As a kid, I always thought about how cool it would be to live in Disneyland. To hop on board a pirate ship and sail through Peter Pan's Adventure, or take a stroll through Frontierland and visit the County Bear Jamboree. Better yet what would it be like to ride in the Christmas Parade at Disneyland with Walt Disney.
For author Ron DeFore it wasn't just a dream, it was very much a reality. In his new book Growing Up In Disneyland, DeFore reminiscences about what it was like to have a famous father, work at his dad's Frontierland restaurant at the first Disney theme park, to riding in the opening day ceremony in an Autopia car in Disneyland as well as acting as Walt's stand-in grandchildren in the Christmas Parade.
Before DeFore's father was the owner and manager of the Silver Banjo Barbeque in Frontierland, Don DeFore was an actor best known in the early days of television for his roles in the sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet from 1952 to 1957 and later on the show Hazel from 1961 to 1965. DeFore also served as president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences from 1954 to 1956 and according to his son that is what may have caught the attention of Walt Disney.
“In his first year he accomplished what many other presidents and the board had tired to do and that was the first to sell a national broadcast of the Emmys Award Show to NBC,” Ron DeFore notes that broadcasted between the east and west coasts. That prompted a congratulatory telegram from Mr. Disney in which Disney invited DeFore to tour his Burbank studio which included a peek inside a highly guarded soundstage. DeFore says it was inside that building “that some of the audio-animatronics that were going to go into Disneyland” where housed.
The actor who starred with a who's who in Hollywood from Bob Hope, Spencer Tracey, Lucille Ball and Ronald Reagan just to name a few, moved his young family from Brentwood to Anaheim where the younger DeFore remembers Disneyland was really in his backyard. He recalls spending weekends at the theme park as a young boy.
Little did the DeFore family realize they would be part of the opening day festivities for Disneyland on July 17, 1955. The photo on the cover of his book shows the DeFore's riding in Autopia cars up Main Street as part of the opening day parade. “I bet that is the only time those Autopia cars have been off their tracks,” DeFore chuckles.
Two yeas later Don DeFore's Silver Banjo Barbecue opened in Frontierland taking over the space that was previously home to Casa de Fritos. DeFore says his dad's name on the restaurant at Disneyland was very significant because no one else had ever had that honor. “My dad was the only person to have that and that is verified on the back of the book with a blurb by Dave Smith, who was the chief archivist for Disney for many, many years,” the author notes. DeFore recounts that Smith said, “your dad must have been pretty good friends with Walt to not only allow you to own that concession yourself inside the park but to have your name displayed. There is no other living person then or now that ever had their name displayed in the park.”
DeFore says the menu for the Silver Banjo Barbeque did have to get official Disneyland approval and it was specified that the eatery would have to be a barbeque restaurant. While the eatery only lasted a few years in those early days of Disneyland, the facade of the Silver Banjo is still there, with DeFore adding that the double set of French doors complete with a construction nail in the structure is still present. The nail helped secure one of the signs on the front of the restaurant. Today the building is utilized for storage for a restaurant next door.
The author says the area in front of the restaurant was one of Walt's favorite spots to visit when he was in Frontierland. “He would sit there and I would see him every once and awhile sketching Tom Sawyer's Island and the riverboat,” DeFore adds, “I wish I would have asked him for a signed copy of that. That would have been quite a treasure.”
Just like the Silver Banjo's menu selections, DeFore needed permission of the legal team at Disney for photos that were going to be included in his book. “I knew I was going to have to seek approval on about ten of them from the Disney corporation. They require that and so I started that process at the beginning of April.” The company informed DeFore that the approval stage would take about six weeks but it lasted a bit longer. Ten weeks later to be exact, Disney got back to the author and said he could not use five photos as well as the recognizable Disney-font in the title of his book on the front cover.
A photo that the Disney legal team turned its mouse-mitt down on was a picture of him, his sister and Walt Disney in a horse-drawn carriage making its way down Main Street for the Disneyland Christmas parade.
DeFore says he and his sister were recruited by Walt at the last minute to stand-in for his own family in the parade. DeFore says when Disney's grand-kids failed to arrive for the start of the parade, Disney called out to Frontierland and asked the elder DeFore if his kids were at the restaurant. “My dad said of course they are here, I bring them ever year.'” DeFore says at that point Walt asked for him and his sister to get down to the front gate and accompany Walt in the parade as stand-ins for his grandchildren. DeFore offered no reason why the corporate suits would not allow the picture. While not in the book, the author says two black-and-white photos of him, his sister Dawn and Walt in a horse-drawn carriage waving to the Disneyland crowd are part of his growing Don DeFore museum.
DeFore says he has hundreds of photos of his dad and his family, many of which he has posted online in support of his book.
It wasn't unusual for DeFore while growing up to go to the store and see actors Edward G. Robinson or Dick Van Dyke there but for the young Southern California kid, they were just neighbors. It wasn't until one day after coming home from school that DeFore asked his mother “is daddy Don DeFore?” after a friend on the school bus broke the news to him that his father was a television star.
As an adult, the older DeFore's friendship with then actor Ronald Reagan paid off when the star became President of the United States. With the encouragement of his father and friends, the younger DeFore sent his resume to the Reagan White House and landed a job in the administration. After a successful stint heading up his own public relations agency in the Washington, D.C. area, he retired and started curating his family's memorabilia which led him to write his book.
Growing Up In Disneyland is published by Waldorf Publishing and is available for purchase online.