To passionate Disney enthusiasts like myself (you know who you are), one of the great tragedies of Walt Disney’s life story is that he never had the opportunity to see his dream of a Florida vacation wonderland come true. As hard and fast as that fact is, our wishful thinking often leads us to believe that Walt Disney World was somehow built by the hand of Walt Disney himself.
The story I’m about to tell you and the amazing untold secret I’m going to reveal is 100% preposterous. It’s wishful thinking on a delusional scale. I’m confessing this to you up front because I know without a shadow of a doubt that what I’m suggesting is absolutely impossible. At the very least it’s a hoax or even a mistake. It could even be just a trick of the light.
But when you visit a place like Walt Disney World, you tend to believe in the unbelievable – the “plausible impossible” as the Imagineers used to say. In a place where dreams apparently come true, we’re encouraged to shove aside the rational and cling to the fantastical.
So when my daughter called to me from inside a cave on Tom Sawyer Island in Florida to tell me that, “Walt Disney was here,” I didn’t doubt it for second.
A Hidden Walt
Most of us know about Hidden Mickeys. In fact arranging and discovering three distinct circles has grown into its own cottage industry. They’re everywhere.
Far more rare, and therefore more precious, are the “Hidden Walts” dusted around the films, parks, and resorts. One of the more famous of these is the Sorcerer from Fantasia nicknamed “Yen Sid” (read it backwards) whose arched eyebrows were the animator’s caricature of Walt’s “dirty look.” Or there’s the lamp in the window of Walt’s apartment above the fire station on Main Street in Disneyland, kept lit forever as though he never left us.
Others are more explicit nods like the train named after him that travels daily around the Magic Kingdom. He can even be found in the numeric street addresses of certain buildings throughout the parks. Any time you see a 23, a 28, or a 55, you’re probably looking at a Hidden Walt. My favorite numerical reference is the brass “1901” (Walt’s birth year) emblazoned near the door of the Carthay Circle Theater at Disney California Adventure. This also happens to be the name of the secret lounge inside accessible only by Club 33 members.
Incidentally, one of the coolest Hidden Walts is within the lounge itself. From time to time you can see Walt’s shadow as he walks by the entry hall. I have to say it’s a little bit creepy, but it’s an incredible effect all the same.
Now, the Hidden Walt I’m about to reveal is truly remarkable because it is so well hidden and largely unknown. But the most remarkable thing about it is the depth of Disney history, world-building, and legends it apparently pulls together in one simple mark.
So to make sure its significance is not lost, permit me a bit of time-travelling and build-up as I set the stage.
Stick with me. It’s worth it.
When you spend time digging into Walt Disney’s personal history and exploring the events that made him who he became, it’s easy to see that he loved being a boy in Missouri. In the early 20th century, small towns like Marceline with their bustling main streets, expansive farmland, and rolling, creek-crossed hills were perfect kindling to a young boy’s spark of adventure.
Young Walt Disney, though poor by today’s standards, lived as if the entire world was his domain to explore and conquer. In overalls and bare feet, he tracked all over the countryside seeking wild-eyed adventure, and not a little bit of trouble.
For many boys of Walt’s generation, and especially for those growing up along the same waterways and woodlands about which Mark Twain wrote, Tom Sawyer was a hero they could become simply by walking down their front porch steps.
There were fishing pools and swimming holes, dark caves and darker forests. In the whistle stop towns like Twain’s Hannibal and Walt’s Marceline, great steam locomotives would pass through bringing with them visitors from afar and daydreams of what may lie down the tracks. And of course there was the mighty Mississippi, a powerful siren of adventure for every Missouri boy or girl.
Aunt Polly, Tom Sawyer’s lovingly strict guardian, described Tom’s outdoor exploits as “owdacious mischief.” As much as she would have liked to tame young Tom, owdacious mischief is exactly what a boy’s heart craves.
