ANAHEIM – When civil rights activist and U.S. Representative, John Lewis, dedicated the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, his words echoed the triumph of generations; “See what a dream can do.”
The NMAAHC was honored with the Award for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) at the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Thea Awards, where Rep. Lewis’ words also seemed to speak for the spectacular efforts of the themed entertainment professionals whose completed projects were on display that night.
The objective of the Thea Awards, TEA’s 24th annual awards gala, is to find excellence within the themed entertainment industry and celebrate it. Sponsored by the Chinese theme park giant, Chimelong, themed entertainment legends and cutting-edge players alike gathered from around the globe just across the street from the original place “where dreams come true” at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California.
“I never imagined that world of imagination would become real for me and it would be much more than a dream, it would be a career and a home,” said Phil Hettema, founder of The Hettema Group, a well-respected experiential design firm known for building incredible attractions worldwide, for clients such as DreamWorks, Sea World, Universal Studios, and the Chicago Museum of Science and industry.
Hettema was awarded the highest honor of the night, The Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievements.
“We have an obligation to do our work in the highest quality we can and to tell our stories with integrity.” – Phil Hettema
Quick to give credit where credit is due, Hettema began his remarks by directing guests to an online list of those he wished he could thank if he had more time. Gently ribbing Disney he quipped, “I want and need to thank all of them, but if I did, we would be here until Star Wars Land opens.”
With all the fun that comes with working within the dream-making industry, Hettema warned that the industry has some important obligations.
“We have an obligation to do our work in the highest quality we can and to tell our stories with integrity.”
“Our industry has often been accused of creating fake worlds,” he said, “and we seem to be living in a world of fake news and alternative facts, but when we tell our stories with quality and integrity, they’re powerful and they can change lives.”
“We have an obligation” Hettema continued, “to make sure that we build teams that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We cannot expect our stories to be heard by the whole world if our teams telling the story don’t mirror the full spectrum of our audience.”
To the internationally diverse audience, this last statement struck a unifying chord, and was met with their loudest applause.
Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) received a total of four Theas for projects at their American theme parks. First, WDI was recognized for successfully reimagining two beloved attractions; the Epcot attraction Maelstrom into Frozen Ever After, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy- Mission: BREAKOUT at Disney California Adventure.
WDI’s other two Theas were for Disney Animal Kingdom’s Pandora – The World of Avatar, and it’s anchor attraction, Flight of Passage. WDI veteran and creative force, Joe Rohde led teams in creating an unbelievably convincing alien world based on Avatar, the James Cameron IP.
“This is a business of hearts and minds,” Rohde said. “We reach out and touch the hearts and minds of all the people the who come through these places. That is not done with plastic. It is not done with machines. It is not done with concrete and steel or projection. It is through the hearts and minds of the artists and the workers involved. If you just set them free and give them the power, they will give you back more than you can predict, more than you can measure, and certainly more than you can buy.”
Other awards for theme park excellence went to Cedar Point, the flagship park of Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. in Sandusky, Ohio, honored with the Thea Classic award for being an influential project that has stood the test of time, Symbolica: The Palace of Fantasy, a beautiful new dark ride at de Efteling in The Netherlands, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom’s Journey of Lights Parade in Zhuhai City, China, DreamWorks Animation Zone at MOTIONGATE Dubai in UAE, and the amazingly low-tech, day-long immersive theater of Ghost Town Alive! at Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.
“If you just set them free and give them the power, they will give you back more than you can predict, more than you can measure, and certainly more than you can buy.” – Joe Rohde
A tribute to WDI luminary, Marty Sklar, who passed away in 2017, was a heart-warming celebration of the “Dad” of the themed entertainment industry. Images of the hundreds of Disney Parks projects he personally touched and influenced played on the screen while a choir sang the Sherman Brothers’ classic One Little Spark.
Bob Rogers, the founder of BRC Imagination Arts said of Sklar, “Marty was a giver. He was a mentor to me. But not just me. What about you?” One by one, everyone in the audience stood to declare Marty’s influence on their lives.
Along with the NMAAHC, other museums received honors for their excellent achievements including Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, an emotional tour of remembrance through the history of the famous WWI battle that led to New Zealand’s national independence, featuring 2.5 scale, life-like figures created by Sir Richard Tylor and the Weta Workshop team, depicting the true stories of real people impacted by that crucial 20th century event.
The Rainis’ Museum in Tadenava, Latvia stood out among the technological giants for it’s stripped down simplicity and warmth featuring beautifully-designed, kinetic interactives made entirely of wood.
