Summer vacation is a time for families to escape the routine of their daily lives for some well deserved rest and relaxation. Walt Disney’s 1962 film, Bon Voyage! captures the excitement and misadventures of the Willard family, a typical American family from Terra Haute, Indiana fulfilling their long held dream of crossing the Atlantic to soak up the sights of “gay Paree” and the French Riviera. While many would not consider Walt Disney a typical American tourist, he was a loving husband and father who enjoyed taking his family on several grand vacations across the Atlantic to see the sight of Europe.
In the film Bon Voyage!, Harry and Katie Willard have had to postpone their plans for a dream vacations for nearly twenty years because of family and work responsibilities. Walt Disney was no different. Other than a short honeymoon in 1925, Walt had not taken a vacation since arriving in Hollywood in 1923. In the fall of 1931, on doctor’s orders, Walt and Lilly set out for their first vacation together so that Walt could relax and recuperate from the stresses of running an ever growing studio operation. In a story published in the Kansas City Times on October 16, 1931, Lilly called their vacation a “gypsy jaunt,” taken on doctor’s orders. Lilly said, “It’s great fun just to start out, without knowing in advance exactly all of the places you’re going to see.” Walt and Lillian’s jaunt would take them across the country and to Havana, Cuba. Along the way they visited the Grand Canyon, Kansas City, Washington, D. C.; and Miami. The Disneys departed Havana on November 3rd, 1931 aboard the luxury cruise ship, the SS California, sailing through the Panama Canal and arriving at the Port of Los Angeles on November 14, 1931.
Walt and Lilly would take several cruises to Hawaii and Europe throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, but their first family trip to Europe with their daughters Diane and Sharon would take place in the summer of 1949. Walt was filming his first all live action film “Treasure Islands” on location in England. A European vacation would give him the opportunity to show his daughters England, Ireland and France as well as supervise the films production. The Disney family boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth in New York in June of 1949 for a five week European adventure. Diane Disney Miller recalled that she and her sister Sharon (age 15 and 12 on that first voyage) “enjoyed the evening cocktail time before dinner. We all dressed up and often there were other interesting people aboard who would stop by and chat with my parents. I learned to love sardines and anchovies at that time, because I was always really hungry for dinner, and all the hors d'ouvres were composed of those kinds of things.” As first class passengers, Walt enjoyed treating his family to the finest accommodations available onboard, but he did not enjoy the pretentiousness that accompanied those accommodations. Diane remembers that, “On one voyage on one of the Queens we dined in a small, very exclusive dinning room every night. I remember the Sarnoff family - the General, his wife, Robert and his wife - shared that room with us... maybe one or two other tables. It was too quiet for dad, I think, and he thought up silly things to do that Sharon and I enjoyed tremendously.” One night at dinner, Diane remembered that Walt turned to her and said, "Accost me!" "What??" I replied. "Accost me!" I did my best accosting move and he whipped out his table knife that he'd concealed in his coat sleeve... "A HA!" He did this several times on that voyage.” Diane remembered that to break up the quietness of the dining room Walt taught the girls “to move your fingers around the rim of your water glass, making a lovely chime-like sound. With different levels of liquid you would, of course, get different level of tone, and could create some lovely harmonies. I remember fondly, with a smile, those elegant shipboard dinners.” In these regal surroundings, Walt was not a powerful studio head hobnobbing with his elite fellow passengers. He was just a father having fun with his two little girls.
Walt and his family would return to Europe for the next three summers aboard luxurious ocean liners like the RMS Queen Mary and the USS Independence and USS Constitution. Walt would oversee the productions of films like “Robin Hood and His Merrie Men” and “The Sword and the Rose” and continue to share the sights of Europe with his family. Diane Disney Miller remembered that “Dad did enjoy his time shipboard, and kept very busy with any activity that they offered... shuffleboard... medicine ball workouts... On one return trip when we left for home from the south of France on the American Lines... the USS Constitution, or the USS Independence, dad became very friendly with a group of Catholic priests who were returning from a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. They were having a glorious time, and he enjoyed their company a lot, playing some serious shuffleboard with them.” And while Walt enjoyed the transatlantic crossings, Diane remembered that “he was very ready to disembark and get on with business when his destination had been reached.”
In a letter to his sister Ruth Disney Beecher, Walt shared the joys of his 1952 European Family Vacation: “We had quite a trip to Europe this summer—sometimes I wonder how I did it—I mean looking after five women for 10 weeks—baggage, passports, reservations and what have you. In addition to my own three, we took with us Lilly’s niece, Majorie Bowers, and a girlfriend of Diane’s, Karen Bergstrom.
We left here June 21 spent a week in New York and sailed on the Queen Elizabeth July 1. While on the boat, Diane and Karen got the idea that they would like to see the Olympic Games, so arrangements were made and they flew from London to Helsinki and were there for 10 days. They had a wonderful time. The rest of us stayed in London and while there spent a weekend at Stratford-On-Avon, and another weekend up in Scotland. Then we all flew to Paris, Diane and Karen coming in from Helsinki. We stayed there the better part of a week and then went to Switzerland by train, making our headquarters by Lucerne. Everybody loved Switzerland—scenically, it’s very beautiful and it’s clean and things are growing everywhere, yet only a small percentage of its area is productive because so much of the country is mountainous. There’s no impoverishment and the people are happy.
We went into Germany by automobile and stayed at Munich. Then we drove through the Bavarian Alps into Austria and spent some time at Salzburg and Innsbruch, returning to Lucerne. Another wonderful spot was Zermatt, high up in the Swiss Alps, which seemed to be completely a bloom with yellow crocus. From here we went on to Geneva and while there they were holding their annual fete called 'The Battle of Confetti.' It was very picturesque and exciting. At night everyone was in costume and confetti was everywhere. During the day there was a parade which consisted of beautiful floral floats similar to your Rose Festival. We enjoyed it very much.
At this point, I flew back to London to see how production was getting along on The Sword and the Rose, and Lilly and the girls went on to Italy, visiting Milan, Florence and Rome, where I met them again, and then to Naples where we boarded the American boat, the Independence. This is the long way home, 10 days to be exact. About half way across we touched on the fringe of a hurricane, which was pretty exciting and things got pretty rough. Can’t say that the girls enjoyed it, but they did live through it, despite their seasickness. I seem to be immune to such stuff. All in all, the trip was a complete success.”
In the coming years the added responsibilities of television production and Disneyland would cause Walt to rely on the speed and convenience of air travel on his trips to Europe. But like the Willard family in “Bon Voyage!”, the Disney family would always have a lifetime of happy memories of their loving father and the grand ocean voyages and European adventures they shared together.
Joseph Titizian is an inaugural member of The Walt Disney Family Museum volunteer team. He is a regular contributor to this blog, and has developed continued education courses for the volunteer team. A lifelong Disney fan, Joseph has previously worked at Disneyland Park and Pixar Animation Studios.
Bon Voyage! screens daily throughout the month of June at 1:00pm and 4:00pm (except Tuesdays). Tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online by clicking here.