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How Walt Disney Enchanted Palm Springs

Walt Disney

The Wonderful World of Palm Springs

By Randy Garner

In 1938, Walt Disney came for a week’s stay and fell in love with Palm Springs and the landscape. They were drawn to the area’s warm climate and natural beauty, seeking respite from their busy lives in Los Angeles.

He loved western themes and riding horses, which was very popular in Palm Springs then. The Desert Rancheros organization had just formed, and Walt joined. They were a group dedicated to riding horses and organized an annual three-day ride. They would ride for 15 miles a day, then set up camp and enjoy a nice family-style dinner from the chuck wagon.

Among Disney’s riding partners was none other than Frank Bogert, an actor, author, and rodeo announcer. He was also the four-time Mayor of Palm Springs who served consecutive terms: from 1958 to 1966 and two more from 1982 to 1990.

Smoke Tree Ranch

Disney became a member of Smoke Tree Ranch in 1946. Smoke Tree began in 1936 with a vision to be a place free from pressures where families could just come, relax, and enjoy the desert. Life was simple on purpose, and there was no effort to impress. Western singers and musicians who lived at the Ranch offered entertainment, and cowboys joined in the square dancing.

Lillian and Walt Disney on vacation at the B-Bar-H guest ranch in Palm Springs, CA - 1948
Lillian and Walt Disney on vacation at the B-Bar-H guest ranch in Palm Springs, CA – 1948

Disney and his wife Lillian bought their first plot of land for their new Palm Springs home in 1948 at Smoke Tree Ranch. They moved into the home in 1951 according to architect William F. Cody who designed the low, modern desert dwelling. The house exterior was redwood with large expanses of glass and a heavy shake roof. This became a beloved getaway spot for Disney and his family, where they could relax, entertain friends, and escape the demands of running their burgeoning entertainment empire.

SmokeTreeRanch-measuring for new house
Smoke Tree Ranch-measuring for new house
Walt Disney home scetch
Walt Disney home sketch

Although Disney enjoyed several years at this residence, it was time to raise funds for his new venture, Disneyland. As part of pursuing his dream, he and his brother Roy sold most of their assets in 1954 to secure the land and begin construction. Disney was also friends with the owner of the L’Horizon Hotel in Palm Springs, Jack Wrather. They collaborated to open the Disneyland Hotel.

Palm Springs played a crucial role in Disney’s vision for Disneyland, the iconic theme park that opened in 1955. It is said that Disney often brainstormed ideas and concepts for the park while relaxing at Smoke Tree Ranch. The tranquil surroundings and laid-back atmosphere of Palm Springs likely influenced Disney’s desire to create a magical place where people could escape reality and immerse themselves in a world of fun and fantasy.

Disney returned to Smoke Tree Ranch in 1957, building a second vacation residence there flush with the profits gained from Disneyland’s phenomenal success.

walt disney with smoke tree logo
Walt Disney with smoke tree logo on tie.

The “Walt Disney Hall” at Smoke Tree Ranch stands peacefully by the pool, facing the mountains, not far from what once was a bowling green. Photos of Disney at ease in Palm Springs decorate the walls. He was proud to be a member of Smoke Tree and he often included the logo on his ties, a secret most T.V. viewers would not know.

smoke tree stables sign

Moorten Botanical Gardens

Clark Moorten, the rugged, engaging second-generation host, oversees the Palm Springs garden. Clark’s parents, Chester “Cactus Slim” Moorten and his wife, Patricia, created it. Cactus Slim was an original Keystone Cop and a stand-in for Howard Hughes. He developed tuberculosis on a film set and eventually ended up in Palm Springs for the warm and dry climate that was beneficial for the lungs in 1938. They bought the property, which became Moorten Botanical Garden, from renowned nature and desert photographer Stephen Willard.

Together the couple expanded Chester’s business to include landscape design and were soon hired by such luminaries as Walt Disney, Red Skelton, Jimmy Van Heusen, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby to create backyards at their desert homes. Walt tapped the duo to curate the foliage for Frontierland at his soon-to-be-built Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA.

circa 1955: Tourists entering Frontierland, a recreation of the Old West, in Disneyworld, California. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Opening Day at Frontierland, 1955 (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The Palm Springs Desert Museum

The Palm Springs Desert Museum added Disney to the Advisory Board. His work with the Desert Museum partially inspired his movie, “The Living Desert.”  The movie, which won an Oscar® in 1954 for Best Documentary, showcased the creatures and beauty of the desert.

Walt Disney movie cover living desert

Below is a typed letter signed (“Walt Disney”), to Allen Smith of the Palm Springs Desert Museum. “I have just looked at our picture The Story of the Desert, which I had intended bringing down this week-end, but it still needs additional editing and until this is done I would rather not show it. I know you want to see this picture and I will bring it down for you as soon as it’s in good shape — most likely this will be shortly after the first of the year.” In this very significant letter, Disney is just finishing The Living Desert, which was released in 1953, the first of his “True-Life Adventure” series. The series of features ran through 1960 and earned the prolific and innovative artist some 29 Oscars.

disney letter to desert museum
Disney letter sent to the Desert Museum

The Palm Springs Desert Museum was at the location next to the Welwood Murray Memorial Library. The new art museum was built on Museum Way and the name later changed to the Palm Springs Art Museum. Founded in 1938, it has a rich history and has become a prominent center for arts, culture, and education in the region.

The museum’s initial focus was on the natural sciences, featuring exhibits on the local desert ecosystem, geology, and Native American artifacts. Over time, the museum expanded its collection to include fine art, contemporary art, photography, sculpture, and more.

Indian Canyons Golf Resort

Disney joined the list of A-list membership to Indian Canyons Golf Resort along with Clark Gable, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra. His greatest contribution to the course’s legendary fairways is the massive green-patina copper lily pad fountain that he donated to the course in 1962.

While receiving golf lessons, Disney learned the course was considering adding a water feature into the lake between holes No. 9 and 18. He just happened to be having nine water fountains designed in Europe. A few weeks later, one of those fountains showed up at the club in a big crate.

walt disney Indian Canyon Club fountain

Even after Disney’s passing in 1966, his connection to Palm Springs continued. Many Disney executives and animators, inspired by their founder, also made Palm Springs their home or vacation spot. Disney’s influence and lasting legacy endure to this day.

You May Also Like:

Walt Disney’s Plane at Air Museum

Historic Moorten Botanical Garden

Exploring Palm Springs on Horseback


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