It was a mix of emotions for a group of students from Western Michigan University as they stood in a garden at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale Thursday afternoon.
As the song "Feed the Birds" played on a smartphone, eight students from the Lee Honors College of the university laid daisies in front of Walt Disney's gravesite, marking the end of a nine-day road trip from Kalamazoo, Mich. to Burbank.
For the second year, Christopher Tremblay has organized "Walt's Pilgrimage," a course offered at Western Michigan that is a part of the Lee Honors College's Study in the States program. The course follows the famed animator's journey from Illinois to Missouri and later to California, learning about his successes and failures along the way.
The course culminates in an all-expense-paid trip that retraces Disney's trek to Burbank.
Some of the stops included Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City, where Disney went bankrupt, Mineral King in Central California, the site of a ski resort Disney had envisioned but it did not come to fruition and then to Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.
"There are some sacred moments, but [the course] is designed to show the whole spectrum of his life and everything in between," Tremblay said.
Tremblay, Lee Honors College instructor at Western Michigan University and vice chancellor for enrollment management at University of Wisconsin-Superior, created the course because of his love of Disney. Since he was a child, Tremblay was fascinated by all Disney-related topics.
His passion grew so much that he participated in the Walt Disney World College Program, spending a semester learning about the business. He even wrote about the cultural impact of Disneyland's opening day.
Though the trip includes a visit to Disneyland and to various places where Disney traveled, Tremblay said his course is rigorous.
"There's a lot of assignments and readings," he said. "There are papers that are due, and each student is responsible for one day of content during one of the eight days on our journey."
Incoming sophomore Emily Fackler said she and her family are Disney fans. She decided to enroll in the course because she wanted to learn more about the man behind her favorite movies and theme parks.
Fackler, an arts management major, said she enjoyed the course because it went beyond learning about Disney in a classroom setting.
"We just didn't stay in one spot," she said. "We went to Chicago, Kansas City, Marceline and big and small cities throughout California. Even Kalamazoo has connections to Disney, which we didn't know about when we first started this class."
Kirsten Stowell, an incoming junior double majoring in English and math, said her "mind was blown" after visiting all the places that Disney had gone to and learning about all the challenges he had to overcome.
Stowell said it was surreal standing at Disney's gravesite after traveling to multiple cities throughout the country.
"He passed away before I was ever thought of," she said. "But I feel like we've learned so much about him after this week that it's weird to think that this is the closest we've ever been to him and this is where he's finally laid to rest after being a busy and nonstop man. It gives me chills."
Anthony Clark Carpio, email@example.com