Flashback: If my cousin Andy had survived his 20s, today would have been his 40th birthday. Looking back through old memories, I found this story originally written in the months following his death. If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve deeply loved, I’m sure you too wish this DeLorean was real.
One Summer long ago, I came down from Oregon to visit my Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, and cousins in Southern California. I spent all day every day shooting baskets, playing ping pong, dreaming up epic roller coasters, and conspiring with my cousins, Robby and Andy.
Every day, that is, except Thursday. Every Thursday, our Grampy brought me and Robby with him to the Christian Business Men’s Association breakfast at a local Carrows Restaurant. After that, he’d drop us off at the church for its weekly, youth group beach trip.
But one Thursday, Grampy took all three of us to Universal Studios to ride the Studio Tour Tram.
We lifted the A-Team Van.
We posed with the shark.
Some days we still wish we could go back in time and change what ever may have gone wrong. But then we might have had to miss the sweetness of a day like that one back in 1985.
“Don’t bet your future, on one roll of the dice Better remember, lightning never strikes twice Please don’t drive eighty eight, don’t wanna be late again
So take me away, I don’t mind But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time Gotta get back in time“
YouTube personalities Sarah & Peter Brookhart left Chicago for Florida to follow their dream of Moving to Disney World. (10 Minute Read)
Moving To Disney
Did you ever dream about living at Disneyland? I know I did. I clearly remember being nine-years-old, drooping sadly out the gates after the fireworks and thinking out loud to nobody, “If I could just stay hidden in one of the caves on Tom Sawyer Island, I could wait out the security guards and have the place all to myself… forever.”
But that’s unrealistic, right? Eventually fantasies give way to reality and childlike dreams fade away.
However, sometimes when you’re not looking, the dream stirs again. Enter YouTube personalities, Sarah and Peter Brookhart.
Magic Kingdom Kids
The Brookharts are an insufferably cute pair of high school sweethearts from Chicago (seriously, folks, they’re adorable) who just recently pulled up stakes and moved to Walt Disney World to follow their dreams.
Sarah, an expressive young woman whose animated eyes, snowy complexion, and icing-blonde hair makes one think of the wooden-shoed Dutch maidens on the It’s a Small World attraction. Born into a Disney-loving family, her parents honeymooned at Walt Disney World and raised their three daughters to love castles, princesses, and talking mice. Every two years like clockwork, Sarah’s family traveled from Chicago to Florida for two weeks at a time to experience all that Disney has to offer.
Peter, broad shouldered and gregarious, did not grow up going to Disney. His family did other things on vacation, but when he fell in love with Sarah, it became inevitable – he’d have to fall in love with Disney too.
During their college years, Peter convinced Sarah to join the Disney College Program so they could spend a Summer or two working as Cast Members. Until then, Peter had never visited a Disney Park, so Sarah insisted they go down to Florida a week early because, as she says, “He has to experience the magic before he can be behind the magic.”
They were married in August of 2015, and you’ll never guess where they honeymooned. That’s right – Niagara Falls! Just kidding. They drove Route 66 to California to spend a week at Disneyland.
Back home in Chicago, surrounded by close family, working good jobs, and enjoying the support of a network of lifelong friends, the Brookharts lived a life marked by stability.
Somewhere in their hearts, however, discontent was brewing.
Home Is Where?
From time to time, Sarah and Peter toyed with the idea of moving to Orlando permanently.
“Since 2011, the thought has been in the back of our mind, ‘What would life be like if we moved out here?,” Peter said. “‘What would we be missing? What would we be gaining? Would it be forever? Would it not be forever?’ And I think it’s been just sitting on our mind for the last 6 years.”
In February of 2017, after a weeklong visit to Walt Disney World, Sarah and Peter sat near the pool at Saratoga Springs Resort sipping a vacation favorite, the Lava Smoothie. They were intent on soaking up the last few moments of Florida sun and Disney magic before the airport shuttle arrived.
And they weren’t happy.
If you’ve vacationed at Disney – or anywhere else for that matter – you’ll remember these three stages of vacation emotions. First, you experience the dogged intensity of planning and preparing for the trip. Second, you’re giddy with excitement as you finally arrive at your home-away-from-home. Third, you descend into a fog of melancholy as you reach the vacation’s final day.
The Brookharts were in that third stage.
Peter spoke in a low voice, apparently trying not to disturb the air. Sarah leaned her head against his shoulder, her eyes billowed like the Florida sky, threatening rain. So many times they’d left Disney World, and they felt sad every time, but this time was different.
“We just looked broken,” said Peter. “And it was like something (had) snapped in us.”
On the flight to Chicago they didn’t talk much. When they did speak, they could only describe a looming dread that they weren’t just going home. They were leaving their dreams behind.
“I didn’t want to be 85, talking to my grandchildren,” Peter remembered thinking, “and let them know that Grandpa didn’t follow his dreams. Grandpa didn’t try, at least, to see what living at Disney World would be like.”
After a week of hard conversations thinking and talking about what a move to Disney World might mean, Peter finally asked Sarah, “We’re doing this, right?” And that’s when their journey began.
It’s a scary thing to leave the comfort of home to follow a dream. Like the gold-rush 49ers who headed West in pursuit of fortune and glory, true courage is required to face down the fears, doubts, and obstacles that will come your way.
Sarah and Peter found courage in a growing number of pioneers who were making their own way and documenting their life journeys on YouTube; folks like the Ballinger Family or Casey Neistat.
More to the Brookhart’s interests, Disney park video bloggers like Joey Beth & Josh Bugg (It’s The Bugg’s Life), Brock & Promise (Ears2You), and the current king of the craft, Tim Tracker (TheTimTracker) proved that there is a growing demand for true-life human adventures that take place at Disney.
These trailblazers paved the way for Sarah and Peter to courageously ask, “If they could do it, why couldn’t we?”
But courage from strangers wasn’t going to be enough to uproot them from the community where they were raised.
The Ties That Bind
Sarah and Peter grew up on the Southside of Chicago in a village where you’re known by the church you attend. The small-town in a big-city vibe afforded them some of the most close-knit and satisfying community connections the Midwest has to offer; friends, jobs, lifelong connection to a city that they love…
And family. Sarah and her sisters were an inseparable trio who had gone through everything together. To Sarah, leaving her family to go live at Disney seemed like betrayal.
“We were used to being the people you could lean on,” Sarah said.” So telling someone we’re not gonna be there is a pretty harsh blow for them and it’s a pretty harsh blow for us because, you know, we enjoy being there for others.”
Even though their family was supportive of the move, the knowledge that they would be missing important family moments made it even more painful to leave.
At one point, Sarah’s sister, Christina, announced that she was pregnant. In the midst of the joy and excitement, Sarah was struck cold by the realization that she would be in Orlando throughout much of the pregnancy. With her sister-senses tingling, Christina wasn’t about to let Sarah call off the dream. She looked Sarah in the eyes and said, “You still have to go to Disney.”
The good news is, unlike the 49ers, Sarah and Peter have FaceTime, Snapchat, and their daily video diaries on YouTube to make communication with their families easy.
“Luckily for them, every single day of our lives is on the internet so they can see what we’re up to,” Sarah laughed. “But it is still up to us to make sure that we stay updated on their lives too.”
A Goal, a Plan…
Once their minds were made up to go, all they needed was a goal to aim for and a plan to get there. For Peter, a zealous foodie, there was one target he could focus on that would keep them moving forward.
“I didn’t know what job I’d have,” said Peter. “Didn’t know if we’d both have to work full normal jobs. If I’d be working weekends, second shift, third shift, first shift? We didn’t know! But all I said is, ‘I wanna be in Florida by Food and Wine festival.’”
So with Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival as the carrot to draw them on, they set about to make their plan.
Sarah is a freelance graphic artist with a steady client load. Her job would be portable. Peter would have to find a job, and searching for work from half a continent away wasn’t going to be easy.
They also needed to find an affordable place to stay (hopefully within 10 minutes of the resorts), a vehicle to get around in, and a whole lot of money for moving expenses.
Step by step, hour by hour, week by week, for 4 months they researched, saved, asked a lot of questions, and patiently pursued their dream until at last, most of the pieces had fallen into place.
