Disney Secrets You Can See From Space

Can we as a culture, once and for all, stop saying that the Great Wall of China is “the only thing visible from space?” That myth, perpetuated by NASA astronauts who only had a brief porthole view of our little green marble, is easily busted with a quick look at Google Maps. Thanks to their hi-res satellite pictures, knit together to form a global tapestry, we’re able to grab a brand new perspective other generations only dreamed of. So for all my Disney friends, fans, and freaks (you know who you are), I’ve scoured the digital globe to find for you some of the most magical, mind-blowing (and vertigo-inducing) Disney secrets you can see from space!

NOTE: I’ve included screenshots from Google Maps within this article. To zoom in and explore them for yourself, copy and paste the included coordinates into the Google search bar. You’ll then need to change your map view to “satellite” to see the actual satellite views.*

Walt’s Disney’s Personal Plane


Walt Disney’s Gulfstream 1 (N234MM) when it was on display at Disney Hollywood Studios in 2015. Photo ©2018 Freddy Martin, All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney owned several private planes he used for business travel. Most famously, he used his planes to scout locations for land where he could build his “Florida Project,” the idea that would eventually become Walt Disney World in Central Florida. One of the planes, a twin turboprop Gulfstream 1, was on display as part of the Studio Backlot Tour at Disney Hollywood Studios theme park. Known by its tail numbers, “November Two Three Four Mickey Mouse,” this unique craft gave Walt Disney wings to pursue his dreams.

Models of Walt’s planes (including N234MM) are also currently on display in his original offices (Suite 3H) at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Photo ©2018 Freddy Martin, All Rights Reserved.

After the Backlot Tour was closed, and the back half of the park was demolished to make way for Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the plane disappeared from public view with many wondering if that treasure of the Disney past is lying in a scrap pile somewhere, never to be seen again.

Not exactly.

Reedy Creek Environmental Services – Red circle shows location of Walt’s plane. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Directly North of Disney Animal Kingdom, on Bear Island Road is the Reedy Creek Environmental Services facility. This is part of the government agency started by Roy O. Disney that provides services (water, power, emergency services, etc.) to Walt Disney World. In a view from space (via Google Earth), on a small dirt lot on the property’s east side, we can see a twin turboprop Gulfstream 1, nowhere near an airstrip, and surrounded by barricades.

Walt Disney’s Gulfstream 1 plane in storage in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

It’s pretty obvious this is Walt’s Gulfstream 1 awaiting its final fate. Incidentally, I have it on decent authority that the plan will not be left here to rot in a Florida swamp. Keep an eye on this post over the next couple I’ll share a hint of where it may be headed next.

To read more about the life of N234MM check out Jim Korkis’ interview on the subject at Yesterland.com.

Captain Nemo’s Sunken Sub


Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in all her glory.

For those who grew up going to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, one of their most beloved memories was a journey beneath the sea, 20,000 leagues to be exact. Based on the Walt Disney Productions film based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage took guests on an eye-opening, underwater cruise past scenes of shipwrecks, giant squids, mermaids, and sea serpents (Mr. Baxter… you’ve been submerged too long).

Perhaps the most exciting feature of the attraction was the unique design of the subs themselves. Fashioned after Captain Nemo’s submarine, designed for the film by Disney Legend Harper Goff, these steampunky dive ships blended weaponized steel with Victorian grace. The eerily shark-like shape and googly-eyed port holes intrigued young and old alike.

So when the attraction closed in 1994, many mourned the loss of a childhood memory they would never again relive. Until now.

Kind of.

Castaway Cay – Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Disney stripped and buried all but three of the original 40-ton subs. One found a home in a backstage area of Disney Hollywood Studios visible on the now-defunct Backlot Studio Tour. The other two were taken to Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, Castaway Cay, and sunk in the shallows as an artificial reef habitat for snorkelers to explore.

Snorkeling Lagoon – Red circle shows location of the last of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarines from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Castaway Cay. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Today, only one remains, its signature silhouette almost completely unrecognizable as hurricanes have stripped away the fins. But from space, you can still see its long, sinister shape in the protected snorkeling lagoon.

The Nautilus – The last of Captain Nemo’s submarines is now a snorkeling reef on Disney’s private island.

Check out an up close video view of Captain Nemo’s sunken sub HERE.