Projection mapping and 3D technologies brought honors to projects like the Citadella Visitors Centre on Gozo Island, Malta, which transformed an ancient stone reservoir into a gorgeously illuminated history experience. Les Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence, France projects fine art masters in gigantic scale onto the walls of an ancient cave. Aura, at Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal, Canada illuminates one of the largest cathedrals in North America with an architectural narrative that recalls the original purposes and impact of religious art.
3D Live was honored for Outstanding Achievement in Innovative Technology with their “Holographic” 3D LED display permanently installed at California’s Great America, within the Mass Effect: New Earth attraction. Sleep No More, an immersive theater experience in Shanghai, China was honored for its haunting live-theater adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Everyone literally raised a glass for the brand experience award, which went to Jameson Distillery Bow St. in Dublin, Ireland, the brand home of Jameson Whiskey. The project’s director, John Carroll, quickly became everyone’s best mate when he bought a round of drinks at the after party, all made with Jameson Whiskey, of course.
As the party continued with gusto, TEA guests enjoyed the company and mutual-respect of their peers sharing stories of projects past and yet to come. These accomplished artists, craftspeople, engineers, and architects have seen what a dreams can do and they take seriously their job to continue shaping far off dreams into concrete reality.
One of my favorite stories about Bob Gurr is the one where he kidnapped the American Vice President in the cab of Disneyland’s Monorail. Sure, he was just taking Mr. Nixon for a tour of Walt Disney’s little park in Anaheim, but the Secret Service weren’t exactly pleased to be left on the platform.
Bob Gurr is the legendary Disney Imagineer who designed and developed many of Disneyland’s infamous ride vehicles. And like Vice President Nixon, Bob wants to take you on a ride you’ll never forget.
Use offer code SKIPPERFREDDY for 40% off the April 15th Tour at Waltland.com
On April 15th, I want you to join me and Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, as he takes us on a personal tour of Walt Disney’s Los Angeles. You’ll see Walt and Roy’s first L.A. homes. We’ll stop by the location of the original Hyperion Studio where Snow White and the Silly Symphonies were born. We’ll pop by the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale.
You’ll ride the merry-go-round where Walt took his daughters for “Daddy’s Day,” and first dreamed up Disneyland as a place where “…parents and children could have fun together.” And then you’ll tour Walt’s Barn, his personal workshop where he built the scale model steam engines that fueled his imagination. They call it the ‘Birthplace of Imagineering’ because that’s where Walt’s magical dreams first became a mechanical reality.
Along the way, Bob will share his stories about working side-by-side with Walt to create his original Magic Kingdom. There are tons of surprises along the way that I can’t tell you about quite yet. But trust me, you’re going to love it.
If you’ve got a passion for Disney history and lore, you won’t want to miss joining me on our incredible adventure with Bob Gurr.
So Here’s The Deal:
Bob has offered you, readers of my blog, an exclusive opportunity to explore “Waltland” for less. You get an unbelievable 40% off your ticket if you use the offer code SKIPPERFREDDY at checkout. Depending on your choice of seats, that could be as low as $63. This includes lunch and a special souvenir for my guests.
I don’t mean to be grim. But how many opportunities do you think you’ll have left to hang out with one of the epic Disney Imagineering Legends who actually worked under Walt Disney? The intrinsic nature of this experience is that it is extremely limited. This may very well be the last few tours before Bob calls it quits.
Use the offer code SKIPPERFREDDY for 40-freakin-percent off. Do it.
Still Not All In?
Okay. Here’s my final offer. When the tour is done around 3pm, you and I, and the rest of my incredible group of super-intelligent, Disney-loving readers will take in a couple more stops not on the Bob Gurr tour. I can’t tell you about it until you purchase tickets, but plan to experience another couple hours of incredible Disney history you’ll remember forever.
A lot of people say they want to move to Orlando or Anaheim to be closer to the Disney parks, but very few people actually have the guts to do it. In part one, I interviewed Sarah and Peter Brookhart of The Brookhart Project whose dream of moving to Disney was so strong that they pulled up stakes in Chicago to relocate just outside of the Walt Disney World bubble.
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney
Eureka! Forget bitcoin. There’s a gold rush in full swing and the miners are flocking to Disney in droves!
But the true heroes of the Dis-zealot movement are those who have cast all caution to the wind, quit their jobs, sold their homes, and migrated thousands of miles to live within a firework’s boom of the Disney parks.
When I interviewed Sarah and Peter Brookhart, the young couple who left their hometown to live 20 minutes outside of Walt Disney World, I learned a few things about following dreams and taking giant leaps.
So if you’ve ever asked yourself, “What would it take to live the Disney dream?,” here are 8 tips I learned from the Brookharts for how to move to Disney.
