ANAHEIM – When civil rights activist and U.S. Representative, John Lewis, dedicated the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, his words echoed the triumph of generations; “See what a dream can do.”
The NMAAHC was honored with the Award for Outstanding Achievement (AOA) at the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) Thea Awards, where Rep. Lewis’ words also seemed to speak for the spectacular efforts of the themed entertainment professionals whose completed projects were on display that night.
The objective of the Thea Awards, TEA’s 24th annual awards gala, is to find excellence within the themed entertainment industry and celebrate it. Sponsored by the Chinese theme park giant, Chimelong, themed entertainment legends and cutting-edge players alike gathered from around the globe just across the street from the original place “where dreams come true” at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California.
“I never imagined that world of imagination would become real for me and it would be much more than a dream, it would be a career and a home,” said Phil Hettema, founder of The Hettema Group, a well-respected experiential design firm known for building incredible attractions worldwide, for clients such as DreamWorks, Sea World, Universal Studios, and the Chicago Museum of Science and industry.
Hettema was awarded the highest honor of the night, The Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievements.
“We have an obligation to do our work in the highest quality we can and to tell our stories with integrity.” – Phil Hettema
Quick to give credit where credit is due, Hettema began his remarks by directing guests to an online list of those he wished he could thank if he had more time. Gently ribbing Disney he quipped, “I want and need to thank all of them, but if I did, we would be here until Star Wars Land opens.”
With all the fun that comes with working within the dream-making industry, Hettema warned that the industry has some important obligations.
“We have an obligation to do our work in the highest quality we can and to tell our stories with integrity.”
“Our industry has often been accused of creating fake worlds,” he said, “and we seem to be living in a world of fake news and alternative facts, but when we tell our stories with quality and integrity, they’re powerful and they can change lives.”
“We have an obligation” Hettema continued, “to make sure that we build teams that reflect the diversity of our audiences. We cannot expect our stories to be heard by the whole world if our teams telling the story don’t mirror the full spectrum of our audience.”
To the internationally diverse audience, this last statement struck a unifying chord, and was met with their loudest applause.
Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) received a total of four Theas for projects at their American theme parks. First, WDI was recognized for successfully reimagining two beloved attractions; the Epcot attraction Maelstrom into Frozen Ever After, and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror into Guardians of the Galaxy- Mission: BREAKOUT at Disney California Adventure.
WDI’s other two Theas were for Disney Animal Kingdom’s Pandora – The World of Avatar, and it’s anchor attraction, Flight of Passage. WDI veteran and creative force, Joe Rohde led teams in creating an unbelievably convincing alien world based on Avatar, the James Cameron IP.
“This is a business of hearts and minds,” Rohde said. “We reach out and touch the hearts and minds of all the people the who come through these places. That is not done with plastic. It is not done with machines. It is not done with concrete and steel or projection. It is through the hearts and minds of the artists and the workers involved. If you just set them free and give them the power, they will give you back more than you can predict, more than you can measure, and certainly more than you can buy.”
Other awards for theme park excellence went to Cedar Point, the flagship park of Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. in Sandusky, Ohio, honored with the Thea Classic award for being an influential project that has stood the test of time, Symbolica: The Palace of Fantasy, a beautiful new dark ride at de Efteling in The Netherlands, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom’s Journey of Lights Parade in Zhuhai City, China, DreamWorks Animation Zone at MOTIONGATE Dubai in UAE, and the amazingly low-tech, day-long immersive theater of Ghost Town Alive! at Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.
“If you just set them free and give them the power, they will give you back more than you can predict, more than you can measure, and certainly more than you can buy.” – Joe Rohde
A tribute to WDI luminary, Marty Sklar, who passed away in 2017, was a heart-warming celebration of the “Dad” of the themed entertainment industry. Images of the hundreds of Disney Parks projects he personally touched and influenced played on the screen while a choir sang the Sherman Brothers’ classic One Little Spark.
Bob Rogers, the founder of BRC Imagination Arts said of Sklar, “Marty was a giver. He was a mentor to me. But not just me. What about you?” One by one, everyone in the audience stood to declare Marty’s influence on their lives.
Along with the NMAAHC, other museums received honors for their excellent achievements including Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, an emotional tour of remembrance through the history of the famous WWI battle that led to New Zealand’s national independence, featuring 2.5 scale, life-like figures created by Sir Richard Tylor and the Weta Workshop team, depicting the true stories of real people impacted by that crucial 20th century event.
The Rainis’ Museum in Tadenava, Latvia stood out among the technological giants for it’s stripped down simplicity and warmth featuring beautifully-designed, kinetic interactives made entirely of wood.
Projection mapping and 3D technologies brought honors to projects like the Citadella Visitors Centre on Gozo Island, Malta, which transformed an ancient stone reservoir into a gorgeously illuminated history experience. Les Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence, France projects fine art masters in gigantic scale onto the walls of an ancient cave. Aura, at Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal, Canada illuminates one of the largest cathedrals in North America with an architectural narrative that recalls the original purposes and impact of religious art.
3D Live was honored for Outstanding Achievement in Innovative Technology with their “Holographic” 3D LED display permanently installed at California’s Great America, within the Mass Effect: New Earth attraction. Sleep No More, an immersive theater experience in Shanghai, China was honored for its haunting live-theater adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Everyone literally raised a glass for the brand experience award, which went to Jameson Distillery Bow St. in Dublin, Ireland, the brand home of Jameson Whiskey. The project’s director, John Carroll, quickly became everyone’s best mate when he bought a round of drinks at the after party, all made with Jameson Whiskey, of course.
