Walt Disney and Chicago

Published on November 30, 2023

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. With its founder and namesake’s birthday coming up on Dec. 5th, we’re taking a look at Walt’s two stints in Chicago. When visiting Disney World, take our free Discover the Sweet & Secret Side of Disney Springs adventure, which stops at seven attractions in the complex located within the theme park.

By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago)

In early 1890, Elias Disney moved from Florida to Chicago with his wife, Flora, and their young son, Herbert. They settled on the South Side near Washington Park, where he found work as a carpenter helping to build the White City, the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. During that time, a second son, Raymond, was born.

By the fall of 1891, they purchased a 25’ x 100’ lot at the southeast corner of N. Tripp Ave. and W. Palmer St. in the West Side neighborhood of Hermosa. As proof that little has changed in Chicago construction since the 19th century, it took 13 months for Elias to obtain the permit needed to build a home on the land. Elias built the two-story, 18’ x 28’ cottage—designed by Flora—with his own hands, and they moved into 1249 Tripp Ave. in early 1893, with a third son, Roy, arriving a few months later.

The Disneys became members of St. Paul’s Congregational Church (now Iglesia Evangelica Bautista Betania), for which Elias was the building contractor when it was constructed in 1900. On Dec. 5th, 1901, Walter Elias Disney was born on the second floor of his house, and he was subsequently baptized at St. Paul’s. It’s believed that he was named after the church’s pastor, Rev. Walter Parr, a family friend.

However, the Disneys’ first stretch in Chicago wasn’t long enough to make an impression on Walt. In 1906, when he was four years old, two neighborhood boys attempted a car barn robbery, with a policeman being killed in the process. Not wanting to raise their family in such an environment, Elias sold the house and moved them to the small, north central Missouri town of Marceline, which would serve as the inspiration for Main Street, U.S.A. at Disney’s theme parks.  

Their time in Missouri only lasted 11 years. They returned to Chicago in 1917 when the O-Zell Company, a local manufacturer of jellies and fruit-based carbonated beverages in which Elias was heavily invested, was struggling and needed his involvement. They settled on the Near West Side at 1523 W. Ogden Ave., which is no longer there. Walt, now 15 and with a gift for art, enrolled at nearby McKinley High School (now Chicago Bulls College Prep), where he drew cartoons for the school newspaper.

There were two other components to Walt’s second stretch in Chicago that proved vital to his career trajectory. First, he took evening classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts in the Willoughby Building at 8 S. Michigan Ave. He discovered that his true strength was in caricature and cartooning, and he would call his time at CAFA “the turning point of my whole career. Second, the various jobs he had, including working for his father, gatekeeper at the 35th St. “L” station (now the 35th-Bronzeville-IIT stop on the Green Line), and mail carrier, earned him enough money to buy his first movie camera.

America’s involvement in World War I began in 1917, and the 16-year-old Walt lied about his age to volunteer for the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. Before he could be shipped overseas, however, he was struck with influenza. The armistice was signed by the time he recovered, but his unit was nonetheless sent to France. When his time with the Red Cross ended, he left Chicago forever.

As for the house where Disney was born, the address was changed to 2156 N. Tripp Ave. when Chicago adapted a new street naming and numbering system in 1909. Over the years, it has underwent significant changes, including being set onto a foundation, expanded in the back, and converted into apartments. The city’s Department of Planning and Development looked to landmark the building in 1991, but, six years later, the bid failed in part due to the owner’s opposition to the restrictions that would be imposed on it.

Since 2013, the home has been owned by Dina Benadon and Brent Young, who are in the process of restoring it back to its original state. Their ultimate goal is to open a multimedia museum dedicated to the Disneys’ time in Chicago, complete with a center for early childhood creativity. They’ve gone back to the few existing photos and two other houses on the block that were made by Elias and Flora. To raise money for the project, which has already cost them more than a million, the couple have revived the O-Zell brand, with six flavors of all-natural, artisanal soda.

In October 2023, Benadon and Young opened the house to the public for the first time ever as part of the Chicago Architecture Center’s Open House Chicago weekend.  

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