Peter got a promising job with a timeshare company that would be waiting when they arrived. They found a place to rent seven minutes from the gates of Disney World (a feat they are still super proud of). They managed to save just enough to pay for all the expenses of the move, and even had something socked away to buy a car once they arrived.
Along the way, they welcomed to the family a cute little sidekick to share their adventures, a Pomeranian puppy named Eve.
But there was one more puzzle piece they would need to complete the picture. A name.
…And a Name.
Their original YouTube channel, named The Fab 5207 , was a collaboration with friends from their Disney College Program days. If they did actually make it to Florida, Sarah and Peter intended to create a brand new YouTube channel to share their adventures with their established audience and friends back home.
Their new adventures, to be filmed and published every day, would center around their relationship as a couple, their highs and lows – even their starting of a family – all within the context of their shared love for the Disney experience.
Now, every good story has a title and every YouTube channel needs a name. The Brookharts wanted to choose something just right, so they decided to look for inspiration from the man whose mouse started it all, Walt Disney.
Back in the 1960s, Walt was looking for a place to build his outrageous dream of a master-planned vacation kingdom and city of tomorrow. He settled on Central Florida as the ideal location. Long before he had a name for the place that would become Walt Disney World, Walt and his team simply referred to it as “The Florida Project.”
Whenever Walt spoke of “The Florida Project”the words seemed to flow off of his tongue with a sort of reverent excitement that revealed his true feelings for what he was certain his dream would one day become. His brother Roy reported that Walt was still scheming about the project on his death bed, using the hospital ceiling tiles as the gridlines of a map to point out where he wanted certain features and attractions.
Sadly, Roy would be the only Disney brother to see The Florida Project become a reality.
Influenced by that same spirit of hope and vision for the future, the Brookharts’ new life and video channel was sure to become a long-running documentary of their very own Florida project.
So, on July 28, 2017, The Brookhart Project set their cameras to record, kissed their families goodbye, and hit the road, bound for a brand new life in Walt Disney World.
At Home in Disney World
Six months later, Sarah and Peter sit on a bench at the Beach Club Resort just few short steps from the entrance to Epcot. They’re reflecting on the what they’ve experienced and learned since their journey began one year ago.
“What has been the child, almost, of The Brookhart Project,” said Peter, is really the lifestyle that Sarah and I have adapted and been growing into since we moved down here – and that’s just appreciating every single day, and every single minute, every single thing.”
Moving to Disney has developed a deeper appreciation for the obvious things like the rides, architecture, and the food (they did make it in time for the Food and Wine Festival after all). However, they’ve found themselves appreciating the little things even more, like the way cast members work so hard to give each guest a special experience.
“Even though we live in such a grand place, it’s this humble view on life has been the biggest gain for us.”
Naturally, they have experienced every parade, show, and attraction many times. Still, it hasn’t been all churros and Dole Whips for the couple.
“We’ve heard few snide comments,” Sarah said, “where people are like, ‘Oh, you live in Fantasyland.’ I mean we still have laundry! We still have dishes. We still have bills, we’re not eating out at the parks every night. You don’t see us when we’re downing PB & Js in the car before we head into the parks!”
And it hasn’t been easy being so far from their families.
“My family is just used to being obsessed with each other,” Sarah said. “We FaceTime every other day almost. I talk to my mom every night on the phone. But, you know, we just miss being able to stop by and shovel the sidewalk for her.”
Nonetheless, the happiness they’ve experienced as a couple and the friendships they’ve built are valuable beyond measure.
“Because we are constantly interacting with others who watch our videos, we’ve had some incredibly humbling messages sent to us about what our videos do for them.”
Once, they heard from a woman in a nursing home who was feeling trapped and hopeless. She told Sarah and Peter, “You guys give me my freedom because you take me away from this place every day.”
“Stuff like that makes me realize, this isn’t just a YouTube channel,” said Sarah.
Now that they have realized their dream of moving to Disney World, the Brookharts feel a responsibility to inspire others to pursue dreams of their own.
“Even if it’s inspiring them to do something of their own. Maybe Walt Disney World is not their ‘Disney World.’ Maybe going to explore South America is their ‘Disney World,’” said Peter.
For Sarah and Peter, Walt Disney World has become more than a vacation destination. In many ways, it has become the laboratory for a grand relationship experiment.
“No matter what,” said Sarah, “it’s kind of been strengthening us as a couple just to figure out how we want to live.”
Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that the best ways to perpetuate the romance and insulate a relationship against divorce is to share a hobby and to keep a regular date night.
If that’s true, then Sarah and Peter’s story will end in “happily ever after.” From the day they arrived in Florida, they’ve enjoyed date night every night, wandering hand in hand together and capturing every moment in the most magical place on earth.
Freddy’s Move to Disneyland – An Epilogue
I wrote the first words of this story on board the “Ward Kimball” steam train while taking a grand circle tour of Disneyland. If you had been there, you might have thought it a little strange to see me working on my laptop as though the tunnels and tracks were a suburban Starbucks.
After observing people like the Brookharts, Peter Tu (the clapping man of Disneyland), Lou Mongello, and many others, I decided to turn what I do into something I love by doing it in the place where I feel most creative – Disneyland!
Although I didn’t actually “move to Disneyland” (I still live over an hour away), I started 2018 with the commitment to hold my “office hours” one day a week at the Disneyland Resort. You might find me running reports at the Hungry Bear in Critter Country, drafting an appeal letter on the old Motor Boat Cruise launch, or editing content on Tom Sawyer Island.
And yes, I am actually working.
How To Move To Disney World – 5 Things You Need To Know Before You Go
In an upcoming post, I’ll share what I learned from the Brookharts about how to follow your dream to live at Disney in 5 practical steps. Subscribe to get the latest posts as soon as their published.
Early Summer, 2014 was a tough time for my family. My wife had cancer. My grandparents died within 2 days of one another. We lost a beloved Uncle. And my doctors saw fit to put me in a comical, full-leg cast to heal a minor fracture.
As tough as those circumstances were, none would upend our family as completely as my father’s broken back.
Driving home from a chaplains’ conference in the mountains, he lost consciousness and flipped his car. I arrived on the scene just after the ambulance had gone.
Unsure of where they’d taken him, I began dutifully collecting his personal items from the wreckage. I tried to ignore all the blood.
Later, in the emergency room, I was finally allowed to see him. He was laid out flat on a gurney in a hallway, cocooned inside a medieval bouquet of braces, restraints, and supports.
And he was telling jokes.
My Dad was a hospital chaplain for many years. Unlike most of us, he’s quite comfortable in hospitals. He spent his days comforting others, meeting their pain with prayer, loss with love, and hardship with humor.
But now the tables were turned. My father lay alone in his hospital room—broken back and legs no longer working. After weeks of surgeries, therapies, and bad news getting worse, there was nothing left to laugh about.
That’s when Andrew Skinner rolled in.
Overcoming Fears, Pain, and Limitations
Andrew Skinner is the founder of Triumph Foundation, a non-profit whose primary purpose is to encourage people with spinal cord injury to overcome their fears, pain, and limitations by pursuing an extraordinary and active life.
For newly-injured patients laying in their hospital beds facing the reality of a future in a wheelchair, Andrew is not another able-bodied doctor with flyers, advice, and platitudes. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair himself, he has instant credibility with those he visits and counsels.
And they listen. Andrew knows which path to take because he’s been there. His wisdom and hope sees beyond a patient’s current challenges as he guides them down the path to a destiny they cannot see from their hospital bed.
Think Gandalf. Think Yoda. Think Dumbledore, but with wheels instead of a wand.
Christmas In Rehab
At the time of this writing, Andrew and his team of Ambassadors and volunteers are in the midst of a two-week blitz visiting nearly every hospital and physical rehabilitation center in Southern California. They invite all the patients to come celebrate Christmas together and participate in a brief support group session. I went along again this year to see Triumph Foundation’s impact firsthand.
“Christmas is very special for me,” Andrew told a group of patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehab Center. “I spent my first Christmas after my injury in the hospital, and I know how lonely it can be. And that’s why we’re here—to show you you’re not alone, and you do have a bright future ahead.”
The room was a full house of people at various levels of recovery. There was a woman in her sixties who had fallen at home and was just getting used to working her robotic chair. There was a young man who had been in an auto accident who was just cleared to walk short distances using his cane.
One older woman, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, had a look of despair and terror on her face. She is paralyzed, in a country she doesn’t know, with nowhere to go when she is discharged, and no family to visit her.