As the party continued with gusto, TEA guests enjoyed the company and mutual-respect of their peers sharing stories of projects past and yet to come. These accomplished artists, craftspeople, engineers, and architects have seen what a dreams can do and they take seriously their job to continue shaping far off dreams into concrete reality.
One of my favorite stories about Bob Gurr is the one where he kidnapped the American Vice President in the cab of Disneyland’s Monorail. Sure, he was just taking Mr. Nixon for a tour of Walt Disney’s little park in Anaheim, but the Secret Service weren’t exactly pleased to be left on the platform.
Bob Gurr is the legendary Disney Imagineer who designed and developed many of Disneyland’s infamous ride vehicles. And like Vice President Nixon, Bob wants to take you on a ride you’ll never forget.
Use offer code SKIPPERFREDDY for 40% off the April 15th Tour at Waltland.com
On April 15th, I want you to join me and Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, as he takes us on a personal tour of Walt Disney’s Los Angeles. You’ll see Walt and Roy’s first L.A. homes. We’ll stop by the location of the original Hyperion Studio where Snow White and the Silly Symphonies were born. We’ll pop by the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale.
You’ll ride the merry-go-round where Walt took his daughters for “Daddy’s Day,” and first dreamed up Disneyland as a place where “…parents and children could have fun together.” And then you’ll tour Walt’s Barn, his personal workshop where he built the scale model steam engines that fueled his imagination. They call it the ‘Birthplace of Imagineering’ because that’s where Walt’s magical dreams first became a mechanical reality.
Along the way, Bob will share his stories about working side-by-side with Walt to create his original Magic Kingdom. There are tons of surprises along the way that I can’t tell you about quite yet. But trust me, you’re going to love it.
If you’ve got a passion for Disney history and lore, you won’t want to miss joining me on our incredible adventure with Bob Gurr.
So Here’s The Deal:
Bob has offered you, readers of my blog, an exclusive opportunity to explore “Waltland” for less. You get an unbelievable 40% off your ticket if you use the offer code SKIPPERFREDDY at checkout. Depending on your choice of seats, that could be as low as $63. This includes lunch and a special souvenir for my guests.
I don’t mean to be grim. But how many opportunities do you think you’ll have left to hang out with one of the epic Disney Imagineering Legends who actually worked under Walt Disney? The intrinsic nature of this experience is that it is extremely limited. This may very well be the last few tours before Bob calls it quits.
Use the offer code SKIPPERFREDDY for 40-freakin-percent off. Do it.
Still Not All In?
Okay. Here’s my final offer. When the tour is done around 3pm, you and I, and the rest of my incredible group of super-intelligent, Disney-loving readers will take in a couple more stops not on the Bob Gurr tour. I can’t tell you about it until you purchase tickets, but plan to experience another couple hours of incredible Disney history you’ll remember forever.
A lot of people say they want to move to Orlando or Anaheim to be closer to the Disney parks, but very few people actually have the guts to do it. In part one, I interviewed Sarah and Peter Brookhart of The Brookhart Project whose dream of moving to Disney was so strong that they pulled up stakes in Chicago to relocate just outside of the Walt Disney World bubble.
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney
Eureka! Forget bitcoin. There’s a gold rush in full swing and the miners are flocking to Disney in droves!
But the true heroes of the Dis-zealot movement are those who have cast all caution to the wind, quit their jobs, sold their homes, and migrated thousands of miles to live within a firework’s boom of the Disney parks.
When I interviewed Sarah and Peter Brookhart, the young couple who left their hometown to live 20 minutes outside of Walt Disney World, I learned a few things about following dreams and taking giant leaps.
So if you’ve ever asked yourself, “What would it take to live the Disney dream?,” here are 8 tips I learned from the Brookharts for how to move to Disney.
Tip 1: Plan Like You Mean It
You know how a vacation to Disney takes moon-landing level planning? You have to make your restaurant reservations 180 days in advance, for crying out loud! Well, moving to Orlando or Anaheim takes a little more planning than that.
The Brookharts recommend that whatever you do, don’t play it by ear. Do your research and create a plan that will work. Read a ton and ask a LOT of questions.
They also suggest you do the math. And then do the math again. “Our job offer did not include moving assistance,” said Sarah, “so we ended up taking a lot more from savings than we had expected.”
You’ll never be able to plan so well that you avoid all surprises and obstacles, but without creating plan, you’ll only end up frustrated and floundering.
“Get a good idea and stay with it. Do it, and work at it, until it’s done right.” – Walt Disney
Tip 2: Location, Location, Location
“Location is super important,” says Peter. You must minimize your commute from home to the parks. “We live 20 minutes away from property, so that’s why it’s so easy for us to get here Monday through Friday. We have friends who live 40 minutes away and it’s much harder.”
Again, do the math. For every 5 minutes away from the parks, you lose 10 minutes to driving. All that driving will wear on you. If you live 45 minutes away, and you plan to go to the resorts after work, you will spend 1 hour and a half of your precious evening hours in the car. And during non-peak seasons when the parks are only open until 8, timing is crucial
Find a place 30 minutes or less from a Disney parking lot. That will keep your drive to and from the magic under one hour total.
