Walt Disney's Los Angeles: The Most Complete Tour Online
Walt Disney was a child of the Midwest, but he never found true success until he settled in California. For 43 years, from 1923 to his death in 1966, Los Angeles was Disney's home base. Although he arrived as a loser in business, in time he became a pillar of the city and a maverick who consistently created new forms of entertainment. L.A. is where he first made Mickey Mouse cartoons, where he made the first feature-length animated film (1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), where he married, where he raised his children, and where he conquered the realms of movies, television, and theme parks.
Main Street, U.S.A. might have shaped his outlook, but it was beneath the palm trees of Los Angeles where Disney wished upon a star—and watched his dreams come true.
Pictured above: Walt Disney with an early version of Mickey Mouse dolls, Los Angeles, 1930s
Disney's Los Angeles debut was not particularly auspicious. At the time, he was kind of a loser. Stung by the bankruptcy of his animation studio in Kansas City, 21-year-old Walt made an appeal to his father's brother, Robert, who had recently retired to Southern California with his wife, Charlotte. The younger man asked his uncle to allow him to come west and crash at Robert's place for a while. Walt's brother Roy was already in town but he was also down on his luck, recovering from tuberculosis at the Sawtelle Veterans Home (since replaced by the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center).
In July of 1923, Walt boarded the Santa Fe Railroad's California Limited in Missouri and alighted at La Grande Station, east of downtown L.A. in what is now considered the Arts District. The station, Moorish in design, was pulled down in 1946; the modern One Santa Fe apartment complex now stands in its place. Walt made his way a few miles northwest to the neighborhood of Los Feliz. According to corporate legend, he was carrying only a frayed cardboard suitcase and just $40, or the equivalent of about $610 today.
For years, show boys and girls musicalized the moment on the streets of Disney California Adventure Park with the hokey dance tune "A Suitcase and a Dream."
Robert and Charlotte's one-story Craftsman home was built in 1914. At the time, the mostly undeveloped Los Feliz neighborhood was becoming the center of the movie industry—a few doors east of the Disney home, the new Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Studios churned out pictures on land that was recently a sheep pasture.
It's probable that Robert didn't want to encourage freeloading, because he charged his nephew $5 a week for rent and added another $1 to let him work on his animation in a garage shed in the backyard. Not much bigger than a Model T car, the shed was dismantled in 1984 and moved to the open-air Stanley Ranch Museum & Historical Village (12174 Euclid St. in Garden Grove), a few minutes' drive from Disneyland.
But the Disney home remains remarkably intact. The L.A. Conservancy reports that inside, it "retains original woodwork and a fireplace mantel featuring rough-hewn stone." There have been some close calls, though—in 2016, the house was slated for demolition by a purchaser unaware of the residence's historic significance. The place is now reportedly back in the hands of the Disney family, although plans for its future are shrouded in mystery.
Perhaps as intended, Walt didn't stay here long. By the autumn of 1923, he and Roy had moved into a boardinghouse that was almost directly across the street from Robert and Charlotte, at 4409 Kingswell Avenue. Still standing, the building is a private residence today.
And the Vitagraph Studios? It's the only original Los Feliz filming complex that's still there, and it's still churning out popular entertainment like Grey's Anatomy and General Hospital. Only now, it's known as The Prospect Studios—and it's owned by the Walt Disney Company. But that twist of fate happened long after Walt's time.
Uncle Robert's tough love paid off. When Walt secured a distribution deal for his Alice Comedies, a concept that blended live-action photography with animation, Robert loaned his nephew $500 to get the job done. In late 1923, Walt found a space to rent in the back of the Holly–Vermont real estate office. He could stroll to work from home in five minutes.
It was a boom time. Within a few months, Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio expanded to the storefront next door, and in January 1924, Lillian Bounds arrived to inquire about a job applying ink to animation cels—and soon, Walt had proposed marriage.