Perhaps the most difficult to see was the two injured children (both under 10) strapped into robotic wheelchairs. Amazingly, the spirit of youthfulness and joy was still apparent on their faces as they tried their best to do what they could on their own.
Triumph’s Ambassadors of Hope
Triumph’s team of Ambassadors, trained counselors also in wheelchairs due to spinal cord issues, use these Christmas parties to introduce themselves, share their stories, and make other patients feel welcome.
“For me it was very depressing,” Walter Escamilla, a Triumph Ambassador who shared his story. “Cause i was used to going to work 10, 12 hours a day. Very active guy, playing basketball, do anything! Go out every weekend. Then after an injury like this, I felt like the world came to an end.”
Patients around the room nodded their heads. They relate to Walter’s story because they’ve experienced the exact same despair he described. He went on to share that his daughters became his inspiration to stop dwelling on his losses and start focusing on the positive things he does have.
“I thank God I live in this country where everything is accessible. Want to go to a Laker game? There’s accessible seating. Want to go to a concert? There’s accessible seating. And they treat us like rock stars.” Sweeping his arm like a maître d’ Walter beamed, “Right this way, Sir!” The patients nodded and laughed at the hopeful perspective Walter shared.
“My daughters can never say, ‘We never go anywhere because my dad’s in a wheelchair.’ On the other hand, they say, ‘Nah, we will go everywhere AND my Dad’s in a wheelchair.’”
Someone Who’s Been Through It
“And that’s the key,” said Jeff Harrison, one of Triumph’s board members and long-time volunteers. “You need someone who’s been through it, knows how tough it can be, knows where your turning points are gonna be and just guide you down the rough patches and get you out the other side.”
Of course, a Christmas party isn’t complete without gifts, so Andrew and his Ambassadors passed out stockings, treats, and “Care Baskets” full of gifts and resources to help them move forward and triumph over their obstacles.
Andrew wrapped up the visit with an encouragement that hit home for everyone in the room, paralyzed and able-bodied alike. “I like to say that paralysis is a club nobody wants to join, but once you’re in, you’re family.”
As I walked to my car, I thought again about my Dad. He spent his entire career encouraging people in the midst of their suffering. After his accident, he too could have been left without hope or a path to recover from the injury. God knows I wouldn’t have had the experience or insight to help him through the darkest hours.
But he wasn’t alone. When Andrew rolled into my Dad’s room that day, he brought with him an active and welcoming community of people who live lives full of hope and potential despite their injuries.
Morleigh Steinberg is in the midst of producing the first public showing of her husband’s series of desert photographs. “I just said to him, ‘You really gotta do something with this. People should see this. I think it’s important. And with the closure of the tour, now is the time to do it.’”
Perhaps I should mention that Morleigh’s husband is The Edge, U2’s revered lead guitarist and atmospheric sound architect.
Back in 1986, when the Irish rock band visited California’s Death Valley and Mojave Desert to shoot images for the cover of their upcoming album, The Joshua Tree, U2 photographer, Anton Corbjin, wasn’t the only one taking pictures. The Edge took up his own camera to capture the desert as he saw it.
“I think he’s got a really good eye.”
With a quiet enthusiasm that projects genuine confidence in her family’s artistic competence, Morleigh also can’t help but sound like her husband’s biggest fan.
“I think he’s got a really good eye. And it’s photography, so I said, ‘Let’s just do this.’”
Morleigh is co-owner of Arcane Space (along with singer & artist Frally Hynes), a bodega studio a couple blocks from Venice Beach in Venice, California. When we first met, I asked her about her “gallery” and she politely corrected me.
“It’s not so much a gallery as it is a space,” she mused.
That caught my attention. As a spatial storyteller with Storyland Studios, I’m fascinated by the ways people use space to express something of meaning or significance. Whether in cathedrals, office cubicles, or amusement parks, creative people are able to transform space to express something about themselves and the way they see the world. So I had to go see Arcane Space for myself.
“I think a gallery is very defined,” Morleigh later explained. “There’s a certain structure that a gallery has to set up to present artists. But we’re still trying to find out what this is and how it’s gonna work. And it feels so free. Space can be so many things.”
The entire gallery… er, space is surprisingly small and painted stark white, from the floor to the ceiling. It gives one the impression of a blank page or canvas to be used freely for artistic expression.
“We want it to be a place where we can share,” Morleigh said, “that we can express what’s going on in our lives and what’s going on in other artists’ lives. And give them an opportunity to present work, or make work, or explore work, or push work, but not in a defined gallery. But just in the space.”
Like a brand new journal or drawing pad, starting with a blank space fills a creative heart like Morleigh’s with a churning sense of potential and curiosity.
“How do you occupy space? How do you change space? And how does that make you feel? And how does it make other people feel? That’s more my curiosity. So that’s where Arcane Space came from.”
Lines In The Sky
Arcane Space’s first installation was a collection of Morleigh’s own photographs entitled “LA Sky Lines.”
Each piece featured the blue, California sky criss-crossed with telephone wires and poles, double-exposed for a disorienting kaleidoscopic effect. In most shots, the illusion confuses the eye with lines that converge in reflective patterns and unnatural vanishing points.
Some look like reflections on water, and others recall the arches and gables of a transparent greenhouse roof.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the connections that these wires make above our heads. We live in this very detached society. There’s something so tangible and so real about these wires going from pole to pole to pole to pole.”
And person to person.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the connections that these wires make above our heads.”
As I viewed the pieces myself, I recalled a childhood memory. Riding in the backseat of my parents’ car as we travelled through the San Joaquin Valley, I watched the wires and poles pass by in rhythmic waves. I remember being enchanted by the idea that there are people on either end of these wires, with miles of space between them, and they’re talking to one another.
“It’s really about the infrastructure between the sky and all these lines and wires that are connected above our heads,” she said. “I find it really delightful and very reassuring.”
True to her intention to allow the space to guide the work created there, the photographs weren’t hung on the walls. They were on the floor, leaned against the wall to create a sort of blue baseboard that follows the walls’ hard angles wherever they may lead.
“I was really looking at the whole space, and my images, and how I would use them, and that was the way they ended up. On the floor.”
This unusual arrangement allowed visitors to view the images, not as individual pieces, but as part of a larger complete work. The space itself had become the work of art.
“There’s purity in putting a picture on the wall. But you never just put a picture on a wall, do you? You always put a picture up in the relationship it has to the rest of the space.”
The Space Between Places
Morleigh’s perspective on space and our relationship with it springs from a lifetime of movement. As a lifelong dancer and choreographer, movement within space is what defines the artform she loves most.
She also grew up in Los Angeles, which, due to its never-ending sprawl connected like power lines through its notorious freeway system, forces its inhabitants to leave one defined space and move to another if they want to experience everything the city has to offer.
“There are several places in LA that are so unique, but you’re going to have to drive to them. You’re going to have to get in the car to go to them.”
Morleigh’s parents were people on the move with a passion for exposing their kids to experiences througout the city. Morleigh developed a keen interest in both the destination and the space between places.
“And I got it. I didn’t mind going from place to place to discover.”
“I lived in New York for a time and there you don’t have to drive to experience a lot of different things. Here there’s always somewhere to go. That comforts me more than having the same places within reach all the time.”
“I think how we make space and interact with space has an effect on our positivity, on our outlook, on the whole human experience.”
One Southern California place she rediscovered for herself recently was Disneyland. Walt Disney’s cartoon kingdom in Anaheim might not be the first place an artist thinks of when seeking authenticity and genuine inspiration, but Morleigh went into the experience with eyes wide open.
“I was so impressed by it. I was really impressed by the landscaping, all California drought tolerant. But then in Tomorrowland, the landscaping was all vegetables, like kale, and chard, and herbs and it was quite remarkable and I was like, ‘Right on!’”
“Then, going into the haunted house, all the things that held the chains they were all these beautiful kind of patinaed bats. And they were real! They weren’t like plastic fake stuff. They were real materials.”
While Morleigh seemed genuinely surprised at the authenticity achieved in Disneyland’s fantasy worlds, she agreed wholeheartedly with the premise that creating space for people to respond to produces genuine emotional results.
“I think how we make space and interact with space has an effect on our positivity, on our outlook, on the whole human experience.”