Tip 3: Expenses Are Real In Fantasyland
Have you heard that it’s cheaper to live in Florida? Well, that’s only partly true. If you want to live within a few miles of the parks (refer to Tip 2), the cost of living is not much better than anywhere else in the country.
“The biggest thing we heard from people who don’t know anything about moving to Florida from Chicago is ‘Oh, it’s so cheap to live in Florida!,’” said Peter. “The thing is, we not only live in Florida, we live in the Orlando area. And not only that, we live in the Orlando tourist area. We actually pay more for rent here than we did in Chicago.”
Expect much worse in Anaheim. The average one-bedroom rental behind the Orange curtain is over $1,500 per month, and things like groceries and gas follow suit.
“We’re not eating in the parks every night,” said Sarah. “You don’t see us downing PB & Js in the car before we head in. We’re making it a lifestyle but real life is still real. We both need to work full time jobs to make the lifestyle possible.”
Not much you can do about that. Just be prepared to pay the price to live next door to talking mice! (Hey, that rhymed!)
Tip 4: You WILL Get Tired Of It
Ever hear of the “law of diminishing marginal utility?” That’s the phenomenon that happens to you when the first piece of pizza tastes like heaven while the next two, three, and four pieces start to taste like cardboard.
Sadly, it’s the same with going to Disney every day, or every week, or even every month. You’re bound to get less and less enjoyment out of every visit.
Peter warned that many magic-migrants run the risk of losing interest. “Maybe not at first because of the excitement, the honeymoon stage of living here, but eventually after a couple weeks or months, you could probably just resort to coming here just on weekends.”
So what can you do to keep from losing interest? Live for something more than just having fun at Disney.
“Live everyday, no matter how small the accomplishment,” said Peter, “as if that single day had something going for it or something worth remembering, even if it’s playing cards after dinner.”
It helps that the Disney resorts have so much to offer. But every day can’t be all parades and attractions. If you live each moment with the idea that each moment is a gift, you’re bound to stay excited, no matter where you live.
“We’re setting a bar for ourselves,” said Sarah, “to really enjoy life.”
Tip 5: Keep Your Eyes Open
If you’ve read some of my other blog posts about hidden Disney details, you know how important this tip is for me. (See the S.E.A. at Disneyland or Walt’s initials on Tom Sawyer Island for some of my favorites.) Disney has packed the parks and resorts with so many unusual details and spatial storytelling hints that locals like you are likely to find something new and surprising every time you visit.
“I knew there was a lot to offer here,” Peter said, “but now living here we realize how much there actually is.”
You may have ridden every single ride on the map, but there are too many food and entertainment offerings for any guest to taste and see them all. “We had no idea who ‘Yehaa Bob’ was,” remembered Peter. “He’s a piano player who’s been playing the piano (at Port Orleans Riverside Resort) for twenty-plus years.”
As a local, you’ll also begin to see and experience other guests in a different way. “Since we’ve moved here, I can pick up on more of the other guests’ vibes. I hear more of the happy in other people’s voices, but I also can hear more of the anger and frustrations. You can just tell this family’s exhausted, or this family is having the best time of their life over here.”
Now that you’re able to enjoy the parks without a to-the-minute agenda, allow yourself to take it all in in a way that would have been impossible for your before moving.
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” – Walt Disney
Tip 6: Preset Your Mindset
Making a major life change like moving halfway across the country to follow a dream is a risky proposition – especially for your frame of mind. You’ve set pretty high expectations for how wonderful and carefree your new Disney life will be. But unless you’re prepared to stay positive and generous no matter what, your high expectations are bound to come crashing down.
“Being down here for a week,” said Peter, “the odds of you seeing an upset cast member or an upset family, or to see something weird happening that would ruin a day or a stay in a resort is far less than if you’re here 7 days a week for your whole life.”
“In bad times and in good, I have never lose my sense of zest for life.” – Walt Disney
“You’re gonna see upset cast members. You’re gonna see a ridiculous guest causing a fit or an accident happen, or an extra 25 minute wait at the monorail… You have to be able to brush those off because you do have the luxury to see it when it’s not a wait, when Main Street is empty, when there’s a walk-on to Space Mountain, which never happens.”
“You can’t have the good without the bad.”
Tip 7: Be Generous & Humble
Disney annual-passholders get a bad wrap. In some ways they deserve it. I hear the word “entitled” thrown around a lot with regard to the way “APs” act toward cast members and other guests. To the Brookharts, the antidote for entitled-passholder-syndrome is to think of yourself less and to think of others more.
“There’s really no reason why we’re any more important than any other person here,” said Sarah. “And I might say we’re less important because people could have saved for the past 5 years to get their 7 days here.”
“Why would we take up extra space in line on a Saturday night in July when people on vacation could be utilizing it themselves,” Peter added.
Letting other people go first might be the most difficult adjustment for a Disney pilgrim like yourself, but it’s this kind of attitude that will sustain your positive mindset (see Tip 7) for the long haul.
“It’s hard to be like, ‘Oh, if you’re not a humble person, don’t take the move,’” said Sarah, “but it’s just that you’re going to be a more pleasant person to be around. And your experience as a guest will be much more pleasant if you go into it with a mindset of humility.”
Tip 8: Own It
As much as you want your family and friends to be supportive of your Dis-placement (see what I did there?) most of them won’t understand.
