History of Peter Pan: the Story Behind the 70-Year-Old Disney Classic

Peter Pan


All of this has happened before,
and it will all happen again.


So begins my favorite Walt Disney animated movie, Peter Pan, which debuted 70 years ago today on February 5, 1953.

The original movie poster said:

“It will live in your heart forever!”

…and indeed, it has.

Why was this turn-of-the-century tale one of Disney’s favorite stories?


Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

It’s because Walt Disney was Peter Pan. Am I suggesting that because he was “the boy who wouldn’t grow up?” Perhaps, but I mean specifically that Walt Disney performed Peter Pan as a child. How did that happen?


Inspiration for Peter Pan

First, we must begin by recognizing that Peter Pan came to notice in the 1904 stage play by James Matthew Barrie, a Scottish author and playwright. It was first performed in London, where he’d previously met the Llewelyn Davies boys, whom he later informally adopted.


Michael Llewelyn Davies

Michael Llewelyn Davies


The Llewelyn Davies boys were the inspiration for the boy who has adventures in nearby Kensington Gardens in London and the magical Neverland. Barrie wrote “Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” a play about an ageless little boy and a London girl named Wendy.

Trivia: J.M. Barrie “popularized” the girl’s name Wendy, taking it from a five-year-old girl he knew named Barrie Margaret Henle. He called her “my fwendy-wendy.” The girl’s name goes back to the 19th century as a form of Gwendolyn. The boy’s name Wendy goes back to 1615.

George Bernard Shaw said that Peter Pan was

“ostensibly a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.”

The name Peter Pan? It came from two sources. Peter was one of the five Llewelyn Davies brothers. [Watch the 2004 film Finding Neverland.] Pan is the mischievous Greek fawn god of song pipes and woodlands.

Trivia: Peter Llewellyn Davies would grow up to be a publisher and was the man who published Australian author P. L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins. This novel inspired the highly successful Disney film musical.


J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan


James Matthew Barrie

What is not as well known is that J.M. Barrie played the “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” When James was 6, his older brother David died at 13 in an ice-skating accident a day before his 14th birthday. His mother was overcome with grief, as David was her favorite son among her eight children.

James would dress in David’s clothing and whistle as he had in an attempt to fill the void in his mother’s heart.

In his biography of his mother, he wrote that she found comfort in the idea that her dead son would forever be a boy who would never grow up and leave her. Indeed, even physically, J.M. Barrie never grew above 5 feet 3 and a half inches.

All children,
except one,
grow up.

—J.M. Barrie, the first line of Peter Pan


Peter Pan in Books

The Little White BirdPeter Pan shows up before his own story; in J.M. Barrie’s 1902 book The Little White Bird. But this was a somewhat different Peter Pan, in a book intended for adults. Here, Peter is a magical boy who is only seven days old and plays with fairies in Kensington Gardens, London, after “lock-out time” when the gates are closed to the public. Some of this is sketched out in the 1991 Steven Spielberg film Hook.

The middle chapters that discuss Peter Pan’s adventures were extracted and published in 1906 as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with remarkable illustrations by Arthur Rackham.



Peter Pan, the Play

Peter Pan Play

Peter Pan playbill, Duke of York Theatre

J.M. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, was intended more for children. In this story, we are introduced to the wonderful Neverland and the characters Wendy, the pixie Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, and the crocodile — the nemesis of Hook — inspired by Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.

The play debuted just after Christmas in London at the Duke of York’s Theatre on December 27, 1904. It was later published as the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911.


The First Peter Pan

The first person to ever take on the role of Peter Pan was the 37-year-old English actress Nina Boucicault.


Nina Boucicault

Nina Boucicault. Image: List 25


J.M. Barrie kept tweaking the story and adding new elements. Originally there was no Captain Hook, pirates, or pixie dust. Initially, Peter could fly without the help of pixie dust. Unfortunately, that led children to believe that if they tried enough, they could take to the skies too. After several injury reports, J.M. Barrie added pixie dust as a necessity for flying.


Peter Pan in America

Maude Adams as Peter Pan

Maude Adams as Peter Pan

A year later, the play was seen on Broadway, starring Maude Adams, one of the most famous American stage actresses at the time. She subsequently took it on a national tour, and J.M. Barry wrote several plays for her.


Peter Pan in Disney’s Hometown

Marceline, Missouri, was on the Santa Fe railway line when the tour rolled west.

Trivia: turn-of-the-century Marceline was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street.

Walt Disney broke his piggy bank to get the money for tickets to the performance starring actress Maude Adams; he was enthralled. Soon after, a classmate at Park Elementary School produced his own version with Walt in the starring role.

With Walt’s brother Roy manning the block and tackle, Walt Disney portrayed the flying Peter Pan. He recollected that as a boy when the block and tackle once gave way, he flew directly into the audience’s laps. Walt Disney said,

“No actor ever identified with the part he was playing more than I.”

