The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3

When I was born, Walt Disney had already passed away. So when I have an opportunity to talk with someone who knew him, I want to hear the truth directly from their memories of what Walt was really like. In this third and final installment of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob shares some of his first-hand memories of his time designing many of Disneyland’s most iconic attraction vehicles. 

If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.

If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE

 

Freddy Martin: What do you wish that people knew about Walt that few other people know?

 

Bob Gurr: You know the funny thing, you know I worked with him for 12 years, and I would say he was about as open and ordinary as anybody you’d ever run across. Everything about him, in a way, it was kind of a paradox, because when, one moment you’re with him and/or you’re doing something and he just seems like such an ordinary guy in a way. You know, the use of language the choice of food, the little expressions that, y’know, a typical Midwestern kid would use.

And then at other times, where he’d be in a place where there was other people present at the company’s and corporations and stuff, and they’re all awestruck by him because they see him as a god. And Walt was, it was kind of funny in a way, and I’d seen this personally at other times, where he was very aware that people perceived him kind of like a real great guy. After all, he invented Snow White, didnt he? Y’know, he invented Mickey Mouse. And he’s done a Disneyland and now he’s trying to do an EPCOT.  

 

But in order for Walt to have a conversation with somebody, he’s got to be able to have everybody at the same level. And I would see him deliberately loosen his tie and leave it slightly askew. Or sometimes we’d be someplace where he was wearing a little hat, he had a pork pie hat, he’d just wad up in his pocket. Or when he’d take it out, he’d flop it on his head and not even re-adjust it. Just wherever it hit, it hit. Because it would send like little subtle signals that he’s okay. He’s okay to talk to. It’s okay to get close.

 

One day in Pittsburgh, we were at a party after a business meeting with Westinghouse up on a Hilltop Bar. And the bar was not very big. It was a little bit too small for the size team we had from Disney. We had 13 of us and the guys from Westinghouse, so you have to stand a little bit too close with your scotch mist in the afternoon.  

 

Now think about safe space between people. Like when you, sometimes somebody will come a little too close to you and you can’t define that space. But you know when your space has been invaded and somebody’s talking right at you, it makes you nervous. Alright, well, that’s a human thing a lot of people don’t even think of. But that little distance of space is a little different for everybody.

 

Well, I saw Don Burnham, the chairman of the board at Westinghouse, with his drink talking directly to Walt, and I’m in the conversation, and I notice the guy’s lower lip starts to quiver. He starts to sputter. (laughs) And Walt backs up a little bit, y’know kind of casually. And I notice, yeah, boy this place is tight. So many of the other places we’re not like that. That was the first time I noticed that. Then thereafter, I could see that, Oh yeah, people do get uncomfortable around some people.

 

And boy! Around Walt Disney, people that are very lofty can suffer the same thing as a Disney fan.

 

So a lot of people ask these kind of questions about Walt Disney and I think it’s probably because, Lord knows how many books have been written about him how many magazine articles. So I would say the majority of the world, when you say the word “Walt Disney,” it’s mostly misinformation.

 

And obviously the only people that could tell you something that was different are only the people that are still alive today, and which there’s not a lot of us left.

But I can assure you that’s the way it was, from the day I met him. I was never introduced to him. I was just suddenly, I was there working on the car, the little autopia car. It was just very simple.

 

And then I watched the way he worked with people. And I’d say around him I would say the only time I was close to nervous was, I had to drive one of the company station wagons with him in the back seat behind me down Highland Avenue, which was a wiggly Street. And I think it used to have railroad tracks in it. And I thought, “Oh my God! I don’t want to crash this car. I’ll kill Walt Disney. He’s sitting right behind me!”

 

So there’s some nervousness there. But you know, to Walt, it’s just Walt.

 

Freddy Martin: What you just said about Walt Disney was profound. “He was ordinary.” That’s not what people think. They think he’s a legend. No, he’s ordinary.

 

Bob Gurr: I know, but see maybe once or twice a week he’d come in my office. Y’know, I had a big office. I had a leather chair. He’d just come in. He liked to walk around, see what other people are doing. Some days he’d walk in, never said a word, just look around and walk out. Other days, he’d stand and look what I’m doing or sometimes he’d just sit down, and then I’d go grab the little stool and go ahead and sit down, see what he wanted. So just as ordinary as could be.

I can only tell you what I know about him from personal experience.