Hidden Under Foot

Even though these next Disney secrets are not exactly hidden from view to guests, they qualify as Disney secrets because millions of Disney guests will walk over them day by day and never even notice that there’s a story being told literally under their feet!

Back in the 1980s when I worked at Disneyland, there was always a fun fact I liked pointing out to people. In each of the themed lands of the park, the asphalt seal, or “slurry,” was colored to match the design of the land. Adventureland was green, Frontierland was a burnt orange, Tomorrowland was blue, and so on. This was an effort to further theme the lands.

But today, they’re not satisfied with pathways for pathways’ sake. They want to “plus” the experience even further by building design elements into the paving. Perhaps you’ve noticed the detailed hoof prints in the pavement in Frontierland, or the leaves and bio-luminescence pressed into the ground in Pandora. But these next Disney theming secrets are so big you’d need back up, way up, to be able to see them.

Downtown Disney is a Flowering Vine

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Between ESPN Zone and the AMC theaters (soon to be demolished for a new hotel, the vines begin to crawl through Downtown Disney. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.
The Downtown Disney vine continues eastward toward the parks wrapping the monorail station in its leaves. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.
UVA Bar & Cafe is the center of the district, itself a flower along the vine. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Back in 2001, when Anaheim’s version of Downtown Disney district opened, it was a new concept of shopping and dining for the Disneyland Resort. Opened in concert with the opening of Disney’s California Adventure park (DCA), the district offered fun and community for vacationers and locals alike to spend an evening within the Disney bubble and without entering the parks.

Designed as a “garden within the city,” the walkways are decorated as a flowering fine with planters shaped like leaves and flower shapes that create seating and dining areas. Even the promenade between Disneyland Park and DCA is designed as a lattice on which the vines can grow. Truly a beautiful Disney secret you’ll only see if you’re looking down.

Disneyland Resort Promenade is a lattice from which the Downtown Disney Vine can blossom. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Right Brain/Left Brain in Epcot’s Future World

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Future World from Space – Left and right brains of the of Epcot’s Future World. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

When Walt Disney’s original idea for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was scrapped (because some people tend to enjoy their voting rights), Disney Imagineers pursued instead the idea of a future world that showcased some of the beautiful and upcoming technologies that would feed humankind’s desire for both creativity and technology.

Future World West – The curving shapes and wandering ways give space for creativity and wonder. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

The result was a large area of Epcot called Future World where guests can explore the beauty and creativity inspired by the natural world on one side (Future World West) and the analytical and mechanical wonders of mankind’s creation on the other side (Future World East). Future World West, in theory, speaks to the right hemisphere of the brain with pavilions dedicated to the land, the sea, and human imagination, while Future World East speaks to linear thinking and mathematic thought with pavilions dedicated to energy, motion, and medicine. But these are more than just a grouping of attractions.

Future World East – The sharp lines and geometric lines speak to the analytical mind of the left brain. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

From the satellite’s orbit, we can see that Disney Imagineers even designed the walkways, water features, trees, and planters were built with these concepts in mind. In Future World West, the undulating and fluid shapes lead one to meander through and perhaps think more creatively. In Future World East, the hard-line, geometric shapes cause one to take decisive direction when choosing where to adventure next.

Discoveryland Nautilus

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Discoveryland – Europe’s version of Tomorrowland takes on a steam punk style. Sharp-eyed tourists can also see another replica of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in the bay. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Just a short hop across the pond to Disneyland Paris, we’ll find another beautiful feature hidden beneath our feet that’s visible from high above the earth. On your way to Space Mountain in Discoveryland (the European equivalent to the American parks’ Tomorrowland), you’ll walk right over another tribute to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You probably won’t notice that the paving stones are arranged in the shape of a nautilus, the cephalopod who Captain Nemo’s submarine was named after.

This Nautilus shape is invisible to most pedestrians, but from space it shows a tribute to Jules Verne’s classic novel and the 1960s Disney film. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Film Reel Footpath

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Disney Hollywood Studios in Paris, France. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

A few short steps (and another theme park admission price) away at Disney Hollywood Studios in Paris, there’s another big story being told in the pavement. Near the Plaza of Stars, where movie and TV stars have pressed their hand and footprints into soft cement, there is a film reel walk way that only reveals itself from above.