Tip 1: Plan Like You Mean It
You know how a vacation to Disney takes moon-landing level planning? You have to make your restaurant reservations 180 days in advance, for crying out loud! Well, moving to Orlando or Anaheim takes a little more planning than that.
The Brookharts recommend that whatever you do, don’t play it by ear. Do your research and create a plan that will work. Read a ton and ask a LOT of questions.
They also suggest you do the math. And then do the math again. “Our job offer did not include moving assistance,” said Sarah, “so we ended up taking a lot more from savings than we had expected.”
You’ll never be able to plan so well that you avoid all surprises and obstacles, but without creating plan, you’ll only end up frustrated and floundering.
“Get a good idea and stay with it. Do it, and work at it, until it’s done right.” – Walt Disney
Tip 2: Location, Location, Location
“Location is super important,” says Peter. You must minimize your commute from home to the parks. “We live 20 minutes away from property, so that’s why it’s so easy for us to get here Monday through Friday. We have friends who live 40 minutes away and it’s much harder.”
Again, do the math. For every 5 minutes away from the parks, you lose 10 minutes to driving. All that driving will wear on you. If you live 45 minutes away, and you plan to go to the resorts after work, you will spend 1 hour and a half of your precious evening hours in the car. And during non-peak seasons when the parks are only open until 8, timing is crucial
Find a place 30 minutes or less from a Disney parking lot. That will keep your drive to and from the magic under one hour total.
Tip 3: Expenses Are Real In Fantasyland
Have you heard that it’s cheaper to live in Florida? Well, that’s only partly true. If you want to live within a few miles of the parks (refer to Tip 2), the cost of living is not much better than anywhere else in the country.
“The biggest thing we heard from people who don’t know anything about moving to Florida from Chicago is ‘Oh, it’s so cheap to live in Florida!,’” said Peter. “The thing is, we not only live in Florida, we live in the Orlando area. And not only that, we live in the Orlando tourist area. We actually pay more for rent here than we did in Chicago.”
Expect much worse in Anaheim. The average one-bedroom rental behind the Orange curtain is over $1,500 per month, and things like groceries and gas follow suit.
“We’re not eating in the parks every night,” said Sarah. “You don’t see us downing PB & Js in the car before we head in. We’re making it a lifestyle but real life is still real. We both need to work full time jobs to make the lifestyle possible.”
Not much you can do about that. Just be prepared to pay the price to live next door to talking mice! (Hey, that rhymed!)
Tip 4: You WILL Get Tired Of It
Ever hear of the “law of diminishing marginal utility?” That’s the phenomenon that happens to you when the first piece of pizza tastes like heaven while the next two, three, and four pieces start to taste like cardboard.
Sadly, it’s the same with going to Disney every day, or every week, or even every month. You’re bound to get less and less enjoyment out of every visit.
Peter warned that many magic-migrants run the risk of losing interest. “Maybe not at first because of the excitement, the honeymoon stage of living here, but eventually after a couple weeks or months, you could probably just resort to coming here just on weekends.”
So what can you do to keep from losing interest? Live for something more than just having fun at Disney.
“Live everyday, no matter how small the accomplishment,” said Peter, “as if that single day had something going for it or something worth remembering, even if it’s playing cards after dinner.”
It helps that the Disney resorts have so much to offer. But every day can’t be all parades and attractions. If you live each moment with the idea that each moment is a gift, you’re bound to stay excited, no matter where you live.
“We’re setting a bar for ourselves,” said Sarah, “to really enjoy life.”
Tip 5: Keep Your Eyes Open
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts about hidden Disney details, you know how important this tip is for me. (See the S.E.A. at Disneyland or Walt’s initials on Tom Sawyer Island for some of my favorites.) Disney has packed the parks and resorts with so many unusual details and spatial storytelling hints that locals like you are likely to find something new and surprising every time you visit.
“I knew there was a lot to offer here,” Peter said, “but now living here we realize how much there actually is.”
You may have ridden every single ride on the map, but there are too many food and entertainment offerings for any guest to taste and see them all. “We had no idea who ‘Yehaa Bob’ was,” remembered Peter. “He’s a piano player who’s been playing the piano (at Port Orleans Riverside Resort) for twenty-plus years.”
As a local, you’ll also begin to see and experience other guests in a different way. “Since we’ve moved here, I can pick up on more of the other guests’ vibes. I hear more of the happy in other people’s voices, but I also can hear more of the anger and frustrations. You can just tell this family’s exhausted, or this family is having the best time of their life over here.”
Now that you’re able to enjoy the parks without a to-the-minute agenda, allow yourself to take it all in in a way that would have been impossible for your before moving.