Outside, It’s America
At the time of this writing, Morleigh is putting the finishing touches on Arcane Space’s newest installation; The Joshua Tree – Photographs by The Edge.
To music fans around the world, the photography for U2’s fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree, is widely considered the most iconic and beautifully integrated album art of all time. In many ways the photographs on the record sleeve created a unique space for the music to inhabit.
“The desert was immensely inspirational to us as a mental image for this record,” U2 bassist, Adam Clayton, told Hot Press magazine at the time of the album’s release. “Most people would take the desert on face value and think it’s some kind of barren place, which of course is true. But, in the right frame of mind it’s also a very positive image, because you can actually do something with a blank canvas, which is effectively what the desert is.”
“So let’s kind of catch the end of this magnificent tour and commemoration to that album, which meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Morleigh recognized that an opportunity to display never-before-seen images of the same brilliant landscapes captured by of one of the band members would be unique and intriguing for many people. And the timing isn’t bad either. The band just finished a worldwide tour celebrating the album’s 30th anniversary.
“It doesn’t make sense to do it 6 months from now,” said Morleigh. “That would feel like going back, you know? So let’s kind of catch the end of this magnificent tour and commemoration to that album, which meant a lot to a lot of people.”
With the confidence of a woman at the vanguard of creative exploration for her family, Morleigh convinced her husband to do the unexpected, to use the space to explore and share his own story. ”Let’s not make this about the band. Let’s make it about the landscape. And the landscape that you saw at that time.”
In honor of the 26th anniversary of U2’s brand-bending album, Achtung Baby, let’s review the record’s most gut-wrenching song. This line-by-line deconstruction of Acrobat explores the spiritual wirewalk many Christians experience as they attempt to be who they claim to be.
When I was a kid, my Dad had the odd responsibility (either self or externally imposed) to be happy and hopeful all the time. I think he believed that part of his job as a pastor was to match up his demeanor with others’ expectations. It didn’t matter if he was facing financial trouble, marital disunity, illness, or a crummy day, he needed to arrive at church with a smile on his face and a kind word on his lips. In other words, he needed to wear a mask.
The unfortunate side effect of my father’s pretense was the occasional avalanche of pent-up anger, which would fall squarely onto his unsuspecting little family. I remember riding in the car on some Sunday mornings. My brother and sister and I could sense his mounting anger rising up in the front seat. Then some straw would break his camel’s back and for the next few miles we would receive the brunt of his frustration. Then, we arrived at church.
When he climbed out of the car, a miracle happened. He instantly became a different man. Gone were the scowls and furious words. All smiles and handshakes now, his mask was back in place.
Looking back today I feel sorry for the man. I know he didn’t want to act that way. He loved us. I have no doubt. He hated himself for talking love and peace to his flock while giving rage and turmoil to the sheep he loved the most, his wife and kids. When he reads this, I’m sure the old sting of this will prick him again (not my intention Dad). The sad irony of this story is that the mask he wore was a burden even Jesus did not have to bear.
In the song Acrobat, from U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby, Bono laments the same balancing act that my father was forced to perform: “I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that.” Niall Stokes, the legendary Irish rock champion and Hot Press editor, wrote of the song, “Not for the first time on the record, Bono acknowledges his own weakness and inadequacy. He is more conscious now than ever before of the contradictions in his own position.”
If you are being honest, Bono’s words are your words as well. You have your beliefs and convictions. Your beliefs define you. You are red or blue, anti or pro, Jacob or Edward. In today’s wacky world of pundits and provokers, with comment boxes under everything you read or watch, you have the opportunity to shout your privately held beliefs loudly and viciously at whomever you want. But does what you say you believe match up with what you do?
I doubt it. If you happen to be a human being, duplicity is your nature.
New years resolutions fail because of this. We know we should stop smoking or drinking. We should eat better and exercise. We should be more committed in our job or school or marriage. We should make things right with our parents or siblings. We should stop abusing our spouse or our kids and making them feel small. We should stop stealing, having emotional affairs, and sneaking copious bytes of porn into our homes via fiber pipelines. We say we believe one thing, but when it comes to living what we believe, we most often do something quite different.
For Christians, this self-imposed dualism is particularly painful to live with. We desire to be like Christ, but we are drawn to sin like moths to flame. As the hymn-writer said, we are prone to wander, and wander far. And we hate it.
In Acrobat, Bono paints his own picture of this hated wandering. The singer sings something of a rotating monologue to three distinct characters: to his younger self when he was an enthusiastic Christ following idealist, to his disenchanted present self, “the acrobat” who feels distant from his faith, and finally to Jesus circa Revelation 3.
When I first met you girl*
You had fire in your soul
What happened your face
Of melting in snow
Now it looks like this
His young self, was once transformed by his faith, happily drawn into a burning light that thawed a frozen heart. The singer sees in him the strength of character needed to resist temptation and to do only good. He begs the boy he was to hold fast to the faith that sustained him, to stand firm in his convictions.
I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
’cause I need it now
To take the cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go
The singer’s present self stands in disbelief that what was once so clear and motivating now seems so distant. He mourns his loss of passion for the things of God and shouts his need to be welcomed at the table of communion. But he cannot drink the cup or eat the bread. Like so many Christians before him, he stands at the table wanting to receive, but knows painfully well that his actions do not match up with his beliefs. Because of his duplicity, he believes his place at the table is forfeit.
The acrobat… er, Apostle Paul wrote about his own struggle with this wire-walk in his letter to the first-century church in Rome. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In a particularly transparent moment, Paul shares his exasperation with himself for believing one thing and doing another. “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” Isn’t that the truth? Of course Paul points the finger at the root of this duplicity, his own sinful nature. “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” And it is this sinful nature that the singer, the acrobat, can’t seem to abandon.
And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
Most frightening to the singer, and any Christian who has faced his double, are Jesus’ words to the church of Laodicea found in Revelation 3. Here, Jesus rebukes this particular church (considered to be the prophetic embodiment of the modern church) for their lack of passion for Himself. Because they have lost their original heat, their passion for the things that once drew them close to Christ, He threatens to abandon them to their own self absorption. Jesus says, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” My paraphrase goes like this; Jesus cursed them saying, “You make me puke!” I can’t imagine any more frightful words for a Christian who thought he had his religion wired.
And the singer takes this curse on himself. He realizes that what was once a fire in his soul, is now a cold ember hidden beneath an empty façade of contentment and false spirituality. The acrobat walks on a wire of compromise, balancing his talk of doing good to others while his heart is far from the faith that would cause him to do so. He says he loves his neighbor as himself, but the truth is, he loves himself and desires only that which will bring him happiness.
The song ends with the singer emboldening himself to claw his way out of his duplicity and sin, and grasp onto the love for God and people he once held so tightly.
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And you can find
Your own way out
You can build
And I can will
And you can call
I can’t wait until
You can stash
And you can seize
In dreams begin
And I can love
And I can love
And I know that the tide is turning ’round
So here he stands looking into the mirror. The singer is unsatisfied with what he sees. He doesn’t want to be an acrobat any longer. He’s getting back onto the path he desires to walk, and cheering himself for the journey ahead.
It won’t be easy. In his book Crazy Love, Francis Chan said, “we have to believe it (the Gospel) enough that it changes how we live.” It’s one thing to say that. It’s another more excruciating thing to do it. But we have to do it. Christians have to believe the Gospel enough that, through the Spirit, our actions match up with our beliefs. Then, and only then, will the wire-walking end.
*I believe “girl” is used here as a way to make the characters distinct. It’s also common throughout Achtung Baby for Bono to sexy-up the songs with words like ‘baby’, ‘girl’, ‘honey child’ despite the deeply spiritual and personal nature of the content.
This post originally appeared in 2011 on my now defunct blog “isbonoachristian.blogspot.com,” an exploration of the faith and spiritual truth sometimes found in U2 lyrics.
Can you keep secret? I can’t. I’ve been keeping this on the down-low for a quite some time and I’m finally able to tell.
Most of you know I’m a theme park weirdo. I love to explore the stories, details, and dreams that make up these architectural marvels. It’s an art form unique to our modern world, but anchored in centuries of creative space-making from city squares & parks to coliseums & cathedrals.