When Walt moved in, the city had just paved Vermont Avenue, which runs north to Griffith Park (visible in the background of this modern photo). On the hills above, the iconic Hollywood sign read "Hollywoodland" to promote the development of the homes beneath it. Even then, Disney's office building was architecturally unremarkable (and still is), but the owners of the copy shop that currently occupies the space are duly proud of the heritage of their space. They even put Mickey's face in the window to encourage pilgrims.
Here's a shot of the Disney Brothers in front of the Kingwell studio:
Photo credit: © Disney
In August 1925, newlyweds Walt and Lillian Disney moved into this apartment building found a short block north of the Disney Brothers Studio offices. We don't know which unit was theirs, but we do know their window faced an alley. Maybe this alley?
The rent was $40 a month—the exact amount Walt had arrived with two years earlier. Lillian hated the place. She was "unhappy because I had never lived in an apartment before,” she explained later. “I was used to homes in Idaho, where you could step out of your front door and be in the open." The couple moved out in December 1926. By that time, Walt Disney had hit the big time—he and Roy put down $300 for a lot about a mile away, where they began to build their very own studio complex.
In January 1926, in the middle of a rainstorm, the Disney brothers rented a truck and moved operations from their Kingswell Avenue studio to larger land on the corner of Hyperion Avenue between Griffith Park Boulevard and Monon Street. Over the coming years, they constructed a new film empire, building by building.
At the time, Mickey Mouse still wasn't a twinkle in Walt's eye—the studio's big meal ticket was making shorts for Universal Pictures starring a similarly rascally character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Mickey's debut came in late 1928, and by the time the Disneys moved from this facility in 1940, they were producing feature-length animated movies and answering to no one else (except, often, the bank).
This shot captures the Walt Disney Hyperion campus at a midpoint in its constant growth. Sadly, everything on the property was razed in 1966 and replaced by a dull shopping center with an upscale grocery store. (There's a bland historic marker on a utility pole on Hyperion Avenue, but it's a little too high to read easily.) Still, some vestiges from Walt's time remain. Across the street, the old Times Drug store once frequented by Walt is now a dry cleaner and the Hub Mart family grocery (built in 1936, across from Walt's work) is a Trader Joe's.
The neighborhood feels different today—there are more trees, for one thing, and those humble bungalows are now worth in excess of $1 million each. But take a look at the church-like building with the square tower in the distance. That's John Marshall High School, opened in 1931, the same year this picture was taken. The school's famous alums include Leonardo DiCaprio and will.i.am, and it has appeared in such adolescent cultural classics as Boy Meets World, Can't Hardly Wait, Hannah Montana, and Pretty in Pink. Its football field was the setting for the carnival scenes that closed Grease.
Walt and Lillian spent a year (December 1926–December 1927) in a larger apartment at 1307 N. Commonwealth Avenue, which was demolished in 1962. But in 1928, Walt and Roy finally each got homes of their own. Adorably, they moved next door to each other.
The brothers commissioned a pair of matching homes on a hillside near their new studio—the front of John Marshall High School is visible a block away. Walt lived in the one on the corner of St. George Street and Lyric Avenue, while Roy took the twin to the east.
The homes weren't palatial. They had only two bedrooms each. But they were a signifier of how far the brothers had come in the short time since they had arrived in the Golden State, and this is where they were living when Mickey Mouse hit screens in late 1928. Both properties are still private homes today, and although the current occupants know and appreciate the history of the buildings they bought, they'd rather not be disturbed.
Walt's favorite drink was a scotch mist: scotch, crushed ice, lemon peel. So it makes sense that one of his favorite places to go after work was the Tam O'Shanter.
Up until now, we've been in the neighborhood of Los Feliz, but when Walt and his animators wanted a whiskey and a roast, they hopped in their cars and drove east for five minutes, across the Los Angeles River via Hyperion Avenue—and you should, too, if for no other reason than to cruise on one of those gloriously Art Deco bridges that Los Angeles was famous for in the 1930s. Opened in 1922, the Tam O'Shanter typified a minor trend in restaurants of the day—it was themed. In this case, the theme was Scotland. The establishment's dedication was so complete (slouching roofline, serving maids in traditional garb) that, it's often said, the Tam O'Shanter stoked Walt's appreciation for the strong element of fantasy that Disneyland would later make famous in its own environments.