Disney Bros. Plaza – A walkway of film leads to an argyle sweater courtyard, two things the Disney brothers learned a lot about in their first years in Hollywood. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Follow that pathway to an area called Disney Bros. Plaza and you’ll see the pathway change into an argyle pattern, not unlike a sweater vest worn by Hollywood types in the 1920s when Walt and Roy Disney first came to Hollywood – the real one.

DisneySea Plaza Moon Phases

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Tokyo DisneySea – Disney’s most unique theme park tells the legends and lore of the world’s oceans. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Much further East, at DisneySea in Tokyo, there’s another underfoot secret spotted from satellite cameras, or should I say from the Moon? Within the DisneySea Plaza, a large circular piazza surrounded by what may be the homes of the great oceanic explorers, guests crowd around the beautiful fountain globe to take pictures with the first icon of the park, a gold and alabaster sailing ship.

DisneySea Plaza – The welcoming plaza for Tokyo DisneySea displays a gigantic diagram of the Moon’s phases that you could see from, well… the Moon! Photo from Google Earth, 2018.

Little do they know, that under their feet, the Imagineers designed a complete map of the Moon’s phases. Sailors of old had only the sky to guide them, so this map declares from the outset the excitement and wonder of exploration at sea.

Lotus Flower in Shanghai

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Shanghai Disney – Disney’s newest theme park impresses with some of it’s grandest illusions yet. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Travel West now to Shanghai Disney in China. As you enter the resort, there is another vast plaza welcoming guests to enjoy this newest of the Disney parks. Few guests ever look down to see that they are standing on a gigantic image of lotus blossoms. Deeper in the park, at the hub leading to each of the park’s magical themed lands there is another representation of the lotus.

Lotus Blossom Entry – Out of what was once a barren field, these blossoms at the entry to Shanghai Disney promise glimpses into the past, present, and future. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

What’s so special about this is that the lotus symbolizes something beautiful and pure coming out of the murky mud to show us the past, present, and future. Where else but this park could this message be more appropriate?

Massive Hidden Mickeys

Everybody loves noticing a Hidden Mickey. Especially when it’s one nobody has ever noticed before. Imagine the astronauts’ surprise of when they look down to see these humongous Mickey Mouse shapes hidden where nobody would see them, without Google Earth, that is.

Mickey-Shaped Lake

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Lake Mickey – How do you punish Donald Duck? Put him in this lake and tell him to go sit in the corner. Ha! Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

I’m not sure if this is actually a lake. It could be a reservoir or water treatment area for all I know. Heck, it might even be an alligator farm. But smack dab in the middle of the massive Walt Disney World property, in an area where guests used to be able to drive real race cars, is this perfectly symmetrical body of water shaped like the famous mouse. It’s located just South of the Mulan parking lot.

Mickey-Shaped Solar Farm

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Looks like a bunch of solar panels from World Drive. Wait ’til you see it from space! Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Just down World Drive from the Mickey-shaped lake is a Mickey-shaped solar farm. This massive field of solar panels looks like any other solar farm you’d see in a trip across the country, but when viewed from a space craft, it betrays its true shape. Who knows, when the aliens come from a Mickey-shaped planet, they may think we were speaking to them, offering a peaceful welcome… and churros.

Staring at the Sun – This Mickey-shaped solar farm brings energy to Epcot. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Mickey Shaped Pedestrian Path

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Mickey-shaped pedestrian path through the Disneyland Resort. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

If exercise is frustrating to you because you only feel like you’re running around in circles, this next hidden Mickey will validate your feelings. At the Disneyland Resort, straddling Disneyland Drive with Paradise Pier Hotel on one side and DCA on the other, is a pedestrian path with that distinctive mouse shape. During the Run Disney events held right there, the runners usually use the middle of the road technique, but it’s not unusual for those in the know to take an ear or two at the beginning of their 10k.

Misshapen Mickey

The Mickey Mouse flower portrait at the entrance to Disneyland, Anaheim, California. Photo from Google Maps, 2018.

Now don’t freak out. I know this isn’t a “Hidden Mickey.” In fact it’s probably the most photographed Mickey in the entire world. But since we’re looking down from space, I thought you’d be interested to see how distorted this image of Mickey actually is.

