The Story So Far: Tom Nabbe started his Disney career at the age of twelve shilling newspapers on Main Street in Disneyland. A year later, after bugging Walt Disney like only a twelve-year-old can do, he was hired to be the Tom in Tom Sawyer Island. Taking pictures, signing autographs, and baiting fishing lines with worms. (Read Part 1 of the interview HERE.)
But his story doesn’t stop there. In fact Tom Nabbe’s Disney career is one of the most enviable and storied in the history of the Walt Disney Company.
In this second part of Tom Nabbe’s story, we meet him as a teenager. He leaves Tom Sawyer Island and begins working Rides and Attractions throughout the park. After an unforeseen tragedy cuts his military career short, he ships off to Orlando to help open the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. After an incredible string of historic attraction openings (you won’t believe his list), Tom is called to serve on the opening crew of EPCOT Center.
As if that weren’t enough Tom was honored with a window on Main Street AND received the moniker of Disney Legend. “Legend” doesn’t begin to describe this journey.
As the interview continues, I slip in that I worked at the park for a while as a Jungle Cruise Skipper under Dick Nunis.
Tom Nabbe – Oh, okay. Well, I was a Jungle Cruise Operator back in winter ‘61/62 through ‘65 and then I left to go to the Marine Corps and then I came back. I worked, depending on what seniority bought me, I probably worked a few times on the Jungle Cruise in ‘68/‘69, and then I was promoted into management in 1970.
Freddy Martin – Wow! I did not know that about you. A fellow Skipper on the phone! That’s Fantastic. How long were you in rides and attractions
The 55 Club
T – Rides and attractions for 25 years, and the the last 22 years was in support and warehousing. So 47 years total the way the company counts it. But I count it 48, because they don’t give me credit for the year that I worked for the lessee (selling the Disneyland News in 1955).
F – But you have a paycheck stub somewhere that says 55 on it, right?
T – No. I have my original hire status from 1956. Does Ron Heminger mean anything to you?
Ron and myself always contested with Dick that we were both there in the beginning and that we should be members of the 55 club. And when Ron Heminger’s dad passed away… he was going through the paperwork. He found his hire status from 1955. So Ron Heminger, Myself, and a guy by the name of Marshall Spelzer (sp) that worked in decorating, all had the same hire date; June 18, 1956.
“He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.”
Dick had always told us that if we could prove we were there in ‘55 and worked for the company, he’d make us members of the 55 Club. So when Ron found his paperwork, Dick followed up on his promise and changed Ron’s status to whenever the date was on his paperwork was in July of ‘55, I believe. And at the same time he gave me credit to be a member of the 55 Club. He didn’t change my hire date, but he did recognize that I was an honorary member of the 55 Club.
The Battle of Pacific Coast Highway
F – Let’s transition into your career at Disney World, you already had a ton of roles and it sounds like you went off to serve in our country’s service for a while?
T – In ‘64, I got a letter from my other uncle, Uncle Sam. And Uncle Sam sent me this letter that he wanted me to participate in Vietnam. And I decided then, I’m sort of a John Wayne fan, if I was gonna go to Vietnam, I wanted to be best trained. And as far as I’m concerned that was being trained by the Marine Corps. So I went down and I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
And I enlisted on a 3-year hitch. And the reason I did that is because a 3-year hitch basically said I had no active reserve time. So it was 3 years active duty, 3 years inactive duty to satisfy the 6-year obligation. And the reason-being is the schedulers didn’t really like the “weekend warriors.”
“I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.”
If those people that signed up in the reserve or ended up getting drafted, they were “active reserve” (for) 2 years. So they had to play soldier one weekend a month and one week out of the summer. And I didn’t want that obligation. I just wanted to do my active duty time and the inactive reserve portion of it.
What I didn’t realize is that by signing up on that 3-year hitch, that I was in turn eligible for school. I scored extremely high in electronics. They decided to make an aviation radio repair man out of me. And the incentive to graduate from that was that if you failed being a radio repairman they made a radio operator out of you.
A radio operator’s life expectancy was just slightly longer than the first lieutenant of the platoon. So you didn’t want to be a radio operator. I graduated fourth in my class. And I ended up (with) orders for Da Nang.
And I guess someone up there was looking out for me… because I was hauling all my stuff back up to – my mother lived in Newport Beach – and I was hauling my stuff up to her apartment because I had orders to Da Nang. And a drunk hit me head on.
I always call it my “Battle at Pacific Coast Highway,” but the drunk hit me head on on Pacific Coast Highway and put me in Long Beach Hospital for 5 months. He tried to kill me, but didn’t succeed.
Then after that, I ended up getting mustered out on a medical. So I joined the Marine Corps in the height of the Vietnam War. I never got more than 82 miles from home, and I didn’t have to go to Vietnam.
F – What a story!
Joining The Florida Project
T – Then, when I came back I had dreams of grandeur going to Cal State Fullerton to become an electronical engineer. And I went to school on the G.I. Bill. Tried that for almost a year.
