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Disneyland’s long-lost Midget Autopia may roll again--in Missouri

After a nine-year tenure in Anaheim, Disneyland's Midget Autopia ride moved to Marceline, Mo. (shown here), from 1966-77. That city's Walt Disney Hometown Museum is launching a campaign to rebuild and reopen the attraction.

After a nine-year tenure in Anaheim, Disneyland’s Midget Autopia ride moved to Marceline, Mo. (shown here), from 1966-77. That city’s Walt Disney Hometown Museum is launching a campaign to rebuild and reopen the attraction.

(Walt Disney Hometown Museum)

The Walt Disney Hometown Museum in Marceline, Mo., is hoping to revive the vintage Disneyland attraction known as Midget Autopia, the first park ride ever moved to a non-Disney property.

The museum plans a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign to bring back the 10-car ride that ran in Anaheim from 1957 until It’s a Small World displaced it in 1966.

In a chapter known mostly to serious Disneyphiles and select Missourians, Walt Disney donated the ride to the town of Marceline, where Disney lived from ages 4 to 8. The town ran it for 11 years until growing costs forced its closure.

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Now, with the 50th anniversary of that gift approaching, museum leaders hope to refabricate and reopen the ride on museum land.

A Bringbackautopia website is live now. The museum – which gets no money from the Walt Disney Co. – expects to unveil the Kickstarter page any day. Museum consultant Peter Whitehead said the campaign would formally begin Aug. 14 at this year’s Disney D23 Expo in Anaheim.

The goal is to get the ride rolling by July 4, 2016.

Kaye Malins, executive director of the Marceline museum since inception, has nursed the idea along for several years. But the campaign is an ambitious move for Marceline (population: about 2,350) and the Disney museum, which opened in 2001.

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The museum runs on an annual budget of about $100,000 and counted about 12,000 visitors last year. (Most of the museum’s artifacts were donated by Walt Disney’s sister, Ruth Disney Beecher.)

As author Sam Gennawey notes in “The Disneyland Story,” Midget Autopia was one of multiple miniature car rides in Disneyland’s early years. The first, Autopia in Tomorrowland, was part of the park opening in 1955.

Next came Junior Autopia in Fantasyland in 1956. Midget Autopia, which Gennawey said was built by amusement park manufacturer Arrow Development, followed in 1957.

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As the popular Disneyland history website Yesterland notes, each car featured two steering wheels and was designed to hold two kids, no parents, on a brief road trip over a hill, through a tunnel and then through a little yellow barn that Whitehead describes as an homage to the one on the old Disney farm in Marceline.

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The museum in Marceline notes that Autopia cars included headlights from a ’56 Pontiac and hood ornaments from a ’57 Chevrolet. Drivers in Midget Autopia couldn’t accelerate or brake; power came from an electrical bus bar in the center of the roadway.

When Disneyland dismantled Midget Autopia in April 1966, it was to make room for It’s a Small World (which began its life as part of the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65). Instead of junking Midget Autopia’s 10 little cars, track and features, the Disneys gave it to Marceline (which, in 1960, had named an elementary school for Disney).

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The Missouri Midget Autopia opened July 4, 1966, in Marceline’s Walt Disney Municipal Park.

“Never before, and never since, has a ride left Disneyland and continued operation outside a Disney-owned park,” Whitehead said.

It lasted barely a decade. Walt Disney, who had been unable to attend the opening in Marceline, died of cancer about five months after the ride reopened.

Lacking outside financial support, Marceline shut down the ride in 1977 amid rising insurance and maintenance costs. The hardware – already 20 years old when it reached Missouri -- wound up in the barn on the old Disney farm (now privately owned). Whitehead said it has “basically disintegrated.”

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“Right now there are two cars that are as close to original as possible, with full bodies and all the hardware that goes with them,” Whitehead said. “There’s a third shell, but it’s just a disintegrating fiberglass shell, no working parts, no metal.”

Reviving the ride, he said, means re-fabricating everything.

He said half the money raised will go to ride fabrications, the other half to construction of the roughly 650-foot-long track, which is expected to take up about a quarter of an acre. Whitehead noted that the Walt Disney Hometown Museum gets no financial aid from the city of Marceline or the Walt Disney Co.

Walt Disney was 4 in 1905 when his family moved to Marceline, a railroad town of about 3,900 whose principal street, Kansas Avenue, may have shaped Disney’s later designs for Main Street U.S.A.

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When Disney was about 8, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, Mo.

Despite the presence of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in the old red-brick train depot building, Marceline is pretty quiet these days. It stands 92 miles west of Hannibal (Mark Twain’s hometown) and 109 miles east of St. Joseph, where the Pony Express was born.

In May, Marceline leaders announced the death by windstorm of a beloved old cottonwood tree, known as Walt’s Dreaming Tree, on the old Disney farm at 200 W. Broadway St.

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