Beginning in October, I began work as a Spatial Storyteller℠ for Storyland Studios, a themed entertainment design and fabrication firm. What’s Spatial Storytelling? Think of it as the non-Disney equivalent of Imagineering. We create immersive environments that bring stories to life in theme parks, museums, sacred spaces and other realms where people gather for enrichment.
What’s super cool is that the business structure is modeled directly after Walt Disney’s original Imagineering team (originally WED, then MAPO, and finally WDI) which means the entire creative team is under one roof. Everything from concept designers, artists, story writers, special effects artists, architects and fabricators all work together to create unbelievable spaces for you to enjoy!
My role is to create content and consult on marketing and community-building for the brand and the projects we undertake. Go to StorylandStudios.com right now to see some of the insane projects we’ve done (Hogwarts Express at Universal, are you kidding me?!?!?!).
This week, our team is heading to the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the themed-entertainment industry’s Comic-Con. If you know anybody in the industry, please connect me.
What does this mean to you, dear reader? Well, much of this is thanks to you. Your reading and sharing of my stories partially helped me land this gig (thank you very much!), and now I’ve got a lot more stories to tell.
So keep an eye here for some incredible announcements, stories, and secrets from inside the theme park and spatial storytelling industry.
Now then, hang onto your hats and glasses, ’cause this here is gonna be one wild ride!
Kungaloosh to all ye, Skippers and jungle dwellers alike! Welcome aboard the World Famous Skipper Freddy Review. Keep your hands and arms inside the boat. The crocodiles are always looking for a hand out.
Speaking of handouts, I got a message via Instagram from one Trader Sam’s Coffee Company asking if they could send me some of their Disneyland inspired coffee roasts to try. And I was all… “yeah!”
So this begins the first of many, I hope (I’m talking to you Tesla) Skipper Freddy’s product review!
The Set-Up: I love drinking coffee in the morning. At the height of the Sudoku craze around the turn of the century, I realized that my ultimate happy place is to be on my couch, my family sleeping safely and soundly, the sun coming up outside, and a hot cup of joe in my hand. While the Sudoku thing left with my sanity, my coffee love stuck.
Now that doesn’t mean I turned into a coffee connoisseur or anything. I like the flavor of coffee and feeling it gives me, but am not good at determining anything special about one cup over another. I can usually tell if the coffee is too dark or too light, but other than that, I’m winging it.
So to make sure I could provide a review worth the beans it’s printed on, I brought in an expert.
My friend, Steve Ross, is an amazing bunch of guys. He’s a concert promoter, a photographer, an activist, and a pastor. He works at Children’s Hunger Fund, an international charity that provides food to hungry kids (in case you couldn’t guess by the name). He’s got 7 kids with another on the way (Go Jamie!). But his secret super power is turning a cup of coffee into an experience to remember.
We got together one morning last week, and with the help of Steve’s mad scientist pour over equipment plus two bags of Trader Sam’s Coffee, we brewed up our happy place!
Unboxing: If Apple has taught me anything, it’s to appreciate good packaging. My Trader Sam’s Coffee shipment arrived quickly and labeled for fun! Inside there were fun promo pieces to browse like a window sticker and collectible trading cards for the coffees in the box. I work with a bunch of designers, so we can all get pretty critical. It’s nice when the only comment they can give is to offer a suggestion to make the trading cards pop with some spot UV on some of the design elements.
Beneath the promo our two coffees were packed side by side with the packages showing art side up. This was a simple but nice touch because the art is all part of drawing you into the Trader Sam’s Coffee experience. Both packages are expertly designed to call back memories of visits to the Disneyland attractions they represent. Honestly, these packages are so well done, you would believe that they were done by the Disney folks themselves. “Immersive” is the only word I can think to use.
Jungle Banana Pie: Our first taste was the Jungle Cruise themed coffee – Skipper’s Brew: Jungle Banana Pie. As a former Jungle Cruise Skipper myself, I was a bit cautious. You see, every Skipper knows that when you first start up the Congo Queen and get her prop spinning on a warm Anaheim morning, you churn up a murky aroma of all the river detritus that settles over night. [Magic Spoiler Ahead] This includes rotting leaves, rat carcasses, dead baby ducks (circle of life, y’all), and spilled Dole Whips. If Trader Sam’s wants to summon up memories of mornings on a Jungle Cruise boat, they’re gonna have to break my own sense memories of that true-life adventure.
When we zipped open the package (unintentionally, but appropriately shaped like Mickey ears) we could immediately tell that this was going to be a pleasant jungle excursion. The aroma definitely smelled like banana, but not banana flavoring. I don’t want a coffee that tastes like banana Laffy Taffy. That would be bad.
Steve Ross ‘the Coffee Boss’ set to work calculating the proper brewing temperature, water and coffee mix we would need for this tasting. We went with 36 grams of coffee, 550 ml of hot water, for 3 minutes 45 seconds. Professor Steve first wet the filter to get rid of any paper taste. Then he poured an initial draught of hot water on the coffee just to wake up the flavors. After a few moments of bloom the real pouring began.
A couple minutes into the pour, Steve realized that Trader Sam’s medium grind was going to be too fine for all 550 ml to pass through in the time we’d set. For the amateur coffee brewer like me, that means that the water went through the coffee slower and therefore brews darker than desired. Regardless, the smell in the room told us that we were going to be in for a good tasting coffee.
Although I prefer a little milk in my coffee, we drank it black to take in all the flavors as the roaster intended. And it was good. Real good. Because of the slower brew the coffee was dark and creamy. While Steve prefers a lighter brew to enable him to catch all the high notes of the coffee bean, I liked the way the dark balanced with the banana flavors. Steve recommends using a French press to brew this coffee instead of a pour over. Rather than tasting like banana candy (probably what you’re afraid of, dear reader) it actually reminded me of a good, toasted banana bread with butter. Shoot. Now I’m getting hungry.
Jungle Banana Pie
Brew Method: Recommend French Press
Enchanted Tiki Coconut: When we opened the second bag of coffee, the smell burst out like birds singing words! Trader Sam’s Coffee’s Enchanted Tiki Coconut takes you straight to the island paradise of Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room where José, Fritz, Michael, and Pierre conduct a chorus of feathered friends in a musical luau of tropical storm proportions. The coffee’s aroma when we opened the bag was soothing and sweet with a hint of coconut bliss.
To correct for our brew calculations with Jungle Banana Pie, Steve decided to add more water, this time to 580 ml. During the initial pour, Enchanted Tiki Coconut surprised us by blooming up much more than Jungle Banana Pie. Steve believes that was possibly due to the recency of the roasting. And it bloomed up like a muffin while the island coconut smells filled the air.
The flavor of the coffee was definitely more on display with this brew. The lighter brew allowed us to taste the citrus notes and coconut blend much better, which made Steve a happy Honolulu camper. Again, the coconut flavor wasn’t overpowering at all. I thought it might taste like sun tan lotion (Steve said he doesn’t know what I’m talking about). Instead it tasted like a coconut tree breeze on a veranda in an island paradise. Poetry.
Enchanted Tiki Coconut
Brew Method: Recommend Pour Over, 580 ml, 36 grams
The Wrap-Up: Trader Sam’s Coffee Company wants to provide a coffee drinking experience that hearkens back to memories of visits to Disney Parks. With their beautiful artwork and packaging, thoughtful flavors, and branding that’s inspired by classic Disney attractions, their coffees are a loving tribute to the Walt’s legacy. Grab a bag or two today, and brew up your happy place!
Many thanks to the amazing Steve Ross. Follow his adventures on Instagram @UrbanSpurgeon. While you’re there, follow me too @SkipperFreddy for fun photos of travel, blog updates, and now reviews.
DISCLOSURE: I’m not being paid for this review – unless you call sipping on a luxuriously creamy mug of Jungle Banana Pie at the moment “being paid.”
Wanna learn how to do a pour over with Steve Ross “The Coffee Boss?” We went live on Instagram during our tasting of Enchanted Tiki Coconut. It’s just like being there… without the smells and tastes. Click the cat below to watch the video. Enjoy!
To passionate Disney enthusiasts like myself (you know who you are), one of the great tragedies of Walt Disney’s life story is that he never had the opportunity to see his dream of a Florida vacation wonderland come true. As hard and fast as that fact is, our wishful thinking often leads us to believe that Walt Disney World was somehow built by the hand of Walt Disney himself.