Let’s be honest. Some people just don’t get the whole Disney thing. When they hear what you’re thinking of doing, they roll their eyes and write you off as weird. Fair enough. Others might be jealous and take it out on you with snide comments or talking behind your back. Still others are simply afraid of the unknown.
“Sarah was basically the first person in her family to leave the south side of Chicago,” Peter said. “We did something new that was scary for us and scary for the family because nobody does this!”
Even if they don’t say it, you’ll be able to sense that friends and family are judging you (a little, or a lot) for following this dream.
But here’s the thing. It’s not their dream. It’s yours. You have to own it.
Moving to Disney is no different than moving to the mountains or the beach or the city. Some people work their tails off to realize their dreams and move to the places they love the most. Nobody faults them for that.
Peter said, “We had to look at ourselves honestly and say, ‘What is really going to make us happy?’” For Sarah and Peter Brookhart, the answer was to pursue their passion and move to Walt Disney World.
So if you’re serious about relocating to be near a Disney resort (or to follow whatever your dreams might be), your first move is to take a hard look at your motivations. Then, you’ve got to count the costs and survey the obstacles. Finally, when you’re ready to face down your doubts and fears to pursue your dreams then there’s only one thing left to do… embrace what you love and own it.
In preparing this article, I learned about several other interesting people who did something similar to the Brookharts. I encourage you to check them out:
Mr. Peter Tu: This retiree is known as “the clapping man of Disneyland,” spends every morning walking through the park getting exercise and encouraging every cast member he sees. His trademark handshake and recognizable clap makes him one of Disneyland’s most adored citizens. Watch a day in Peter Tu’s life HERE.
Lisa Dinoto Glassner: Lisa was a lawyer by day, runner by night, and Disney fanatic through and through. When her father passed away, she decided to quit her career and run after what she loves. So she and her family relocated to a neighborhood just behind the castle. Follow her story at TheCastleRun.com.
Jeff Reitz: On a whim in 2012, Jeff challenged himself to visit Disneyland every day for a year. But once the habit was formed, he didn’t stop. With some visits as short as a half hour, he still makes time to visit Walt’s original theme park once a day. Read Jeff Reitz’ story HERE.
Tom Bricker: So you want an opposing viewpoint? Want somebody to help you level you expectations and maybe talk you out of migrating south? Tom’s post about the downside of moving to Disney has some good points you should consider – although he says he has “no regrets.”
With today’s news that a Marvel themed land, replete with Spider-Man and Avengers attractions, will soon displace “A Bug’s Land” in Disney California Adventure (Disneyland’s kid-sister park next door), the comic book hero fans all gave a collective cheer. But the celebrations were mired by the unwelcome surprise that Disney had already shuttered A Bug’s Land’s anchor attraction, the immersive 4-D theater masterpiece “It’s Tough to be a Bug” just a few days before!
This came as a shock to some as Disney has lately made a big deal about closing attractions so that adoring fans can say their last goodbyes. After learning their lesson when they shut down “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and herds of superfans staged toad-themed sit ins, Disney has dutifully publicized attraction closures with plenty of time to give the adherents time to visit one more time (and buy the closure-related merchandise).
Beloved attractions like “Maelstrom” and “Ellen’s Energy Adventure” at Epcot, “The Great Movie Ride” at Disney Hollywood Studios, “Hollywood Tower of Terror” at DCA have all been given appropriate mourning periods. And most recently, the controversial redesign of the contested “Buy a Wench for a Bride” scene in “Pirates of the Caribbean” has fans lining up for one last look at the human-trafficking, er, classic animatronics scene. It’s even led to an entire cottage industry of “We wants the Red-Head” fan-made and official park merchandise – no matter how inappropriate the thought may be.
But I digress.
“It’s Tough To Be A Bug” Closed Forever
So when I saw that “It’s Tough to be a Bug” was dropped into the Extinct-Attractions barrel without a lick of fanfare, I felt a twinge of sadness. Guests will never get to see the attraction’s impressive queue with an ants-eye view, the creepy-crawly parody theater posters, and the cavernous theater themed like an insect’s Pantages Theater (an I say “Ant-ages?”).
But here’s the good news.
I was in the park last Tuesday enjoying the beauty of a rainy Disney day. As I passed by A Bug’s Land, I remembered some of the rumors of a Marvel Land coming in the future. So I decided I would get a jump on it and grab some pictures for posterity, including detailed photos of the “It’s Tough to be a Bug’s” queue and interior. Little did I know, I was capturing these photos for the ages.
So I invite you to shrink down with me and enjoy one last look at “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” and the rest of A Bug’s Land before it’s all gone forever.
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!!
Get ready to get lost in adventure at the new Tropical Hideaway in Adventureland at Disneyland. Y’all know how much I love Adventureland details and Easter eggs, and I am 100% certain this place will be loaded with them. I was in Skipper Heaven when The Jungle Navigation Ltd. Skipper Canteen restaurant was opened at Walt Disney World, and this location promises even more of the same. Look for plenty of puns and references to the notorious members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, including the namesake of those world-famous falls, Dr. Albert Falls. No doubt this announcement is prompted by the expected popularity of the Jungle Cruise movie starring Dwayne Johnson coming to theaters next year. And all the Skippers say… it better be good.Here’s the scoop from the Disney Parks Blog:
The Tropical Hideaway discovered in Adventureland at Disneyland Park
February 22nd, 2018
Calling all adventurers! There will soon be a new area of Adventureland to explore at Disneyland Park. The former Aladdin’s Oasis will soon be transformed to The Tropical Hideaway! This new experience will soon appear along the tropical shores nestled between the Jungle Cruise and “Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.” This one‐of‐a‐kind destination will be a popular rest stop for Adventureland locals and weary explorers alike. Guests will be able to rub elbows with their favorite skippers in an exotic traders’ market, featuring all of the sights, sounds and flavors of the tropics. Keep your eyes out for more information on this exciting new location as more is discovered.
