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Walt Disney and JFK: The Presidency, the Space Race, and a Dark Day in Dallas

walt disney and jfk
Credit: Disney Archives/JFK Library/Canva

In the first half of the 20th century, two powerful businessmen used their influence, talents, and business and fundraising acumen to bring about change and progress that would forever change the lives of millions. Though both were of Irish descent, their ability to captivate the American people in the 1950s and 1960s would remain on permanent record in U.S. history books for all time to come.

RELATED: Walt Disney and Lucille Ball: The Dots You Probably Never Connected Until Now

jfk and walt disney

Credit: The White House/Walt Disney Archives/Canva

But for all their commonalities, President John F. Kennedy and the visionary innovator Walt Disney lived vastly different lives–one as an East Coast pioneer in the U.S. political arena and the other as a West Coast pioneer in the still-developing entertainment arena–but their influences on the American way of life are undeniable and continue to inspire millions at home and around the world even today.

President Kennedy and Walt Disney may have never occupied the same physical space during their lifetimes, but they shared similar goals about the future of the United States, working tirelessly to bring their visions to fruition. And though their respective finest hours materialized in the 1960s, both Kennedy and Disney would also meet their final hours in that decade, and ultimately, a day of despair and tragedy in Dallas, Texas, in 1963 would, some 60 years later, find the two pioneer titans of the 20th century linked yet again, leaving Americans to decide for themselves what is truth and what is merely exasperated lore.

The United States in the Mid-20th Century

The 1950s and 60s were times of great change and innovation in the United States. As 1960 approached, the U.S. population teetered on the verge of 180 million, and they were strong. But much of that strength came from the struggles that tested Americans’ perseverance, especially in the 1960s–struggles that included antiwar protests, the “generation gap,” and the civil rights movement.

Though many Americans feared the inevitable dawn of a Communist insurgency across the Western Hemisphere as a bitter end to the Cold War, they remained a resilient and hopeful people–one looking forward to what the future could hold, determined to take a stand, and vowing never to forget their roots.

class pledging allegiance to american flag

Credit: The WWII Museum

In the 1960s, Americans had highly favorable attitudes toward the federal government, and more than 60% of them said they believed the government was “run for the benefit of all the people,” making it the optimal time for a young Senator from Massachusetts with new ideas and fresh perspective to attempt to land his name on the ballot in the 1961 Presidential election.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Known by his monogram, JFK, and to those who knew him best as simply¬†Jack, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in May 1917–one of eight children born to Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.

READ ALSO: President Richard Nixon Kidnapped at Disneyland After Receiving a Personal Invitation From Walt

jfk as a child

Credit: JFK Presidential Library/The JFK Library/Canva

Kennedy would go on to graduate cum laude from Harvard in 1940, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in government with a concentration on international affairs. Three years later, Kennedy’s leadership as a U.S. Navy officer, as well as his impressive skills as a swimmer, would ultimately render him a World War II hero, as he saved the lives of ten men who would have otherwise died after a Japanese destroyer sank their boat.

Military leaders saw promise in the young Kennedy, as did his father, Joseph, who proved instrumental in setting JFK on the path toward the United States presidency.

JFK’s Political Career Begins

Though his biggest political accomplishment was realized in the November 1961 Presidential election, John F. Kennedy’s political career had far more humble beginnings.

jfk senate win

Credit: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

In 1946, after convincing conversations with his father, Joseph Kennedy, about what his future might look like, JFK campaigned for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts’s eleventh congressional district–and won. His role in Bay State politics would serve as the springboard for a political career that would last less than two decades.

Walter Elias Disney

Better known as simply¬†Walt, and later,¬†Uncle Walt, a nod to the familiarity fans felt with him after watching him in his televised specials, Walter Elias Disney was born in Marceline, Missouri, in December 1901. But the tiny little town that served as his birthplace wouldn’t hold him back, as his ambition, drive, and knack for creating new ways of doing things and thinking about things was evident while he was still very young–and they remained with him for the entirety of his life.

Walt Disney's Los Angeles: The Most Complete Tour Online

Credit: Disney Archives

Walt Disney was far more than a mere theme park operator and tycoon. He began humbly as an animator in his early twenties, but his true talents as a creator, innovator, and visionary would serve as his calling cards in life, giving way to the creation of an enterprise unlike any other ever created in the world of entertainment.

Walt Disney in the 1960s

Disney had a big break in the late 1930s when his first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater in December 1937. But always the go-getter, Walt was on to bigger and better things even before the newness wore off his first film. In the 1940s, his studios debuted several more animated features, including Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo.

walt disney dressed in a suit during an interview in 1963 in black and white

Credit: Disney Archives

But in 1955, Walt debuted his most ambitious project yet: Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The park opened on July 17 of that year to a crowd that was exponentially larger than what Walt and his team had planned for (and invited). It was a terrible day of shortcomings, sticky pavement, and plumbing gone haywire, but on September 8, 1955, approximately seven weeks after the park opened, Disneyland welcomed its one-millionth guest.