This is the Mickey flower bed in the entry area of Disneyland. Disney’s landscape designers wanted Mickey to look more like himself in from down below where the people are, so they used forced perspective and actually planted his image with a broad upward stretch. It’s not meant to be seen from space. Unless you’re a rocket man, you wouldn’t notice this weird effect.

If you view this location via Google Maps with the 3D effect* on, you’ll see that they went in and fixed the image to make Mickey look more like himself.

What Else Can You See From Space?

I’ve got so much more to share, but this post is getting so long. I may add to it along the way or introduce a part two.

In the meantime, are there any Disney secrets you’d like to share? Write a comment below and I’ll check it out. It might make it into one of my posts in the future.



*From time to time, things on the ground change and, depending on what browsers or devices you use, the images may look different from what I’ve posted here. You can toggle 3D or map labels on and off in Google Maps settings.

Dreaming with Walt Disney – Chat with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe (Part 3)

Back To Disneyland: In our last post from the interview with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe, we followed his adventures from Tom Sawyer Island, to the Marine Corps, and then to Florida where he helped open Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT Center, securing his status as a Disney Legend, and receiving a window on Main Street in his honor.

In this final post, we’ll learn how a boy named Tom gave Walt Disney some great ideas for improving the island they both knew and loved. Then we’ll hear about the last time Tom interacted with Walt. Finally, we’ll remember the day Walt passed away and where Tom was when he heard the news.

But first, let’s go back in time to Tom’s first visit to Disneyland on July 17, 1955–Opening Day! Tom and his mother were living in the neighborhood just north of the property where Disneyland was being built (just East of Harbor Blvd. on Vermont Ave.). Tom and his buddies would go over to the park and look over the fences to see into the Magic Kingdom as it was being built.

He never dreamed his lifelong story of working for the Disney Company would begin on the day Disneyland opened!

Disneyland’s Opening Day

F – You were one of the lucky kids who got into Disneyland for the opening press day on July 17, 1955. How in the world did that happen?

T – My mother was a starlet wannabe. And she used to haul us to Hollywood for all the premier openings. And we used to go to whatever TV show that she could get tickets for and that type thing. And if she wasn’t going to be a starlet, one of her kids was going to be. And so I finally worked into that.

She was over at Disneyland on July 17, ‘55 for the press opening, and she was getting autographs and that type of thing.

“Well I got a couple extra tickets. Do you want em?”

Disneyland opening day ticket for Sunday, July 17, 1955. This ticket belongs to Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe.
Tom Nabbe’s opening day ticket. Opening day tickets were not numbered. Guests were grouped into staggered entry times. Tom says the tickets in the Disney Archives are marked with 2:30pm, but his and his mother’s tickets were for 5:30pm. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

Danny Thomas came out and she asked Danny for an autograph. And of course he gave that to her. And he sort of leaned forward and said, “Have you been in the park?” And she says, “Oh no. We weren’t invited.” And he says, “Well I got a couple extra tickets. Do you want em?”

And so we went into the press opening for Disneyland as guests of Danny Thomas.

So it was my Mother and I. And I (still) have my ticket.

(Tom has made it a tradition to visit Disneyland on July 17th every 5th anniversary. The only one he missed was when he was in the Marine Corps.)

A Boy As Imagineer

F – Let’s flash forward again to your time with Walt. He hired you to play Tom Sawyer on his island, which is pretty extraordinary. But then he asked for your help in dreaming up the island’s second phase in 1957. Tell us about that.

T – Walt would come out into the park before the park opened, and walk around. He’d talk to the maintenance people and the custodial people, and the landscape people and he’d walk all over at that point.

“I want to know what you think the island should have.” – Walt Disney

And I remember one time he came over and he says, “Tom, I’m gonna rehab the island. Let’s walk and talk the island and I want to know what you think the island should have.”

And I told Walt it needed to have a treehouse, and it needs to have a secret escape tunnel from the fort.

Tom & Huck's Treehouse on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland.
Tom & Huck’s Treehouse on Tom Sawyer Island stands as it did following the 1958 rehab when it was added to the landscape. Photo ©2018 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

When it came up from rehab in 1958, we had a treehouse. We had an escape tunnel from the fort. We also had Castle Rock, Teeter-Totter Rock, Merry-Go-Round Rock, but I won’t take credit for those.

But the escape tunnel and the treehouse, absolutely.

Saying Goodbye

F – Do you remember the last time you spoke with Walt?