Right about that time frame they were interviewing people to come to Walt Disney World. And so I went through a round of interviews, getting promoted into management. I sort of realized I wasn’t going to be a fantastic electronical engineer, and what I really wanted to be was a rides and attractions supervisor. So I ended up taking a job offer.
I hadn’t been east of Phoenix, that I was aware of. My mother told me that we went to Chicago on a train one time, but I don’t remember that.
So, I ended up getting married in ‘68, while I was still in the Marine Corps to a lady – we worked together at Oaks Tavern (The Stage Door Café today) in Frontierland, and she was (also) working for the Anaheim School District. We ended up getting married and relocating to Florida, in January of 1971.
Monorails, Steam Trains, and Back to the Island
Two of the attractions I had never worked as a ride operator was the steam train and the monorail. And you probably know why, is they were operated by Retlaw. And in order to be a monorail operator you had to be six-foot tall, and I was never gonna be six-foot tall.
Pete Crimmings was my manager for years and one of my mentors. Pete was going to be the manager of the transportation system of Walt Disney World. And he wanted me to operate and run the Monorail system. So when I got back from the service and got promoted, I ended up getting trained on the Monorail and the Steam Trains by Retlaw. So I finally got to work those two attractions, which is sort of neat.
“Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.”
F – You were there early on in Florida. What was it like to see Walt Disney’s Dream go to that next level? You’d been there at the beginning of the other park.
T – It was phenomenal. The people of Florida, if you look at the demographics of the people who were going to Disneyland during that time frame, only about 13 percent of the people came from east of the Mississippi. Very few people on the east coast, and that’s why the New York World’s Fair (1964) was a gigantic testing ground to see how Disney attractions go over on the East Coast.
And all the attractions at the fair were the most popular ones. So in turn, that’s how he ended up in Florida.
And Bob Matheison was the director at that time frame and Bob had run the Small World attraction at the New York world’s fair. And when he came back he was assigned to the Florida Project by Walt.
“So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area…”
The neat thing of that was to see things in the conceptual stage and to actually see them constructed and to know that you’re going to operate them and actually transport guests, in whatever it was you were looking at; Monorails, Osceolas (the double-deck, side-paddle wheel, walking-beam steam boats that operated on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon, “The Ports-O-Call” & “Southern Seas”), Mark Twains, except it was the Admiral Fowler. That’s what the original boat was (called) on the Rivers of America.
So after opening the Monorail system, they decided that they were gonna build Tom Sawyer’s Island. I had a little expertise in that area, so I went from the transportation system operating the monorail to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of the Richard F. Irvine, which was the second sternwheeler, and Tom Sawyer’s Island.
And we did the same thing there. We invited the winners of the Hannibal contest there to participate in the opening of the island, and that was in, I wanna say June of ‘73,
Spaceships, Submarines, and Wild Mine Train
T – And then right after that, I ended up going to Tomorrowland because they were gonna build Space Mountain, the Star Jets, WedWay, Carousel of Progress, and Space Mountains. So I got tagged as a sort of nuts and bolts project guy so in turn I would go to where we were gonna build something new, and then go through the training of the people, and then actually operate it after that.
Then after we opened Space Mountain the decision was to when we opened Walt Disney World, 20k, the submarine ride, the water for the submarine ride was pumped out of the aquifer into the submarine ride, and from there it went into the moat, and from the moat it went into the Jungle Cruise, and from the jungle cruise it went to the rivers of america and then from rivers of America, it went down the light boat channel into the seven seas lagoon.
All the art directors that came down here in the beginning would go to silver springs,
“…the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids…”
And were just amazed at the clarity of the water at silver springs, and so they decided that we would get the water out of the aquifer that they wouldn’t have to chlorinate it and filter it like they had to do at Disneyland at the subs.
But in turn that wasn’t a good decision because you weren’t moving the same quantity of water through the system that was coming out of silver springs. So it started getting algae built up. And so the divers every morning had to go down and scrub the portholes of the submarines and scrub the fish and scrub the mermaids, and so the decision was to enclose 20k, and go through an entire rehab, and update everything. And we had to close it and chlorinate it.
So I went to Fantasyland to oversee that project and retrain all the sub operators and we came back up.
And once we finished that, the next thing on the horizon was Big Thunder Mountain and so I went back to Frontierland/Liberty Square for the construction of Big Thunder Mountain.
And once we opened Big Thunder Mountain, the next thing on the horizon was Epcot.
Seeing Walt’s Dream Through
And so I was moved onto the project team for Epcot into PICO. PICO’s an acronym for Project installation coordination office. And Orlando Ferrante, the Vice President of WED, actually a football player with Dick and Ron Miller, and Tommy Walker back in the good old days.
Ferrante pretty much established P.I.C.O. when they built the New York World’s Fair. And had developed that whole process, and what it was to take the people out of the operating side of the business, to be involved in construction, and once the construction was over with to be involved in the training of the people to operate the new ride and attractions, and then to be part of the management group going forward. So that was sort of the evolution of PICO.
