While a trip to Disneyland is an essential pilgrimage for many Disney fans, few venture out to the Disney-connected places beyond the parks. In this post, we offer a 1-day Los Angeles itinerary for seeing points of interest that influenced Walt Disney, have inspired his Imagineers, or have been impacted by Walt’s enduring legacy.
For whatever reason, Walt Disney is often associated with the Midwest. His birth in Illinois and his humble beginnings in Missouri. This is reinforced by the Walt Disney Company, which presents Walt Disney as an everyman, an approachable fella from Marceline with lofty dreams, determination, and unparalleled vision.
That’s all no doubt true. What gets lost in this picture of Walt Disney is that he was an Angeleno, through and through. Southern California is “where it all began” for Walt Disney. He spent most of his life in Los Angeles and he built his empire in Southern California. While he had humble beginnings, he became a Hollywood mogul. And, while there may be Walt Disney “connections” dotted around the Midwest, Walt Disney made an indelible impact on, and himself was influenced by, Los Angeles.
Much as I think every Disney fan owes it to themselves to see where the magic began by visiting Disneyland, I think there are certain spots in Los Angeles that those who are fascinated by Walt Disney’s story and legacy should take the time to visit. This itinerary has a day full of such places.
One thing the itinerary does not have is any historic locations that are no more. Unfortunately, there was not an effort to preserve historic places during Los Angeles’ booms in development, and Carthay Circle Theatre, the Disney Bros’ Hyperion Studio, and other landmarks were all demolished. With so many great points of interest to see in Los Angeles, I see little point in visiting areas of nothingness that are just depressing…
Opened in 1935 by Clifford Clinton, Clifton’s Cafeteria (now Clifton’s Republic) was originally a highly-efficient cafeteria serving 15,000 patrons per day, with a kitschy themed environment reminiscent of a whimsical forest. The restaurant was a hotspot in its heyday, and was known to be frequented by Walt Disney.
What’s unknown is whether Clifton’s served as actual inspiration for Disneyland, or if that’s just inferred from it having a design style that is vaguely similar to what can be found in Fantasyland. It’s a neat restaurant either way, and the theme is fun, particularly after its $10 million refurbishment by the owner of the Edison, a nearby nightclub (another name that might familiar to Walt Disney World fans).
While Walt Disney dined at Clifton’s, the famous regular here was Ray Bradbury, who spent decades at Clifton’s in his favorite booth on the third floor. With the refurbishment, this booth has been enshrined to Bradbury, which is cool to see. (As Disney fans know, Bradbury has a tree in Disneyland and was instrumental in EPCOT Center’s creation.)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
This gift to Los Angeles was made by Lillian Disney (and following her passing, Diane Disney Miller) in honor of Walt Disney. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, Walt Disney Concert Hall is an iconic architectural landmark that is one of the city’s greatest gems.
Walt Disney Concert Hall offers free hour-long tours: guided tours on weekdays, and free self-guided audio tours narrated by John Lithgow. The audio tour covers a wealth of topics, including the Disney family, and especially Lillian Disney’s involvement on the project. This concert hall was built long after Walt’s death, but it is the best examples of his enduring legacy in Los Angeles.
Disney’s Hollywood Adventure
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot in Hollywood that has a Disney connection. Perhaps surprisingly, most of this is not a Walt Disney connection. Instead, there are a lot of places that inspired the Imagineers in creating locations in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure. There are also some tributes to Walt’s and the Company’s legacy on Hollywood Boulevard.
Here’s a list of buildings in Hollywood that inspired spots in the parks, all of which are easy to find via Google Maps and within walking distance of one another:
- TCL Chinese Theater
- Crossroads of the World
- Max Factor Building (Hollywood Museum)
- Owl Drug
- Pantages Theatre
- El Capitan Theater
These are just a few of the easily-accessible buildings on Hollywood & Sunset Boulevards. There are a ton more spots like this…
Almost every facade in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Hollywood Land at Disney California Adventure was inspired by a real-world location somewhere in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in California). If you have the time, a drive down Wilshire Boulevard is a good option for seeing more.
Of these places, the Chinese Theater is the most iconic, serving as the focal point for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This is popular with every tourist visiting Los Angeles, not just Disney fans. It’s also a great spot for checking out the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which features several nods to Disney icons, including Walt, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck.
Walt Disney Studios
Although the Walt Disney Studios does not offer public access or tours, there are a few ways to gain access: 1) be invited by someone who works there or elsewhere on Disney’s campuses in Burbank or Glendale; 2) Cast Members from any division within the Walt Disney Company are allowed access (call in advance regarding this–the ‘rules’ for visiting often change); 3) D23 occasionally offers tours of the lot, or events that will get you onto the lot (click here for a calendar of events); or 4) get a job at Starbucks and transfer to locations inside the lot.
Finally, there’s the one sure-fire way for anyone (well, anyone with a fair amount of disposable income) to get access, book the Adventures by Disney “Backstage Magic” Southern California itinerary.
Even if none of these options are in the cards for you, it’s worth the jaunt up to Burbank to wander the perimeter of the Walt Disney Studio lot to take it all in. A fair amount can be observed from outside the gates, including some of the iconic buildings and water tower.
Grand Central Campus
The Grand Central Creative Campus in Glendale, California houses a number of Disney offices, most notably Walt Disney Imagineering. GC3 also houses offices for Interactive, Consumer Products, and whatever is calling its divisions that do stuff on YouTube these days. As with the Studio lot, most of this campus is not open to the general public.