The story I’m about to tell you and the amazing untold secret I’m going to reveal is 100% preposterous. It’s wishful thinking on a delusional scale. I’m confessing this to you up front because I know without a shadow of a doubt that what I’m suggesting is absolutely impossible. At the very least it’s a hoax or even a mistake. It could even be just a trick of the light.
But when you visit a place like Walt Disney World, you tend to believe in the unbelievable – the “plausible impossible” as the Imagineers used to say. In a place where dreams apparently come true, we’re encouraged to shove aside the rational and cling to the fantastical.
So when my daughter called to me from inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island in Florida to tell me that, “Walt Disney was here,” I didn’t doubt it for second.
A Hidden Walt
Most of us know about Hidden Mickeys. In fact arranging and discovering three distinct circles has grown into its own cottage industry. They’re everywhere.
Far more rare, and therefore more precious, are the “Hidden Walts” dusted around the films, parks, and resorts. One of the more famous of these is the Sorcerer from Fantasia nicknamed “Yen Sid” (read it backwards) whose arched eyebrows were the animator’s caricature of Walt’s “dirty look.” Or there’s the lamp in the window of Walt’s apartment above the fire station on Main Street in Disneyland, kept lit forever as though he never left us.
Others are more explicit nods like the train named after him that travels daily around the Magic Kingdom. He can even be found in the numeric street addresses of certain buildings throughout the parks. Any time you see a 23, a 28, or a 55, you’re probably looking at a Hidden Walt. My favorite numerical reference is the brass “1901” (Walt’s birth year) emblazoned near the door of the Carthay Circle Theater at Disney California Adventure. This also happens to be the name of the secret lounge inside accessible only by Club 33 members.
Incidentally, one of the coolest Hidden Walts is within the lounge itself. From time to time you can see Walt’s shadow as he walks by the entry hall. I have to say it’s a little bit creepy, but it’s an incredible effect all the same.
Now, the Hidden Walt I’m about to reveal is truly remarkable because it is so well hidden and largely unknown. But the most remarkable thing about it is the depth of Disney history, world-building, and legends it apparently pulls together in one simple mark.
So to make sure its significance is not lost, permit me a bit of time-travelling and build-up as I set the stage.
Stick with me. It’s worth it.
When you spend time digging into Walt Disney’s personal history and exploring the events that made him who he became, it’s easy to see that he loved being a boy in Missouri. In the early 20th century, small towns like Marceline with their bustling main streets, expansive farmland, and rolling, creek-crossed hills were perfect kindling to a young boy’s spark of adventure.
Young Walt Disney, though poor by today’s standards, lived as if the entire world was his domain to explore and conquer. In overalls and bare feet, he tracked all over the countryside seeking wild-eyed adventure, and not a little bit of trouble.
For many boys of Walt’s generation, and especially for those growing up along the same waterways and woodlands about which Mark Twain wrote, Tom Sawyer was a hero they could become simply by walking down their front porch steps.
There were fishing pools and swimming holes, dark caves and darker forests. In the whistle stop towns like Twain’s Hannibal and Walt’s Marceline, great steam locomotives would pass through bringing with them visitors from afar and daydreams of what may lie down the tracks. And of course there was the mighty Mississippi, a powerful siren of adventure for every Missouri boy or girl.
Aunt Polly, Tom Sawyer’s lovingly strict guardian, described Tom’s outdoor exploits as “owdacious mischief.” As much as she would have liked to tame young Tom, owdacious mischief is exactly what a boy’s heart craves.
Like Tom Sawyer, Walt Disney discovered incredible freedom when exploring the wilds of Missouri. Given a chance to escape his father’s watchful glare, Walt would bound down the lane toward unknown adventure. His carefree days cultivating a heart for owdacious mischief that would impact generations.
And like Tom, young Walt was no stranger to breaking a rule or two.
Making His Mark in Marceline
In Walt’s childhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, we’re still able to visit a couple landmarks of his rule-breaking prowess. First, there’s the Disney family farmhouse where young Walt encouraged his sister Ruth to join him in painting pictures of animals in black tar on the back wall. His artistic urges got him in big trouble when his father, Elias, discovered the mess and came down hard on the boy.
It’s lucky for us Walt’s artistic ambitions weren’t crushed by the strict punishment he received that day. Rather, it appears that his brief foray as a graffiti artist may have even spurred him on.
Perhaps the most exciting piece of Walt’s criminal history in Marceline is currently on display at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. There, visitors are able to see the very desk that Walt sat in when he was in grade school. How do they know it was his desk? Carved into the wood for all to see are Walt’s initials, “W.D.”
In 1960, Walt was invited back to Marceline to dedicate Walt Disney Elementary School. It was there that he was reunited with his desk. In photos from that day, Walt traces the initials in the wood with his finger, a sheepish grin on his guilty face.
Imagine that! An act of childish destruction has now become an artifact of American pop-culture. And apparently once was not good enough for the mini media magnate. As if he knew his signature might become an important brand some day, he carved his initials twice! How very “Tom Sawyer” of him.
Back out at the farmhouse, visitors can take a winding path to find a replica of the family barn (lovingly rebuilt by fans and friends of the family in a three-day barn raising in 2001). Hundreds of Disney pilgrims have followed Walt’s vandalizing lead and leave their own signatures, carvings, and drawings all over the timbers. Rebels.
Building a Paradise for Play
Now let’s travel west to Disneyland in 1955. The island created by the path of the Rivers of America was at first a barren wasteland, a mound of dirt with a few scraggly trees. But to Walt and his Imagineers, it was a blank canvas for creating another world of fun and adventure for Disneyland’s young visitors. Original ideas for the island included a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and a pirate theme to capitalize on the popularity of the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island. Take that Pirate’s Lair haters.
When legendary Disney artist Marc Davis presented a new map of the island featuring replicas of colonial America’s historic sites, Walt still wasn’t satisfied. Frustrated, he took the plans home, and began sketching his own ideas over the top of Marc’s. Walt added a fort, cave mazes, balancing rocks, swaying bridges, and a towering treehouse. Suddenly, Walt had become the young boy in Missouri churning up his Tom Sawyer fantasies once again.
When the island finally opened for visitors in 1956, Walt had created a place of freedom where kids of all ages could run, play, hide, seek, and imagine just like Tom did… just like Walt did.
Tony Baxter, the Disney Legend responsible for many of your favorite attractions built after Walt’s death, spoke recently about the inestimable value of a child’s imagination. He called it “the importance of being twelve.” Creative folks like Tony have managed to hold onto the same spark that excited them at that magical age and use that excitement as adults to create an even more incredible future for the twelve-year-olds of today.
Of all the incredible dream worlds and fantasy lands within Disneyland, Tom Sawyer Island has the distinction of being the only attraction Walt Disney personally designed himself. To this day it remains the one place in the parks that explicitly reflects Walt’s twelve-year-old dreams come true.
Before we leave Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland in California and head back to Florida, let’s take a moment to follow the paths to the east end of the island. Climb Indian Hill alongside one of the splashing creeks to the highest point on the island. You’ll soon come to a large tree with a spring bubbling up from beneath its roots. Up in that tree, “Tom and Huck” have built their own treehouse to serve as a hideout and headquarters for their adventures. This is the pinnacle of boyhood fantasy – a place loaded with wild fun and miles from responsibility – a place where their imagination can run wild.
Now look closely at the tree. You’ll see that twelve year-olds Tom and Huck have carved their names in the trunk. They’ve marked their territory and memorialized this location as the place where they let their imaginations run wild and where they felt most free. How very “Walt Disney” of them. (Keep reading below.)
Walt’s Signature Move
Before we cross the continent back to the other Tom Sawyer Island in Florida, it’s important to underscore one more thing about Walt Disney. He put his name on everything. Ever since Charles Mintz and Universal taught him a valuable lesson by wresting the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from him in 1928, Walt signed everything that came out of his studio.
When Ub Iwerks drew Mickey, Walt signed his name.
Soon every film, TV show, and merchandise product bore the possessive words “Walt Disney’s” above the title. This is the single most important reason why his name became synonymous with family entertainment for the entire world.
His signature became so sought after that when he was visiting Disneyland, crowds would clog up Main Street USA trying for a chance to get him to put his autograph on a slip of paper or an A or B ticket (E tickets were too valuable). Soon, this became such a traffic headache that Walt had his autograph preprinted on little business cards which he’d hand out to fans to speed up the process.
