ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Unless you’ve been under a rock, you have heard that as of Oct. 1, Walt Disney World has officially been a part of Central Florida’s history for a half-century.
For many folks who were around then, Walt Disney was not a corporate name but a real person — an avuncular figure who mesmerized kids with talk of his California wonderland on Sunday evening television. Like Central Florida’s own Uncle Walt — kids’ TV host Walt Sickles, an after-school fixture in the 1950s and ’60s — Disney sported a mustache.
And Disney was, in fact, a member of Central Florida’s family. His parents, Flora Call and Elias Disney, were married in Lake County, where his grandparents and other relatives are buried. His oldest brother, Herbert, was born in Florida.
Fleeing harsh winters
After several harsh Kansas winters, Disney’s maternal grandparents, Charles and Henrietta Call, heard the call of Florida and in 1884 became Lake County pioneers, settling about a mile north of the Paisley settlement (then in Orange County).
The Calls’ Kansas neighbor Kepple Disney and his son Elias also made the journey south and settled in the Paisley area. Kepple Disney returned to Kansas in 1887, but Elias stayed in Florida, and on Jan. 1, he and the Calls’ daughter Flora were wed in a little church in Kismet (a vanished settlement).
The couple may have lived for a time in Daytona Beach. In an October 1965 interview with Walt Disney, the Sentinel’s Emily Bavar wrote that he had mentioned a “sentimental interest in Daytona Beach, where his parents lived early in their marriage.” His oldest brother, Herbert, was born Dec. 8, 1888, in Florida.
Walt Disney biographer Neal Gabler notes that the death of Flora’s father, Charles Call, in January 1890 “loosened the couple’s bond to Florida.” Call had an accident while clearing pines from his land near Paisley and never fully recovered. One family member cited a Disney family tendency toward wanderlust to explain Elia and Flora’s spring 1890 move from Florida to Chicago, with young Herbert in tow.
The couple’s second son, Raymond, was born in Chicago in late 1890, followed by Roy in 1893 and Walter Elias Disney in 1901. The boys’ lone sister, Ruth, joined them in 1902, and in 1906, the family moved to a 48-acre farm near Marceline, Missouri, on the mainline of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, about 100 miles northeast of Kansas City. (Marceline is said to be the inspiration for the Main Street areas at the Disney parks.) In a few years, the family moved to Kansas City.
Aunt Jessie and Uncle Albert
Back in Florida, Walt Disney’s uncle Albert Perkins became the postmaster of Paisley in 1902 and served until 1935. (Perkins had married Flora’s sister Jessie in 1887.)
Jessie Call Perkins taught in several Lake County schools and eventually served as principal of Eustis High School. When her husband died, she succeeded him as postmaster and served until 1946. She was also the secretary and treasurer of the association that cared for the Ponceannah Cemetery in Paisley, where her parents had been buried. She outlived her husband, Albert, by almost 20 years and died in 1956, not too long after she posed for a picture with her famous nephew, with whom she corresponded.
The story goes that the young Walt and Roy Disney visited Jessie and Albert in Florida during their summer vacations from school. If that’s true, it must have been one of the bright lights for Walt in a boyhood shaped by hard work and harsh discipline.
When Walt was 9, he got out of bed each day at 3:30 a.m. to help his father deliver newspapers in Kansas City, whatever the weather. It’s likely the boy did find enjoyment in drawing, even at an early age. One story has it that his first brushwork involved tar, which was used on the family farm for patching roofs and fixing drains.
Eventually, he enrolled in one of those correspondence-school cartooning courses — the kind you used to see advertised on matchbook covers — and when he was 14, he joined a Saturday morning class at the Kansas City Art Institute.
More than 130 years after his Grandfather Call’s death and after his parents left Florida, people leave mementos by the graves of his grandparents in the small, rural Ponceannah Cemetery in Lake County. Recently, small figures of Mickey Mouse sat near faded silk roses and a small American flag.
“I believe the canny artist who rode to fame and fortune on an animated mouse named Mickey is capable of building anything from a park to an entire city in a Central Florida pasture,” Bavar wrote at the end of her October 1965 interview with Disney. Amen to that.