T – My last contact with Walt was back in the early sixties. It was one of those days when he was out walking in the park.

Part of our job description was to “Watch out for Walt” in many ways. And one of them was that he would totally get inundated with people who wanted autographs. And he just wasn’t as familiar with the park and how to get backstage.

And I remember it was pretty much in front of the Malt Shop (in Frontierland) and he was just mobbed by people. And so I helped him get backstage. They had an employee entrance there between the Malt Shop and Oaks Tavern (currently the barn door painted with a dragon for “Laod Bhang’s Fireworks).

Tom Nabbe and Walt Disney fishing at Disneyland along the Rivers of America. Mark Twain steamship in background.
Disneyland’s own Tom Sawyer, played by Tom Nabbe, fishes the waters of the Rivers of America with Walt Disney as the Mark Twain Steamship passes by. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

And once we got backstage, I told him, “Walt, I’m Tom Nabbe. You hired me to be Tom Sawyer.” And he said, “Oh yea, I know. I remember you. How are you? How you been?” And that type thing. And so we visited for just a little bit there.

But that was the last conversation I had with Walt. That was, I want to say ’62.

F – Wow, you saved him the embarrassment of not knowing where to go.

T – I don’t know about that, but I know I saved him from having to sign a whole lot of autographs.

F – What do you remember about when Walt Disney passed away?

T – I was in the Marine Corps. And actually, I was in school in San Diego in the MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot), and the first sergeant of the school knew that I had worked at Disneyland. And he actually pulled me out of the class and informed me that Walt had passed away, and said, “You can take a couple hours off.” And I was able to be a little bit on my own for a while and absorb that loss.

Passing On the Disney Heritage

F – What a life you’ve had!

T – You know, Freddy, it hasn’t stopped. What I do, and as long as they want me, once a month I do a Disney heritage thing for training a group for RCID (Reedy Creek Improvement District, the municipal designation of the land where Walt Disney World sits) is putting all their people through a retraining program and asked me if I would come in and share my stories. So I do that once a month.

Wayne Jackson, Bob Gurr, Tom Nabbe, Dave Smith at Disneyana Convention, June 2010
Disney Legends: Imagineers, Wayne Jackson & Bob Gurr, Tom Nabbe and Disney Archivist, Dave Smith at Disneyana Convention – July 2010

Tomorrow, I’m doing that same heritage presentation for the opening crew for Club 33 that they’re gonna build here at Walt Disney World. And so all of those cast members are going through a training program and I’ll pretty much share exactly what I just shared with you with them, tomorrow.

It was sort of neat too, because the gal that pulled the program together, I had done a “Dinner with a Legend” type thing. And she had had several Legends in for dinner with the people from D23 that were very involved and wanted to have that. We did it at the castle at Walt Disney World here. We have the College Program here, and I do it for the college program.

The gal that ran that program worked for me in the early 70s in Frontierland and she asked me to come in and talk to the group.

And so I’m constantly doing that.

I also do it for Disney fan clubs.

Cover of From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend - The Adventures of Tom Nabbe by Tom Nabbe
From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend – The Adventures of Tom Nabbe

The neat thing is I sort of tie it into book signings so I end up being able to sell copies of my book.

F – What’s the best way for me to point people to get your book?

T – If they want it signed and personalized, go to my website TomNabbe.com. If you just want the book you can get it on Amazon. If you want it in Kindle form you can get it on Amazon.

GET TOM’S BOOK: This interview barely scratches the surface of Tom’s stories growing up inside Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Take Tom’s advice. Order the book from TomNabbe.com so you can get your book signed and personalized by a Disney Legend.

Did you miss Part 1 or 2? The story of how Tom Nabbe became Walt Disney’s own Tom Sawyer is the kind of magic every Disney fan dreams of. Get started HERE.

To learn more about Walt Disney’s affinity for Mark Twain and a mysterious mark inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, check out “The Hand of Walt – A Disney Secret Hidden For Decades Is Finally Revealed!


See What A Dream Can Do – 2018 Thea Awards

The 2018 TEA Thea Awards, Anaheim, California. April 7, 2018

Originally posted to ThemedAttraction.com

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

Tony Baxter, Mike Mulligan, Phil Hettema, TEA, Themed Entertainment Association Thea Awards after party Disney Imagineer, Tony Baxter, Storyland Studios Producer, Mike Mulligan, and Buzz Price Award Honoree, Phil Hettema of THG discuss the finer points of theme park design.