Like Tom Sawyer, Walt Disney discovered incredible freedom when exploring the wilds of Missouri. Given a chance to escape his father’s watchful glare, Walt would bound down the lane toward unknown adventure. His carefree days cultivating a heart for owdacious mischief that would impact generations.
And like Tom, young Walt was no stranger to breaking a rule or two.
Making His Mark in Marceline
In Walt’s childhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, we’re still able to visit a couple landmarks of his rule-breaking prowess. First, there’s the Disney family farmhouse where young Walt encouraged his sister Ruth to join him in painting pictures of animals in black tar on the back wall. His artistic urges got him in big trouble when his father, Elias, discovered the mess and came down hard on the boy.
It’s lucky for us Walt’s artistic ambitions weren’t crushed by the strict punishment he received that day. Rather, it appears that his brief foray as a graffiti artist may have even spurred him on.
Perhaps the most exciting piece of Walt’s criminal history in Marceline is currently on display at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. There, visitors are able to see the very desk that Walt sat in when he was in grade school. How do they know it was his desk? Carved into the wood for all to see are Walt’s initials, “W.D.”
In 1960, Walt was invited back to Marceline to dedicate Walt Disney Elementary School. It was there that he was reunited with his desk. In photos from that day, Walt traces the initials in the wood with his finger, a sheepish grin on his guilty face.
Imagine that! An act of childish destruction has now become an artifact of American pop-culture. And apparently once was not good enough for the mini media magnate. As if he knew his signature might become an important brand some day, he carved his initials twice! How very “Tom Sawyer” of him.
Back out at the farmhouse, visitors can take a winding path to find a replica of the family barn (lovingly rebuilt by fans and friends of the family in a three-day barn raising in 2001). Hundreds of Disney pilgrims have followed Walt’s vandalizing lead and leave their own signatures, carvings, and drawings all over the timbers. Rebels.
Building a Paradise for Play
Now let’s travel west to Disneyland in 1955. The island created by the path of the Rivers of America was at first a barren wasteland, a mound of dirt with a few scraggly trees. But to Walt and his Imagineers, it was a blank canvas for creating another world of fun and adventure for Disneyland’s young visitors. Original ideas for the island included a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and a pirate theme to capitalize on the popularity of the 1950 Disney film Treasure Island. Take that Pirate’s Lair haters.
When legendary Disney artist Marc Davis presented a new map of the island featuring replicas of colonial America’s historic sites, Walt still wasn’t satisfied. Frustrated, he took the plans home, and began sketching his own ideas over the top of Marc’s. Walt added a fort, cave mazes, balancing rocks, swaying bridges, and a towering treehouse. Suddenly, Walt had become the young boy in Missouri churning up his Tom Sawyer fantasies once again.
When the island finally opened for visitors in 1956, Walt had created a place of freedom where kids of all ages could run, play, hide, seek, and imagine just like Tom did… just like Walt did.
Tony Baxter, the Disney Legend responsible for many of your favorite attractions built after Walt’s death, spoke recently about the inestimable value of a child’s imagination. He called it “the importance of being twelve.” Creative folks like Tony have managed to hold onto the same spark that excited them at that magical age and use that excitement as adults to create an even more incredible future for the twelve-year-olds of today.
Of all the incredible dream worlds and fantasy lands within Disneyland, Tom Sawyer Island has the distinction of being the only attraction Walt Disney personally designed himself. To this day it remains the one place in the parks that explicitly reflects Walt’s twelve-year-old dreams come true.
Before we leave Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland in California and head back to Florida, let’s take a moment to follow the paths to the east end of the island. Climb Indian Hill alongside one of the splashing creeks to the highest point on the island. You’ll soon come to a large tree with a spring bubbling up from beneath its roots. Up in that tree, “Tom and Huck” have built their own treehouse to serve as a hideout and headquarters for their adventures. This is the pinnacle of boyhood fantasy – a place loaded with wild fun and miles from responsibility – a place where their imagination can run wild.
