Back To Disneyland: In our last post from the interview with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe, we followed his adventures from Tom Sawyer Island, to the Marine Corps, and then to Florida where he helped open Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT Center, securing his status as a Disney Legend, and receiving a window on Main Street in his honor.
In this final post, we’ll learn how a boy named Tom gave Walt Disney some great ideas for improving the island they both knew and loved. Then we’ll hear about the last time Tom interacted with Walt. Finally, we’ll remember the day Walt passed away and where Tom was when he heard the news.
But first, let’s go back in time to Tom’s first visit to Disneyland on July 17, 1955–Opening Day! Tom and his mother were living in the neighborhood just north of the property where Disneyland was being built (just East of Harbor Blvd. on Vermont Ave.). Tom and his buddies would go over to the park and look over the fences to see into the Magic Kingdom as it was being built.
He never dreamed his lifelong story of working for the Disney Company would begin on the day Disneyland opened!
Disneyland’s Opening Day
F – You were one of the lucky kids who got into Disneyland for the opening press day on July 17, 1955. How in the world did that happen?
T – My mother was a starlet wannabe. And she used to haul us to Hollywood for all the premier openings. And we used to go to whatever TV show that she could get tickets for and that type thing. And if she wasn’t going to be a starlet, one of her kids was going to be. And so I finally worked into that.
She was over at Disneyland on July 17, ‘55 for the press opening, and she was getting autographs and that type of thing.
“Well I got a couple extra tickets. Do you want em?”
Danny Thomas came out and she asked Danny for an autograph. And of course he gave that to her. And he sort of leaned forward and said, “Have you been in the park?” And she says, “Oh no. We weren’t invited.” And he says, “Well I got a couple extra tickets. Do you want em?”
And so we went into the press opening for Disneyland as guests of Danny Thomas.
So it was my Mother and I. And I (still) have my ticket.
(Tom has made it a tradition to visit Disneyland on July 17th every 5th anniversary. The only one he missed was when he was in the Marine Corps.)
A Boy As Imagineer
F – Let’s flash forward again to your time with Walt. He hired you to play Tom Sawyer on his island, which is pretty extraordinary. But then he asked for your help in dreaming up the island’s second phase in 1957. Tell us about that.
T – Walt would come out into the park before the park opened, and walk around. He’d talk to the maintenance people and the custodial people, and the landscape people and he’d walk all over at that point.
“I want to know what you think the island should have.” – Walt Disney
And I remember one time he came over and he says, “Tom, I’m gonna rehab the island. Let’s walk and talk the island and I want to know what you think the island should have.”
And I told Walt it needed to have a treehouse, and it needs to have a secret escape tunnel from the fort.
When it came up from rehab in 1958, we had a treehouse. We had an escape tunnel from the fort. We also had Castle Rock, Teeter-Totter Rock, Merry-Go-Round Rock, but I won’t take credit for those.
But the escape tunnel and the treehouse, absolutely.
F – Do you remember the last time you spoke with Walt?
T – My last contact with Walt was back in the early sixties. It was one of those days when he was out walking in the park.
Part of our job description was to “Watch out for Walt” in many ways. And one of them was that he would totally get inundated with people who wanted autographs. And he just wasn’t as familiar with the park and how to get backstage.
And I remember it was pretty much in front of the Malt Shop (in Frontierland) and he was just mobbed by people. And so I helped him get backstage. They had an employee entrance there between the Malt Shop and Oaks Tavern (currently the barn door painted with a dragon for “Laod Bhang’s Fireworks).
And once we got backstage, I told him, “Walt, I’m Tom Nabbe. You hired me to be Tom Sawyer.” And he said, “Oh yea, I know. I remember you. How are you? How you been?” And that type thing. And so we visited for just a little bit there.
But that was the last conversation I had with Walt. That was, I want to say ’62.
F – Wow, you saved him the embarrassment of not knowing where to go.
T – I don’t know about that, but I know I saved him from having to sign a whole lot of autographs.
F – What do you remember about when Walt Disney passed away?
T – I was in the Marine Corps. And actually, I was in school in San Diego in the MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot), and the first sergeant of the school knew that I had worked at Disneyland. And he actually pulled me out of the class and informed me that Walt had passed away, and said, “You can take a couple hours off.” And I was able to be a little bit on my own for a while and absorb that loss.
Passing On the Disney Heritage
F – What a life you’ve had!
T – You know, Freddy, it hasn’t stopped. What I do, and as long as they want me, once a month I do a Disney heritage thing for training a group for RCID (Reedy Creek Improvement District, the municipal designation of the land where Walt Disney World sits) is putting all their people through a retraining program and asked me if I would come in and share my stories. So I do that once a month.
Tomorrow, I’m doing that same heritage presentation for the opening crew for Club 33 that they’re gonna build here at Walt Disney World. And so all of those cast members are going through a training program and I’ll pretty much share exactly what I just shared with you with them, tomorrow.
It was sort of neat too, because the gal that pulled the program together, I had done a “Dinner with a Legend” type thing. And she had had several Legends in for dinner with the people from D23 that were very involved and wanted to have that. We did it at the castle at Walt Disney World here. We have the College Program here, and I do it for the college program.
The gal that ran that program worked for me in the early 70s in Frontierland and she asked me to come in and talk to the group.
And so I’m constantly doing that.
I also do it for Disney fan clubs.
The neat thing is I sort of tie it into book signings so I end up being able to sell copies of my book.
F – What’s the best way for me to point people to get your book?
GET TOM’S BOOK: This interview barely scratches the surface of Tom’s stories growing up inside Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Take Tom’s advice. Order the book from TomNabbe.com so you can get your book signed and personalized by a Disney Legend.
Did you miss Part 1 or 2? The story of how Tom Nabbe became Walt Disney’s own Tom Sawyer is the kind of magic every Disney fan dreams of. Get started HERE.
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!”