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.”

Zsolt Hormay, creative executive on the Pandora World of Avatar land at Disney Animal Kingdom poses with members of his creative team Zsolt Hormay, Vice President Creative for WDI, along with members of his creative team, was honored with the Thea for Theme Park Area Development for Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney Animal Kingdom

“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.”

Garner Holt, Bill Butler, Olaf Vugts, Coen Bertens (Left to right) Garner Holt and Bill Butler of Garner Holt Productions join Stan Dingemans, Olaf Vugts, Sander de Bruijn, and Coen Bertens (far right) of de Efteling to celebrate their award for Symbolica: The Palace of Fantasy

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.”

Volunteers and members of the TEA NextGen initiative celebrate an event well done.

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.

Stacia Martin of Disneyland, Diane Michioka of ThinkWell at the Themed Entertainment Association Thea Awards Gala after party. Disneyland artist, Stacia Martin and ThinkWell Vice President of Production, Diane Michioka connect as peers at the Thea after party.

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.

Nathan Huber of 3D Live and Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts at the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual Thea Awards, 2018 3D Live creator, Nathan Huber trades secrets with Christian Lachel, executive at BRC Imagination Arts in the press reception before the Thea Awards ceremony began.

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.

Legends Collide – Olaf Vugts, Chief Imagineering Officer at Efteling and Disney Imagineer, Tony Baxter share mutual admiration at the TEA Theas after party.

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.

Wanna Tour Walt’s World With Bob Gurr?

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.

That’s like 1990s Disneyland gate prices!

Read all about the tour stops and buy your tickets now at Waltland.com Discount is only available for the April 15th tour with me and Bob Gurr.


Not Convinced?

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.

So because I love you, my dear readers, I don’t want you to miss out on this incredible experience. Get your tickets for the April 15th tour today.

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.

Get your tickets HERE. Use the offer code SKIPPERFREDDY for 40% off the April 15th Waltland Tour.

Offer available for the April 15th tour only.

Moving to Disney (Part 2) – 8 Tips To Know Before You Go

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!

If you run in Disney circles, you’ve seen the explosion of cottage industries surrounding the Disney brand. There’s Etsy shops full of Disney inspired swag. Thanks to Disney Bounding, you can find outfits, ears, and costumes to match every major, minor, and obscure Disney character ever made. There’s Disney bloggers (yours truly), vloggers, and podcasters galore. And don’t miss the Disney-attraction-flavored coffees, scented candles, and fan fiction.

Moving Day! The Brookhart Project is on the road from Chicago to Walt Disney World. Still from YouTube video “Moving Day Road Trip! Part 1 – Chicago, Illinois to Atlanta, Georgia” Click to see video on YouTube.

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.”

Spoiler Alert: Peter and Sarah moving in to their apartment in Florida.

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.

To follow Sarah and Peter Brookhart’s daily vlog adventures from Walt Disney World, subscribe to The Brookhart Project on YouTube.

To read about how Sarah and Peter made their Dis-cision to relocate to Orlando, go back to “Moving To Disney (Part 1)

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.”

Shakespeare’s Kid Sister

Acclaimed author and pre-feminist hero Virginia Woolf once wrote a fictional story about Judith Shakespeare, William’s kid sister. Although blessed with the same talents, imagination, and experiences as her brother, Judith had no opportunity to develop and express her gifts in a world where women simply weren’t afforded the space to do so.

Last Wednesday, nearly 100 years later, I had the opportunity to see a small part of Woolf’s dream come true at a staged reading of Lydia Kapp Gutilla’s Fortune’s King.

Fortune’s King tells the story of a talented, young woman named Fortuna who is unexpectedly thrust into power within a male-dominated kingdom. Fortuna is as surprised as everyone else when she is given the space to use her gifts and to lead as she sees fit. Princes, warriors, scholars, and commoners alike are suddenly forced to deal with their own prejudices and expectations as the fate of the kingdom rests in the hands of a woman. If the plot reminds you of your high school English class readings of Romeo and Juliet, you’re not far off.

