The Wonderful World of Disney Zippos
Article submitted by Gary Gilmore
The Walt Disney Brother’s Studios started in 1923 and their first short film called “Steamboat Willie” was released in 1928, but it wasn’t until 1937 when the first main feature movie “Snow White” was made that Disney really took off. The Zippo Manufacturing Company had been in business since 1933 and in 1936, a patent was granted for the Zippo lighter. Both companies rose in the mid 1930’s and would become as we know a great success and two of the most well know American brands in the world. It would be another 20 years until they came together.
The first Disney Zippos were released in the late 1950’s and this ties in with the opening of gift stores in Disneyland in 1956/7. Most of these Zippos featured small Mickey Mouse heads or Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse metal figures mounted on a Zippo lighter made of (at first) sterling silver or 14k plated gold. These pieces were made by the Van Dell Corporation which also made high end sterling silver, gold filled and gold-plated jewelry for Disney to sell in gift shops in Disneyland. Note in the photo the small bump just between Mickey’s ears. This 3D sterling silver head would have been a charm and had a ring between the ears to place it on a chain. The back of the “3D Mickey Charm” would be stamped “Van Dell” and the silver proof mark. Later examples would just be pewter and/or plated. Also, on the back of the main body of all these early Zippos you will see the Copyright logo and the wording “Walt Disney Productions”. That was the corporate name used on merchandise until February 6, 1986, when it was changed to “The Walt Disney Company”.
Walt Disney knew the power of self-promoting merchandise and from the early 1930’s its main merchandise was of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck; the companies three biggest sellers. They would show this on Zippo lighters but the first non-cartoon character Disney Zippo was released in 1959 and only in that year, it showed the Matterhorn Bobsled ride which was in the Disneyland theme park built at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, and first opened on July 17, 1955. This Zippo was made specifically for the Grand Opening Day of the Matterhorn and the first Adults to ride were given this lighter. It was released in Full size and Slim on a high polished chrome finish.
The first and rarest Disney Castle design was released in 1960. Released on a full-sized Zippo it showed a smaller castle design within a flag and the “Disneyland” font across it. Like the “Matterhorn” design, it had the wording “Walt Disney Prod”. The second and third Disney Castle designs which are more common, were released in the late 1960’s in two different colors. The D came in gold or blue and the color was reversed on the castle. The gold “D” seems to be the most sought after. Also, the wording has changed from “Walt Disney Prod” to “Walt Disney Productions”. These castle designs went on being released from the late 1960’s until the early 1970’s. The design got a makeover when the Walt Disney World Resort opened in 1971. The castle on these Zippos was filled in black with gold tops and red flags. The last “Castle” design released in the US would be the same black filled design but the gold tops and red flags would also be black. The castle would be smaller within a red shaped line and a Walt Disney World logo added.
Here is some interesting information I found, but I don’t know the whole story.
In 1970, a year before Walt Disney World was opened, Disney was still selling Mickey Mouse emblem Zippos but not in Zippo brand boxes. They seemed to have made their own branded Walt Disney World logo gift boxes, which they only sold in the Walt Disney World tobacco shop. Zippo could have had a deal with Walt Disney World to out-source these boxes with the Van Dell Corporation as it seems that the same type of box was used also for jewelry for Walt Disney World.
In the early 1960’s Zippo released a Mickey Mouse 10k gold filled slim lighter. These would be a high-end limited run (not numbered) and came in a gold clam-shell box. The base of this slim lighter was inscribed “Zippo 10k G.F.” and the design of Mickey Mouse with his hands on his hips, with a yellow oval behind him, became the standard design for Mickey Mouse well into the early 1990’s. Also, later in the 1970’s Zippo released the same Mickey Mouse design on the Golden Elegance finish but due to the “Bark” finish on the front, the Mickey Mouse design was on the back of the lighter, unlike the gold filled one which was on the front. This was followed by a Minnie Mouse design on the same Golden Elegance finish only (as far as I found out) on a slim Zippo. Both came in a gold colored Zippo box. A gold toned Barcroft table lighter was also made available with the same Mickey Mouse design.
Apart from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the other main Disney cartoon character to be found on a Zippo is Donald Duck. I think this is one of the most interesting. Donald Duck was released in early 1971 and retailed mostly in stores throughout Walt Disney World, nearly all are on a high polished chrome finish and came out on a full-sized Zippo and a slim. Zippo did make a test sample of Donald Duck on a Solid Brass finish in 1981, and the same year made a different Donald Duck design to what they did before on a slim Zippo, both are very rare. In 1991 Scandinavian employees of the magazine (Egmont) that publish Disney in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) was offered a new Donald Duck Zippo featuring Donald as a Fireman. This was part of a set of five other new Disney Zippo designs which also featured Mickey Mouse, and for the first time Scrooge McDuck. The copyright on these just said “C Disney” some people mistake these as being released for Euro Disney they are not. Only 50 of each was made. Donald Duck would later go on to appear on a few military themed Zippo items such as the USS Damato and a USCG Air Station from Annette Island Alaska.
Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a themed camping resort located in the Magic Kingdom Resort Area at the Walt Disney World Resort. It officially opened on November 19, 1971 and like the Matterhorn Zippos, Disney had Zippo release for them a Mickey Mouse Fort Wilderness design.