Today, his autograph is a popular item on eBay. People are so drawn to Walt’s personality and vision, that they are willing to pay thousands of dollars to own a piece of his history, to hold something he held.
Whenever Walt Disney put his mark on something, it soon became a revered monument to the man.
This brings us (at last) to perhaps the most mysterious and unknown Disney secret ever discovered – Walt Disney’s childhood signature hidden in plain sight within a dark tunnel.
In 2015, I had the privilege of taking my family to Walt Disney World for the very first time (read about our vacation of a lifetime at TouringPlans.com HERE). As Californians who grew up making memories at Disneyland, we placed high priority on visiting attractions and shows that no longer exist there. So Tom Sawyer Island with it’s fort still filled with politically problematic guns was definitely a must-do.
With my son, Daniel, and daughter, Penny, by my side, nostalgia washed over me as we passed through the gates of Fort Langhorn. Up the winding steps we bounded toward a higher view and mounted muskets. As I watched my kids pick off imaginary bears and passing mine trains, I was transported back to a time when my Dad stood by my side watching as I did the same.
In that moment, I felt myself recapturing my own childhood just as Walt had when he was designing this playful paradise.
Riding a wave of reminiscence, I followed my kids closely as they ran down the stairs and into a door marked “Escape Tunnel.” Down the tight and rickety stairs we lunged into a tighter maze of sculpted gunnite and cement painted to look like dug out rock. The winding tunnel led us into dead ends and blind turns, the perfect places to hide and jump out at one another for a cheap scare and a burst of laughter. I was a twelve year old boy once again. (Keep reading below.)
The end of the tunnel announced itself with a gradually increasing glow until we finally rounded the last corner where the full light of the bright Florida sun poured in. One by one we exited the tunnel finding ourselves on the shore facing the broad bend of the river.
Penny was the last in line. Just before she came out into the sun, she stopped. “Daddy, Walt Disney was here,” her echoing voice called from the darkness.
I ducked back into the cave to see what she had found, my eyes adjusting from the brief burst of sunlight. Penny was pointing at something on the cave wall.
There, carved into the sculpted walls, in the imperfect and simple handwriting of a Missouri farm boy were the initials “WD.”
The Hand of Walt
We stood there for a moment in reverent silence. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.
In the quiet I began to picture a young Walt Disney in overalls and bare feet playing river pirates and Indians along the banks of this quiet creek. I could see him running away from his pals and ducking inside this undiscovered cave, his chest heaving as he tried to keep from laughing and giving away his hiding spot.
The staccato footfalls and shouts of, “He went this way!” grew louder and then quieter as his pursuers passed him by. Walt caught his breath and began to look around. He could see that this cave was much deeper than it seemed. Taking a few brave steps into the cool darkness, he stopped himself short. “It shore is dark in here,” he whispered.
Vowing to come back and explore the tunnel with some paraffin candles and a couple brave compatriots, Walt turned to leave.
Again he stopped. “Don’t all great explorers lay claim to their discoveries?” he thought. Bending down, little Walt Disney picked up a hand-sized rock with a pointed edge. For the next few minutes, he etched one crooked line after another into the cave’s sandstone wall. He took one step back to admire his work and smiled. Satisfied that anyone who finds this cave in the future would know that it and all the adventure it contains belongs to him, Walt raced again shouting into the warm Missouri sun.
Under the Influence
My daughter broke the silence asking, “Do you think Walt did this?” Back in reality, I had to think about that for a second. At Disneyland, many of the items and places in the park remain exactly as they were when Walt was around. If this were in California, it would be quite plausible that the grown up Walt had made this mark himself. He designed the island after all.
But this is Florida. Walt Disney died long before ground was broken for the construction of the Magic Kingdom. Of course he couldn’t have done it. Could he?
Perhaps he did. But not with his own hands. Hundreds of artists, sculptors, builders, and engineers brought their incredible skills together to build these immersive environments, each one inspired by Walt’s enduring vision.
Somewhere in the WDI archives there is a set of construction plans, drawings, and elevations showing the precise measurements and fabrication specs for this tunnel. If Walt’s initials were planned to be included from the beginning, they will appear there exactly as they do in the finished attraction.
However, I like to think that something far more magical happened. Back in 1973, the mustachioed worker assigned to putting the finishing touches on the tunnel stepped back to admire his handiwork. With the cool, dark cave behind him and the brightness of the Florida afternoon just ahead, he felt something wild come over him.
Memories of childhood explorations in the swamps near his home flooded back to him. He recalled the freedom of boyhood and the magnetic pull of mischief once again.
He listened down the tunnel for sounds of approaching co-workers. “Nobody will ever see this anyway,” he reasoned. Then he pulled a pencil from his coveralls and snapped off the tip leaving a sharp, rough edge. With a wide grin on his face and the spirit of another boy by his side, he began to carve.
Your WD Moment
Have you ever seen Walt’s initials in the escape tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World? I’ve scoured the internet and cannot find a single reference to it. It’s like nobody knows it exists. If you have seen it, tell me in the comments below.
Even better, send me a photo of you with this elusive “Hidden Walt,” to prove you’ve gone the distance. Email it to me at TheFredMartin@gmail.com.
If you’re one of the first 10 people who send proof that you’ve visited the WD on TSI, I’ll send the very first in my new series of Skipper Freddy explorer badges. Follow me on Instagram @SkipperFreddy for the latest photos and updates.
How to Find It
You can find the initials just inside the exit of the escape tunnel from Fort Langhorn on the north side of the island. They are at adult eye-level on your right if you’re exiting the tunnel, and on your left if you’re going in the exit (shame on you, rule breaker).
Let’s do our best to keep this treasure awesome for everybody. Be respectful. Don’t block the tunnel. Don’t ruin it for others.
But let’s make it famous. Let’s turn this humble and hidden tribute into one of the great, must-visit sites on Walt Disney World property. Perhaps generations of mischievous kids will see it and believe that “Walt was here,” no matter how preposterous.
Many thanks to all the incredible people who made this epic story possible:
To my family and especially my daughter Penny for the great adventure and for finding the WD in the first place.
To the great Dennis Emslie, my friend on the inside who made it possible to visit the tunnel again this last month.
To Raechel Andrews, a stranger who agreed to a random mission to get photos of TSI at Disneyland for me at the last minute.
To Peter and Sarah Brookhart for letting me pick their brains about their experience visiting Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline.
To Adam the Woo for his insights on Walt’s barn in Marceline.
To Tom Nabbe for taking on the role of Tom Sawyer for life and remaining a boy at heart throughout his career at Disney Parks.
To learn more about Walt Disney’s Tom Sawyer Island check out these groovy links to some of the source material for this post:
In honor of International Talk Like A Pirate Day, I thought I’d take you on a brief voyage to a time when sea-faring thieves and blood-thirsty brigands reigned terror upon unsuspecting sailors – to a time when I was a member of a band of pirates.
This band of ne’er do well cads were masters of their fearsome weapons. There was a bass player, a guitar man or two, a drummer, and a “xylobones” player. And there was a ferocious Captain whose gravelly, rum-soaked voice commanded the crew and any sorry souls who came to hear the cannon-thundered sound of their pirate rock ‘n roll.
Captain Bogg & Salty was a Portland-based buccaneer rock band renowned for marauding the nightclubs, pirate festivals, and a public library or two around the turn of the last century. And every so often, the bosun’s pipe would call me to join the crew.
Okay, I wasn’t actually in the band. I was a hired to bring the story of the band to life by illustrating their album sleeves.
Drawing inspiration from none other than Disney Legend Marc Davis who drew much of the concept art for the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions, I drew in pen and ink and shaded them with black water color. I tried to infuse the characters with a little bit of menace, a whole lot of humor, and that true treasure every pirate seeks, freedom.
To get a look at what I mean, check out this one I drew for their Dick Dale inspired surf rock song I’m A Pirate.
I hoped to create a piece, like the picture books I remember as a kid, that viewers would want to take time to look deeply at the details and hidden jokes while listening to the song. Go ahead, look deeply. Can you spy the the pirates tube-riding companion? The not-quite empty flagon of rum? Or can you figure out the true reason this part of the ocean has such killer waves?
This piece didn’t make the cut but it remains one of my favorites to this day.