The Tam O'Shanter inspired some on-screen imagery, too. Disney lore has it that when animators were pressed to design a cabin for the Seven Dwarfs in their movie adaptation of Snow White, they borrowed from the place where they loved to tipple.
The Tam has been updated since the '20s—the roofline no longer gives insurance adjusters and waterproofers apoplexy. But the interior remains an evocative festival of red upholstery, vault ceilings, roasted meats, and one of the best whiskey lists in the country. When you go, try to get Table 31 beside the fireplace in the main dining room. It's said to have been Walt's favorite spot.
Disney's early animators didn't have to reach very far for fairytale inspiration. This set of bungalow apartments, further examples of the bygone storybook craze in architecture, were built in 1931 a few doors north of the studio. For a time, everyone living here worked for Walt, and from 1934 to 1937, the studio was embroiled in production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Make all the connections you wish to make.
Walt would have passed these bungalows on his way to and from work for nearly 20 years, from 1931 to 1950. Years later, singer Elliott Smith lived onsite, and David Lynch used the cottages in Mulholland Drive.
Disney's take on Snow White touched a few other spots in town, too. A few miles west, near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, you'll find a place called the Snow White Café (6769 Hollywood Blvd.), which despite its cute name definitely leans toward dive bar status. It's decorated with aging but remarkably faithful murals of Walt's poison apple–loving heroine and her vertically challenged pals. Official Disney archivists will neither confirm nor deny that the painting was done by actual Disney animators on nights off—mostly because no one knows for sure. But it's part of local lore.
You won't find the cinema where Snow White premiered. The Carthay Circle Theatre (6316 San Vicente Blvd.), noted for having an auditorium shaped as a perfect circle, was given the old heave-ho in 1969. A sorta accurate but reduced representation of the theater's landmark tower was built at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.
One cinema from Walt's time that's still popping corn for moviegoers can be found a couple blocks west of the Snow White Café in Hollywood. Most tourists already know it. It's the Chinese Theatre (6925 Hollywood Blvd.), opened in 1927 as Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and now called the TCL Chinese Theatre.
On August 27, 1964, Mary Poppins premiered here, with Walt in attendance, of course. But lots of other pictures, including The Wizard of Oz (1939), met the public here, too, so Walt came here regularly during his career.
Like the Carthay Circle, the Chinese Theatre has its own representation in a Disney theme park. The layout of Disney's Hollywood Studios near Orlando revolves around an extremely accurate copy of the facade.
The Oscars are now handed out in the Dolby Theatre nearby, but for decades, the ceremony would hop around town. Walt was nominated often and won 26 times. But he picked up his first statuette in 1932 for "Flowers and Trees" at the Ambassador Hotel (3400 Wilshire Blvd.; demolished 2005). He'd later collect Oscars for Snow White in 1939 at the Biltmore Hotel (506 S. Grand Ave.); in 1954 for The Living Desert at the Pantages Theatre (6233 Hollywood Blvd.); and in 1965 for Mary Poppins at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium (1855 Main St., Santa Monica). At the Shrine Auditorium (665 W Jefferson Blvd.) in 1948, James Baskett became the first African-American male actor to be given an Academy Award (an honorary one) for acting in Disney's problematic Song of the South.
In 1932, Mickey Mouse was sweeping the nation, Walt was about to accept his first Oscar—and his wife, Lillian, was expecting a child. To make room for his growing family, Walt bought 5 acres up the hill from his Hyperion studio and commissioned a $50,000 (nearly $1,000,000 today), 12-room house by architect Frank Crowhurst, who had previously designed a tower at the studio. The job was done in just two months using a crew that otherwise had been put out of work by the Depression.
Sadly, the baby did not come to term, and the strain of that helped push Walt into a nervous breakdown. He took some time off, and the next year the couple welcomed the birth of Diane. In 1936, her sister Sharon was adopted into the family.
