What do Disney and aviation have in common? Well, Disney creates magic, and flying is a magical experience for many, especially aviation enthusiasts.
The world created by Walt Disney can be attributed to his imagination and creativity, but not many know that the magic was made possible on board a 1963 Gulfstream aircraft.
How did it all begin? Well let’s start with the legendary, iconic character who symbolizes all things Disney: Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse was created on November 18, 1928, so today marks the 95th birthday of Mickey Mouse.
Mickey Mouse’s first screen appearance was in the short (and silent) film ‘Plane Crazy’, released in May 1928. The more popular ‘Steamboat Willie’, produced with sound, is often thought to be the first Mickey Mouse film, but it only came out months after ‘Plane Crazy’.
‘Plane Crazy’ was inspired by Charles Lindbergh, the American aviator and military officer who successfully completed the world’s first nonstop solo transatlantic flight in May 1927.
In the six-minute short film, Mickey Mouse’s attempts to construct an aircraft end in disaster. He eventually uses a turkey’s tail to fly the aircraft, and takes his sweetheart, Minnie, on an out-of-control joyride in the skies.
Here is the clip, now remastered with sound:
Disney and his fascination with aviation
It’s not at all surprising that Mickey Mouse’s first film was about flying an aircraft. Mickey Mouse’s creator, Walt Disney, was known to be an aviation enthusiast.
Reflecting on Walt, a blog dedicated to the life of Walt Disney, reported that Disney had been fascinated with aviation since the age of 10.
In 1911, Disney and his brother Roy ran two miles to see Calbraith Perry Rodgers land the Vin Fiz Wright Flyer EX in Swope Park in Kansas City during its first transcontinental flight.
The blog noted that Ed Ovalle, Senior Archivist at Walt Disney Archives, said that several years later, at the end of the First World War, Disney was in Paris and spotted a French military aircraft sitting in a field while touring the town. He wanted to take a flight, but the officers told him it was only for French military personnel.
Later on, Disney reportedly said: “But 50 francs I had saved up made a French aviation mechanic wink at the law, and I had my thirst to fly satisfied for the first time.”
Although that moment was remarkable for Disney, it was not until decades later that he went on to purchase his own aircraft.
Beechcraft Queen Air Model 80
It was in 1963 when Walt Disney finally made his own dream come true by purchasing his first aircraft.
In a December 2022 Palm Springs Life Magazine feature, American theme park designer Bob Gurr recalled that during one of Disney’s trips to Palm Springs, he saw a LearJet 50, belonging to Frank Sinatra, parked on the tarmac. One of Disney’s grandchildren saw the plane and asked him why he did not have one of his own.
In February 1963, Disney ordered an eight passenger Beechcraft Queen Air Model 80. It had a top speed of 247 mph, and a list price of $135,000.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assigned the aircraft a tail number of N123MM. According to Waymarking, a website that locates and marks landmarks and objects worldwide, MM stood for “Mickey Mouse.”
Mark Malone, a former Disney pilot and one of the three generations of the Malone family who flew for Walt Disney, revealed during an Aviation Week podcast episode that when communicating with pilots, air controllers would actually say something along the lines of, “Hey, Queen Air 234 Mickey Mouse, climb to 3000.”
1963 Gulfstream by Grumman Aircraft
It was not long before Disney and his partners realized that they needed a bigger aircraft to go to The New York World’s Fair in 1964 so that they could promote Walt Disney Productions.
This time, they chose a 1963 Gulfstream, an upgrade from the Beechcraft Queen Air Model 80. The Gulfstream was able to cruise at 350 mph at up to 30,000 feet.
Mark Malone’s father, Charles A. Malone, Jr. was Walt Disney’s personal pilot. Mark himself flew for Disney for a number of years. He said that Disney chose this specific aircraft because it was Grumman’s first purpose-built business aircraft. This meant that the aircraft was not a converted airliner or a previous Second World War plane.
The plane was affectionately known as “The Mouse” or “Mickey Mouse One”.
Disney doing business on air
The 1963 Gulfstream was pressurized and had 10 hours of fuel on board. In his podcast interview, Malone said that the aircraft, a transcontinental plane with long-range tanks, could easily fly from Burbank to New York or Burbank to Orlando.
The plane was taken to Pacific Airmotive Corporation, an outfitter, and turned into a custom interior with 15 seats, three couches, two bathrooms, a fully functional galley with an oven and a cockpit with all-weather flight instruments.
The upgrade and improved comfort meant that Disney was able to do business while in transit.
According to Malone, Disney chose the aircraft not for its top speed but for the range capability because his projects at that time required coast to coast, transcontinental travel, which he preferred to do without stops.
The spacious cabin also gave room for people to stand up, and Disney and his creative team, whom he called his “Imagineers”, were able to discuss theme park ride concepts while flying.
The Gulfstream I still carried the tail number N234MM and, at one point, was the most highly utilized Gulfstream I in the US, accumulating more than 18,500 hours and 8500 landings by August 1991.
Building treasure out of swampland
All Disney historians agree that Mickey Mouse One did much more than just transport Disney and his team from coast to coast.
At that point, Disneyland had already opened in 1955 and Disney was on the hunt for the location for his second theme park. DOZR, a Canadian construction and equipment company, said that Disney considered Niagara Falls as a location, but decided that the long winters would make for a short tourist season.
When Disney and his team flew south on board Mickey Mouse One, they saw the area of Lake Buena Vista in Orlando, Florida, where Disney World is now located.
Before Disney’s magic touch, Orlando was primarily a military town. It had a population of 50,000 people and its main attractions were Orlando Airbase and McCoy Air Force Base.
Disney purchased 27,000 acres of swampland and transformed it into what is now the world’s largest theme park.
To highlight the economic impact of Disney in Florida, an Oxford Economics study published in November 14, 2023 reported that Walt Disney World Resort generated more than $40 billion in economic impact across the state and more than a quarter of a million total jobs in fiscal year 2022.
“Disney is an economic catalyst to the state of Florida generating billions in economic activity, either directly, or indirectly through its supply chain and the spending of employees,” Adam Sacks, President of Tourism Economics at Oxford Economics, said in a November 2023 Forbes report.
The report also said that without Disney’s statewide job impact, Florida’s unemployment would jump from 3% to 5.4%, which would take Florida from the 21st lowest unemployment rate among all 50 states to the second highest unemployment rate in the US.
Mark Malone described it perfectly: “That put Disney on the map so that they could buy 27,000 acres, which ended up being the Florida project. And from that, they got companies to help sponsor their development of The Magic Kingdom and Epcot and build out Walt’s dreams. And all of it was made possible by the Gulfstream.”
Where can you see Mickey Mouse One?
After 20 years of service, Mickey Mouse One made its final flight on October 8, 1992.
The plane stayed in Orlando for decades until 2021 when the company decided to move the aircraft to Anaheim, California, where fans and visitors can view it at the D23 Expo, an exhibition held every two years for Disney fans and enthusiasts.
Below is a video footage of the very first time Mickey Mouse One was shown at the 2022 D23 Expo:
In December 2022, the Walt Disney Company announced that the Palm Springs Air Museum, in conjunction with Phoenix Air, would restore and recreate the interior of the Gulfstream I to resemble what it looked like when Disney flew it in the 1960s.
The restoration is estimated to take two years, and the restored Mickey Mouse One is expected to be viewed at the D23 Expo in 2024.
And for those who want a small memento to remember the magic that ‘The Mouse’ created, a Funko Mickey Mouse One can be bought for less than $15.00