Now look closely at the tree. You’ll see that twelve year-olds Tom and Huck have carved their names in the trunk. They’ve marked their territory and memorialized this location as the place where they let their imaginations run wild and where they felt most free. How very “Walt Disney” of them. (Keep reading below.)
Walt’s Signature Move
Before we cross the continent back to the other Tom Sawyer Island in Florida, it’s important to underscore one more thing about Walt Disney. He put his name on everything. Ever since Charles Mintz and Universal taught him a valuable lesson by wresting the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from him in 1928, Walt signed everything that came out of his studio.
When Ub Iwerks drew Mickey, Walt signed his name.
Soon every film, TV show, and merchandise product bore the possessive words “Walt Disney’s” above the title. This is the single most important reason why his name became synonymous with family entertainment for the entire world.
His signature became so sought after that when he was visiting Disneyland, crowds would clog up Main Street USA trying for a chance to get him to put his autograph on a slip of paper or an A or B ticket (E tickets were too valuable). Soon, this became such a traffic headache that Walt had his autograph preprinted on little business cards which he’d hand out to fans to speed up the process.
Today, his autograph is a popular item on eBay. People are so drawn to Walt’s personality and vision, that they are willing to pay thousands of dollars to own a piece of his history, to hold something he held.
Whenever Walt Disney put his mark on something, it soon became a revered monument to the man.
This brings us (at last) to perhaps the most mysterious and unknown Disney secret ever discovered – Walt Disney’s childhood signature hidden in plain sight within a dark tunnel.
In 2015, I had the privilege of taking my family to Walt Disney World for the very first time (read about our vacation of a lifetime at TouringPlans.com HERE). As Californians who grew up making memories at Disneyland, we placed high priority on visiting attractions and shows that no longer exist there. So Tom Sawyer Island with it’s fort still filled with politically problematic guns was definitely a must-do.
With my son, Daniel, and daughter, Penny, by my side, nostalgia washed over me as we passed through the gates of Fort Langhorn. Up the winding steps we bounded toward a higher view and mounted muskets. As I watched my kids pick off imaginary bears and passing mine trains, I was transported back to a time when my Dad stood by my side watching as I did the same.
In that moment, I felt myself recapturing my own childhood just as Walt had when he was designing this playful paradise.
Riding a wave of reminiscence, I followed my kids closely as they ran down the stairs and into a door marked “Escape Tunnel.” Down the tight and rickety stairs we lunged into a tighter maze of sculpted gunnite and cement painted to look like dug out rock. The winding tunnel led us into dead ends and blind turns, the perfect places to hide and jump out at one another for a cheap scare and a burst of laughter. I was a twelve year old boy once again. (Keep reading below.)
The end of the tunnel announced itself with a gradually increasing glow until we finally rounded the last corner where the full light of the bright Florida sun poured in. One by one we exited the tunnel finding ourselves on the shore facing the broad bend of the river.
Penny was the last in line. Just before she came out into the sun, she stopped. “Daddy, Walt Disney was here,” her echoing voice called from the darkness.
I ducked back into the cave to see what she had found, my eyes adjusting from the brief burst of sunlight. Penny was pointing at something on the cave wall.
There, carved into the sculpted walls, in the imperfect and simple handwriting of a Missouri farm boy were the initials “WD.”
The Hand of Walt
We stood there for a moment in reverent silence. It seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.
In the quiet I began to picture a young Walt Disney in overalls and bare feet playing river pirates and Indians along the banks of this quiet creek. I could see him running away from his pals and ducking inside this undiscovered cave, his chest heaving as he tried to keep from laughing and giving away his hiding spot.
The staccato footfalls and shouts of, “He went this way!” grew louder and then quieter as his pursuers passed him by. Walt caught his breath and began to look around. He could see that this cave was much deeper than it seemed. Taking a few brave steps into the cool darkness, he stopped himself short. “It shore is dark in here,” he whispered.
Vowing to come back and explore the tunnel with some paraffin candles and a couple brave compatriots, Walt turned to leave.