What do you think about this new use of the old Tahitian Terrace space? Leave your jungle love in a comment below.
Disneyland concept art above for the Tropical Hideaway from the Disney Parks Blog. Image copyright belongs to Disney. Shared with good faith as a fan to help promote their business and creativity.
Flashback: If my cousin Andy had survived his 20s, today would have been his 40th birthday. Looking back through old memories, I found this story originally written in the months following his death. If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve deeply loved, I’m sure you too wish this DeLorean was real.
One Summer long ago, I came down from Oregon to visit my Grandparents, Uncles, Aunts, and cousins in Southern California. I spent all day every day shooting baskets, playing ping pong, dreaming up epic roller coasters, and conspiring with my cousins, Robby and Andy.
Every day, that is, except Thursday. Every Thursday, our Grampy brought me and Robby with him to the Christian Business Men’s Association breakfast at a local Carrows Restaurant. After that, he’d drop us off at the church for its weekly, youth group beach trip.
But one Thursday, Grampy took all three of us to Universal Studios to ride the Studio Tour Tram.
We lifted the A-Team Van.
We posed with the shark.
Some days we still wish we could go back in time and change what ever may have gone wrong. But then we might have had to miss the sweetness of a day like that one back in 1985.
“Don’t bet your future, on one roll of the dice Better remember, lightning never strikes twice Please don’t drive eighty eight, don’t wanna be late again
So take me away, I don’t mind But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time Gotta get back in time“
YouTube personalities Sarah & Peter Brookhart left Chicago for Florida to follow their dream of Moving to Disney World. (10 Minute Read)
Moving To Disney
Did you ever dream about living at Disneyland? I know I did. I clearly remember being nine-years-old, drooping sadly out the gates after the fireworks and thinking out loud to nobody, “If I could just stay hidden in one of the caves on Tom Sawyer Island, I could wait out the security guards and have the place all to myself… forever.”
But that’s unrealistic, right? Eventually fantasies give way to reality and childlike dreams fade away.
However, sometimes when you’re not looking, the dream stirs again. Enter YouTube personalities, Sarah and Peter Brookhart.
Magic Kingdom Kids
The Brookharts are an insufferably cute pair of high school sweethearts from Chicago (seriously, folks, they’re adorable) who just recently pulled up stakes and moved to Walt Disney World to follow their dreams.
Sarah, an expressive young woman whose animated eyes, snowy complexion, and icing-blonde hair makes one think of the wooden-shoed Dutch maidens on the It’s a Small World attraction. Born into a Disney-loving family, her parents honeymooned at Walt Disney World and raised their three daughters to love castles, princesses, and talking mice. Every two years like clockwork, Sarah’s family traveled from Chicago to Florida for two weeks at a time to experience all that Disney has to offer.
Peter, broad shouldered and gregarious, did not grow up going to Disney. His family did other things on vacation, but when he fell in love with Sarah, it became inevitable – he’d have to fall in love with Disney too.
During their college years, Peter convinced Sarah to join the Disney College Program so they could spend a Summer or two working as Cast Members. Until then, Peter had never visited a Disney Park, so Sarah insisted they go down to Florida a week early because, as she says, “He has to experience the magic before he can be behind the magic.”
They were married in August of 2015, and you’ll never guess where they honeymooned. That’s right – Niagara Falls! Just kidding. They drove Route 66 to California to spend a week at Disneyland.
Back home in Chicago, surrounded by close family, working good jobs, and enjoying the support of a network of lifelong friends, the Brookharts lived a life marked by stability.
Somewhere in their hearts, however, discontent was brewing.
Home Is Where?
From time to time, Sarah and Peter toyed with the idea of moving to Orlando permanently.
“Since 2011, the thought has been in the back of our mind, ‘What would life be like if we moved out here?,” Peter said. “‘What would we be missing? What would we be gaining? Would it be forever? Would it not be forever?’ And I think it’s been just sitting on our mind for the last 6 years.”
In February of 2017, after a weeklong visit to Walt Disney World, Sarah and Peter sat near the pool at Saratoga Springs Resort sipping a vacation favorite, the Lava Smoothie. They were intent on soaking up the last few moments of Florida sun and Disney magic before the airport shuttle arrived.
And they weren’t happy.
If you’ve vacationed at Disney – or anywhere else for that matter – you’ll remember these three stages of vacation emotions. First, you experience the dogged intensity of planning and preparing for the trip. Second, you’re giddy with excitement as you finally arrive at your home-away-from-home. Third, you descend into a fog of melancholy as you reach the vacation’s final day.
The Brookharts were in that third stage.
Peter spoke in a low voice, apparently trying not to disturb the air. Sarah leaned her head against his shoulder, her eyes billowed like the Florida sky, threatening rain. So many times they’d left Disney World, and they felt sad every time, but this time was different.
“We just looked broken,” said Peter. “And it was like something (had) snapped in us.”