 

Freddy Martin: What was the last conversation you had with him?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, there was the Omnimover project, we were designing what later became the “Atommobile” for the Monsanto attraction. And the president of Monsanto, he and Walt kinda had words once in awhile because they were still trying to refine what the guy from Monsanto wanted and what Walt thought he ought to have.

 

And I’d built a cardboard model, a full size one of the shape of the car body with the speakers up in like the corners of it. And I made it one way and Walt says, “Gee, I like it! I think that’s good.”

 

And this guy comes over and, y’know, who am I to tell the guy that Walt liked that and the guy says, “Oh no. I would like to have it this way. I want these ears to stand up a little bit more here. Can you cut that up and put it back together with some tape or something?”

 

And I did it! And I think within a couple of days Walt comes in and says, “Well what did you do that for?”

 

And he was not happy. you know? And I had to say that “Mr. President,” he said to do it. And Walt had some words that I can’t really remember, but the look on his face was like God damn it this is my park. This is the way we do it!” (Laughs)

 

I don’t want to get between two guys that are disagreeing, you know? And I’m the one with the tape and scissors!

 

Note: I asked Bob about his experience with Walt’s passing at this point, but he politely declined to answer. His response was very direct and guarded. It seemed that he has decided that questions of this nature are too intimate and personal. I respectfully moved on with the next question.

 

Freddy Martin: You’ve been honored with a window on Main Street. Tell us about it.

 

It’s on Center Street. You go up [Main] Street at Disneyland, you come to the first block and make a right turn. Look to the left, it’s a little narrow building, has one window. But it has an actual, dimensional model of a bicycle bolted to the wall next to the window. Normally everybody gets a window if you’re going to have a window, they just have a window.

And then the guys in the machine shop in the back knew that I was a mountain biker, and so they volunteered on their own time, they scrambled up some parts and built this cute little funky bicycle that’s not recognizable as anything authentic, but it’s cute. And they bolted it on the wall.

 

And right after the ceremony they walked in and they said, “Hey, do you like the bike? I found the parts. I built that for ya, and they let me bolt it on the building.”

Oh, that set off a ruckus! Now everybody after that wants a dimensional sign, of course. I guess two years later Rolly Crump and Don Edgren, they got [windows], Rolly got a nice sign in front of his, so that kind of set the stage.

 

Freddy Martin: Is there a place in Disneyland that still feels to you like it did way back in 1955?

 

Bob Gurr: Up until a couple years ago The Rivers of America was exactly that. But the rivers of America, they tell me, got chopped up, modified put in a railroad bridge, and behind the bushes is some alien city. That’s all I know. But The Rivers of America is the prime one.

 

That is so, so Walt. It’s leisurely. It’s got a lot of nature. We still have immovable concrete deer. We sort of had a strange Indian village, that was very much how you’d tell stories in the fifties of that nature. And we had a great attraction that’s on water. And there was no rush. That’s the main one.

But the other things that are missing that is also “so Walt” that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with, but it’s so Walt was Granny’s cabin and the goat farm. They were later, of course, but they were very representative of the same feeling that a guest would have wandering around back there. It’s much the way with Knotts has never, almost never change their ghost town area because it’s “Walter Knott.”

 

But up to about 2015 Walt’s park was pretty much Walt’s park. But it is changing. Y’know, the world changes, companies get big. Disney is the premier entertainment empire on the entire planet. That’s its job.

 

Freddy Martin: Is there anything at Disneyland the you would improve if you could?

 

Bob Gurr: You know me better than to ask me a hypothetical question. (laughs)

 

I picked that up from Harry Truman. Harry Truman was the master of that because Washington politics is murder and nobody liked Harry Truman. And he dispensed everybody with just what I told you. Because the way he couched it which I vividly remember. “You boys know me better than that. You know I don’t answer hypothetical questions.”

 

Freddy Martin: You can’t fix it so why answer it.

 

Bob Gurr: That’s right. And the other half of it is, what did Bob Dylan say? Don’t look back. He wrote a book, “Don’t Look Back.”

 

Freddy Martin: Speaking of looking back, tell me how the WaltLand tours came about.

Note: Once per month, Bob leads a guided bus tour through Glendale and Burbank to various sites where Walt lived, worked, and played while he was alive. It’s called WaltLand Disney Bus Tours. Learn more at WaltLand.com.