Again he stopped. “Don’t all great explorers lay claim to their discoveries?” he thought. Bending down, little Walt Disney picked up a hand-sized rock with a pointed edge. For the next few minutes, he etched one crooked line after another into the cave’s sandstone wall. He took one step back to admire his work and smiled. Satisfied that anyone who finds this cave in the future would know that it and all the adventure it contains belongs to him, Walt raced again shouting into the warm Missouri sun.
Under the Influence
My daughter broke the silence asking, “Do you think Walt did this?” Back in reality, I had to think about that for a second. At Disneyland, many of the items and places in the park remain exactly as they were when Walt was around. If this were in California, it would be quite plausible that the grown up Walt had made this mark himself. He designed the island after all.
But this is Florida. Walt Disney died long before ground was broken for the construction of the Magic Kingdom. Of course he couldn’t have done it. Could he?
Perhaps he did. But not with his own hands. Hundreds of artists, sculptors, builders, and engineers brought their incredible skills together to build these immersive environments, each one inspired by Walt’s enduring vision.
Somewhere in the WDI archives there is a set of construction plans, drawings, and elevations showing the precise measurements and fabrication specs for this tunnel. If Walt’s initials were planned to be included from the beginning, they will appear there exactly as they do in the finished attraction.
However, I like to think that something far more magical happened. Back in 1973, the mustachioed worker assigned to putting the finishing touches on the tunnel stepped back to admire his handiwork. With the cool, dark cave behind him and the brightness of the Florida afternoon just ahead, he felt something wild come over him.
Memories of childhood explorations in the swamps near his home flooded back to him. He recalled the freedom of boyhood and the magnetic pull of mischief once again.
He listened down the tunnel for sounds of approaching co-workers. “Nobody will ever see this anyway,” he reasoned. Then he pulled a pencil from his coveralls and snapped off the tip leaving a sharp, rough edge. With a wide grin on his face and the spirit of another boy by his side, he began to carve.
Your WD Moment
Have you ever seen Walt’s initials in the escape tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World? I’ve scoured the internet and cannot find a single reference to it. It’s like nobody knows it exists. If you have seen it, tell me in the comments below.
Even better, send me a photo of you with this elusive “Hidden Walt,” to prove you’ve gone the distance. Email it to me at TheFredMartin@gmail.com.
If you’re one of the first 10 people who send proof that you’ve visited the WD on TSI, I’ll send the very first in my new series of Skipper Freddy explorer badges. Follow me on Instagram @SkipperFreddy for the latest photos and updates.
How to Find It
You can find the initials just inside the exit of the escape tunnel from Fort Langhorn on the north side of the island. They are at adult eye-level on your right if you’re exiting the tunnel, and on your left if you’re going in the exit (shame on you, rule breaker).
Let’s do our best to keep this treasure awesome for everybody. Be respectful. Don’t block the tunnel. Don’t ruin it for others.
But let’s make it famous. Let’s turn this humble and hidden tribute into one of the great, must-visit sites on Walt Disney World property. Perhaps generations of mischievous kids will see it and believe that “Walt was here,” no matter how preposterous.
Many thanks to all the incredible people who made this epic story possible:
- To my family and especially my daughter Penny for the great adventure and for finding the WD in the first place.
- To the great Dennis Emslie, my friend on the inside who made it possible to visit the tunnel again this last month.
- To Raechel Andrews, a stranger who agreed to a random mission to get photos of TSI at Disneyland for me at the last minute.
- To Peter and Sarah Brookhart for letting me pick their brains about their experience visiting Walt Disney’s hometown of Marceline.
- To Adam the Woo for his insights on Walt’s barn in Marceline.
- To Tom Nabbe for taking on the role of Tom Sawyer for life and remaining a boy at heart throughout his career at Disney Parks.
To learn more about Walt Disney’s Tom Sawyer Island check out these groovy links to some of the source material for this post: