immediately said, “You’ve got to do it.”

Jim Cora was one of the last people living who actually worked with Walt—there are so few left. And Walt’s legacy was very important to him. He was kind of passing the baton to me, if you will, to champion Walt’s legacy. What Jim and I both wanted for this book was that we never lose where Walt is in the Park.

A lot of people—your readers, your fans—probably know a lot of these stories. They probably know the story of Herbie Ryman and Walt drawing up the Disneyland map over one weekend, the map that Roy Disney took with him to New York to sell the Park to the bankers. They know this part of the story. But I felt it was important to get the complete story in one book so that, generations from now, people will know how Disneyland came to be.

I searched the Archives for Walt’s words. I think I consulted around 300 sources. The endnotes alone, I think, are about 13,000 words. So I was striving to find Walt’s own words, along with the words of people who were with Walt in order to create a flowing narrative. I hope people will use it as a guide to, first and foremost, learn about Walt, and secondly, to evoke that feeling people have when they go to Disneyland. That feeling was really more important to me then the facts, as factual as the book is. I wanted the feeling you get when you read the book to be like the experience you have when you’re in the Park.

And to me, that’s one of the most remarkable things about Walt Disney. You still get that feeling all these years later. And I think there are some facts that will come as a big surprise to people, and also some fun little things that will make a visit to Disneyland more enjoyable. The book is about Walt’s legacy and keeping him at Disneyland forever.

JIM DENNEY: Was it a challenge to write the book during the COVID lockdown?

MARCY SMOTHERS: Fortunately, I had already been to the Archives twice and had completed much of my research before they locked down the Disney Archives, which I believe are still closed. So I had my books and notes and my materials from Newspapers.com, and I was interviewing all these people. Ultimately, I ended up with more time because the publishing process was delayed by COVID.

When I was researching in the Disney Archives, I sometimes found that the actual asset I was looking for doesn’t belong to the Archives. They don’t have it in their possession.

The Nixon family with Art Linkletter (top) and Walt Disney (right) launching the Disneyland Monorail in 1959. Photo: National Archives

In the case of Eat Like Walt, I wrote about when Vice President Nixon came to Disneyland in 1959 to open the Disneyland Monorail. Walt wrote Nixon a letter inviting him to come and bring his family for the opening. So I went to the Disney Archives and asked for a copy of that letter, and the archivist told me, “We don’t own that letter. Walt wrote the letter to Mr. Nixon, so the Nixon Presidential Library owns it.” We were nearing completion of the book, so I had to get permission in about a week. I wrote to the Nixon Library, and as it turned out, they were extremely generous and expedient in providing me what I needed.

JIM DENNEY: Could you give me a brief tour of Walt’s Disneyland?

MARCY SMOTHERS: The book is arranged in chronological order. It starts with Walt laying plans for Disneyland—he had thinking about it for a long time and talking about it with his family. Then the story with Herbie Ryman, and Walt asking him to help him with the map. And then we see Walt hiring Buzz Price to choose a location.

Then we tour Disneyland, which is laid out like a movie theater. The entrance is the “lobby.” And we go land by land through Disneyland with Walt, and the people who helped him build Disneyland. It’s not meant to look at every single feature and attraction. Instead, I had to pick the aspects of Disneyland that tell the story best from Walt’s perspective.

My vision for this book was to tell the story of Disneyland through Walt’s eyes and heart. So if I could tell a good story about this or that location, I included it. I went all the way around the park, from left to right, clockwise.

There are some stories in the book that I’m very excited about, such as Walt’s last day at Disneyland.

JIM DENNEY: When was your first visit to Disneyland and what were your impressions?

MARCY SMOTHERS: I vividly remember my first visit. We were living in the San Fernando Valley, and we would go one day a year. I remember sleeping over at my grandparents’ house, and laying out my outfit the night before. The first outfit I remember wearing to Disneyland was a brown and white checked dress with white boots. I’m guessing I was nine or ten at the time.