READ ALSO: Helicopter Crashes en Route From Disneyland to LAX, Killing All 23 On Board

map of disneyland black and white

Credit: Disney Archives/Canva

But the 1960s would bring Walt an even greater level of notoriety–notoriety that had to begin in anonymity.

Buying Up Land in Central Florida

Anonymity would be key in Walt’s next big move, as it involved the purchase of thousands of acres of land in Central Florida. That’s where he had decided to build his next theme park location. But the so-called¬†Florida Project¬†would result in a much larger resort than Disneyland, and to be sure he could forever continue expanding in Florida, he bought up enough land to “hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.”

walt disney in burbank with huge map of florida

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

In Walt Disney’s mind, 47 square miles of Central Florida swampland would suffice, but he could have to buy up the land, several hundred to several thousand acres per transaction–and under the cloak of legal secrecy by creating alias entities for each transaction. After all, if anyone were to discover that the great Walt Disney was behind the numerous purchases of marshy Florida swampland, the price per acre might rival prime real estate along New York’s Park Avenue, and Walt’s brother Roy, who had long served as Walt’s financier and analytical mastermind, would never go for that.

John F. Kennedy in the 1960s

As Walt Disney scouted out swampland in Florida, John F. Kennedy set his sights on securing the United States presidency. The 1960s were a tumultuous era at home and in the global political arena, and by all accounts, the young Senator faced an uphill battle–in winning the presidency against his incumbent opponent and in successfully addressing the issues at hand, even if he could win the election in November 1960.

jfk for president

Credit: The JFK Library

The Cold War raged between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, and American leaders became anxious to boost efforts in science and technology, as they feared that the United States was falling behind its Communist counterparts.

Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were already high when, in 1960, as Kennedy stormed the campaign trail, an American U-2 spy plane flying in Soviet airspace was shot down. Soviets captured the pilot, Francis Gray Powers, dividing the Soviets and Americans even further and leading to the cancellation of a summit in Paris, during which Cold War tensions were to be addressed. Then-President Dwight Eisenhower also scrapped his plans to visit Moscow to sit down with Communist leader Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

fidel castro

Credit: The Smithsonian Institute

At the same time, Cuba’s Communist regime, led by Fidel Castro, became one of the Soviet Union’s closest allies, giving way to increased concerns that Communism would begin to take hold in the Western Hemisphere, as more than 50% of Americans polled at the time believed war with the Soviets was unavoidable.

But Kennedy believed that if anyone could step into the role of President and work to make the necessary impact in international affairs, it was him, and apparently, millions of Americans agreed with him.

Kennedy Wins the Presidency

But on Tuesday, November 8, 1960, following a closely contested election, Senator John F. Kennedy defeated Republican incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon, securing his name in the history books as the 35th President of the United States. During his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, the new president called on Americans to stand in solidarity against “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself” and urged them to take on roles in public service to their country.

It was a message of hope that lifted the spirits of those who had gathered in the bitter cold at the nation’s capital to hear.

Inaugural Firsts | History| Smithsonian Magazine

Credit: The Smithsonian

At the age of just 43 years old, Kennedy was the youngest president ever elected, and just two years and two weeks later, he would also become the youngest president ever to die.

Walt, JFK, and the Space Race

One of the most important focuses of the 1960s at home centered around the race to put a man on the moon before the Cosmonauts did it. But by the time Kennedy became president, the Soviets had already launched Sputnik, making it all the more important to put an American on the moon before the Soviet Union could get there and plant their flag on the lunar surface. This was specifically a focus for President Kennedy as well.

jfk and an apollo capsule

Credit: The JFK Library

Walt Disney was focused on the Space Race in his own endeavors. Though he was no aerospace engineer, and he had no contract with NASA, Disney intentionally included attractions at Disneyland–and in the plans for the Disney World Resort–that served as nods to the future of space travel.

disneyland rocket to the moon

Disneyland’s Rocket to the Moon attraction/Credit: Disney Parks Blog

But both Kennedy and Disney knew there was still much to be done if the U.S. intended to put a human on the surface of the moon before its Communist nemeses did, and their respective efforts and interests in the future of space exploration and travel continued with that aspiration on the forefront of their minds. Kennedy knew that a second term as President would be an absolute necessity in order to win the Space Race and to continue his efforts toward building the country he believed the United States needed to be.

President Kennedy Goes to Texas

In late 1963, JFK found himself on the campaign trail yet again, seeking a second term as president. According to predictions, Kennedy would face Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona as his opponent in the 1964 election, and the president felt confident in his campaign against Goldwater.