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney
Tip 6: Preset Your Mindset
Making a major life change like moving halfway across the country to follow a dream is a risky proposition – especially for your frame of mind. You’ve set pretty high expectations for how wonderful and carefree your new Disney life will be. But unless you’re prepared to stay positive and generous no matter what, your high expectations are bound to come crashing down.
“Being down here for a week,” said Peter, “the odds of you seeing an upset cast member or an upset family, or to see something weird happening that would ruin a day or a stay in a resort is far less than if you’re here 7 days a week for your whole life.”
“In bad times and in good, I have never lose my sense of zest for life.” – Walt Disney
“You’re gonna see upset cast members. You’re gonna see a ridiculous guest causing a fit or an accident happen, or an extra 25 minute wait at the monorail… You have to be able to brush those off because you do have the luxury to see it when it’s not a wait, when Main Street is empty, when there’s a walk-on to Space Mountain, which never happens.”
“You can’t have the good without the bad.”
Tip 7: Be Generous & Humble
Disney annual-passholders get a bad wrap. In some ways they deserve it. I hear the word “entitled” thrown around a lot with regard to the way “APs” act toward cast members and other guests. To the Brookharts, the antidote for entitled-passholder-syndrome is to think of yourself less and to think of others more.
“There’s really no reason why we’re any more important than any other person here,” said Sarah. “And I might say we’re less important because people could have saved for the past 5 years to get their 7 days here.”
“Why would we take up extra space in line on a Saturday night in July when people on vacation could be utilizing it themselves,” Peter added.
Letting other people go first might be the most difficult adjustment for a Disney pilgrim like yourself, but it’s this kind of attitude that will sustain your positive mindset (see Tip 7) for the long haul.
“It’s hard to be like, ‘Oh, if you’re not a humble person, don’t take the move,’” said Sarah, “but it’s just that you’re going to be a more pleasant person to be around. And your experience as a guest will be much more pleasant if you go into it with a mindset of humility.”
Tip 8: Own It
As much as you want your family and friends to be supportive of your Dis-placement (see what I did there?) most of them won’t understand.
Let’s be honest. Some people just don’t get the whole Disney thing. When they hear what you’re thinking of doing, they roll their eyes and write you off as weird. Fair enough. Others might be jealous and take it out on you with snide comments or talking behind your back. Still others are simply afraid of the unknown.
“Sarah was basically the first person in her family to leave the south side of Chicago,” Peter said. “We did something new that was scary for us and scary for the family because nobody does this!”
Even if they don’t say it, you’ll be able to sense that friends and family are judging you (a little, or a lot) for following this dream.
But here’s the thing. It’s not their dream. It’s yours. You have to own it.
Moving to Disney is no different than moving to the mountains or the beach or the city. Some people work their tails off to realize their dreams and move to the places they love the most. Nobody faults them for that.
Peter said, “We had to look at ourselves honestly and say, ‘What is really going to make us happy?’” For Sarah and Peter Brookhart, the answer was to pursue their passion and move to Walt Disney World.
So if you’re serious about relocating to be near a Disney resort (or to follow whatever your dreams might be), your first move is to take a hard look at your motivations. Then, you’ve got to count the costs and survey the obstacles. Finally, when you’re ready to face down your doubts and fears to pursue your dreams then there’s only one thing left to do… embrace what you love and own it.
In preparing this article, I learned about several other interesting people who did something similar to the Brookharts. I encourage you to check them out:
Mr. Peter Tu: This retiree is known as “the clapping man of Disneyland,” spends every morning walking through the park getting exercise and encouraging every cast member he sees. His trademark handshake and recognizable clap makes him one of Disneyland’s most adored citizens. Watch a day in Peter Tu’s life HERE.
Lisa Dinoto Glassner: Lisa was a lawyer by day, runner by night, and Disney fanatic through and through. When her father passed away, she decided to quit her career and run after what she loves. So she and her family relocated to a neighborhood just behind the castle. Follow her story at TheCastleRun.com.
Jeff Reitz: On a whim in 2012, Jeff challenged himself to visit Disneyland every day for a year. But once the habit was formed, he didn’t stop. With some visits as short as a half hour, he still makes time to visit Walt’s original theme park once a day. Read Jeff Reitz’ story HERE.
Tom Bricker: So you want an opposing viewpoint? Want somebody to help you level you expectations and maybe talk you out of migrating south? Tom’s post about the downside of moving to Disney has some good points you should consider – although he says he has “no regrets.”
With today’s news that a Marvel themed land, replete with Spider-Man and Avengers attractions, will soon displace “A Bug’s Land” in Disney California Adventure (Disneyland’s kid-sister park next door), the comic book hero fans all gave a collective cheer. But the celebrations were mired by the unwelcome surprise that Disney had already shuttered A Bug’s Land’s anchor attraction, the immersive 4-D theater masterpiece “It’s Tough to be a Bug” just a few days before!