The first design was in 1974 and showed Mickey in his Davy Crockett Outfit with his Old Time Musket. The Fort Wilderness Campground advertised it was released on a slim high polished chrome and later a brushed chrome full sized Zippo. These would only be sold at the gift store in the Fort Wilderness Resort. Then later in 1978 Zippo released a different design of Mickey Mouse as Davy Crockett without any wording of Fort Wilderness. These later ones again would be only sold in Disney’s stores and on a slim and full-sized Zippo. Both are very rare and some Zippo fan websites list them as Prototypes.
Another best seller for Disney and Zippo would be the Mickey and Minnie Mouse Wood Grain series. This design came out in the early 70’s only on slim Zippos which are covered in a dark brown wood grain Vinyl Veneer with a space for engraving. The first Mickey Mouse one I found was released in 1971 and featured the classic standing Mickey Mouse and soon a Minnie Mouse design followed. Two other rarer designs are known Winnie the Pooh (Bear) and Marie the Cat from Aristocats. Some books state that the Aristocats design is a Prototype. The Wood Grain series was followed by the Denim design in late 1974. Again, like the wood grain, these Blue Denim Zippos are covered in a Vinyl Veneer. Zippo released Full size and Slims of these with a Disney Design in a wider range than the wood grain series. Disney released designs with Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Mickey and Minnie Mouse together, Winnie the Pooh Bear, and Marie the Cat from Aristocats. The Mickey Mouse and Minnie Denim design is the rarest of these and the Winnie the Pooh and Marie Cat are very hard to come by.
Between the years 1981 to 1983, Zippo did some designs of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck on a Black Matt finish. Some of these designs can be seen on the released Denim/Woodgrain series. The Black Matt Zippos were not released by Zippo, and some websites and books list them as Prototypes. Zippo did have a habit of trying out well known bestselling designs on different finishes. It’s sad that these were not released as the Denim/Woodgrain Vinyl Veneers did have a flaw of wearing in the pocket quick and sometimes chipping.
Not all Disney Zippo products feature their famous cartoon characters. They did like to promote the new openings of events and Theme Parks. You can also find Disney designs of the Epcot Centre (three different designs in all) on full size and slims. Also, Disney teamed up with the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) and released some Golf related designs on slim and full size. It was said that these were given to professional golfers during the 1976-1979 PGA tours that were held at the Disney World golf course. One of the rarest and short-lived designs of this type was the Tomorrowland Zippo, released in 1983 to 1996 and one of a few different designs. Tomorrowland is one of the many themed lands featured at all the Magic Kingdom styled Disney theme parks around the world. Each version of the land is different and features numerous attractions that depict views of the future and each Tomorrowland Zippo is different too.
The last Disney Zippo series was released in Japan in 1982/3 for the grand opening of Tokyo Disneyland in early 1983. The first designs came in red and black and uncolored with the wording Tokyo Disneyland and the Mouse head logo. Some of these first designs would be given to staff and cast members at the opening with the wording engraved and color filled on the back “1983 Opening Staff”. The design then changed later in the year to a large colored D with the Disney castle inside and the wording Tokyo Disneyland. Three of these were released in different colors red, black, and blue. The blue one seems to be the hardest to find. Later an uncolored one of the same design was released. All these Japanese Zippos had a “Disney Mouse Head” sticker on the rear bottom corner of each lighter. Only full-sized Zippos were released of these.
Zippo didn’t just release lighters with a Disney design. You can also find Pill Boxes, Pocket Knives, and Key holders etc. Some would be classified as salesman samples, and on those you may not see the Copyright logo and the wording Walt Disney Productions because they would not be for release. These can be some of the most interesting with Zippo Disney collectors because you would find nearly no advertising or record of their release. In fact, Disney the Company did list lighters for sale in their own mail order catalogs from as early as 1958. Zippo did no advertising at all on Disney lighters. Disney did have a smoking tobacco shop on Main Street in Disneyland. In old photos you can see it with the famous Wooden Indian figure outside. In the shop you could buy a whole range of smoking products including at the time Zippo lighters. The shop is now a record store.
Another interesting branch of Disney Zippos is the “US Military” releases. Disney did many designs for the war effort during WWII and many military branches took up these Disney cartoon characters within their own military insignia. Donald Duck was favored by the US Navy and later post war by the US Coast Guard and Squadron logos and patches were used by the US Army Air Corps. Some of these Disney designs can be found on Zippos as early as the 1950’s some of the most well-known are Doc the Dwarf from Snow White on a US Navy USS Piedmont Zippo and Fifinella of the Women Air Force Service Pilots, WASP. Many of these designs feature smaller and at times little known Disney cartoon characters such as a frog on Navy Seals Zippos and a Fighting Tiger on a 53d Fighter Squadron Zippo. These Zippos are fun to look out for and some come a lot cheaper than the mainstream standalone Disney Zippo designs.
Walt Disney, since the late 1950’s ramped up worldwide sales of its cartoon characters merchandise with mail order catalogs for those which could not make the trip to Disneyland and this helped the sales of many items. Most Zippo lighters featuring a Disney design would have been placed in their shops within Disneyland and these would not be shown like other Zippos of the time you didn’t see salesman counter displays or at times Zippo branded boxes on show. The lighters would be placed with other lighter brands at times. Disney promoted the word “Disney” “Disneyland” “Disneyworld” on many of its merchandise and would take care to make out that it was in control of using its own brand over others. Disney released many tobacco and smoking items, matchbooks, pipes, ashtrays, and cigarette cases to name a few. But now times have changed and many of those smoking products have become high end collectors’ items.