This Walt Disney autograph dates to mid-April 1965, when Walt, his brother Roy, and several Imagineers, such as Bill Bosche, Claude Coats, John Hench, Ken O’Connor, and Ken Peterson, visited three of the country’s most prominent space centers at the behest of highly-regarded aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun.
Von Braun, who had previously worked as a consultant on the Disneyland television show’s “Tomorrowland” segment, was again looking for ways to help expand and popularize public opinion for the American space program. Knowing the studio to be a powerful ally, he invited Disney and his associates to meet with him at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, where he served as director. He also lined up stops at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida.
It was the group’s visit to Florida that would be most memorable, at least in regard to Disney history. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, save Walt’s inner circle, a division of the company had been secretly scouting and acquiring land in Central Florida for a full year in anticipation of the project which would become the Walt Disney World Resort. In fact, during his visit to Cape Kennedy, Walt would be asked point-blank by a reporter whether or not his company was responsible for the major land acquisition that had so many Floridians talking. Walt flat-out denied the rumors and insisted he was currently investing $50 million dollars into a Disneyland expansion and had no interest in other projects. According to later reports from the Kennedy Space Center, however, it was during this trip that Walt revealed to a few senior-level officials at NASA that he was indeed working on a high-dollar “tourist attraction” in the area. While in Florida, Walt would also be given a tour of NASA’s facilities by Nancy Pearce Welsh, Administrative Assistant to Director of Unmanned Flight Operations. Ms. Welsh recalled the entertainment mogul as being “very gracious” and “interested in the space program and exploration.” After the tour, the mother of five asked for an autograph from her celebrity guest which she could take home to her admiring children. Back in her office, and not wanting to burden Mr. Disney with a request for multiple signatures, Welsh ingeniously grabbed a few sheets of carbon paper from her desk and layered them between the pages of a small notepad, so as to create five Walt Disney signatures simultaneously—one for each of her children. This particular copy—one of the original five—was then gifted to one of Welsh’s two daughters, Anna Marie.
Six months later, the land deals would be all but closed (27,443 acres in all, at an average price of $180 each) and the truth would finally leak that Disney was coming to Florida. Though Disney’s visit wouldn’t result in any further space-themed projects, it marked perhaps one of the only times in the year-and-a-half lead-up to the Florida announcement that he shared his plans with anyone outside a very small circle of trusted individuals. It was also significant for the fact that is was one of only a few times when he’d been forced to publicly and blatantly lie about his East-Coast goings on. But maybe the most important result—at least for one family—was the story and handful of signatures rendered by Mr. Disney’s visit to a lucky mother’s workplace.