This came as a shock to some as Disney has lately made a big deal about closing attractions so that adoring fans can say their last goodbyes. After learning their lesson when they shut down “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and herds of superfans staged toad-themed sit ins, Disney has dutifully publicized attraction closures with plenty of time to give the adherents time to visit one more time (and buy the closure-related merchandise).
Beloved attractions like “Maelstrom” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” at Epcot, “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney Hollywood Studios, “Hollywood Tower of Terror” at DCA have all been given appropriate mourning periods. And most recently, the controversial redesign of the contested “Buy a Wench for a Bride” scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean” has fans lining up for one last look at the human-trafficking, er, classic animatronics scene. It’s even led to an entire cottage industry of “We wants the Red-Head” fan-made and official park merchandise – no matter how inappropriate the thought may be.
But I digress.
“It’s Tough To Be A Bug” Closed Forever
So when I saw that “It’s Tough to be a Bug” was dropped into the Extinct-Attractions barrel without a lick of fanfare, I felt a twinge of sadness. Guests will never get to see the attraction’s impressive queue with an ants-eye view, the creepy-crawly parody theater posters, and the cavernous theater themed like an insect’s Pantages Theater (an I say “Ant-ages?”).
But here’s the good news.
I was in the park last Tuesday enjoying the beauty of a rainy Disney day. As I passed by A Bug’s Land, I remembered some of the rumors of a Marvel Land coming in the future. So I decided I would get a jump on it and grab some pictures for posterity, including detailed photos of the “It’s Tough to be a Bug’s” queue and interior. Little did I know, I was capturing these photos for the ages.
So I invite you to shrink down with me and enjoy one last look at “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” and the rest of A Bug’s Land before it’s all gone forever.
The Story So Far: Tom Nabbe started his Disney career at the age of twelve shilling newspapers on Main Street in Disneyland. A year later, after bugging Walt Disney like only a twelve-year-old can do, he was hired to be the Tom in Tom Sawyer Island. Taking pictures, signing autographs, and baiting fishing lines with worms. (Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.)
But his story doesn’t stop there. In fact Tom Nabbe’s Disney career is one of the most enviable and storied in the history of the Walt Disney Company.
In this second part of Tom Nabbe’s story, we meet him as a teenager. He leaves Tom Sawyer Island and begins working Rides and Attractions throughout the park. After an unforeseen tragedy cuts his military career short, he ships off to Orlando to help open the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. After an incredible string of historic attraction openings (you won’t believe his list), Tom is called to serve on the opening crew of EPCOT Center.
As if that weren’t enough Tom was honored with a window on Main Street AND received the moniker of Disney Legend. “Legend” doesn’t begin to describe this journey.
As the interview continues, I slip in that I worked at the park for a while as a Jungle Cruise Skipper under Dick Nunis.
Tom Nabbe – Oh, okay. Well, I was a Jungle Cruise Operator back in winter ‘61/62 through ‘65 and then I left to go to the Marine Corps and then I came back. I worked, depending on what seniority bought me, I probably worked a few times on the Jungle Cruise in ‘68/‘69, and then I was promoted into management in 1970.
Freddy Martin – Wow! I did not know that about you. A fellow Skipper on the phone! That’s Fantastic. How long were you in rides and attractions
The 55 Club
T – Rides and attractions for 25 years, and the the last 22 years was in support and warehousing. So 47 years total the way the company counts it. But I count it 48, because they don’t give me credit for the year that I worked for the lessee (selling the Disneyland News in 1955).
F – But you have a paycheck stub somewhere that says 55 on it, right?
T – No. I have my original hire status from 1956. Does Ron Heminger mean anything to you?
Ron and myself always contested with Dick that we were both there in the beginning and that we should be members of the 55 club. And when Ron Heminger’s dad passed away… he was going through the paperwork. He found his hire status from 1955. So Ron Heminger, Myself, and a guy by the name of Marshall Spelzer (sp) that worked in decorating, all had the same hire date; June 18, 1956.
“He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.”
Dick had always told us that if we could prove we were there in ‘55 and worked for the company, he’d make us members of the 55 Club. So when Ron found his paperwork, Dick followed up on his promise and changed Ron’s status to whenever the date was on his paperwork was in July of ‘55, I believe. And at the same time he gave me credit to be a member of the 55 Club. He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.
The Battle of Pacific Coast Highway
F – Let’s transition into your career at Disney World, you already had a ton of roles and it sounds like you went off to serve in our country’s service for a while?