Only one thing stood in his way: a feud in Texas–Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson’s home state–between Governor John Connally, Jr., and Senator Ralph Yarborough–each a fellow Democrat. In an effort to show unity among his party, President Kennedy planned a trip to the Lone Star State during which he would campaign alongside the two, thus removing the only barrier he saw to ensuring he’d carry Texas in the ’64 vote.

jfk at event in fort worth november 1963

President Kennedy speaks at a breakfast event at the Fort Worth, Texas Chamber of Commerce/Credit: University of Texas at Arlington Library

He began his two-day, five-city tour with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson by his side in San Antonio, Texas, on November 21, 1963. His itinerary included stops in Houston and Fort Worth on the same day.

On the morning of November 22, the president and his entourage boarded Air Force One and made the brief jaunt east, where Kennedy was scheduled to ride through the streets of downtown Dallas in a presidential motorcade before attending a luncheon at the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens’ Council at the Statler Hilton Hotel.

A Doomed Motorcade Processional in Dallas, Texas

Just after 11:30 a.m. local time on Friday morning, November 22, 1963, Air Force One arrived at Dallas Love Field Airport. The President and First Lady, along with Governor Connally and his wife Nellie, were on board.

They disembarked at 11:44 a.m. and were greeted by Vice President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. The motorcade vehicles were lined up at the airport, awaiting the trio of leaders and their wives to step inside in preparation for the processional through part of downtown Dallas.

jfk and jackie kennedy

The President and First Lady arrive at Dallas Love Field Airport/Credit: The JFK Library

Just after noon Central Time in Dallas, the presidential motorcade turned into Dealey Plaza in the downtown district, and shots rang out from the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository.

Excitement turned to panic, and the streets of downtown Dallas were overcome with chaos. The president’s driver sped toward Parkland Health Hospital, racing to get JFK to the security of medical professionals who could save his life. But when the motorcade arrived, there was nothing to be done. Of the three shots that were fired that day, two hit the president, and the second delivered the fatal charge.

National Archives releases nearly 1,500 documents related to JFK assassination

Credit: The National Archives

President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. on November 22, 1963.

At just 43 years of age upon his election, Kennedy was the youngest president the nation has ever elected, and only two months and two weeks after his victory at the polls, he was dead, making him the youngest president to die as well.

Disney Buys Up Land in Florida, and a Conspiracy Theory Is Born

As news of the President’s assassination spread across the country from the tragic epicenter of Dallas, Texas, Walt Disney and his trusted colleagues were busy about the work of buying up tracts of land in Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel,¬†transactions for the purchase of land on which to build Walt’s Florida Project began on that dark day in Dallas.

walt disney walks the land in florida

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

Though Disney most likely had plans for purchasing land in Florida on the 22nd of November long before the date arrived, lines have been drawn–and so-called “dots” connected–between Disney’s land purchases and Kennedy’s assassination over the years–largely the stuff of conspiracy theorists.

Though some have questioned whether the theory involves the fact that Disney’s first character was named Oswald (the Lucky Rabbit), as was the alleged assailant in Kennedy’s assassination–Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year old employee of the Texas School Book Depository–the answer is no.

lee harvey oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald/Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Rather, a conspiracy theory exists that links Disney and JFK because of the inception of land purchases in Florida on the same date as the assassination in Dallas. Some believe Disney was working with the CIA, using the Florida Project, which would become Disney World, as a “staging area” for carrying out CIA operations in the Caribbean.

Just two weeks after Kennedy’s death, Walt Disney was among those invited to a luncheon at the White House honoring professionals and pioneers in television and media, and there were no crowds rushing him or accusing him of any part of such a plot–likely because the theory has crept up in the years since the assassination.

It’s just one of countless conspiracy theories that have arisen in the sixty years since President Kennedy’s life was cut short as he made his way through Dallas, Texas. But as Oswald was shot by another prison inmate during a transfer just days following his arrest in 1963, and all but a few eyewitnesses to the events of that dark day in Dallas have long since passed away, the absolute truth about what happened along the streets of downtown at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, will remain a mystery, at least in part.

Dealy Plaza via EarthCam

Modern-day view of Dealey Plaza from EarthCam camera/Credit: EarthCam

The one thing that is certain, however, is that President Kennedy and Walt Disney were pioneers in their time, and their efforts toward a better, brighter, more cooperative–and even magical–and peaceful existence among Americans and around the globe–the effects of which can still be seen and felt today–are undeniable and forever changed American history for the better.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

One comment

  1. Walt was NOT born in Marceline. He was born in Chicago, moved to Marceline at age 4, to Kansas City MO at age 9 and left KC at age 21.

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