I don’t know about you, but when I see old footage of Disneyland – footage from the 1960s or 1950s, before I was born – I feel something like an ache to turn back the clock. Inside me springs an anxious desire to travel back through time and visit the park in its infant stage, to experience it as my parents would have experienced it, as Walt Disney did.
So when Tom Nabbe, the boy who Walt Disney personally hired to play Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer on Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island, agreed to share his story with me (with you, my readers) I felt my time machine had arrived.
Tom Nabbe might be considered the Forrest Gump of Disney Parks history. His outrageous luck had him present at some of Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s most pivotal moments. He was a twelve-year-old when Disneyland opened less than a quarter mile from his house.
His mother weaseled him tickets to the Disneyland press opening on July 17, 1955. The very next day he landed a job as a newspaper boy, peddling the Disneyland News to park guests. He became the go-to “All American Boy” for the park’s publicity office.
In 1956, he managed to convince Walt Disney himself to hire him to play Mark Twain’s literary boy-hero, Tom Sawyer. Walt all but handed off his new island paradise for this thirteen-year-old to rule.
From then on, apart from a brief adventure in the U.S. Marine Corps, Tom embarked on a lifelong career doing nearly every possible job within the Disney organization, including helping to open the Magic Kingdom and Epcot in Walt Disney World.
Upon retirement, his career was honored with a window on Main Street. And then he was named a Disney Legend in 2005 as part of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Today, he is still sharing the magic by providing Disney Heritage training for cast members and Disney enthusiasts.
In this 3-part interview, Tom Nabbe shares his incredible story and amazing adventures as Parade Magazine once dubbed him, “The Luckiest Boy in the World.”
Becoming Tom Sawyer
Freddy Martin – How did you become Tom Sawyer?
Tom Nabbe – I was working at Disneyland as a newspaper boy. The news was one of the lessees.* Joe and Ray Amendt had the Castle News operation and they had the newspaper office on Main Street. They also rented wheelchairs, strollers. And it was one of those things where they put your name in the headline of the paper if you wanted. They did wanted posters… same thing. So they had a little printing operation to tie in with the newspaper.
Disneyland News was a monthly publication and pretty much told the history of Disneyland, current events, and coming events… little bit of history. And all the lessees at Disneyland would advertise in the paper. It was probably 40, 50 pages long and about the size of, well, more of a Chronicle or turn-of-the-century newspaper you’d see. So it’s not a full-size newspaper. Probably about a quarter of the size, page wise. And they sold for 10 cents a copy.
The deal was, if I sold over a hundred papers outside the gate in the morning then I could get inside and continue to sell newspapers for the rest of the day.
F – What do you think the purpose of that was? Incentive for you to work hard? I suppose they would want to sell papers inside too.
T – I think it was to generate money! (Laughs) They got 7 cents a copy, I got 3.
And if you look at Disneyland and Walt Disney World (and I’m assuming Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong) the merchandise location on the left hand side of the entrance is called the Newsstand. Well back at Disneyland, it was really a newsstand and it would have all the newspapers of LA and Orange County, and some nationals, the New York Times and that on sale. And that’s back when people would actually, y’know, read the paper and there was a morning edition and an evening edition.
And one of the jobs I had was, the manager of publicity, Eddie Meck, his office was at City Hall and what he wanted was a copy of every newspaper every day, so he could see what sort of articles were being written about Disneyland or the Studio. So Joe or Ray, the owners, would separate the newspapers out and I would haul them up to Eddie’s office. And so I developed a good rapport with Eddie Meck.
And any time they had a publicity shot or that type of thing, and Eddie’d go, “Hey! Get that red headed kid, that Tom guy, and we’ll use him in this shot. He’s the All-American boy with the red hair and the freckles.”
And so I ended up in a lot of the publicity shots along that line.
“Hey! Get that red headed kid, that Tom guy, and we’ll use him in this shot. He’s the All-American boy with the red hair and the freckles.”
And almost for the next year, any time I could find him in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
One of the shots that I have is myself and Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis when they visited the park in August of ‘55. And that was one of those. They put Uncle Milty and Jerry’s name in the headline of the paper and then I posed for the picture with them out front. So that was sorta neat.
While I was doing that, towards the end of the first summer. Somebody, and I don’t remember who, told me that Walt had decided to build Tom Sawyer’s Island on the Rivers of America in Frontierland. “And you look just like Tom Sawyer! You should ask for a job.” And I thought that was a hell of an idea.
Walt was in the park quite frequently during that time frame. He used to come down on Friday nights and stay in his apartment over the weekend and drive back up to the studio on Sunday.
He was in the park, so I was able to find him. I introduced myself and I told him that I heard he was building Tom Sawyer’s Island. And that I look just like Tom Sawyer and he should hire me.
Well, he didn’t, but what he said was that he’d think about it.
So actually, I think I talked him into the character. And I think he thought about it. And almost for the next year, any time I could find him in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
And almost for the next year, any time I could find (Walt Disney) in the park, I’d ask if he was still thinking about hiring me for Tom Sawyer.
Then, in April or May of ’56, I remember I was playing the baseball machine in the Penny Arcade, and Dick Nunis… came up and tapped me on the shoulder.
He was a supervisor of Frontierland at that time, and he says, “Tom, come with me.” And when Dick says “come with me,” you don’t argue with Dick. You go with Dick. And we went over to Frontierland and walked over the bridge there by the Chicken Plantation.
And Walt and Bill Evans (Morgan Evans), the landscape architect, was coming back off the island and we went down to the dock. And Walt said, “Tom, do you still want to be Tom Sawyer?” And I told him, “Absolutely, Mr. Disney.”