I thought I was going to be a pavilion coordinator, but my boss at that time, Norm Doerges, decided that they wanted to develop an item tracking system for everything that we bought or built for show installation and we needed a warehouse in order to do that for that product that was gonna be stored prior to installation. Some of the product was delivered directly to the site and installed and so I ran that operation. That’s how I got into warehousing.
“The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what…”
F – And that’s where you were for the next 22 years?
T – Yes. Actually ‘79 through 2003.
So in ‘84, when the company went through the entire restructure and went through the greenmail all that other stuff that was going on during that time, and I don’t know if you’ve read The Storming of the Magic Kingdom, but all that was going on and I end up having the opportunity to go into Distribution Services for Walt Disney World versus being in rides and attractions at Walt Disney World, so I ended up going into the warehouse operation as the superintendent of general supplies and long term project storage.
The manager of distribution went on vacation at Christmas time of ‘84 and he didn’t come back. I don’t know if it was an alien abduction or what, but he didn’t come back and six of us interviewed for the job and I ended up getting it.
That’s how I ended up being the manager of distribution services for Walt Disney World.
And Everything Else
F – What didn’t you do in the parks?
T – I was in food in ‘65 just prior to going into the Marine Corps. When all the lessees contracts started to run out, most of them were on 5 or 10 year contracts. And ABC owned United Paramount Theaters, UPT, which ran all the fast food operations at Disneyland. In ‘65, their contract was up and Disneyland Incorporated took over the fast food operations. And I worked as the Assistant Supervisor in Frontierland outdoor foods in the Oaks Tavern area.
And then at that point then I went into the marine corps, and when I came back, I came back into rides and attractions.
Then in ‘79, after we opened Big Thunder, I worked in Area 3 food in Walt Disney World. And that was back when they were talking about Generalists. They wanted people with backgrounds in rides and attractions, and merchandise, and food. And so I had gone in and talked to Bob Matheison about getting some food experience.
And I ended up being the food manager in what they called Area 3 Food, which was Frontierland/Liberty Square and Adventureland. And I had that for just a little less than a year until I got the job offer to go to Epcot.
The only thing I haven’t done is actually operate a merchandise location, but I was in charge of all the warehousing to support merchandise, so one of my warehouse managers used to call me a merchant wannabe.
F – I would take issue with that. I mean you sold newspapers in 1955. That’s merch, right?
T – Oh yeah. Ok. Yes, I had merchandise in 1955 as a newspaper boy.
Great Moments With Mr. Nabbe
F – I know you got Disney Legend status but did you get any other honors along the way?
T – Well, I ended up with a window on main street when I retired in 03 at Walt Disney World. I tried for both parks but I didn’t make it. But they did give me a window on Main Street. It’s above the cinema on the right hand side. And the window says Sawyer Fence Painting, Proprietor, Tom Nabbe, Lake Buena Vista, Florida and Anaheim, California.
F – What were some of your greatest moments in your Disney career.
T – Every 5th anniversary for Disneyland, with the exception of the 10th cause I was gone then in the Marine Corps, my goal is to be on Main Street on July 17, and I’ve managed to accomplish that ever since 1970.
And when we were out there for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, the alumni club out there had a dinner dance, and we had gone to the dance, and while we were at the dance, Jim Cora (James Cora), does that name mean anything to you? Well Jim sorta looked at me and said, “Well, Tom, I’ll see you in September.” And I don’t know if you ever worked with Jim, but Jim was one of those guys that if he could pull your leg, and throw something out there, he’s always looking to razz you, and so I’m sort of a little curious here, but I says, well, no I won’t be back in September.
He says “We’ve been nominated and going to be inducted as Disney Legends.” I thought, “Well that’s sorta neat.”
So when we got back to the hotel room after dinner, I had called my sister who was house sitting for me, and said, “hey is there a letter from the studio there.” And she said, “oh yeah.” I said, “How about opening it up and looking at it?” And sure enough it said that we were invited back in September of 05 to be inducted as a Disney Legend, and so Cora wasn’t pulling my leg. It was an actual event that was occurring.
So we were able to come back out and they treated us like royalty. Because of the anniversary, they normally had the ceremonies at that time frame at the studio. Because of Disneyland’s 50th, they had it at Disneyland, which was sort of neat.
F – Where did that take place? At the Hub?
T – Opera House. We had lunch at a restaurant there at Downtown Disney, the Napa Rose restaurant. And I had the opportunity to have lunch with Roy Disney at that lunch. The Legends program was very much Roy’s baby. Sorta neat.
Plus Roy’s a sailor and I’m a sailor. The only difference is my boat is 16 foot and his boat is 60 feet, but sailing is sailing so we were both able to talk a little bit about sailing. He had just finished up on the Honolulu race.
NEXT: We 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.
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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.