On the flight to Chicago they didn’t talk much. When they did speak, they could only describe a looming dread that they weren’t just going home. They were leaving their dreams behind.
“I didn’t want to be 85, talking to my grandchildren,” Peter remembered thinking, “and let them know that Grandpa didn’t follow his dreams. Grandpa didn’t try, at least, to see what living at Disney World would be like.”
After a week of hard conversations thinking and talking about what a move to Disney World might mean, Peter finally asked Sarah, “We’re doing this, right?” And that’s when their journey began.
It’s a scary thing to leave the comfort of home to follow a dream. Like the gold-rush 49ers who headed West in pursuit of fortune and glory, true courage is required to face down the fears, doubts, and obstacles that will come your way.
Sarah and Peter found courage in a growing number of pioneers who were making their own way and documenting their life journeys on YouTube; folks like the Ballinger Family or Casey Neistat.
More to the Brookhart’s interests, Disney park video bloggers like Joey Beth & Josh Bugg (It’s The Bugg’s Life), Brock & Promise (Ears2You), and the current king of the craft, Tim Tracker (TheTimTracker) proved that there is a growing demand for true-life human adventures that take place at Disney.
These trailblazers paved the way for Sarah and Peter to courageously ask, “If they could do it, why couldn’t we?”
But courage from strangers wasn’t going to be enough to uproot them from the community where they were raised.
The Ties That Bind
Sarah and Peter grew up on the Southside of Chicago in a village where you’re known by the church you attend. The small-town in a big-city vibe afforded them some of the most close-knit and satisfying community connections the Midwest has to offer; friends, jobs, lifelong connection to a city that they love…
And family. Sarah and her sisters were an inseparable trio who had gone through everything together. To Sarah, leaving her family to go live at Disney seemed like betrayal.
“We were used to being the people you could lean on,” Sarah said.” So telling someone we’re not gonna be there is a pretty harsh blow for them and it’s a pretty harsh blow for us because, you know, we enjoy being there for others.”
Even though their family was supportive of the move, the knowledge that they would be missing important family moments made it even more painful to leave.
At one point, Sarah’s sister, Christina, announced that she was pregnant. In the midst of the joy and excitement, Sarah was struck cold by the realization that she would be in Orlando throughout much of the pregnancy. With her sister-senses tingling, Christina wasn’t about to let Sarah call off the dream. She looked Sarah in the eyes and said, “You still have to go to Disney.”
The good news is, unlike the 49ers, Sarah and Peter have FaceTime, Snapchat, and their daily video diaries on YouTube to make communication with their families easy.
“Luckily for them, every single day of our lives is on the internet so they can see what we’re up to,” Sarah laughed. “But it is still up to us to make sure that we stay updated on their lives too.”
A Goal, a Plan…
Once their minds were made up to go, all they needed was a goal to aim for and a plan to get there. For Peter, a zealous foodie, there was one target he could focus on that would keep them moving forward.
“I didn’t know what job I’d have,” said Peter. “Didn’t know if we’d both have to work full normal jobs. If I’d be working weekends, second shift, third shift, first shift? We didn’t know! But all I said is, ‘I wanna be in Florida by Food and Wine festival.’”
So with Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival as the carrot to draw them on, they set about to make their plan.
Sarah is a freelance graphic artist with a steady client load. Her job would be portable. Peter would have to find a job, and searching for work from half a continent away wasn’t going to be easy.
They also needed to find an affordable place to stay (hopefully within 10 minutes of the resorts), a vehicle to get around in, and a whole lot of money for moving expenses.
Step by step, hour by hour, week by week, for 4 months they researched, saved, asked a lot of questions, and patiently pursued their dream until at last, most of the pieces had fallen into place.
Peter got a promising job with a timeshare company that would be waiting when they arrived. They found a place to rent seven minutes from the gates of Disney World (a feat they are still super proud of). They managed to save just enough to pay for all the expenses of the move, and even had something socked away to buy a car once they arrived.
Along the way, they welcomed to the family a cute little sidekick to share their adventures, a Pomeranian puppy named Eve.
But there was one more puzzle piece they would need to complete the picture. A name.
…And a Name.
Their original YouTube channel, named The Fab 5207 , was a collaboration with friends from their Disney College Program days. If they did actually make it to Florida, Sarah and Peter intended to create a brand new YouTube channel to share their adventures with their established audience and friends back home.
Their new adventures, to be filmed and published every day, would center around their relationship as a couple, their highs and lows – even their starting of a family – all within the context of their shared love for the Disney experience.
Now, every good story has a title and every YouTube channel needs a name. The Brookharts wanted to choose something just right, so they decided to look for inspiration from the man whose mouse started it all, Walt Disney.
Back in the 1960s, Walt was looking for a place to build his outrageous dream of a master-planned vacation kingdom and city of tomorrow. He settled on Central Florida as the ideal location. Long before he had a name for the place that would become Walt Disney World, Walt and his team simply referred to it as “The Florida Project.”
Whenever Walt spoke of “The Florida Project”the words seemed to flow off of his tongue with a sort of reverent excitement that revealed his true feelings for what he was certain his dream would one day become. His brother Roy reported that Walt was still scheming about the project on his death bed, using the hospital ceiling tiles as the gridlines of a map to point out where he wanted certain features and attractions.
Sadly, Roy would be the only Disney brother to see The Florida Project become a reality.