Walt said, “Tom, do you still want to be Tom Sawyer?” And I told him, “Absolutely, Mr. Disney.”
And you realize Walt dealt with a lot of kids during this time frame. Y’know, he had the Mickey Mouse Club and had a lot child actors, and they had two teenage daughters, so he was pretty comfortable talking with kids.
And one thing nice about talking with Walt is he never talked down to you. It was almost like having, I guess I would call it, having an adult conversation with a 12-year-old.
But he told me, “You need to get a work permit and a social security card. And once you did that, they’d put you to work as being Tom Sawyer.”
So that’s how I got to work as Tom Sawyer.
What did Tom Sawyer do? Tom Sawyer posed for a lot of pictures as a face character.
And they had stocked the Rivers of America with blue gill, sun perch, and catfish. We had 50 fishing poles, 25 on each of the fishing piers that were opposite the Mark Twain landing. And I maintained the poles and put bait out every day, which were worms. And if the guests wanted their hook baited, I would bait their hook.
But old, dead, smelly fish started to show up in the park. And so the decision was to make it a “catch and release” program.
When we originally started the fishing operation, it was a “catch and clean” program. So if the guests really wanted to keep their fish, then I would clean the fish and put it in a plastic bag for em.
But old, dead, smelly fish started to show up in the park. And so the decision was to make it a “catch and release” program. So we de-barbed all the hooks and I didn’t have to clean any more fish. At least I sort of liked that part of the job.
And the other part of the job was to pose for pictures. I would answer to either “Tom Sawyer” or “Huckleberry Finn.” I wouldn’t respond to Becky Thatcher or Indian Joe. But whatever the guests wanted me to be between those two characters, I would respond to that.
So I did the Tom Sawyer bit all through Jr. High School and High School. And then, in order to be a ride operator at Disneyland you had to be 18. So when I turned 18, and that was June of ’61, then I became a ride operator. Actually, I became the relief foreman on the rafts. That was my first job and I was a raft operator and relief foreman, four days weekly during that summer.
They held a contest in ’61 and replaced me with a kid by the name of Keith Murdock. And he lasted about 3 years, only at Summer time because he lived in Utah and only came down in the Summer time and lived with his Aunt and Uncle.
And after that they didn’t stock the rivers anymore, didn’t have fishing poles anymore, and didn’t have a Tom Sawyer.
F – Was there ever a Becky Thatcher?
T – No. There never was a Becky Thatcher. When the island opened in June of 56, and I think it was the 16th of June was the opening ceremony for the island, Walt invited the winners of the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher contest that they hold every year in Hannibal (Missouri, Mark Twain’s hometown) to come out. So if you see publicity shots from that time frame, those are the kids. That was a picture of the winners of the contest. I didn’t start until June 18, 2 days after the opening of the island.
And after that they didn’t stock the rivers anymore, didn’t have fishing poles anymore, and didn’t have a Tom Sawyer.
F – Let me ask you a little bit about being a kid, in that situation…
T – (cuts in laughing) Yeah, it happens to most of us!
F – Tony Baxter the Imagineer, in some of his recent speeches, talked about ‘the importance of being twelve.’ He said that when you’re twelve, your talents and passions start to coalesce and come together into who you will become in the future. What part of being that boy on the island contributed to who you became as a grown up?
T – Creative people probably started out at twelve. I’m not sure if I fall in that same category. (Laughs) Actually, Tony and I worked the subs in the ‘60s.
F – How do you feel about Tom Sawyer Island today? Do you have a sense of nostalgia? Is it just part of your past? Or is there something else about the island that…
T – Well, I haven’t been on the island in quite a while. Disneyland changed their format to a little bit more along the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. Walt Disney World stayed with pretty much the Tom Sawyer aspect.
I haven’t seen the island since they shortened the trip because of building of the Star Wars area. A lot of the change is out there, so I don’t know how to answer your question, Freddy. (Maybe) if it was something I was going to every other month. I rode around on the steamboat on the Mark Twain when I was out there for Disneyland’s 60th. I went around the island but didn’t go on the island.
“And I sort of liked that area and I watched the water flow down the flume into the grist mill.”
F – This may sound strange, but I just want stand in the same spot that Tom Sawyer, Tom Nabbe, stood on, to breathe the same air, and sort of try and picture your experience way back then. Is there a spot on the island that you remember sitting and enjoying way back then?
T – Yeah, well back when the island first opened, they didn’t have a treehouse. It was called lookout point. And just down from lookout point was a little pond and that pond is where the water for the grist mill came from.
And I always sort of liked to sit right at the edge, on benches and everything. And I sort of liked that area and I watched the water flow down the flume into the grist mill.
And I don’t know if they still have that there or not. The island has changed so much with the fireworks show, the Fantasmic show. You know, with all the stages and everything they’ve built on the front part.
F – Is there anything you hope they don’t ever change about it?
T – The way I sort of look at it, Freddy, is change is inevitable. One of the things, if you go back, that Walt basically said was that the park was gonna always be evolving.
So if they make a change for a new attraction or something better in the future, then super! I’m all for that.
NEXT: Follow Tom Nabbe’s life-adventure as he goes into the Marine Corps, then comes back to run nearly every ride at Disneyland and then heads east on the opening crew of Walt Disney World.
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To learn more about Walt Disney’s affinity for Mark Twain and a mysterious mark inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, check out “The Hand of Walt – A Disney Secret Hidden For Decades Is Finally Revealed!”
*Disneyland lessees were independent businesses that leased space inside the park to sell their wares.