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’ll go back again to Disneyland on July 17, 1955, when a celebrity makes Tom Nabbe’s dreams come true with a couple passes to the fateful Press Opening. You won’t want to miss one magical moment with Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe. 

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

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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.

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

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.

The eternally burning lamp in Walt Disney’s apartment above the fire station on Disneyland’s Main Street USA. Copyright 2017 Dennis Emslie, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2016 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
1901, named for Walt’s birth year, is the private lounge for Club 33 members inside the Carthay Circle Theater building in Disney California Adventure. Copyright 2016 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Walt Disney’s shadow passes by the hallway in the members-only 1901 Lounge in Disney California Adventure. Copyright 2016 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

“Owdacious Mischief”

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The life preserver aboard the paddle wheeler Mark Twain. Walt Disney was a great admirer of Mark Twain. They shared many similarities including a love for boyhood mischief in rural Missouri. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The whitewashing fence on Tom Sawyer’s Island in the Magic Kingdom in Florida. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.”

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Walt Disney’s initials carved into his first grade desk on display by the Walt Disney Hometown Museum at the D23 Expo, July 2017. It appears that he also defaced his second grade desk which was on display at Disney Hollywood Studios in the One Man’s Dream exhibit. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.
Walt’s Barn – A nail for nail, board for board replica of the barn Walt remembered from his childhood. Replicas were also built for Disney film “So Dear To My Heart” and in Walt’s Holmby Hills backyard railroad, The Carolwood Pacific. Photo by The Brookhart Project. See their Vlog for more awesome Disney content. Copyright 2017 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.
Copyright 2017 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.
Visitors to Walt’s Barn in Marceline, Missouri, have left hundreds of messages of love and gratitude to the boy who became Walt Disney. Photo by The Brookhart Project. See their Vlog for more awesome Disney content. Copyright 2017 Sarah Brookhart, all rights reserved.
Copyright 2017 Peter Brookhart, all rights reserved.
Sarah Brookhart of The Brookhart Project tags… er, adds her own message of gratitude to Walt’s Barn in Marceline, Missouri. Photo by The Brookhart Project. See their Vlog for more awesome Disney content. Copyright 2017 Peter Brookhart, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Two little old ladies channel their inner Tom and Huck crossing the pontoon bridge on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Disneyland cast members on a Davy Crockett Explorer Canoe greet an adventurer on Tom Sawyer Island as they pass the fishing pier at Catfish Cove. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.
Tom & Huck’s treehouse on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland opened to adventurous children in 1956. Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.

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.

Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.
Tom and Huck’s Treehouse is the highest point on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland. Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.

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.)

Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.
Tom Sawyer professes his love for Becky Thatcher by carving their names in the biggest tree on the island. Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.
Huckleberry Finn makes his mark on the roots. Photo used with permission. Copyright 2017 Raechel Andrews, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Walt Disney signs autographs from a vehicle on Disneyland’s Main Street USA. This is the image on the cover of the Disneyland souvenir guide, circa 1968. Photo copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Discovery!

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The mighty Fort Langhorn on Tom Sawyer’s Island is named after Samuel Clemens’ middle initial, another nod to American literary hero, Mark Twain. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2015 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Peeping down the sights of these rifles, a boy or girl can defend the fort alongside Davy Crockett and Sam Houston. Copyright 2015 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.)

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The Fort Langhorn Escape Tunnel leads to greater adventure and the most mysterious Hidden Walt of them all. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The dark of the cave lit only by lanterns and holes cut into the solid gunnite, er, rock. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Light pours in revealing a curious hieroglyph at the tunnel’s end on Tom Sawyer’s Island in the Magic Kingdom in Florida. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.”

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Walt Disney’s initials carved in the wall of a tunnel on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Deep inside the escape tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida. Here there be monsters. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
Walt Disney’s initials inside a tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.
The lonely view outside the tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island. Here a dreamer once left his mark to inspire generations. Copyright 2017 Freddy Martin, all rights reserved.

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.

Gratitude

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.

Learn More

To learn more about Walt Disney’s Tom Sawyer Island check out these groovy links to some of the source material for this post:

Mark Twain, Walt Disney, and the Playful Response to Pirate Stories

Walt’s Childhood Stories (a collection of videos made by SecondStory.com for the Walt Disney Family Foundation)

Disney Legend Tom Nabbe, Walt’s Original Tom Sawyer at Disneyland

Walt Disney, from Reader to Storyteller: Essays on the Literary Inspirations

Walt Disney and Mark Twain (from Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius

Missouriland – The Marceline Walt Disney Knew