Influenced by that same spirit of hope and vision for the future, the Brookharts’ new life and video channel was sure to become a long-running documentary of their very own Florida project.
So, on July 28, 2017, The Brookhart Project set their cameras to record, kissed their families goodbye, and hit the road, bound for a brand new life in Walt Disney World.
At Home in Disney World
Six months later, Sarah and Peter sit on a bench at the Beach Club Resort just few short steps from the entrance to Epcot. They’re reflecting on the what they’ve experienced and learned since their journey began one year ago.
“What has been the child, almost, of The Brookhart Project,” said Peter, is really the lifestyle that Sarah and I have adapted and been growing into since we moved down here – and that’s just appreciating every single day, and every single minute, every single thing.”
Moving to Disney has developed a deeper appreciation for the obvious things like the rides, architecture, and the food (they did make it in time for the Food and Wine Festival after all). However, they’ve found themselves appreciating the little things even more, like the way cast members work so hard to give each guest a special experience.
“Even though we live in such a grand place, it’s this humble view on life has been the biggest gain for us.”
Naturally, they have experienced every parade, show, and attraction many times. Still, it hasn’t been all churros and Dole Whips for the couple.
“We’ve heard few snide comments,” Sarah said, “where people are like, ‘Oh, you live in Fantasyland.’ I mean we still have laundry! We still have dishes. We still have bills, we’re not eating out at the parks every night. You don’t see us when we’re downing PB & Js in the car before we head into the parks!”
And it hasn’t been easy being so far from their families.
“My family is just used to being obsessed with each other,” Sarah said. “We FaceTime every other day almost. I talk to my mom every night on the phone. But, you know, we just miss being able to stop by and shovel the sidewalk for her.”
Nonetheless, the happiness they’ve experienced as a couple and the friendships they’ve built are valuable beyond measure.
“Because we are constantly interacting with others who watch our videos, we’ve had some incredibly humbling messages sent to us about what our videos do for them.”
Once, they heard from a woman in a nursing home who was feeling trapped and hopeless. She told Sarah and Peter, “You guys give me my freedom because you take me away from this place every day.”
“Stuff like that makes me realize, this isn’t just a YouTube channel,” said Sarah.
Now that they have realized their dream of moving to Disney World, the Brookharts feel a responsibility to inspire others to pursue dreams of their own.
“Even if it’s inspiring them to do something of their own. Maybe Walt Disney World is not their ‘Disney World.’ Maybe going to explore South America is their ‘Disney World,’” said Peter.
For Sarah and Peter, Walt Disney World has become more than a vacation destination. In many ways, it has become the laboratory for a grand relationship experiment.
“No matter what,” said Sarah, “it’s kind of been strengthening us as a couple just to figure out how we want to live.”
Ask any marriage counselor and they’ll tell you that the best ways to perpetuate the romance and insulate a relationship against divorce is to share a hobby and to keep a regular date night.
If that’s true, then Sarah and Peter’s story will end in “happily ever after.” From the day they arrived in Florida, they’ve enjoyed date night every night, wandering hand in hand together and capturing every moment in the most magical place on earth.
Freddy’s Move to Disneyland – An Epilogue
I wrote the first words of this story on board the “Ward Kimball” steam train while taking a grand circle tour of Disneyland. If you had been there, you might have thought it a little strange to see me working on my laptop as though the tunnels and tracks were a suburban Starbucks.
After observing people like the Brookharts, Peter Tu (the clapping man of Disneyland), Lou Mongello, and many others, I decided to turn what I do into something I love by doing it in the place where I feel most creative – Disneyland!
Although I didn’t actually “move to Disneyland” (I still live over an hour away), I started 2018 with the commitment to hold my “office hours” one day a week at the Disneyland Resort. You might find me running reports at the Hungry Bear in Critter Country, drafting an appeal letter on the old Motor Boat Cruise launch, or editing content on Tom Sawyer Island.
Early Summer, 2014 was a tough time for my family. My wife had cancer. My grandparents died within 2 days of one another. We lost a beloved Uncle. And my doctors saw fit to put me in a comical, full-leg cast to heal a minor fracture.
As tough as those circumstances were, none would upend our family as completely as my father’s broken back.
Driving home from a chaplains’ conference in the mountains, he lost consciousness and flipped his car. I arrived on the scene just after the ambulance had gone.
Unsure of where they’d taken him, I began dutifully collecting his personal items from the wreckage. I tried to ignore all the blood.
Later, in the emergency room, I was finally allowed to see him. He was laid out flat on a gurney in a hallway, cocooned inside a medieval bouquet of braces, restraints, and supports.
And he was telling jokes.
My Dad was a hospital chaplain for many years. Unlike most of us, he’s quite comfortable in hospitals. He spent his days comforting others, meeting their pain with prayer, loss with love, and hardship with humor.
But now the tables were turned. My father lay alone in his hospital room—broken back and legs no longer working. After weeks of surgeries, therapies, and bad news getting worse, there was nothing left to laugh about.
That’s when Andrew Skinner rolled in.
Overcoming Fears, Pain, and Limitations
Andrew Skinner is the founder of Triumph Foundation, a non-profit whose primary purpose is to encourage people with spinal cord injury to overcome their fears, pain, and limitations by pursuing an extraordinary and active life.
For newly-injured patients laying in their hospital beds facing the reality of a future in a wheelchair, Andrew is not another able-bodied doctor with flyers, advice, and platitudes. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair himself, he has instant credibility with those he visits and counsels.