Since 1935, Disney had intended to make a movie about Peter Pan and had finally acquired rights to it from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London — to whom Barrie had given the rights to the play in 1929 with the provision that the income from this source not be disclosed. The hospital made a deal with Disney in 1939, giving them exclusive animation rights. The Disney company has since contributed tens of millions of dollars to the hospital.

In 1940 Disney wrote to Maude Adams, who had since retired to teach drama at Stephens College, informing her of his plans to create a feature-length animated movie of Peter Pan.

He wanted to submit an early scenario of the film for her approval before going into production. She declined, it was believed, because

“the Peter whom she created was to her real life and blood, while another’s creation of this character would only be a ghost to her.”

Disney said that Miss Adams was simply living in the past.


Delay of the Peter Pan film

Because of World War II, the project was shelved until 1950, when the creative team shifted from the movie Alice in Wonderland to Peter Pan. With it came the last collaborative effort of the “Nine Old Men,” a group so-called by Disney that had created the animated classics.




From Disney’s film Alice in Wonderland came the voice talents of

  • Kathryn Beaumont (Alice/Wendy)
  • Bill Thompson (White Rabbit & Dodo/Mr. Smee)
  • Heather Angel (Alice’s sister/Mrs. Darling)

Following the practice of the play, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are played by the same actor. In the film version, it’s American actor Hans Conried. He plays the role of a foppish coward. Nevertheless, Hook is the most gentlemanly of pirates. In the book, his last line is “Floreat Etona,” the Eton motto. He had even encountered the feared pirate Long John Silver during his many adventures.

Trivia: Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, knew J.M. Barrie personally.

The film’s budget was initially $3M but soared to $4M, which Walt Disney’s brother Roy was unhappy with. Nevertheless, it grossed more than $40M upon its original release and another $46.6 million when it was re-released in the 1980s before the sale of VHS tapes brought an end to Disney’s practice of re-releasing its movies from their “vault” to theaters every several years.


Peter Pan at Disneyland

Peter Pan Flight

Model of Peter Pan Flight at Disneyland

The Disneyland “dark rides” were designed by many of the same animators who had worked on the original feature films. This pedigree brought with it new levels of artistry never before seen in an amusement park, according to the Walt Disney Imagineering Collection.

Since its opening in July 1955, Peter Pan’s Flight remains one of the most popular rides at Disneyland. It is my personal favorite; perhaps the boy with the pointed ears reminds me of a certain Vulcan. But Peter can fly and teach other children to fly, a favorite fantasy and dream. And isn’t Disneyland the place “where dreams come true”?


Peter Pan Movie

Peter Pan Statue

Author in Kensington Gardens, London

The movie credits open over the song Second Star to the Right, taken from the song Beyond the Laughing Sky, discarded from the earlier film Alice in Wonderland, and sung by Kathryn Beaumont.

Disney’s story begins in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London, near Kensington Gardens — where today, along the Serpentine River, you can find a statue of Peter Pan.

As they begin their adventure to Neverland, the clock reads 8 pm, and when they return, it reads 11 pm, the typical length of a London play.

Then they fly from the Elizabeth (Clock) Tower of Big Ben, over the bronze sculpture of the Celtic queen Boudicca and her daughters riding a horse-drawn chariot (pictured above), the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s, and the River Thames stretching out east to the sea.


Peter Pan Musical

The story became a popular musical play (1954) and television show (1960) starring Mary Martin and live-action movies, including a cathartic (1991) Steven Spielberg movie called Hook with Robin Williams. In the early ’70s, I saw the rock opera version of Peter Pan in San Francisco.

The Disney film was re-released theatrically in 1958, 1969, 1976, 1982, and 1989. It was released on VHS tape in 1990. In honor of the 61st anniversary, it was released as Blu-ray DVD Diamond Edition. It spawned a sequel, “Return to Never Land,” and a series of Tinker Bell “Disney Fairy” videos.


On Fairies

J.R.R. Tolkien‘s biographer Humphrey Carter even thinks the 1910 performance of the Peter Pan play in Birmingham, England, “may have a little to do with” Tolkien’s impressions of the Elves of Middle Earth. After Tolkien had seen the stage play, he wrote in his diary:

“Indescribable, but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E[dith] had been with me.”


Peter’s directions to adventures in Neverland were the same as the last orders of Captain James Hook Kirk in Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country

Chekov: Course heading, Captain?
Kirk: Second star to the right… and straight on till morning.


Second Star to the Right

Second Star to the Right, above the River Thames, London

Disney Trivia: The opening of every Disney movie since 1985 has featured a logo in the shape of Cinderella’s castle and the two stars from Peter Pan behind it.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

1 Comment

  1. Joe Duncan on October 11, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Enjoyed the history of Disney’s Peter Pan. Very good memories of that film. That was the first movie I saw as a small child.

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