The most magical bell on Earth
The most magical bell on Earth

The most magical bell on Earth

{reading time: 9 minutes}

The Disney Liberty Bell replica

In 2018, the Team Strange Motorcycle Club staged the Melting Pot Grand Tour, a nationwide scavenger hunt pitting bikers against each other in a friendly competition to visit as many Liberty Bell replicas as possible.

The bikers are not the only Liberty Bell hunters out there. The Brock family recently completed their decades-long journey to see all 52 existing bells in the states and D.C., including those not currently on public display in Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska. You can scroll through their Facebook page and watch the kids grow up along the way.

Robert English’s Flickr page was the first to photographically document the bells online.

A 1984 Allentown Morning Call article tells the story of Vivienne and Willard Youman, who spent the past six summers driving across the country and recently bagged their 52nd of an assumed total of 53 total bells. They were noncommittal on whether they’d pop for the $1,200 airfare to visit Puerto Rico’s Liberty Bell.

Edith from Team Strange bagging the Minnesota Liberty Bell

Then there’s me, a Philadelphia native who knew nothing about the replicas until I moved to Denver in 1997 and stumbled upon the Colorado Liberty Bell while exploring my new neighborhood. That chance encounter snowballed into an obsession 24 years and 31 bells in the making. In that time, Dawn and I have visited many a Capitol Grill, a few Capital Grills, and ventured down many roads we never otherwise would have.

While most bell hunters focus on the serial-numbered 1950 U.S. Treasury bells, of which there were at least 57 — I’ve come to learn about many more extant replicas. My focus has pivoted to locating and telling the story of every full-size, functional Liberty Replica in the world.

There are Liberty Bells in quiet museums in out-of-the-way places. There are bells in town squares and on college campuses. There are bells in solemn cemeteries. There are bells with proud histories and bells with shameful histories. There are bells hiding in storage, a bell that’s been missing for decades and a bell that Hitler stole, probably unwittingly.

While we all know freedom isn’t free, Liberty Bells typically are. The original is and always has been. In 1986, when the National Park Service proposed a $2 admission fee, it was met with resounding public disapproval. State Capitols, belonging to the people, are always free to visit.

Understandably, museums need to charge admission, but fees are usually nominal. If the line for the real Liberty Bell is too long, you can walk 1,056 feet and pay $12 to see a replica at the National Liberty Museum.

The New Mexico Liberty Bell sits in the center of the state fairgrounds. It’s free to see 355 days of the year, but if you happen to visit during the state fair, as we did in 2005, it’ll set you back $7.

The Liberty Bell replica at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is both the world’s most visited Liberty Bell and the world’s most expensive to visit — by a factor of ten on both accounts. A single-day ticket to see the bell will cost you a cool $115. You’ll also be able to take in a few other park attractions for the price of admission. In 2018, 40 million park guests walked right past Disney’s Liberty Bell — ten times the number that visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia that year.

The Disney World Liberty Bell replica, Orlando Florida

While Disney’s is the most visited Liberty Bell in the world, it’s not the only Liberty Bell in Florida. The official state bell can be seen on the Capitol grounds in Tallahassee. A water-tower-turned-museum in Melbourne has one. So does a cemetery in Gotha.

The Disney bell also holds the dubious distinction of being the 300th Liberty Bell replica produced by the storied Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France. That number can be misleading, as it factors in replicas of various sizes, including 200 one-quarter-scale replicas produced in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial.

I’ve been able to locate over a dozen full-size Paccard Liberty Bell replicas in addition to the 57 serial numbered 1950 bells. There are at least 22 existing Liberty Bell replicas made by London’s Whitechapel Bell Foundry, purportedly in the same mold used to produce the Liberty Bell in 1752. At least six were cast by the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland — the oldest dating back to 1897.

When you dive deep into a topic, you learn that half of what’s reported on the subject falls somewhere south of the whole truth. Much of the available information on the Disney Liberty Bell, as with the 1950 Treasury bells, can be misleading. But the bell’s true story is no less interesting than the legend.

The Disney Liberty Bell sits at the center of Liberty Square, next to the Liberty Tree, a 100+year-old Southern Live Oak — a tribute to the original Liberty Tree in Boston, a popular gathering place for revolutionaries between 1765 and 1775. Disney’s 38-ton tree was relocated from another location 8 miles away.

From Liberty Square, guests can board the Liberty Belle, a steam paddle boat that will take you through the Rivers of America attraction.

While the bell hasn’t always been a Disney World staple, Liberty Square has. When the park opened on October 1st, 1971, Liberty Square joined Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Main Street, U.S.A., as the Magic Kingdom’s original six themed lands.

The smallest land in the Kingdom, Liberty Square was designed to conjure up visions of colonial America. Since there were no indoor bathrooms in colonial America, there are no restrooms in Liberty Square. Carrying that theme a step further, a brown path weaving through Liberty Square represents the open sewers that ran through colonial streets. For more wholesome entertainment, Liberty Square hosts the Haunted Mansion and the Hall of Presidents featuring audio-animatronic figures of every U.S. president, even the mediocre ones.

Liberty Square’s walk of poo

Conceived with 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in mind, Liberty Square was Disney World’s answer to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Bicentennial party planning started not long after the park opened.

In an unlikely partnership, Disney Productions joined the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, the federal agency charged with planning the national celebration, at the State Department in Washington D.C. to unveil plans for the 8-million-dollar America on Parade extravaganza.

Twenty-one-year-old international ambassador Suzy O’Hara, a Disney World dancer since 1971, visited 15 countries to encourage foreign participation in the U.S. Bicentennial celebration.

Staged at both Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, the parade would be seen by some 25 million people, ten percent of the county’s population — the largest attendance for a live event in history.