T – In ‘64, I got a letter from my other uncle, Uncle Sam. And Uncle Sam sent me this letter that he wanted me to participate in Vietnam. And I decided then, I’m sort of a John Wayne fan, if I was gonna go to Vietnam, I wanted to be best trained. And as far as I’m concerned that was being trained by the Marine Corps. So I went down and I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
And I enlisted on a 3-year hitch. And the reason I did that is because a 3-year hitch basically said I had no active reserve time. So it was 3 years active duty, 3 years inactive duty to satisfy the 6-year obligation. And the reason-being is the schedulers didn’t really like the “weekend warriors.”
“I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.”
If those people that signed up in the reserve or ended up getting drafted, they were “active reserve” (for) 2 years. So they had to play soldier one weekend a month and one week out of the summer. And I didn’t want that obligation. I just wanted to do my active duty time and the inactive reserve portion of it.
What I didn’t realize is that by signing up on that 3-year hitch, that I was in turn eligible for school. I scored extremely high in electronics. They decided to make an aviation radio repair man out of me. And the incentive to graduate from that was that if you failed being a radio repairman they made a radio operator out of you.
A radio operator’s life expectancy was just slightly longer than the first lieutenant of the platoon. So you didn’t want to be a radio operator. I graduated fourth in my class. And I ended up (with) orders for Da Nang.
And I guess someone up there was looking out for me… because I was hauling all my stuff back up to – my mother lived in Newport Beach – and I was hauling my stuff up to her apartment because I had orders to Da Nang. And a drunk hit me head on.
I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.
Then after that, I ended up getting mustered out on a medical. So I joined the Marine Corps in the height of the Vietnam War. I never got more than 82 miles from home, and I didn’t have to go to Vietnam.
F – What a story!
Joining The Florida Project
T – Then, when I came back I had dreams of grandeur going to Cal State Fullerton to become an electronical engineer. And I went to school on the G.I. Bill. Tried that for almost a year.
Right about that time frame they were interviewing people to come to Walt Disney World. And so I went through a round of interviews, getting promoted into management. I sort of realized I wasn’t going to be a fantastic electronical engineer, and what I really wanted to be was a rides and attractions supervisor. So I ended up taking a job offer.
I hadn’t been east of Phoenix, that I was aware of. My mother told me that we went to Chicago on a train one time, but I don’t remember that.
So, I ended up getting married in ‘68, while I was still in the Marine Corps to a lady – we worked together at Oaks Tavern (The Stage Door Café today) in Frontierland, and she was (also) working for the Anaheim School District. We ended up getting married and relocating to Florida, in January of 1971.
Monorails, Steam Trains, and Back to the Island
Two of the attractions I had never worked as a ride operator was the steam train and the monorail. And you probably know why, is they were operated by Retlaw. And in order to be a monorail operator you had to be six-foot tall, and I was never gonna be six-foot tall.
Pete Crimmings was my manager for years and one of my mentors. Pete was going to be the manager of the transportation system of Walt Disney World. And he wanted me to operate and run the Monorail system. So when I got back from the service and got promoted, I ended up getting trained on the Monorail and the Steam Trains by Retlaw. So I finally got to work those two attractions, which is sort of neat.
“Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.”
F – You were there early on in Florida. What was it like to see Walt Disney’s Dream go to that next level? You’d been there at the beginning of the other park.
T – It was phenomenal. The people of Florida, if you look at the demographics of the people who were going to Disneyland during that time frame, only about 13 percent of the people came from east of the Mississippi. Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.
And all the attractions at the fair were the most popular ones. So in turn, that’s how he ended up in Florida.
And Bob Matheison was the director at that time frame and Bob had run the Small World attraction at the New York world’s fair. And when he came back he was assigned to the Florida Project by Walt.
“So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area…”
The neat thing of that was to see things in the conceptual stage and to actually see them constructed and to know that you’re going to operate them and actually transport guests, in whatever it was you were looking at; Monorails, Osceolas (the double-deck, side-paddle wheel, walking-beam steam boats that operated on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon, “The Ports-O-Call” & “Southern Seas”), Mark Twains, except it was the Admiral Fowler. That’s what the original boat was (called) on the Rivers of America.
So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area, so I went from the transportation system operating the monorail to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of the Richard F. Irvine, which was the second sternwheeler, and Tom Sawyer’s Island.
And we did the same thing there. We invited the winners of the Hannibal contest there to participate in the opening of the island, and that was in, I wanna say June of ‘73,
Spaceships, Submarines, and Wild Mine Train
T – And then right after that, I ended up going to Tomorrowland because they were gonna build Space Mountain, the Star Jets, WedWay, Carousel of Progress, and Space Mountains. So I got tagged as a sort of nuts and bolts project guy so in turn I would go to where we were gonna build something new, and then go through the training of the people, and then actually operate it after that.
