Master animator and filmmaker Walt Disney was one of the most notable artistic and entrepreneurial visionaries of the 20th century. A prolific thinker, Disney was always looking for ways to create an imaginary world that rivaled reality. In 1964, Disney had an idea for a new attraction at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. It would be based on a boat ride through an exotic locale, immersing visitors in a story brought to life by animated robotic characters developed by the company’s builders of dreams, known as “Imagineers.”
Disney knew the ride needed a realistic-looking setting that would serve as the foundation of an experience that would make visitors feel like they were transported to a faraway time and place—in this case, an island in the Caribbean Sea in the 17th century. So he hopped on an airplane at California’s Palm Springs International Airport (Disney owned a home in the nearby community of Smoke Tree Ranch) and flew more than 3,300 miles to Puerto Rico to scout possible locations.
As he flew over the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan, Disney knew he had found what he was looking for. The 16th-century Spanish citadel was perfect for the design of his Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The attraction opened at Disneyland in 1967 and later became the inspiration for a $650 million movie franchise starring Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.
The enduring success of Pirates was made possible by Disney’s ride aboard a corporate airplane he had acquired earlier in 1964. Nicknamed “Mickey Mouse One”—or just “The Mouse”—the Grumman Gulfstream I became an integral part of the Disney realm, transporting its founder wherever he needed to go to create his next film, attraction, or resort.
“Walt’s plane allowed him to do something he couldn’t do while flying on commercial airlines: continue to conduct day-to-day business without the worry of another passenger overhearing his conversations regarding studio matters,” says Edward Ovalle, archivist manager at the Walt Disney Company. “He was free to discuss with his employees, Imagineers, and invited passengers anything in relation to movies, theme park attractions, and other ideas that had not yet been announced to the public.”
And, Disney loved to fly.
“An aviation enthusiast, Walt had an instrument panel complete with an altimeter, airspeed gauge, and clock installed on the bulkhead by his seat so he could monitor flight conditions,” says Ovalle. Though not a licensed pilot, Disney would occasionally take the controls.
Over the course of more than 20 years, Disney’s private corporate aircraft made more than 8,800 flights as it traveled some five million miles across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Among the estimated 83,000 total passengers who flew on Mickey Mouse One were Disney legends Julie Andrews and Annette Funicello, as well as former U.S. presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. The airplane’s original Federal Aviation Administration registration had been N732G. In 1967, the number was changed to N234MM, the last two letters of course an homage to Mickey Mouse, the Disney empire’s most famous character.
The Gulfstream I that carried the Disney entourage was one of the original purpose-built business airplanes that had opened the skies to corporate travel for scores of companies when the aircraft type went on sale in 1959. Designated as G-159 by Grumman, the turboprop measured nearly 64 feet in length and had a wingspan of more than 78 feet. Powered by two 2,210-horsepower Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines, the G-159 had a cruising speed of 350 mph and a ceiling of 30,000 feet. Its range of 2,500 miles was enough to reach most of the continental United States without refueling.
“Grumman, which was known for its military aircraft, first tried out the new turboprop engines late in World War II and, after discarding a modified military design, developed a new concept that became the Gulfstream I,” says Dorothy S. Cochrane, an aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “Grumman wanted to jump into the civilian market as well, due to the rising interest in VIP transport and business travel. Previous business aircraft were often converted military ones that used too much fuel, were too big, and not suitably configured.” Grumman produced 202 units of the G-159. Gulfstream, which later split from Grumman and moved to Savannah, Georgia, dominates today’s market for long-range business jets.
Originally, Disney’s Gulfstream I was painted white with orange and black stripes, which matched the color palette of the Walt Disney Productions logo. Disney had the interior modified to include a galley kitchen, two restrooms, two couches, and a desk.
“This airplane was definitely a tool,” says Fred Bell, director of the Palm Springs Air Museum, where Micky Mouse One is on long-term loan from the Disney Company. “For Walt, it was really about time management. He would bring his designers and animators with him so they could discuss work without distraction. Walt was a driven, focused guy.”
The Gulfstream was pressed into service soon after Disney took delivery of it in 1964. He needed the aircraft for transcontinental flights with his Imagineers to supervise construction of an exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, “It’s a Small World.” Fabricated in California, the intricate fair ride—which featured 300 singing animated figures portraying children from around the globe—was reassembled at the UNICEF pavilion. After the fair ended, the hugely popular attraction was brought back to Disneyland, where it opened to the public in 1966.
“Walt’s plane flew a total of 277,282 miles back and forth between Burbank and New York to oversee preparations before and during the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair,” says Ovalle. “Once the fair opened, the Gulfstream was used to shuttle Disney employees and spouses back and forth to attend the fair.”
After Disney died in 1966, the company continued to use the Gulfstream to transport executives and guests around the country. The aircraft was even an extra in a couple of Disney movies: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in 1969 and Now You See Him, Now You Don’t in 1972, both starring a young Kurt Russell.
In 1985, the aircraft was repainted white with a blue stripe; a waving Mickey Mouse was added to the airplane’s tail. After that, Mickey Mouse One was used primarily for goodwill tours and character visits to children’s hospitals.
On October 8, 1992, the Mouse was retired and parked at what is now Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida, where it was included in backlot tours until 2016.
In 2022, the Mouse landed at the Palm Springs Air Museum, which is next to the airport Disney frequently used. Having Mickey Mouse One on loan is a dream come true for museum director Fred Bell, who grew up idolizing Disney. Right now, visitors can view only the exterior of the airplane, though efforts are underway to restore the interior to vintage condition and appearance—with help from the dry desert air of Palm Springs.
“Over time, the humid environment in Orlando took its toll on the interior,” says Bell. “We’ve cleaned the interior a few times, but with our low-humidity environment, we’re pulling every bit of moisture out of the airplane. Then we’ll bring the interior back to a semblance of what it looked like when Walt operated it. It’s going to take a few years before it can be viewed.”
For a man who loved flying, Disney would probably be pleased with the efforts to restore his beloved aircraft. Mickey Mouse One was, after all, key to his creative process in turning dreams into a reality that would bring smiles to countless people.
In 1959, Disney published Man in Flight, part of the “Tomorrowland Adventure” series for children that accompanied his “Disneyland” (later renamed “The Wonderful World of Disney”) broadcasts on television. In the book, he explained why flying was so important to him and to the rest of the world: “Our whole lives today are changed by the airplane, which brings all the earth and its peoples within reach of each other.”
Dave Kindy writes about aviation, space, military history, and other topics. His article about the record-setting altitude exploits of Joseph Kittinger and Project Excelsior appeared in the Summer 2023 issue.
This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.
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