Running from June 1975 through September 1976, Disney employed a novel workforce education program, auditioning children ages 15 to 17 from area schools to act as parade cast members. Students received a half-hour credit and $7.40 per parade. Participating in an average of 23 performances, each child earned $170.20 for nine weeks of work.

The brainchild of Bob Jani, Disney’s V.P. of entertainment, America on Parade starts with Goofy, Mickey and Donald bringing to life Archibald Willard’s classic Revolutionary fife and drum regimen. For an extra folksy touch, Goofy bangs on a washbasin with spoons.

america on parade 1976
Disney’s 1976 America on Parade program

And it only gets weirder from there.

Joining Snow White, Winnie the Pooh and other usual suspects are Disney’s teenage workforce, donning 8-foot giant-headed costumes portraying memorable characters in American history. Alongside Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin are suffragettes, can-can girls, schoolmarms, football players, cheerleaders and cleaning ladies.

Oddly-shaped colonial children pull an oddly-shaped Liberty Bell

They’re chased by a 40-foot Dagwood sandwich with lots of cheese and celery. The sandwich tower is followed by a proportionally giant jar of mustard.

At the CircleVision theater in neighboring Tomorrowland, Monsanto carpets presents America the Beautiful, a 20-minute 360-degree movie featuring scenes of Americana filmed using a 9-camera rig mounted on trucks, boats and helicopters.

The event is capped off with red, white and blue fireworks. To sustain a 15-month celebration, Disney bought up much of the world’s supply of fireworks. Taking advantage of the recently normalized relationship with China, the company sent Jani to personally inspect and purchase fireworks from the country that invented them.

As the Bicentennial summer came to a close, Disney’s workforce went back to high school, 25 million people had seen the parades on both coasts.

Looking to rekindle the Spirit of ’76, the Magic Kingdom went back to the patriotic well to throw another Bicentennial party, this time for the U.S. Constitution. Liberty Square was the natural epicenter for the less schmaltzy, more historically-focused festivities. Disney World guests would get to see authentic American artifacts; a Brasher Dubloon — the country’s first gold coin, minted by George Washington’s next-door neighbor, Ephraim Brasher; a copy of the Pennsylvania Packet — the first newspaper to publish the Constitution; the desk of Constitution author and fourth president James Madison.

But the most popular attraction would be something less historic and more symbolic — a full-size, functional Liberty Bell replica.

On Friday, September 11th, 1987, at the Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary in Fair Oaks, California, a forklift slowly lifted the 12-year-old replica onto the back of a flatbed truck. Cemetary owner Foy Bryant purchased the bell in 1975 from the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France, where the 1950 U.S. Treasury replicas were cast.

“We wanted to get involved in a patriotic project for the Bicentennial,” Bryant told the Sacramento Bee of his plans to bring the bell to area schools throughout 1976. “There are many children who don’t have the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and who will now have history come to them.” Bryant’s bell also served as the centerpiece of Sacramento area parades throughout the year.

By Monday, the bell completed its 2,827-mile cross-country journey, arriving at the most magical place on earth. Bryant and Disney had arranged for a one-year loan. It is unclear if any money was exchanged in the deal. An estimated 20 million people would see the bell.

On September 17th, 1987, a man dressed as Ben Franklin joined Micky Mouse in a powdered wig and Minnie Mouse in a ruffled skirt as they paraded down the concourse in Liberty Square. When they stopped at the newly-arrived Liberty Bell at precisely four o’clock, Mickey grasped a rope tied to the bell’s clapper and proceeded to ring the Liberty Bell for 200 seconds straight as about 500 onlookers waved tiny American flags. They were taking part in a nationwide ringing of the bells event to kick off Constitution week.

The following month, Disney World launched the Star-Spangled Salute, which included a daily parade down Main Street U.S.A. The inaugural celebration featured Astronaut Gordon Cooper and Roots author Alex Haley officially unveiling Disney’s borrowed Liberty Bell.

The bell proved to be such a popular attraction that its stay was extended through June of 1989. While they were borrowing the Mount Vernon bell, the park was planning to make the Liberty Bell a permanent fixture. Disney Show Properties and Interiors ordered their own Liberty Bell Replica from Paccard. Whether by chance luck or by creative accounting, the bell was declared the 300th replica produced by the famous foundry. Fifth-generation bellmaster Pierre Pacard was pictured in the papers, diapason in hand, personally tuning the bell.

The bell arrived just in time to celebrate Independence Day, 1989. By September, Foy Bryant’s bell made it back to California and was installed in Mount Vernon’s Court of Liberty, where it can be seen today.

Mount Vernon Liberty Bell Replica, Fair Oaks, California
The original Disney Liberty Bell replica, Mount Vernon Memorial Park and Mortuary of Fair Oaks, California

Disney’s shiny new Liberty Bell proved as popular as their borrowed bell — an ideal place for park guests to meet up and take photos — 513 million guests have shuffled past it over the last three decades. Within a park that’s always evolving, the Liberty Bell has remained a fixture, and Liberty Square has remained largely unchanged.

The land’s most significant change came in 2016 with The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History. Miss Piggy, the Meryl Streep of muppets, played both George Washington and King George III. Staged throughout the day in the area outside the Hall of Presidents, Fozzie Bear brought Ben Franklin to life, Kermit played Thomas Jefferson as a likable everyfrog, and Gonzo, naturally, nailed the role of a frenetic John Adams. The Muppets took their final bow on February 17, 2020.

If you’re going to pay $115 to see a Liberty Bell replica, you’re likely to get your money’s worth, muppets or no muppets.

Fozzie the Bear is Ben Franklin
Waka Waka, Fozzie Bear is Ben Franklin

Feature image: George Bannister

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