Then after we opened Space Mountain the decision was to when we opened Walt Disney World, 20k, the submarine ride, the water for the submarine ride was pumped out of the aquifer into the submarine ride, and from there it went into the moat, and from the moat it went into the Jungle Cruise, and from the jungle cruise it went to the rivers of america and then from rivers of America, it went down the light boat channel into the seven seas lagoon.
All the art directors that came down here in the beginning would go to silver springs,
“…the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids…”
And were just amazed at the clarity of the water at silver springs, and so they decided that we would get the water out of the aquifer that they wouldn’t have to chlorinate it and filter it like they had to do at Disneyland at the subs.
But in turn that wasn’t a good decision because you weren’t moving the same quantity of water through the system that was coming out of silver springs. So it started getting algae built up. And so the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids, and so the decision was to enclose 20k, and go through an entire rehab, and update everything. And we had to close it and chlorinate it.
So I went to Fantasyland to oversee that project and retrain all the sub operators and we came back up.
And once we finished that, the next thing on the horizon was Big Thunder Mountain and so I went back to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of Big Thunder Mountain.
And once we opened Big Thunder Mountain, the next thing on the horizon was Epcot.
Seeing Walt’s Dream Through
And so I was moved onto the project team for Epcot into PICO. PICO’s an acronym for Project installation coordination office. And Orlando Ferrante, the Vice President of WED, actually a football player with Dick and Ron Miller, and Tommy Walker back in the good old days.
Ferrante pretty much established P.I.C.O. when they built the New York World’s Fair. And had developed that whole process, and what it was to take the people out of the operating side of the business, to be involved in construction, and once the construction was over with to be involved in the training of the people to operate the new ride and attractions, and then to be part of the management group going forward. So that was sort of the evolution of PICO.
I thought I was going to be a pavilion coordinator, but my boss at that time, Norm Doerges, decided that they wanted to develop an item tracking system for everything that we bought or built for show installation and we needed a warehouse in order to do that for that product that was gonna be stored prior to installation. Some of the product was delivered directly to the site and installed and so I ran that operation. That’s how I got into warehousing.
“The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what…”
F – And that’s where you were for the next 22 years?
T – Yes. Actually ‘79 through 2003.
So in ‘84, when the company went through the entire restructure and went through the greenmail all that other stuff that was going on during that time, and I don’t know if you’ve read The Storming of the Magic Kingdom, but all that was going on and I end up having the opportunity to go into Distribution Services for Walt Disney World versus being in rides and attractions at Walt Disney World, so I ended up going into the warehouse operation as the superintendent of general supplies and long term project storage.
The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what, but he didn’t come back and six of us interviewed for the job and I ended up getting it.
That’s how I ended up being the manager of distribution services for Walt Disney World.
And Everything Else
F – What didn’t you do in the parks?
T – I was in food in ‘65 just prior to going into the Marine Corps. When all the lessees contracts started to run out, most of them were on 5 or 10 year contracts. And ABC owned United Paramount Theaters, UPT, which ran all the fast food operations at Disneyland. In ‘65, their contract was up and Disneyland Incorporated took over the fast food operations. And I worked as the Assistant Supervisor in Frontierland outdoor foods in the Oaks Tavern area.
And then at that point then I went into the marine corps, and when I came back, I came back into rides and attractions.
Then in ‘79, after we opened Big Thunder, I worked in Area 3 food in Walt Disney World. And that was back when they were talking about Generalists. They wanted people with backgrounds in rides and attractions, and merchandise, and food. And so I had gone in and talked to Bob Matheison about getting some food experience.
And I ended up being the food manager in what they called Area 3 Food, which was Frontierland/Liberty Square and Adventureland. And I had that for just a little less than a year until I got the job offer to go to Epcot.
The only thing I haven’t done is actually operate a merchandise location, but I was in charge of all the warehousing to support merchandise, so one of my warehouse managers used to call me a merchant wannabe.
F – I would take issue with that. I mean you sold newspapers in 1955. That’s merch, right?
T – Oh yeah. Ok. Yes, I had merchandise in 1955 as a newspaper boy.
Great Moments With Mr. Nabbe
F – I know you got Disney Legend status but did you get any other honors along the way?
T – Well, I ended up with a window on main street when I retired in 03 at Walt Disney World. I tried for both parks but I didn’t make it. But they did give me a window on Main Street. It’s above the cinema on the right hand side. And the window says Sawyer Fence Painting, Proprietor, Tom Nabbe, Lake Buena Vista, Florida and Anaheim, California.
