When the New York Times recently interviewed 93-year-old Dick Van Dyke about “Mary Poppins Returns,” the nostalgia-heavy sequel in which he has a small cameo, at one point the Hollywood legend compared it to the original.
“There’s something timeless about what Walt did,” Van Dyke recalled about the man Disney, often lost today in discussions of the family entertainment empire he built. “I think this movie could have used a little of his influence. I thought there was too much computer animation; sometimes it went on too long and didn’t move the story forward. But I’m hypercritical.”
The new Rob Marshall-directed musical will delight young children with its charm, imagination, and dance numbers, all while affirming the vitality of the nuclear family through its narrative. Yet the remake only dimly imitates “Mary Poppins,” which Walt Disney personally produced and is widely regarded as his crowning achievement.
Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, the inventive 1964 musical broke all previous box-office records for Disney live-action releases. In fact, adjusting movie receipts to current ticket prices, “Mary Poppins” still stands as the 27th-highest-grossing movie domestically of all time. Its impact is far greater. The visual effects created for “Mary Poppins” continued to be used for decades, to the point where some say we’d never have “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” without it.
In 2013, the film’s contentious production was dramatized in the surprisingly resonant “Saving Mr. Banks.” It portrays a mustached Tom Hanks as Disney, meeting his match in British author Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) who long refuses to sign over rights to her “beloved Mary.” (Travers purists hate that movie, as by the end it papers over her undying criticism of how Disney changed her creation.)
Such anecdotes are not what makes this heaping spoonfuls-of-sugar song-and-dance movie in any way life-changing. For that, one has to journey back to 1965. The Disney corporate kingdom was a small sliver of its current size, with Disneyland in Anaheim, California its only theme park.
Yet Walt dreamed of much more. With the nation entranced by “Mary Poppins” as never before for a Disney film, he had the resources to begin making that a reality.
Room Here for Everyone, Gather Around
“This is the most important day in the progress and the future development of this state,” said Florida Governor Haydon Burns, after Walt Disney confirmed his intentions to build a large-scale theme park in central Florida. “I know of no single thing in history that could have made the impact that the establishment of the Disney facility here will make.”
On November 15, 1965, Burns sat between Walt and Roy Disney as the media peppered them with questions in Orlando, Florida. It was only 15 months after “Mary Poppins” had been released to theaters, and seven months after the Oscars at which the musical won five golden statuettes. Multiple scouting trips had led Disney and his team, flush with box-office cash, to an untouched swath of swampland for his next far-reaching venture.
They knew real estate prices would soar if anyone got wind the Hollywood hitmaker was in the market. Lawyers set up several dummy corporations to purchase land, notably one named Ayefour Corp. after the I-4 freeway, then a four-lane road. The secret didn’t last. Weeks prior to that press conference, Orlando Sentinel-Star reporter Emily Bavar uncovered proof that the thousands of acres secretly purchased were actually one massive Disney land grab.
All told, the family entertainment company bought 27,258 acres in 47 separate land deals— a much larger proposition than the 230-acre Disneyland park in California. “The park opened in 1971,” says Richard Hufschmid, who began working at Walt Disney World in 1977. “It was just the Magic Kingdom. During the summer when it got busy, we used to close the park at 100,000 people.”
Within a few months of being hired, Hufschmid became shift lead at the Tomorrowland Terrace, a popular lunch spot for guests in one of six themed “lands” within Magic Kingdom. More than one of the food hostesses caught his eye, although he seemed to hit it off with a particular young woman. She remembers it a bit differently.
“At the end of my shift, he misspelled my name as he signed me out,” recalls Margaret Caylor, her maiden name. “I yelled at him and gave him a hard time about it. That was our first real interaction, there at cash register eight.”
That playful conflict was the start of a lifelong friendship for Richard and Margaret, my wife’s parents. Yet tragedy would be the initial backdrop for their love story.
Things Half in Shadow, Halfway in Light
To backtrack a few years, Walt Disney himself did not see his grandest dream realized. He died of lung cancer just 13 months after that Florida press conference, on December 15, 1966.
His team was neck-deep in planning the sprawling park. The Imagineering team had started a new division to handle logistics of the Florida project. They dubbed it MAPO Group as a nod to their boss’ most profitable film, “Mary Poppins,” later making it an acronym for Manufacturing And Production Operations.
Roy Disney saw the vision through to completion, even insisting his brother’s first name be part of the park’s identity. He addressed opening day ceremonies at Walt Disney World in October 1971, although he too passed away two months later. In addition to statues of the Disney brothers on Main Street, one can find a shop window memorializing the creative architects at MAPO Group mere yards from the iconic castle.
In spring 1978, those two young co-workers often walked past Main Street. A senior in high school, Margaret had several suitors who led her on, including one who worked at the Space Bar in Tomorrowland selling yogurt. “Steve claimed to know me,” she says. “Then all of sudden he took me to this party where people were getting high. I told him that night: Steve, we’re done.”