My grandfather would drive us. He would be the one who would stake out the curb for the parade. The Main Street Electrical Parade was my favorite. We were allowed one treat and we stayed all day. We were there when the Park opened and I never wanted the day to end. After the fireworks, I was exhausted. My grandfather would carry me back to the car because I couldn’t even walk.

Disneyland has always been my happy place, like it is for so many people. As an adult, I got to go more and more. It’s remarkable that we can all still do what Walt wanted us to do—leave the world behind, walk in through the “lobby,” pass under the railroad tracks, walk into Town Square, and be that magical world. And because of that Disney culture, when you’re in the Park, everyone around you is happy. It’s my favorite place and I love the attractions and I love Disney food.

JIM DENNEY: That’s so beautifully said. Is there a particular attraction that holds a special sentimental meaning for you?

MARCY SMOTHERS: Definitely, Pirates of the Caribbean. It was my grandfather’s favorite. I remember those visits and it still makes me cry.

My grandfather was Italian, and whenever he got a taste of really good mortadella from Dominico’s, the local Italian deli, his face would light up and he’d say, “Oh, my God, this is so good!” And he would have that same expression when he was looking at the pirates. He had a childlike wonder. At that point, he was in his early seventies, and looking at these audio-animatronic pirates, he could not believe the magnificent magic of it. And every single time was always like his first time on the ride.

So Pirates of the Caribbean was always the first attraction I would visit. I would always ride it with the memory of my grandpa’s wonder.

Audio-animatronic pirate Jack Sparrow in today’s updated Pirates of the Caribbean. Photo: HarshLight from San Jose, CA, USA. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

JIM DENNEY: Oh, that’s beautiful. How did you become so captivated by Walt himself?

MARCY SMOTHERS: That’s a good question, Jim—and I think you’re one of the first people who’s asked me. Here’s the thing I learned while writing Eat Like Walt, in my interviews with the people who knew him: Walt was a real, complex human being.

Ron Miller, his son-in-law, said to me, “I’m going to ruin your book.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Walt was a human being.” Meaning, of course, that Walt was a flawed human being. And I wrote back to him later, and I think I have it in the acknowledgments, “You didn’t ruin my book.”

It’s the same thing I learned when I first started doing my research. Everyone who knew Walt personally said that he was a pretty regular human being. And I think what endeared him to us all is the way he was able to relate to everyone, to the public. He could deliver exactly what he wanted. He wasn’t afraid to make people cry. He was constantly making this connection to people. And he connected with me, as he does with millions of other people to this day. And, of course, he was a master storyteller, but he was also a tremendous family man.

And he was very quietly a philanthropist. That was another thing that is so endearing about Walt. One of Walt’s granddaughters introduced me to a woman whose mother, Cecile, is in the book. Cecile had a horrible car accident and Walt took care of her. I really had no idea about that side of Walt until I began researching the book. This woman told me everything that Walt did for her mother. As I heard this story, I thought, “What a remarkable human being!”

And that’s the way I always feel when I’m at Disneyland. I feel the same way when I’m reading about him. I feel the same way when I’m writing about him. I feel the same way when I’m researching his life. And we need to keep this story alive. It’s so important. It’s like Diane Disney Miller would say, “I want people to remember that he was a good person, not a brand.” And that’s exactly how I feel.

JIM DENNEY: What do you think Walt would think of the changes that have been made to Disneyland since he left?

MARCY SMOTHERS: The first thing I learned from Diane and others is to be very careful not to speculate on what Walt would think. Of course, he said that Disneyland was going to change and evolve. And it does. But Disneyland is still the crown jewel.

Of course, Walt knew about the project he called Disney World, which was in the planning stages. Roy later changed it to Walt Disney World, to honor his brother. So, with Disneyland, I think it’s just maintaining the crown jewel aspects of it, but of course it has to grow and change with the times. And Walt foresaw that. The fans understand that Disneyland is always going to change. When a movie is done, it’s done. But the Park is something that Walt could change, he could move things around, it was three-dimensional and alive in a way.