And they listen. Andrew knows which path to take because he’s been there. His wisdom and hope sees beyond a patient’s current challenges as he guides them down the path to a destiny they cannot see from their hospital bed.
Think Gandalf. Think Yoda. Think Dumbledore, but with wheels instead of a wand.
Christmas In Rehab
At the time of this writing, Andrew and his team of Ambassadors and volunteers are in the midst of a two-week blitz visiting nearly every hospital and physical rehabilitation center in Southern California. They invite all the patients to come celebrate Christmas together and participate in a brief support group session. I went along again this year to see Triumph Foundation’s impact firsthand.
“Christmas is very special for me,” Andrew told a group of patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehab Center. “I spent my first Christmas after my injury in the hospital, and I know how lonely it can be. And that’s why we’re here—to show you you’re not alone, and you do have a bright future ahead.”
The room was a full house of people at various levels of recovery. There was a woman in her sixties who had fallen at home and was just getting used to working her robotic chair. There was a young man who had been in an auto accident who was just cleared to walk short distances using his cane.
One older woman, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, had a look of despair and terror on her face. She is paralyzed, in a country she doesn’t know, with nowhere to go when she is discharged, and no family to visit her.
Perhaps the most difficult to see was the two injured children (both under 10) strapped into robotic wheelchairs. Amazingly, the spirit of youthfulness and joy was still apparent on their faces as they tried their best to do what they could on their own.
Triumph’s Ambassadors of Hope
Triumph’s team of Ambassadors, trained counselors also in wheelchairs due to spinal cord issues, use these Christmas parties to introduce themselves, share their stories, and make other patients feel welcome.
“For me it was very depressing,” Walter Escamilla, a Triumph Ambassador who shared his story. “Cause i was used to going to work 10, 12 hours a day. Very active guy, playing basketball, do anything! Go out every weekend. Then after an injury like this, I felt like the world came to an end.”
Patients around the room nodded their heads. They relate to Walter’s story because they’ve experienced the exact same despair he described. He went on to share that his daughters became his inspiration to stop dwelling on his losses and start focusing on the positive things he does have.
“I thank God I live in this country where everything is accessible. Want to go to a Laker game? There’s accessible seating. Want to go to a concert? There’s accessible seating. And they treat us like rock stars.” Sweeping his arm like a maître d’ Walter beamed, “Right this way, Sir!” The patients nodded and laughed at the hopeful perspective Walter shared.
“My daughters can never say, ‘We never go anywhere because my dad’s in a wheelchair.’ On the other hand, they say, ‘Nah, we will go everywhere AND my Dad’s in a wheelchair.’”
Someone Who’s Been Through It
“And that’s the key,” said Jeff Harrison, one of Triumph’s board members and long-time volunteers. “You need someone who’s been through it, knows how tough it can be, knows where your turning points are gonna be and just guide you down the rough patches and get you out the other side.”
Of course, a Christmas party isn’t complete without gifts, so Andrew and his Ambassadors passed out stockings, treats, and “Care Baskets” full of gifts and resources to help them move forward and triumph over their obstacles.
Andrew wrapped up the visit with an encouragement that hit home for everyone in the room, paralyzed and able-bodied alike. “I like to say that paralysis is a club nobody wants to join, but once you’re in, you’re family.”
As I walked to my car, I thought again about my Dad. He spent his entire career encouraging people in the midst of their suffering. After his accident, he too could have been left without hope or a path to recover from the injury. God knows I wouldn’t have had the experience or insight to help him through the darkest hours.
But he wasn’t alone. When Andrew rolled into my Dad’s room that day, he brought with him an active and welcoming community of people who live lives full of hope and potential despite their injuries.
Can you keep secret? I can’t. I’ve been keeping this on the down-low for a quite some time and I’m finally able to tell.
Most of you know I’m a theme park weirdo. I love to explore the stories, details, and dreams that make up these architectural marvels. It’s an art form unique to our modern world, but anchored in centuries of creative space-making from city squares & parks to coliseums & cathedrals.
Beginning in October, I began work as a Spatial Storyteller℠ for Storyland Studios, a themed entertainment design and fabrication firm. What’s Spatial Storytelling? Think of it as the non-Disney equivalent of Imagineering. We create immersive environments that bring stories to life in theme parks, museums, sacred spaces and other realms where people gather for enrichment.
What’s super cool is that the business structure is modeled directly after Walt Disney’s original Imagineering team (originally WED, then MAPO, and finally WDI) which means the entire creative team is under one roof. Everything from concept designers, artists, story writers, special effects artists, architects and fabricators all work together to create unbelievable spaces for you to enjoy!
My role is to create content and consult on marketing and community-building for the brand and the projects we undertake. Go to StorylandStudios.com right now to see some of the insane projects we’ve done (Hogwarts Express at Universal, are you kidding me?!?!?!).
This week, our team is heading to the IAAPA Attractions Expo, the themed-entertainment industry’s Comic-Con. If you know anybody in the industry, please connect me.
What does this mean to you, dear reader? Well, much of this is thanks to you. Your reading and sharing of my stories partially helped me land this gig (thank you very much!), and now I’ve got a lot more stories to tell.
So keep an eye here for some incredible announcements, stories, and secrets from inside the theme park and spatial storytelling industry.
Now then, hang onto your hats and glasses, ’cause this here is gonna be one wild ride!