Minuteman Mickey Mouse: Disney and America's Bicentennial

The month of July plays host to the birthdays of both the United States of America (July 4, 1776) and Disneyland (July 17, 1955). This is perhaps appropriate, as Disneyland and its East Coast counterpart, Walt Disney World (which opened in October 1971), have evolved into American icons themselves. Though they are parts of a large company with global reach, Disney parks still hold a special place in American culture as illustrators and sometimes originators of American myths and folktales. Their iconic status can give visitors the sense that the parks have something to teach them about the American experience.

On a visit to Epcot at Walt Disney World last year, I was standing outside of The American Adventure, an attraction that specifically addresses American history (I believe I was in line for ice cream, another important part of the American experience), when a mother told me she had brought her son to “have his history lesson.”

One way Disney parks earned this sense of authority has been by gathering Americans for the communal celebration of national holidays, particularly patriotic ones such as Independence Day or Flag Day. In particular, Disney’s staging of a bicentennial celebration of America’s founding helped to cement a link between the theme park and its home country that already existed. In honor of two July birthdays—Disneyland’s 63rd and America’s 242nd—let’s revisit Disney’s largest celebration of America’s birthday: “America on Parade.”

Book cover shows Disney performers in costume on a patriotic float
Cover of a companion book sold during “America on Parade.” The book offers a short history of the United States with illustrations and photos of the parade.

America’s 1976 Bicentennial saw celebrations across the country, from President Gerald Ford presiding over nationally televised fireworks in Washington, D.C., to individual citizens painting their mailboxes red, white, and blue. For sheer numbers of viewers, however, perhaps no part of the celebration was as influential as Disney’s “America on Parade.” Designated as official Bicentennial events by the U.S. government, these daily parades took place for over a year at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. An estimated 25 million people witnessed the festivities. (By contrast, 3.7 million people visited Independence National Historical Park in 1976, the seat of the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence which the year’s celebrations marked.)

Red flag showing Disney characters and the text “Walt Disney World”
Souvenir “America on Parade” flag sold at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The parade still lives on in material culture in places such as the Smithsonian and at the Walt Disney Archives, where objects such as the Ben Franklin costume reside in their collections.
License plate showing Disney characters and bicentennial years, 1776 and 1976
Souvenir “America on Parade” license plate

The spectacle was an all-out extravaganza of Americana and, at that time, the largest daily parade Disney parks had ever seen. Cast members costumed as eight-foot-tall characters called the “People of America” performed alongside 50 floats illustrating larger-than-life scenes from American history and folktales, including Betsy Ross’s (mythic) sewing the American flag and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The parades included student marching bands brought in from all over the country, fireworks, and even a moment in which the crowds were encouraged to join piped-in choruses for a communal singing of “America the Beautiful.” According to a souvenir book sold in the parks at the time, the parade was a “delightful sampling of the people, creations, events, and accomplishments which have all combined to make the country great.”

Collage of two photographs of floats
Details from “America on Parade,” a souvenir book sold at the theme parks, show some of the floats including the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty.

But the parades did more than just entertain. After visiting both the Magic Kingdom park in Florida and Colonial Williamsburg during their bicentennial celebrations, journalist Dick Schaap wrote in the New York Times that the celebration placed the Disney parks alongside other living history park as repositories of national heritage and places of communal celebration. “The cradle of democracy blends with the height of imagination, and every day through September, 1976, ‘America on Parade,’ a spectacular Bicentennial salute, marches straight down not Duke of Gloucester Street in Williamsburg but Main Street, U.S.A., in the heart of Disney World," Schaap said. "And there, at the head of the parade, bearing drum and fife and Betsy Ross’s original pennant, dressed in tricorner hat and patched with bandages, stand the three symbols of the American Revolution: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.”

Book cover showing Disney characters playing a fife, waving a flag, and playing an improvised drum
Cover of the souvenir book “America on Parade” showing Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy in Revolutionary War costume.

As to the place of Disney in American history, the celebration certainly left an impression on Schaap’s then-six-year-old son, who after their Williamsburg to Walt Disney World tour wryly told his father, “George Washington may be the father of this country, dad, but Walt Disney is its guardian.”

Green, white, orange, and pink tickets to Disneyland
Tickets to Disneyland from 1975 and 1976 advertising “America on Parade.”

“America on Parade” helped to solidify the idea that Disney parks were spaces many Americans looked to for celebrations of their national heritage. The California theme park and the United States of America share more than a birthday month; they share a cultural and historical language when it comes to our collective memory. What have you learned about the American experience from a Disney park?

Bethanee Bemis is a museum specialist in the Division of Political History. She has previously blogged about Disney during Word War II, woman suffrage history, and dead presidents.