This is the household where Walt became a household name. He called it home as he worked on some of his most innovative triumphs (plus some box office failures that, in time, became recognized as triumphs): Three Little Pigs (1933), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), and his studio’s first live-action picture, Treasure Island (1950).
Los Feliz is still an area favored by celebrities who want to live privately but as normally as possible. Because the hillside streets are narrow and windy, tourist lookie-loos stick out like Dumbo's ears. Recent residents in the neighborhood include Jim Parsons, Angelina Jolie, Kristen Wiig, Katy Perry, Chris Pine, and current Disney princess Kristen Bell. 4053 Woking Way is still a residence. It's gated and because the home is built back on the hill, it's not easily viewed from the road. So if you go, please be respectful.
When Walt was young, life in L.A. was laid-back and leisurely. In 1925, a group of local luminaries—including Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs and studio bigwigs Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck, and Cecil B. DeMille—formed the Los Angeles Breakfast Club. Basically, it was an excuse to ride horses at the Griffith Park Riding Academy once a week, followed by a boozy meal at what members called "the Shrine of Friendship," a clubhouse right around the corner from the Hyperion Studio, where Griffith Park meets Los Feliz Boulevard by the Los Angeles River.
Walt knew the club and its members well, and he was even honored in 1932—the wooden sawhorse in the photo, Ham, is still used by the club in its lighthearted initiation ceremonies.
The cheerful gathering was one of the most influential civic associations in the country. The morning meetings were even broadcast nationwide on the radio via the Warner Bros. station KFWB as the greatest lights of American culture made appearances: Babe Ruth, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, Calvin Coolidge, Billy Graham, Boys Town founder Father Flanagan, Ronald Reagan, Claire Booth Luce—even Amelia Earhart, who, it's said, delighted the club by landing her plane on a flat section of the L.A. River.
It's rare that a social club from Walt's time would still be active, but the Los Angeles Breakfast Club has stood the test of time. Although it's no longer the talk of the town, it still meets (in normal times) every Wednesday morning from 7am to 9am at the Friendship Auditorium (3201 Riverside Dr.), a few hundred yards from where the group met in Walt's day. Although booze is no longer served, there's plenty to intoxicate any history nerd. Each week there's a new speaker, usually an expert in Los Angeles history. You can still see the old radio broadcast control room to the right of the stage.
Walt's ceaseless urge to push boundaries—adding sound to cartoons, then adding color, then making them feature-length, then moving to live action, then building theme parks—meant that he always needed money. His third business partner, after Roy, was often the bank.
One of Walt's most crucial underwriters was Amadeo Giannini, the child of poor Italian immigrants, whose role in the development of American business is undersung today. As the founder of the Bank of Italy (now Bank of America), he gave Hewlett-Packard seed money and also backed many of Hollywood's most foundational talents. He was the man who risked lending Walt $2 million (nearly $40 million in today's cash)—an astounding sum for the Great Depression—to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We all know how that turned out.
After laying derelict for years, the 1922 Bank of Italy building on 7th Street and Olive Street in Downtown Los Angeles was renamed Giannini Place and is now the see-and-be-seen NoMad Hotel. The ornate bank lobby, festooned with faux Mercury dimes, is a hipster haven of sultry cocktail bars, and the mammoth bank vault in the cellar has been converted into washrooms. Here, you can spend a penny where Walt obtained his own.
Flush with success, Walt decided to buy his hardworking parents a new house to retire in. That home, 4605 Placidia Avenue in Toluca Lake is still a private residence. In November 1938, it was the scene of one of the most devastating events of Walt's life. His mother, Flora, told her son her new house's furnace wasn't working properly, so Walt sent over some engineers from the studio to make repairs. They unknowingly made critical errors, and a slow overnight carbon monoxide leak claimed Flora's life. Walt's father, Elias, pulled through, but Disney blamed himself for his mother's death and could barely speak of the event afterward. Perhaps it's no coincidence that four years later Disney's Bambi included the most heart-wrenching scene in the Disney canon: the death of the title character's mother.