The story is set in a fictional, medieval kingdom, with all the Shakespearean tropes you could shake a quill at. Fortune’s King is replete with power-hungry nobles, surly scholars, bawdy common-folk, over-heated young lovers, treacherous villains and mistaken identities. Most of all, the play is dripping with farce as characters hilariously misunderstand and respond to one another’s tangled motives and schemes.

However, as fun as the plot is and as meaningful the message, Kapp Gutilla’s play stands tallest in her ambition to stay true to the Bard’s form.

Fortune’s King is a five act play written in iambic pentameter. Yes, iambic pentameter – Shakespeare’s poetic rhythm that stumps today’s readers and actors everywhere.

One reviewer of Fortune’s King said that when he heard Kapp Gutilla had written the play in Shakespeare’s style he was, “about as excited as you would be for a trip to the DMV on your lunch break.” I have to admit I imagined a similar feeling. But the reviewer and I agree, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Playwrite Lydia Kapp Gutilla celebrates the staged reading of her 5-act, iambic pentameter play, Fortune’s King.

Kapp Gutilla’s script is fast-paced and easy to follow. Her mastery of iambic pentameter is on point and fluid. Her characters are quickly developed and sympathetic, to the point that even those with whom you don’t agree, you sense where they’re coming from and believe with them in their cause. I’ll admit there were times when my modern mind had trouble keeping up with the Queen’s English, but the actors expertly translated into body language what I lacked in vocabulary.

Virginia Woolf dreamed of a day when a woman would be allowed the space to write and share her ideas.

During the intermission, I watched as Kapp Gutilla connected with family and friends in the audience. She’s a tall, gregarious woman with striking features and a strength that exudes confidence, ambition, and possibility. Unlike Judith Shakespeare, she has opportunity and access unheard of 100 years ago.

If Virginia Woolf had been watching this version of Shakespeare’s sister with me, I imagine she would see her as alien to her own time and place. And yet, I’m certain she would soon come to see in her someone very similar to herself.

One Last Look At “A Bugs Land” Before Marvel Invades

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.

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This article is an expanded version of the original at StorylandStudios.com

To learn more about the Marvel Lands coming to Disney parks around the world go HERE.

A Lifetime of Disney Adventures – Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe (Part 2)

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?

Disneyland 1955 alumni Tom Nabbe, Bob Penfield, Dick Nunis, Ron Heminger, Ray VanDeWarker
Club 55: Tom Nabbe, Bob Penfield, Dick Nunis, Ron Heminger, Ray VanDeWarker, all men who started working at Disneyland in 1955, celebrating the park’s 40th anniversary in Walt Disney’s Apartment above the Fire Station on Main Street USA. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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?

Disney Legend Tom Nabbe in his US Marine Corps uniform circa 1964
US Marine, Tom Nabbe circa 1965 before his “Battle of Pacific Coast Highway.” Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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.

The monorail system opened in 1971 with two routes and with Mark IV monorail trains, expanded to three lines in 1982, and switched to Mark VI trains in 1989.
View showing monorail near Disney’s Contemporary Resort hotel at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida by State Library and Archives of Florida under no known copyright restrictions.

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.

“Tower of the Four Winds, 1964 New York World's Fair” by Dada1960 is licensed under CC by 4.0.
Tower of the Four Winds, 1964 New York World’s Fair” by Dada1960 is licensed under CC by 4.0.

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.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Walt Disney World, Bay Lake, Florida, circa 1979. Photo by Alex Reinhart
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction circa 1979” by Alex Reinhart is licensed under CC by 3.0.

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.

Spaceship Earth under construction in Epcot Center circa 1982, Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Walt Disney World
Spaceship Earth Construction” by BestofWDW  is licensed under CC 2.0.

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.

It’s A Small Team After All: Tom Nabbe (far left) along with other Walt Disney World managers on duty for the Cast Member Christmas Party, 1975. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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?

Main Street USA window honoring Disney Legend Tom Nabbe at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World
A Window On Main Street: Tom Nabbe’s window tribute is located above the Main Street Cinema in the Magic Kingdom. Photo Courtesy Sarah Brookhart of TheBrookhartProject. ©2018 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.

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.


Tom Nabbe’s Window on Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida
Tom Nabbe’s Window on Main Street: “Sawyer Fence Painting Co. Tom Nabbe, Proprietor, Anaheim, California, Lake Buena Vista Florida” Photo Courtesy Sarah Brookhart of TheBrookhartProject. ©2018 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.