There’s less here to see from the street, but one aspect that is cool is Grand Central Air Terminal (GCAT), which Disney recently restored and reopened. When it opened in the 1920s, GCAT was Los Angeles’ main airport, and remained that until the late-1940s that LAX displaced it. Being the main airport in Los Angeles during the golden age of flight‘s formative decades, GCAT developed a rich and glamorous history playing host to individuals who were instrumental figures in the history of aviation.
After the airport was decommissioned in 1959, one of the first companies to move into the building was WED Enterprises (Walt Disney Imagineering), which made it their original campus. After purchasing the office park, Disney announced plans to restore the terminal, and completed the project a couple of years ago.
As of last year, public tours were available for Grand Central Terminal and there was a small exhibition inside the building. I don’t see any information about these tours online anywhere, so perhaps they are no longer offered. Still a neat building to see from the outside, and close-enough to other locations in Burbank and Glendale.
Griffith Park & Observatory
Every time I go to Griffith Park, I sit on a random bench, hoping I’ll be inspired the way Walt Disney was while sitting at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round where he first conceived the idea for a family theme park for kids and adults, which would eventually become Disneyland. (So far, my best idea has been a bacon-wrapped corn dog, which arguably is just as good of an idea.)
Walt regularly took his daughters to Griffith Park, which was near his Los Feliz home. The merry-go-round is still there, but more importantly, there’s Walt’s Barn, which was in the backyard of Walt Disney’s home in Holmby Hills. This is where Walt Disney built a 1/8th scale live-steam railroad at his residence called the “Carolwood Pacific Railroad.” Walt operated this for his family and friends until 1953, when his ambitions shifted to working on a different railroad as part of a larger project…
Walt’s Barn is an incredible showcase of Walt’s passion for railroading, with many artifacts belonging to Walt and other animators and Imagineers who shared his passion for trains. The only downside is that Walt’s Barn is only open the third Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. If you’re able to visit, you absolutely need to do so.
Even if you’re unable to visit Walt’s Barn, Griffith Park is well worth a visit to see the merry-go-round, and Walt Disney’s stomping grounds for father-daughter days. Even though it has no confirmed Walt Disney history, you should also check out Griffith Observatory (it’s one of my absolute favorite places in Los Angeles). Presumably, Walt sat on benches there a time or two, as well.
Sunday Drive Through Los Feliz
While Walt Disney lived in many places around Los Angeles over the years, the most noteworthy location (at least of those still standing) is his and Lillian’s house in Los Feliz (it is not the house pictured above). It’s not open to the public, but it’s interesting to drive by just to see.
Equally as fascinating is the drive through Los Feliz. Throughout this area, there are a number of great examples of Mid-Century Modern, American Craftsman, and Spanish Colonial architecture, all of which would find its way into Disneyland (and beyond). Even the houses that have zero ties to Disney are just flat out cool.
If this type of thing interests you, consider a side-trip out to Palm Springs, California. It’s an architectural oasis, and a really beautiful place (albeit sweltering in the summer). Walt and Lillian owned a few houses in Palm Springs over the years, and the architecture there clearly inspired designs in the early days Tomorrowland (and beyond).
Dinner at ‘the Tam’
Of all the places with Walt Disney connections in Los Angeles, the Tam O’ Shanter has the richest history. In addition to being the oldest operating restaurant in the city, it purports to being the world’s first themed restaurant. Thanks to a combination of its location, design, and menu, it became a favorite low-key dining spot for Walt Disney and Disney animators. It was such a regular haunt for Walt and his people that it was dubbed “the Studio Commissary.”
Walt Disney even had a favorite table, which has since been enshrined as a tribute to him. This table (#31) is located next to the fireplace in the main dining room, and can be requested upon check-in.
While I’m not a huge fan of the food here (it’s good, but time has passed it by in terms of dining options in Los Angeles), this is probably the biggest must-do on this itinerary, and the one spot you absolutely should not skip. The restaurant oozes history, and it’s pretty easy to see how it would’ve appealed to Walt, and also influenced him. We have a full review and photo tour of the Tam O’ Shanter here.
That’s it for your Disney-inspired day in Los Angeles. Above is a map showing the general path you’re taking. As you can probably glean from the map, this will require a car, but the good news is that you’ll only need to pay for parking twice (Downtown LA and Hollywood) as everywhere else you should be able to find free street parking.
It’s really unfortunate that so much of the Walt Disney’s legacy in Los Angeles is either closed to the general public or has been flat out demolished. Even with several potentially interesting locations not being options, I still think this is a pretty solid itinerary for Disney fans. It wouldn’t be my top priority for a day in L.A. (for that, see our 1-Day Los Angeles Highlights Itinerary), but if you have 3 or 4 days, this would certainly be an entertaining way to spend one of them.
If you’re planning a California vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to do. For Los Angeles-centric trips, we’ve found the most useful guidebook to be The Best Things to Do in Los Angeles: 1001 Ideas, which is written by locals (and we use it even as locals!). If you enjoyed this post, help spread the word by sharing it via social media. Thanks for reading!
Have you experienced any of these points of interest with Disney connections? What did you think of them? Anything else you’d recommend adding to this itinerary? Anything you’d recommend skipping? Hearing from readers is both helpful and interesting, so if you have perspective from your own experiences, or questions, please share in the comments below!