By Michael Barrier
Walt and Lillian Disney arrived in Plymouth, England, on June 12, 1935, aboard the French liner Normandie. They were accompanied by Walt's brother, Roy, and Roy's wife, Edna. The first photo just below, published the next day in the Times of London, was taken at Paddington Station in London, after the Disneys arrived the evening of the 12th aboard the "boat train" from Plymouth. Walt and Lilly were mobbed by what the Associated Press called a "throng that included many children ... police had to intervene to protect them from the crush."
The photo above, from the same day as the photo at the station, was taken on the roof of the Disneys's London hotel, the Grosvenor House. There's another photo from the roof, no doubt taken at the same time, on page 14 of Didier Ghez's indispensable (if you care at all about Disney history) Disney's Grand Tour: Walt and Roy's European Vacation Summer 1935 (Theme Park Press).
The third photo below, of Walt and Lilly, was described to me when I bought it as also showing the Disneys at Paddington Station, but I've since acquired the photo just above it, probably taken seconds earlier (the two photos could almost be flipped, to show the Disneys turning toward the camera), and its clearer view of the background suggests that it was taken at the Grosvenor rather than Paddington. This place just looks more like a hotel than a railroad station; but then again, this was London in the 1930s, so who knows. Probably there is definitive evidence someplace, most likely in a British newspaper.
Roy Disney is not visible in any of these photos, but as Gunnar Andreassen has pointed out, Edna Disney is just to Lillian Disney's right in the top photo below.
Enthusiastic greetings were a hazard that other celebrities faced when they arrived in London on the boat train—even when they were not themselves the targets of the crowd's adulation. In April 1939, the United Press reported: "Arturo Toscanini, the conductor, arriving from the United States for a rest in Europe, was knocked down on the platform of Waterloo Station tonight when he got in the way of a crowd of more than one thousand women attempting to reach Spencer Tracy, American motion-picture actor." Toscanini had crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary with Tracy and his wife and had accompanied them to London aboard the boat train. UP reported that Tracy "finally sought refuge aboard the train. He escaped through a door on the opposite side of the train and went to his hotel with the aid of police."
When the Disneys crossed the Atlantic on the Normandie, it was making its first voyage from New York to Plymouth. It had sailed into New York harbor June 3, and it left on the return trip to Europe on June 7. The Normandie was the first liner more than a thousand feet long, and to accommodate its length, and that of other huge liners to come, New York's Department of Docks extended three docks not by building out into the water—that would have interfered with shipping lanes—but by gouging hundreds of feet out of Manhattan's West Side. The Normandie was not only bigger but faster than any other liners then afloat, having crossed from Plymouth to New York in the record time of 4 days, 11 hours, and 42 minutes. Walt Disney liked that kind of speed, whether in ships or trains or airplanes.
In London on June 13, Walt visited the zoo, where he was photographed with the zoo's penguins (familiar companions in photos for him by that time, since he had been photographed with penguins in 1934, during work on the Silly Symphony Peculiar Penguins).
The Disneys' itinerary took them from England to Scotland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. In Paris, Walt received a medal honoring his cartoons as "the best animated cartoons ever created." You can see a photo from that Paris visit on Mark Sonntag's blog. For Didier Ghez's definitive account of the whole European trip, see Disney's Grand Tour.
On July 24, after six weeks in Europe, the Disneys boarded the Italian liner Rex at Naples. They arrived in New York on August 1. Walt told a waiting reporter for the Universal Service he had been impressed by how well Mickey Mouse was known abroad: "When you think about it, it is a little surprising to think that Mickey has become such a personage. They seem to know him just as well in Paris, London, Rome, and Berlin as they do in Hollywood and New York." The New York Times also interviewed Walt and reported: "Mr. Disney said he planned to reduce the speaking in his features and have more sound effects. Mickey talks too much, in his opinion, and he plans to cut out all but a few 'gags.'"
The Disneys' European odyssey ended on August 5, when they arrived at the Santa Fe station in Pasadena. Walt was rushed, yet again, by autograph seekers, but he compared the American breed favorably with the British: "This isn't bad. You ought to see 'em in England. There they go after them on bicycles."
[Posted September 25, 2009; corrected, October 5, 2009, July 23 and 24, 2011, and June 16, 2014, and corrected and revised May 14, 2015.]