In 1939, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the highest-grossing movie of all time. The burgeoning Disney empire had outgrown the lot on Hyperion Avenue, so Walt bought a parcel of land on the other side of the hills of Griffith Park in Burbank, not far from the old First National (by then, Warner Bros.) lot.
Disney's newly constructed facility was unlike the industrial barns that most studios used at the time. It was beautiful, conceived with Streamline Moderne lines and imbued with university-like amenities that made life on the lot pleasant and edifying for the people who worked there.
Almost as soon as it was built, things went sour. Disney became embroiled in an acrimonious labor dispute that smashed old friendships and hardened the boss's outlook. When World War II broke out, Disney volunteered to make propaganda films for the U.S. government rather than see his gorgeous new citadel (which was located near the plane-makers of the Lockheed Air Terminal, now the Burbank Airport) commandeered by the military. He ended up winning Oscars for those movies, too. As the war simmered down, Disney's fortunes were slow to rebuild, but by then he had learned to diversify beyond animation so that the business would no longer be dependent on a single workforce.
To this day, the Walt Disney Studios remains the nucleus of the Disney entertainment brand; ABC's corporate offices were built just to the south on land that, early on, was eyed as a potential location for Disneyland. Unlike other big studios, the Walt Disney lot doesn't offer regular tours to the public—but they are possible. Members of the D23 Disney fan club are frequently offered tour dates, and those excursions are usually included with Adventures By Disney tour packages for Southern California. You'll even see Walt's old office—it has been preserved as a museum/shrine. But even if you don't go inside, the studios are easily seen from the surrounding streets.
After he moved his studio, Walt and his staff needed a new local place to drink. Enter the Smoke House, which opened in 1949 across from the western gate of Warner Bros., a five-minute drive from Walt's studio. Here, the creators and performers at several lots (the Universal backlot is literally around the corner) would gather after work to commiserate.
The Smoke House isn't some unfriendly, overpriced velvet rope celeb den. Although the bar pours a mean martini, this is a meat-and-potatoes family restaurant with sublimely dated décor that feels like a slice of Middle America in Hollywood. George Clooney named his production company Smoke House Pictures after the establishment, which makes regular appearances in movies and TV shows. This is where Jim and Pam had their rehearsal dinner on The Office, and it's where Ryan Gosling first meets Emma Stone in La La Land.
You simply must order the cheesy garlic bread.
When he was selling investors on the concept of Disneyland—which was no small task, given that nothing similar existed in the early '50s—Walt liked to recount an anecdote about the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round, which is found on the east side of the park. He said that when his girls were little and he lived on the other side of the hill in Los Feliz, he liked to take them to ride the carousel. As he watched from a park bench, he'd wish there was a delightful, safe place for parents to take kids to play for the day. Since he earned his living making children happy, Walt would say, he was just the man to build it.
The Griffith Park carousel was constructed in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company for Mission Beach Amusement Center in San Diego. The ride was moved to this spot in 1937, when Diane Disney was 4 years old. The antique merry-go-round's charms are unmatched. It has friends who care for it, gradually restore it when there's money, and open it (in normal times) on weekends and summer days. All 66 of the handmade horses "jump" mechanically, and the custom-built Stinson 165 Military Band Organ plays more than 1,500 songs. This is the only full-size Spillman carousel still in operation today.
Even the bench from which Walt watched the merry-go-round has been sanctioned as a relic that you can visit when you're in Southern California. It was moved to the lobby of the Opera House on Main Street., U.S.A. in Disneyland. No, you're not allowed to take a seat.
In 1950, Walt moved to western Los Angeles for the first time, to the upscale but developing neighborhood of Holmby Hills (355 Carolwood Drive). Here, on a street called home by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, and Gregory Peck, Walt would live for the final 16 years of his life.