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.”

Partners and Legends: Tom Nabbe with his Disney Legends award at the Legends Plaza at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Statues “Partners” and “Legends” by Disney sculptor, Blaine Gibson.
Partners and Legends: Tom Nabbe with his Disney Legends award at the Legends Plaza at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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.

Roy E. Disney with Tom Nabbe at his Disney Legend induction dinner held at the Napa Rose in The Grand Californian Hotel. Note Disney Imagineering Legend, X. Atencio
Roy E. Disney with Tom Nabbe at his Disney Legend induction dinner held at the Napa Rose in The Grand Californian Hotel. Note Disney Imagineering Legend, X. Atencio looking on. Photo courtesy the collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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 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 in Part 3.

Cover of From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend - The Adventures of Tom Nabbe by Tom Nabbe
From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend – The Adventures of Tom Nabbe

Enter your email address above to get new post alerts as they happen!

Read Tom Nabbe’s auto-biography, From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend – The Adventures of Tom Nabbe available at TomNabbe.com (autographed and personalized) or on Amazon.

To learn more about Walt Disney’s affinity for Mark Twain and a mysterious mark inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, check out “The Hand of Walt – A Disney Secret Hidden For Decades Is Finally Revealed!”


Did you miss Part 1? The story of how Tom Nabbe became Walt Disney’s own Tom Sawyer is the kind of magic every Disney fan dreams of. Read it HERE.

Google Street View in Disney Parks – Let’s Go to Disneyland!!

There goes my day.

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!!

Magic Kingdom Park

Disney Hollywood Studios


Disney Animal Kingdom


Typhoon Lagoon

Disney California Adventure

Disney Springs

Love visiting the Disney Parks? Here are two incredible Disney discoveries we bet you didn’t know about.

Disneyland Finally Gets Its Own S.E.A. Connection… and the Mysterious Photo That Will Blow You Out of the Backside of Water!

The Hand of Walt – A Disney Secret Hidden For Decades Is Finally Revealed!

Walt Disney’s Own Tom Sawyer – Chat with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe (Part 1)

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.

Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe, when he was a Disneyland newspaper boy, circa 1955. Framed photo located in the lobby of the Disneyland Hotel.
Disneyland Newspaper boy, Tom Nabbe, delivers the funny papers to Milton Berle and Jerry Lewis in 1955. Photo in lobby of Disneyland Hotel. ©2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.”

Young Tom Nabbe in 1955 catching bullfrogs on the Rivers of America at Disneyland.
Tom Nabbe gets groggy as Tom Sawyer before he was hired by Walt Disney to be Tom Sawyer in a Disneyland publicity shot. Photo courtesy of the personal collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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.

Tom Nabbe as Tom Sawyer on the cover of the April 7, 1957 issue of Parade Magazine.
“The Luckiest Boy in the World,” Tom Nabbe, as Tom Sawyer on the cover of Parade Magazine, circa 1957. Photo courtesy of the personal collection of Tom Nabbe. ©2018 Tom Nabbe, all rights reserved.

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.

Photo of the carved names of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the tree on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland, Anaheim, California
Tom Sawyer’s and Becky Thatcher’s names carved into the treehouse tree on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. ©2018 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

The Mark Twain river boat on the Rivers of America in Frontierland at Disneyland, in Anaheim California. Shot from Tom Sawyer Island.
The Mark Twain Sternwheeler from Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. ©2018 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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?

Water channel on Tom Sawyer Island that feeds the gristmill.
Just below the treehouse, on the Eastern side, behind a large box structure, is the water source for the channel that turns the wheel on the gristmill. This remains exactly as it did in the 1950s when Tom Nabbe worked on Tom Sawyer Island. ©2018 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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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Cover of From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend - The Adventures of Tom Nabbe by Tom Nabbe
From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend The Adventures of Tom Nabbe

Read Tom Nabbe’s auto-biography, From Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend – The Adventures of Tom Nabbe available at TomNabbe.com (autographed and personalized) or on Amazon.

To learn more about Walt Disney’s affinity for Mark Twain and a mysterious mark inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, check out “The Hand of Walt – A Disney Secret Hidden For Decades Is Finally Revealed!

*Disneyland lessees were independent businesses that leased space inside the park to sell their wares.