JIM DENNEY: That’s great. My friend Peggy Matthews Rose, who worked for years at Disneyland, says that it’s the only Park with Walt’s fingerprints on it.

MARCY SMOTHERS: Yes, so true. And I like to say that there’s more magic per square inch at Disneyland than at any other Park. It’s smaller, so the magic is very concentrated.

And the emotional experience at Disneyland is also very concentrated. Walt cared about the feelings of his audience. When he talked about his movies, he cared about how his movies would make people feel. And because Disneyland is the only Park where he walked and talked to his guests, you can still feel that Walt has been there. People still feel that, whether they are entering the park for the first time or the hundredth time.

I spend a lot of time at Disneyland, I write a lot at Disneyland, forming my ideas with people all around me. I’m writing for everyone who loves Disneyland the way I do. Even when the Park was closed because of COVID, but Downtown Disney was open, I flew down from Northern California just to sit in Downtown Disney and write. When I get with other Disney people, and I hear the music, and I feel the energy of that unique Disney culture, it energizes my writing. It reminds me of why I’m doing what I’m doing.

At Disneyland, I have several “offices.” I put them on Instagram. One is on Main Street USA, the porch below Disney Legend Rolly Crump’s tribute window. Another is on the landing on the Rivers of America, where the Mark Twain riverboat is docked. Another is the train, which I ride on a lot. And I like to sit on a bench in Town Square, near the flagpole.

[Note: For the history of the porch on Main Street that Marcy mentioned (pictured below), readDisneyland’s Vanished Shops for Smokes and Unmentionables.”]

I watch the Flag Retreat almost every day I’m at Disneyland. I watch when people look up at Walt’s apartment over the Fire House and I see them pay their respects to Walt. And my friend Ernie “Gunny” Napper, who is part of the honor guard that does the Flag Retreat every evening, is the first to say he does this for Walt. And how many cast members have said, “I do this for Walt”? It’s just the most profound, amazing thing. The love and dedication people have for preserving Walt’s legacy, no matter what their role is within the company or outside the company. It’s so important.

I want people to remember the only attraction at Disneyland that has Walt’s name on it. It’s called Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room because Walt paid for it, he owned it, and he sold it back to Disneyland. It was very important to Walt. It was his very first audio-animatronic attraction. The fact that the company keeps Walt’s name on the attraction keeps him alive at Disneyland.

JIM DENNEY: How would you like readers to use Walt’s Disneyland: A Walk in the Park with Walt Disney?

MARCY SMOTHERS: Walt’s Disneyland is a very carefully researched and vetted book. However, I really want it to be as simple as a guide. I like the analogy of the swan that is gliding serenely over the water, but underneath, its feet are paddling furiously. I did all the furious paddling while researching and interviewing and writing the book. But for the reader, I hope it’s a beautiful swan-like glide from story to story. I hope people will take it into the Park. There they can read stories about Walt and connect with him, surrounded by his creation. They can better understand the Disneyland legacy and help keep that legacy alive.

In 1955, when Walt was building Disneyland, he invested a lot of time creating the newspaper for his little town—The Disneyland News. Walt wanted people to take those newspapers home and set them on their coffee tables. He knew people would pick them up and browse through them, and for a few moments they would be back at Disneyland. They could revisit those memories and feelings.

In much the same way, I hope that, even if you can’t get to Disneyland, you can read Walt’s Disneyland and you can experience Disneyland in your home. And if you’d like to take the book into the Park and use it as a guide, that’s just the cherry on top.

JIM DENNEY: Yes! I can picture people, when their feet are tired and they need to sit down and rest, pulling out the book and soaking up some of Walt’s legacy right there in the Park.

MARCY SMOTHERS: Thank you, Jim, for what you are doing to preserve Walt’s legacy, because I think it’s up to all of us. We can all help keep Walt in the Park. Any guest can do it.

JIM DENNEY: That’s right! Well, thank you so much, Marcy, and God bless you.

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