F – What were some of your greatest moments in your Disney career.
T – Every 5th anniversary for Disneyland, with the exception of the 10th cause I was gone then in the Marine Corps, my goal is to be on Main Street on July 17, and I’ve managed to accomplish that ever since 1970.
And when we were out there for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, the alumni club out there had a dinner dance, and we had gone to the dance, and while we were at the dance, Jim Cora (James Cora), does that name mean anything to you? Well Jim sorta looked at me and said, “Well, Tom, I’ll see you in September.” And I don’t know if you ever worked with Jim, but Jim was one of those guys that if he could pull your leg, and throw something out there, he’s always looking to razz you, and so I’m sort of a little curious here, but I says, well, no I won’t be back in September.
He says “We’ve been nominated and going to be inducted as Disney Legends.” I thought, “Well that’s sorta neat.”
So when we got back to the hotel room after dinner, I had called my sister who was house sitting for me, and said, “hey is there a letter from the studio there.” And she said, “oh yeah.” I said, “How about opening it up and looking at it?” And sure enough it said that we were invited back in September of 05 to be inducted as a Disney Legend, and so Cora wasn’t pulling my leg. It was an actual event that was occurring.
So we were able to come back out and they treated us like royalty. Because of the anniversary, they normally had the ceremonies at that time frame at the studio. Because of Disneyland’s 50th, they had it at Disneyland, which was sort of neat.
F – Where did that take place? At the Hub?
T – Opera House. We had lunch at a restaurant there at Downtown Disney, the Napa Rose restaurant. And I had the opportunity to have lunch with Roy Disney at that lunch. The Legends program was very much Roy’s baby. Sorta neat.
Plus Roy’s a sailor and I’m a sailor. The only difference is my boat is 16 foot and his boat is 60 feet, but sailing is sailing so we were both able to talk a little bit about sailing. He had just finished up on the Honolulu race.
NEXT: We’ll go back again to Disneyland on July 17, 1955, when a celebrity makes Tom Nabbe’s dreams come true with a couple passes to the fateful Press Opening. You won’t want to miss one magical moment with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe.
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Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, California Adventure, Disney Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom are all on Google Street View
As soon as Google Earth came out, I was able to travel the world from my office. I flew over favorite vacation spots, old schools I went to, places I dream of visiting, and my childhood home. Then of course Google Streetview gave me the ability to see where I would be for a meeting later, or just travel through places I love without all that pesky traffic. The most fun was always checking out the Disney parks with new perspectives you can’t get just walking through.
But you could never really get into the parks with the flyover view. That changes today! Deanna Yick, Program Manager for Google Street View just announced that we will now get “new fantastic points of view” as Street View goes the distance in Disney parks. Explore every nook and cranny of the parks without waiting in a single line and see the Disney details you may have never seen before.
Think of the benefit this will be for Disney bloggers like me, vacation planners, and the curious among us who just want to see what all the buzz is about. Here are the links to each of the parks and park sections so you can get started on your couch-side Disney vacation right now!!
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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Get ready to get lost in adventure at the new Tropical Hideaway in Adventureland at Disneyland. Y’all know how much I love Adventureland details and Easter eggs, and I am 100% certain this place will be loaded with them. I was in Skipper Heaven when The Jungle Navigation Ltd. Skipper Canteen restaurant was opened at Walt Disney World, and this location promises even more of the same. Look for plenty of puns and references to the notorious members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, including the namesake of those world-famous falls, Dr. Albert Falls. No doubt this announcement is prompted by the expected popularity of the Jungle Cruise movie starring Dwayne Johnson coming to theaters next year. And all the Skippers say… it better be good.Here’s the scoop from the Disney Parks Blog:
The Tropical Hideaway discovered in Adventureland at Disneyland Park
February 22nd, 2018
Calling all adventurers! There will soon be a new area of Adventureland to explore at Disneyland Park. The former Aladdin’s Oasis will soon be transformed to The Tropical Hideaway! This new experience will soon appear along the tropical shores nestled between the Jungle Cruise and “Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.” This one‐of‐a‐kind destination will be a popular rest stop for Adventureland locals and weary explorers alike. Guests will be able to rub elbows with their favorite skippers in an exotic traders’ market, featuring all of the sights, sounds and flavors of the tropics. Keep your eyes out for more information on this exciting new location as more is discovered.
What do you think about this new use of the old Tahitian Terrace space? Leave your jungle love in a comment below.
Disneyland concept art above for the Tropical Hideaway from the Disney Parks Blog. Image copyright belongs to Disney. Shared with good faith as a fan to help promote their business and creativity.
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.