Millions of children around the world knew him as Uncle Walt, but to Chris, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, and Walter Miller, he was Grandpa. In honor of National Grandparents Day, The Walt Disney Family Museum hosted five of Walt Disney’s grandchildren as they reminisced not about the internationally-renowned storyteller, but about the attentive “Grandpa” who, as Tamara Miller recalled, “Appreciated and adored all of us.”
Noted Disney historian, author, and Museum favorite Jeff Kurtti hosted the afternoon discussion, and introduced each grandchild to the sold out audience through Walt’s own words.
In a letter dated December 9, 1954, Walt wrote to his Aunt Jessie about the upcoming arrival of his first grandchild Chris Miller, “We are planning to spend Christmas up near San Francisco, at Carmel, where Diane is now living. Her husband is in the Service – he’s stationed at Fort Ord, which is near Carmel. So, we’ll all be together up there…and I’m going to be a Grandfather, which I guess will make you a Great-Great Aunt. We’re all very happy and excited about this coming event.”
In a letter to his sister Ruth on his birthday in 1956, Walt wrote about the arrival of his first Granddaughter Joanna, “Now that Ron is out of the service, he and Diane are settling down and are building themselves a home here in the Valley. While they are waiting for it to be completed, they are spending most of their time at the house with us, and although it gets a bit hectic at times, Granddaddy and Grandma are having the time of their lives with little Chris and Joanna. Joanna is as cute a little pixie as ever drew a breath and Chris is still as wonderful as ever.
Walt wrote in a December 4, 1957 letter to Ruth,“[after a two month trip abroad] Lilly just about had a fit having to be away from the grandchildren so long, and I guess I’ll have to admit to being homesick for them, too. We were as happy as two grandparents could be with just Chris and Joanna, but then little Tammy came along and found her little niche in our hearts, too.”
Walt’s third granddaughter Jennifer arrived in 1960, and in his annual birthday letter to Ruth, he shared his excitement in having another granddaughter as well as his desire for another grandson. Walt wrote, “My family are all fine. Diane had another little girl last May 8…She’s a little doll. No cuter than the others but at this age she’s a darn sight quieter. I was a little disappointed – kind of wanted another grandson – but Diane says I’m not to give up. There’s always next time.”
The following year, Walt wrote to Ruth “I don’t know if you had heard about the BIG news…the birth on Tuesday, November 14th, of Walter Elias Disney Miller. Diane finally decided to name one of her sons for me, and I’m thrilled to have a male heir bearing my name. With the first boy, Diane pulled a name out of the blue. She didn’t seem to like tagging son of hers with my name. She had a particular aversion to the ‘Elias’ part of it. But when this one came she changed her mind and gave him the full treatment. She certainly made me very happy.”
In discussing their memories of their grandfather, Chris stated that the Walt Disney the world saw on television was the same Walt Disney they knew at home, and sometimes they would kiss the TV when he would come on the screen. Tamara recalled that the smell of a grease pencil instantly reminded them of Walt sitting in the living room of his “large yet humble” Holmby Hills home, making notes on the dozens of scripts he would bring home from the Studio each night. Jennifer remembered how the smell of petunias always reminder her of playing in the yard at Walt’s vacation home in Palm Springs, where Walt would watch their antics from his window. Walter recalled asking for the ice cube or orange slices from the Scotch Mist Walt and Lilly would sometimes enjoy in the evening, and how strongly he remembers that very distinct taste.
The grandchildren remembered The Walt Disney Studio as a wonderful playground where they could explore Walt’s miniature collection in his office, drive Chris’ Autopia car through the backlot, and pick up studio bicycles for spontaneous rides around the lot. (Jennifer later learned that the bicycles had specific locations where they were picked up and dropped off and that it must have driven the studio employees crazy to find the bicycles left in random locations.)
They would also stay at the Golden Oak Ranch, the filming location for many Disney films and television shows. They remember staying in the residence house there, playing on sets ranging from western towns to tree houses—and even seeing Zorro’s horse Tornado, who had been retired to the pastures of the ranch.
Visiting Disneyland with Walt was an unforgettable experience. The grandchildren fondly remembered spending the night in Walt’s apartment on Main Street U.S.A. Located just a few yards away from the Jungle Cruise, Chris recalled that they could hear the ominous chants of the headhunters’ village—all night long. That sound is still stuck in their minds to this day. Joanna remembered how Walt would stuff his pockets full of pre-autographed note papers before leaving the apartment so that he could be ready for the autograph hounds that might stop him in the Park. She also remembered how casually and warmly he would speak with all of the Cast Members throughout the park. One Disneyland experience that the grandchildren were unanimously terrified of was riding in the parades with Walt. They hated being in the spotlight, but now understand that Walt was showing off the grandchildren he was so proud of.
In July of 1966, Walt and his entire family enjoyed their first pure vacation together, cruising along the waterways of British Columbia, Canada. It was a true family adventure with no film productions involved that might take Walt or Ron away to work. The grandkids remember fishing and walking through the forests with Walt. Walt loved wearing the captain’s hat and leaning on the railing watching the grandkids as they played in the water. During this trip Walt and Lilly celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary, and Tamara celebrated her birthday.
The afternoon ended with a screening of a specially-created short film by Scott Zone (the Walt Disney Family Foundation Film Archivist), featuring the Miller Family’s personal family films, showing Walt enjoying his grandchildren at home, at Disneyland, and on their Vancouver vacation.
In parting, Jeff Kurtti thanked the grandchildren for sharing their personal memories of Walt—and the grandchildren in turn thanked the audience for their continued interest in the world-famous and revered man who to these five people was their beloved “Grandpa.”
Volunteer at The Walt Disney Family Museum
Photos by Joseph Driste, courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Another excellent report on this event can be found at the blog Disney History-My Journey of Discovery.