Walt's Carolwood house is gone now, replaced by an unrestrained $90 million monstrosity that is better seen from space. But there's still one vestige of the old estate, and that's Walt's train barn. Like so many men of that era, Disney had a childlike obsession with trains. He commissioned a small-scale, 2,615-foot-long rail circuit so he could blow off steam by joyriding around the yard while his wife rolled her eyes from the kitchen window.
Long after Walt was gone, his daughter Diane donated the railway maintenance barn to the people of Los Angeles. Walt's barn is essentially Walt's man cave, and in normal times it's open on the third Sunday of every month in Griffith Park, quite close to both the merry-go-round and the Walt Disney Studios. Volunteers will show you around—you'll see Walt's tools, workbenches, and even a functional model of the extinct Nature's Wonderland ride that was a favorite attraction at Disneyland in its early years.
Through his barn, you really can feel the man—and he feels a lot like the prototypical grandfather.
Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are awarded based on an artist's contributions to distinct genres, so Walt got two—one for movies and one for television.
He received them both on February 8, 1960, and he was in attendance. His star for film is at 7021 Hollywood Boulevard (a block west of the Chinese Theatre), and the other, for TV, is at 6747 Hollywood Boulevard, near McCadden Place. Roy Disney's star was dedicated posthumously in 1998 at 6833 Hollywood Boulevard. Mickey Mouse's star in front of El Capitan Theatre was a 1970s publicity stunt.
When Walt, a heavy smoker since his teens, was diagnosed with cancer, his decline was swift. On November 30, 1966, he felt so poorly that he was admitted into St. Joseph Hospital (501 S. Buena Vista St., Burbank), across the street from his studio. He died there on December 15. It was 10 days after his 65th birthday. The news surprised even many of his closest colleagues.
His remains were cremated and interred at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial-Park (1712 S. Glendale Ave), operated by his friend Dr. Hubert Eaton. Amazingly, in the mid-'60s, Eaton's cemetery attracted some 2 million visitors a year, according to the New York Times. Years before Disneyland, Eaton had become a national business celebrity ("The Millionaire Mortician," according to TIME) by developing his cemetery to operate a bit like a theme park. Just as Walt defined how American amusement parks should be run, Eaton defined how many modern graveyards now operate. The place is downright Disney-esque: Eaton built a castle-like edifice as the centerpiece, carved the grounds into themed areas, disguised trash bins with faux tree stumps, and added pastiche architecture that wouldn't be out of place at Epcot. Dressing a cemetery up was revolutionary in an era when a churchyard would do. Eaton passed away three months before Walt, who was too sick to attend the funeral but was named an honorary pallbearer.
Walt's gated nook is near the eastern tip of the 300-acre campus, to the left of the entrance to the Freedom Mausoleum. The gravesite is outdoors, facing Disney's old home on Woking Way across the valley of Glendale. If the mausoleum is unlocked, go inside—you'll find the final resting places of George Burns, Gracie Allen, Dorothy Dandridge, Nat "King" Cole, Alan Ladd, and Clara Bow. Errol Flynn and Spencer Tracy are yards away from here, too, and elsewhere in these vast grounds rest Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Pickford, Jimmy Stewart, L. Frank Baum, Clark Gable, a long list of the greatest stars of the 20th century, and Walt's own parents.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute to the life of Walt Disney is the one he designed to speak for himself: Disneyland.
For many people, it's the reason they visit the area to begin with. You'll find the resort in the city of Anaheim, about 35 miles southeast of downtown L.A. When Walt built Disneyland, it was just a little theme park and a massive parking lot. Now the property supports two theme parks, a shopping-and-dining area, three hotels, and tens of thousands of parking spaces in one mighty covered structure.
That's a long way from the hot, dusty garage that Uncle Robert made Walt pay $1 a month to rent.
Exploring Walt's imprint on Disneyland is a study of its own. For that, see our popular features Secret Historic Artifacts in Disneyland That Most People Don't Know Are There and Ultra-Rare Images of Early Disneyland.
Pictured above: The Fire Station on Main Street, U.S.A. contains a tiny upstairs apartment that Walt and his family would use when they wanted to spend the night in the park. The lamp in the window remains illuminated in his honor.