Her Christian faith was important to Margaret even at age 18. She recalls a prayer she used to whisper: “If this is the right one, God, let it work out. If not, let something happen.” In retrospect, she believes it was answered. “That’s certainly what happened with Steve,” says Margaret. “Then the motorcycle guy and that Miami guy fizzled out. It just wasn’t mutual.”
Meanwhile, Richard was contemplating joining the U.S. Air Force. That was the path of his father, an aircraft mechanic who had served active duty in 36 countries. Although he had courage to serve in war zones, Richard did not muster up the boldness to ask his redheaded love interest out on a date.
One of four children, Margaret had protective parents who invested their time and faith into their young charges. In May 1978, her father was out on a boating excursion with her siblings and extended family. With no warning, he suffered a heart attack and went unconscious. Although they tried to revive him and rushed him to the hospital, he died. Her family, with the youngest only age 11, was devastated.
Weeks later, following a memorial service, Margaret reached out to her coworker Richard about going to see a movie. They enjoyed their time together and were soon an item. Yet only three months into dating, Richard headed out of state to basic training for the Air Force.
No Wonder It’s Margaret He Loves
Richard diligently tried to stay in touch, although training kept him busy for long hours. When he did call Margaret long distance, he asked a few times when the mail arrived and got to know the schedule.
Soon he went straight from basic to technical training. “For two months, we didn’t see each other,” recalls Margaret. “Then this package arrived in the mail one day.” She opened it and found three silk red roses along with a love letter. Her mother and sister praised the romantic gesture, teasing her: What a sweet guy you’ve got!
But they had missed the real heart of the gift, a sight that had turned Margaret speechless. She saw, tied around the stems of the roses, a diamond ring. She quickly read the letter to confirm his intentions. Then the phone rang.
“He asked if I got the package, and I said yes,” she recounts. “Then he asked, Do you want to marry me? And I said yes, of course!” It was weeks before they even saw each other.
In his version of the proposal by mail, Richard makes light of it—as he tends to do. “I wasn’t that romantic,” he says. “I had orders to go to Wyoming and knew how cold it was. I wanted to bring a wife out there to be warm for the wintertime!”
Upon learning the young couple would be stationed in the far-off northwest state, some family members second-guessed Margaret’s quick decision. Yet she felt the pull to break free from the conventional routine she’d always lived. Margaret stood by her fiancé and they were married in August 1979.
“They worried about me being in barren Wyoming without family around,” says Margaret Hufschmid. “I knew I could do it with him, my best friend. He believed in me even when others didn’t.” As an Air Force family, they moved many times over the next 17 years.
Upon his military retirement, they landed back in Orlando. Working at Walt Disney World became a family affair. Richard worked in the security team for nearly a decade. In their teen years, their two children, James and Terri, took on summer jobs as cast members.
When I met Terri in 2011, we visited the parks during the holidays. After I proposed in D.C., that weekend we went down to celebrate with her parents at—where else?—Walt Disney World.
The Happiest Place on Earth
Back in 1965, Florida Gov. Haydon Burns said he expected a doubling of tourism with Disney’s entry into the state. Before the park opened, visitors to central Florida had held steady at around 3.5 million people. This past summer, tourism officials announced that 72 million visitors now annually travel to Orlando.
Traffic on I-4 may be among the nation’s worst, despite doubling to eight lanes in the miles around Disney World. It’s not as bad as it once was. “My brother was a state trooper when the park opened,” says Gladys Caylor, Margaret’s mother, who worked at one of the Disney resort hotels for 19 years. “Traffic would back up over 10 miles, into downtown Orlando! Still, I-4 at any time of day is as bad as rush hour in Atlanta.”
Travelers worldwide shell out thousands to visit the immaculate, innovative Walt Disney World Resort. The painstaking attention to detail achieved at these fantasy lands reflects an ethos Walt lived by, including when he produced his final groundbreaking film. The studio president was on-set nearly every day during production of “Mary Poppins,” busy “plussing up” scenes.
“A good idea, he’d make it a great idea—it never failed,” said composer Richard Sherman in an interview. “That’s the way it was with him. He was like the bee, buzzing around all the flowers, [taking] a little pollen and spreading it around.” During his lifetime and since then, Disney spread the wealth around in other ways too. Over the decades, his company has given billions in charitable donations, books, and many free theme park tickets to local charities.
Richard and Margaret, who met all those years ago in Walt’s dreamland, will celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary this August. They are proud parents of two and grandparents of two, with another on the way—me and my wife’s little one, expected this spring.
They say parents deal with dirty as much as chimney sweeps covered in ashes and smoke. But, to quote Van Dyke’s dreadful Cockney accent: “In this ‘ole wide world, there’s no ‘appier bloke.”