The Funakoshi family’s memories of Disney

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Walt Disney and five children from the Funakoshi family pose for a photo near the entrance of Disneyland in July 1955. A performer in a firefighter costume sits atop a horse-drawn carriage in the background.

In 2022, as we planned the exhibition Mirror, Mirror: Reflections of American Stories in Disney Parks, our exhibition team asked the public to send us photos from their visits to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. We received thousands of amazing photographs and stories in response to our call, but one photo, sent in by the Funakoshi family, especially stood out.

 

Walt Disney and five children from the Funakoshi family pose for a photo near the entrance of Disneyland in July 1955. A performer in a firefighter costume sits atop a horse-drawn carriage in the background.
Walt Disney with the Funakoshi family, Disneyland, 1955

 

This snapshot from the Funakoshi family's 1955 visit to Disneyland resonated with our team not just because Walt Disney makes an appearance—though that is certainly special—but because the story that came with the photo encapsulates so much of what Disney's parks mean as part of the larger American experience. We were fortunate to be able to include the family’s photo in Mirror, Mirror, and we were even more fortunate to welcome the Funakoshi family to the museum to see the exhibition in person. We wanted them to share the uniquely American story behind the photograph in their own words. Leslie Ito, whose mother appears in the photograph and who first sent us the image, gathered her family’s thoughts on what their photograph meant when it was taken, and what it means today. (Note: the family's recollections have been edited for length and clarity).

Leslie Ito:

My grandma Marion (Funakoshi) Manaka and her siblings were rarely seen without a camera at a family gathering. So, as you can imagine, our family photo archive is abundant; however, the picture with Walt Disney has always been a treasured one. It was taken by my great uncle Willie Funakoshi who was one of the unofficial documentarians of Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo.

Having his photo featured at the Smithsonian is so special to our family. As a fourth generation Japanese American and a former historian, this picture is also compelling to me when I think about where my family was just a decade before this photo was taken. The adults on the other side of the camera were unjustly incarcerated by the U.S. government and yet, once released, they tried their best to put their lives back together, eventually planting roots back on the West Coast and starting families. They protected the next generation from the memories, hardships, and sorrows of the camps by engaging deeply in American culture.

My mom, Barbara, and her cousins traveled together to Washington D.C. to see the exhibition. Here are some of their reflections that they shared with me:

What do you remember from the day this photograph was taken?

Joanne Funakoshi: Walt Disney was standing at the entrance of Disneyland welcoming everyone to his new theme park. We were starstruck, recognizing him from his TV shows and wondering if we might see any of the Mouseketeers too. When he told us he couldn't sign autographs my dad asked if we could take a photo with him and he immediately opened his arms. It was like an uncle embracing all the children. We were thrilled not only because we loved his shows but because he was so generous in receiving us.

Kay Torres: I remember not knowing what to expect but understanding that something fun and exciting was in the air! Mom got my older sister, Joanne, and I dressed (alike of course!); cousin Ronnie was here from Colorado, and cousins Barbara and Dennis were ready for the adventure. I was 6 years old . . . I don’t think I understood why this man was so important to include in the photo with us that day!

It reminded me of my dad telling me late in his life how he always wanted his kids to experience all that he couldn’t because of his responsibilities as the only son and the oldest in an immigrant farming family whose parents did not speak English. My adventurous, spontaneous dad is the one who was excited by the idea of this new ‘Disneyland,’ and he got us all together to go to this new fantastical-sounding children’s dream land! He was also the “family historian” who documented the moment with this photo!

 

Willie Funakoshi
Willie Funakoshi—with camera!

 

Ronald Yano: In 1955 I lived in Denver, Colorado, and watched Walt Disney’s ABC television series Disneyland to follow the progress of building his amusement park in Anaheim, California. I was fortunate that my aunt Marion and uncle Timber Manaka asked if I wanted to come to Los Angeles to go to Disneyland when it opened. Naturally I said yes, and my friends all envied me. We went to the park on the fifth day after it opened on July 17, 1955. Denver had an amusement park, Elitch Gardens, but it was nothing compared to Disneyland. What a wonderful experience going to the park after it just opened.

Barbara Ito: When we saw Mr. Disney in front of the fire station, he told us he couldn’t sign autographs, but he could take a photo with us. My 2-year-old brother was there in a stroller, but my mom was so excited that she forgot to put him in the photo. My Uncle Willie was an amateur photographer with all the latest equipment, so he took the photo that day. I remember being in awe of the entire park; it was like stepping into this beautiful magical world.