Still, the pieces from that period that still give me the most joy are the back covers. Each drawing seemed to serve as an expression of the spirit of each particular album. On the back of Bedtime Stories for Pirates, you’ll find a crows’ nest full of buccaneers singing their scurvy lungs out to nobody but the gulls. The backside of Pegleg Tango features a wooden-legged privateer swinging, nay, flying through the riggings without a care in the big blue world.
But the back cover piece that delivers the most yarrr for your buck in my opinion is the marooned pirate on the back of Emphatical Piratical. I’ll give you a look at it in just a second, but first I want to give you a step-by-step view of its creation, from concept to final piece.
First, Loren Hoskins and Kevin Hendrickson, the creative forces behind Captain Bogg & Salty came up with a concept for me – a marooned pirate who isn’t too upset about it. The music they’d been writing for the album had a laid back, island paradise feel and they thought their stranded castaway might whiling away his years on a white sandy beach.
So I plopped him in a hammock, looking out to see with a tasty coconut rum in his good hand. We loved the concept and could truly feel his relaxation coming to fruition. But with his face away from the camera, we didn’t quite have the same character driven fun we did with the other back covers. It could also look like he’s waiting for someone to come, hoping to be rescued.
Not our pirate. We wanted him to appear like he has found heaven on earth, so we turned him around.
Now we were getting somewhere. The look on this pirate’s face communicates pure joy. He doesn’t care if anybody ever finds him. You can almost smell the hibiscus. The site gag of the satisfied marauder marking an X where he’s found his treasure makes the point perfectly. This is the spot!
Before we could go further, we needed to take time to flesh out what our pirate would look like. The pirates in each of the illustrations represented a vast crew of pirates from across the seven seas, so we wanted to be careful not to repeat a face, or identify any particular character from the songs.
So I took some time and drew a line up of likely lads for the pirates in Portland to peruse and pick.
Now here was a rogues’ gallery of villains sure to give the mommies nightmares and the kiddies dreams of going to sea. With a little deliberation, and much talk about their possible crimes and back stories, we settled on the Spanish gentleman in the bottom right.
Huzzah! I was finally able to start work on the final piece. I played the rough cuts of the new songs over and over. Frogg Island, The Purple Tiki, The Plank Walker, and Waltz of the Waves kept me company as I drew fresh inspiration for the illustration from the lyrics.
Take off your shoes and pore over this illustration on island time. See if you can find all the hidden clues about this freebooting fellow and his new life here in paradise.
Also, get ye to iTunes quick to download each and every one of Captain Bogg & Salty’s amazingly piratey albums. Privateering music fans of all ages will be able to get funky with the crew of the good ship Pollywogg. And if your younger pirates tell you they recognize the voices, you’ll be pleased to find out that these same buccaneers went on to create the songs and music for Disney Junior’s Jake and the Never Land Pirates. That’s right. Captain Bogg & Salty once set sail under the names Sharky and Bones under the notorious Captain Hook!
If you enjoyed diving into my illustrations, let me know in the comments below and I’ll make sure to open the junk drawer more often. And if you’d prefer to read more about other types of adventures, I’d like to know that too. You’re the reason I write, and I can’t thank you enough for allowing me the opportunity to share my take on the world with you.
All content, and especially the artwork, enjoy the protection afforded all intellectual property. Some of it belongs to Fred Martin and some of it belongs to Hendrickson Hoskins, LLC. Please do not use it without first gaining permission.
Danger lurks around every gray-green curve of Disney’s World Famous Jungle Cruise. Trouble lurks there too, in the form of pun-lobbing, pistol-wielding jungle Skippers.
But Skippers don’t leave their particular form of trouble behind when they tie up the Congo Queen to the dock for the last time. Nay. When these sly-tongued sailors move on to other shores, they bring jungle trouble to the real-world in their own creative ways.
You see, jungle water runs thick as blood and never quite leaves the system. Over the years, former Jungle Cruise Skippers (is there really such a thing as a former Skipper?) have found ways to keep the spirit of the jungle alive through off-center humor, clever art, and great storytelling.
You may have heard of the famous ones like Costner and Lasseter. Skipper Kevin has a new book that’s super junglie. And Skipper John, well, he’s responsible for Up, The Incredibles, and Hawaiian shirts.
Then there are some of the lesser knowns who have taken jungle love to the masses in new ways. Skipper Brandon Kleyla birthed the amazingly detailed Trader Sam’s tiki bars at Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Polynesian Resort as a tribute to Skippers everywhere. Skipper Loren Hoskins took the jungle out to sea as part of the musical scallywagging duo Sharky and Bones on Disney Jr.’s Jake and the Neverland Pirates.
Skipper Rick Wetzel twisted his mic cord around his fingers for so long that it gave him the idea for Wetzel’s Pretzels. And Skipper Grant Baciocco dried off his boots and picked up a puppet to join the casts of Mystery Science Theater 3K and the Muppets!
But I’m more interested in the scrappy Skips who, like me, take what they learned criss-crossing Schweitzer Falls and turn it into real-life jungle adventure for everyone to enjoy.
Here are the tip of the top, the cream of the crop of ex-Skipper creatives who keep the law of the jungle alive.
Dr. Skipper David Marley
This pun-tificating professor earned his doctorate at night while stirring up the green water during the day. Today he teaches history at a local University and is part of a secret Disney history society. He founded “Skipper Standup,” a regular comedy night featuring, you guessed it, Disneyland Jungle Cruise Skippers. He makes some pretty cool jungle themed crafts too. Ever the historian, Dr. Skipper released a book in 2016 of tales told by Skippers about life on the rivers of adventure. Skipper Trevor Kelly designed the art for the cover and it’s chock full of funny tales from Skips throughout Disneyland’s history. I’m proud to be included in the book among the Skipper storytellers.
The river-thick wit of Skipper Kyle carries his podcast, Tales From The Jungle Crews, through all the watery twists and bends of jungle Skipper lore. He set forth from the dock in 2013 to collect an oral history of the attraction by interviewing wise-cracking hippo shooters (sounds like a drink from Trader Sam’s) from the early years of the park right up to today. I was honored to be interviewed for the podcast, along with Skipper Jeff Bailes, back in 2016 (listen to part 1 & part 2 below). Kyle has made a boatload of cool jungle swag including sweet card games and t-shirts. Kyle’s also a professional product photographer who can make broccoli look delicious.
Since the mid-nineties (do I really need to use this word?) “pioneering” women have taken the helm and cracked wise side by side with the boys, making the jungle a little less dense and whole lot funnier. Skipper Jen took the mic in the 2000s and hasn’t put it down, even after she left the park. A regular comic at Skipper Stand Up, as well as comedy clubs throughout Southern California, she deftly mixes jungle khaki jokes with bottle blond bluster that will keep you laughing for more. She’s also the curator of Tales of the Jungle Cruise social media presence showing off an impressive collection of historic Disney jungle content you won’t see anywhere else.
Back in the 80s, Skipper Andrew slipped punch lines past guests so slyly they didn’t know what hit ’em. He took what he learned in the jungle, and with a wave of his hand, turned that experience into a new character, “The DIY Magician.” Besides being a prestidigitator for hire, he helps other magicians build their own props and set pieces via his funny and family-friendly YouTube channel. Like many a Skipper before and after him, Andrew credits the thousands of trips around the river for his ease in front of an audience. “To paraphrase the late Joan Rivers,” he says, “It gave me a place to be bad!” Now watch him pull that Bengal tiger out of his leopard skin hat.
Ever wonder what happens when you strand a river Skipper in the mountains of Colorado? In the case of Skipper Alex, you get a weird and wild podcast that longs for the lazy daze of Adventureland. Side by side with his childhood homeboy Harrison Ownbey, he researches Disneyland’s most amazing secrets and myths to share with listeners of “The Back Side of Water” podcast. Start from the beginning of their land-by-land park tour or pick your favorite attraction to explore. You’ll soon find yourself coming back for more.
With 60+ years of cracking jokes and popping caps in hippos, there are surely many more former Jungle Cruise Skippers who haven’t totally forsaken the wearing of the khaki.
Leave a message in the comments below if you are or you know an ex-Skip who still regurgitates dad-jokes like a pro. I’ll add them to this post as they come in to make sure they get the credit they deserve.
Keep in mind I’ll need a picture of them from their Disneyland days and a link to their current projects.