 

A small child in a stroller cries as a costumed monkey sits on his lap. The monkey’s keeper and the child’s family look on, laughing and smiling.
Another photo did capture Barbara’s little brother unhappily confronting the monkey of an organ grinder on Main Street, U.S.A.

What did that Disneyland visit mean to you as a child?

Joanne Funakoshi: I was 11 years old, the oldest of the cousins, and the first place we went was to the Tiki Room. It was so magical; with all the birds, flowers, and tikis singing to us, it felt like we were in a Disney film. My cousins (Ron and Dennis) and I couldn't believe we could each drive cars on a mini freeway, like our parents in L.A. For me, that was the ultimate. All of us, especially my little sis and I, loved "A Small World" where all the dolls were dressed in traditional costumes. We noticed they showed specific different Asian costumes—Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Thailand—but all sang the same catchy adorable song! It was a wonderful place and the best day ever; we didn't want to leave!

Kay Torres: The Disneyland visit opened a new world of three-dimension movie and cartoon characters and settings. It made me think: maybe fairy tales do come true?! Maybe it meant ‘fantasyland’ can be real!

 

Four people stand in front of the Funakoshi photo on display in “Mirror, Mirror.”
In May 2023 four of the children in the photograph, visited the National Museum of American History to see it on display. From left to right: Barbara Ito, Ronald Yano, Kay Funakoshi and Joanne Funakoshi Maclaren. Dennis Nishimura passed away in 2015.

Almost 70 years later what does that visit represent to you?

Joanne Funakoshi: When friends and relatives come from other states and countries, we always wanted them to see Disneyland. Like a historical landmark . . . Disneyland was a representation of the best of American entertainment in a theme park setting, and it was a wonderful ambassador for an idealistic America.

Kay Torres: That childhood visit represents an innocent and hopeful moment in time. Then I did not understand the recent history of the incarceration, suffering, and total violation of civil rights experienced by my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and older cousins during World War II due to U.S. Executive Order 9066.

What do you think having this image on display today means to your family and/or your community?

Nancy Nishimura: From the time I was shown this photo, perhaps from the late 60s, I was always in awe. I had it framed, and it always had a place on a wall. No other family I knew had a photo of their special trip to Disneyland with the one and only Mr. Walt Disney. Never would I have thought, 70 years later, the framed photo would be exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Joanne Funakoshi: Back in 1955 I didn't realize how hard it was for my parent's generation. They had to rebuild their lives after three and a half years of being interned in camps, separated from family members and the communities where they were born and grew up. They had lost everything. When they returned to their communities they were often rejected by the ignorance of people. These proud Americans worked hard, offering their knowledge and loyalty to regain their status as contributing American citizens. I knew when Disneyland opened most of the Japanese Americans in the L.A. area were finally getting back on their feet and most were planning to visit this magical land that we felt welcomed everyone.

 

Members of the Funakoshi family pose in front of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship and Restaurant in Disneyland.
Members of the Funakoshi family pose in front of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship and Restaurant in Disneyland.

 

Kay Torres: This photo and the efforts that were put into sending this image to the Smithsonian . . . really brought the family together! Because of the pandemic, we haven’t had our usual annual Funakoshi family reunions, but this became a cross generational project! And no, not all of our vast, extended family were able to see the exhibit in D.C. together, but three generations of the five generations here in the United States were represented! . . . [I]t represents pride, and an affirmation of our presence, and belonging in this country.

Barbara Ito: It is an honor to have our image displayed at the Smithsonian exhibit. It’s a story that has come full circle. My daughter worked for the National Museum of American History during her junior semester at Mount Holyoke College. It was amazing to see her quote alongside of our photo at the exhibit. The image of a Japanese American family represented with Walt Disney at the Smithsonian is incredible. This has been an unforgettable experience, one to remember for a lifetime.


Mirror, Mirror: Reflections of American Stories in Disney Parks is on view through April, 2024.

Bethanee Bemis is a public historian specializing in political history. She is the author of Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narratives: Mirror, Mirror for Us All and the curator of the exhibition Mirror, Mirror: Reflections of America in the Disney Parks at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where she works as a museum specialist.

For more information about Japanese American incarceration during World War II, see the podcast Order 9066 and other stories from the museum’s blog.