 

Bob Gurr: Oh, sometime in the spring of 2016, Ernie phones up and said, “Hey Bob, I have an idea.”

 

I knew he did those ghost tours in the City of Orange. He said I have an idea for a tour of Walt’s early life, the original homes, and where the Hyperion Studios, and the Merry-Go-Round and the barn, and all that. And I says, “Ernie, I’ve been doing that for 17 years for family and friends. I have a standard route that I have done.”

I never envisioned you could make a bus tour out of it. So, within a couple of days, we got in his car and I had drafted up a route and figured out a timing chart preliminarily, because I’ve been doing it for so long. And it was near identical to what he’d been doing, or wanted to do, and we tested it. And the timing was perfect. We only made one adjustment a couple months later and that’s all we ever did to it.

 

And so there it was, a thing that’s been going on and he had an idea and the idea was so parallel. And I thought we might do one or two of them and it turned out this thing never ends! I think we just did the 14th or 15th one I think.

 

Freddy Martin: What’s next for Bob Gurr?

 

Bob Gurr: Part of it you never know because there’s all kinds of things pop up all the time. I know I’ve got a [manager]. Y’know Ernie’s my manager now. I kidded last year and I says, “Every time I get these questions from people I need to have an agent! Because Marty Sklar, many years ago, would snarl at us and say, “We gotta stop doing this free stuff for the Disney Company. They never pay us. We gotta get ourselves an agent.”

Bob Gurr signs posters at the start of his WaltLand Guided Bus Tour in April 2018. Photo courtesy of the great Dann Gillen. Follow Dann on Instagram @danngillen ©2018 Dann Gillen, all rights reserved.

 

But he never got around to really doin it. And so then I thought, well then, okay… Ernie’s the agent so we’ll see what he finds.

 

Freddy Martin: You started with a passion for cars. Are you still passionate about them?

 

It never changed. I had a Model A Ford I did extensive engine work on it. I did extensive engine work on my ‘35 Ford. And then by the late seventies I had an older Rolls-Royce and I thought, Well, that’s a 6 cylinder engine. It needs some more work, had a hundred forty-three [thousand] miles on it… It’s only a Rolls-Royce. It’s only parts. So I take it all apart, rebuild the engine, put it all back in the car and start her up. Runs normal. Doesn’t smoke anymore and that was a 70 day job.

I’m not afraid to tackle anything. One time in 1950 I think in ‘53 I had a something ‘51 MG. I thought, I’ll make this go faster. I’ll take the four-cylinder engine out and get a Willy’s F-head 6 and put it in there and do an engine swap. And I did an engine swap in about a month and I had a much faster car. People that fuss with cars and motorcycles, they usually figure things out.

 

Freddy Martin: Where’s the theme park world going next?

 

Well, in the broader sense, I don’t see anything drastically different because we’re still filling the world with theme parks. You see Walt was the first to do a real modern theme park, even though Tivoli Gardens and other places had existed for a very, very long time. But the idea of this generic theme park thing which would fit any size, any country, anywhere, y’know, what’s Disney got? 10, 11 of them now?

 

And it’s almost certain that the next big country that gets filled up is going to be India because there are so many people in India. Y’know, they’re going to grow in parallel to China. There’s so many theme parks in China. There’s so many companies in the Themed Entertainment Association. Vendors, they’re so busy all over China. And now Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they’re all starting to compete with one another.

 

And if you follow MBS, that’s Mohammed bin Salman, the guys only, what? 30? And he’s the Prince of Arabia. And he was just here for a couple weeks, here in the country going around talking to everybody. Yeah, he wants to make sure that his population, the Arabs are 29 million people or so, that they’re going to grow in parallel with the rest of the world, with all the things that are enjoyable in life. And well, they’ve got oil money and they they still need to generate other money here eventually in the decades ahead.

 

I think, looking way ahead, when we’ve got the countries that can support it, we will sort of have done the infill of conventional theme parks. And I would love to come back in a hundred years and see what that next wave of innovation [is going to be].

 

It’s almost like when you have something and you infill all the stuff and now somebody says, “Ok, we’ve done that. Now what?” The “now what” usually leads to some people coming up with some brilliant stuff.

 

I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I see it’s way down the road. But it’s not there yet.

So there might be some kind of stuff, obviously some of its going to be virtual reality. But virtual reality, I think, is coming to a point where it’s going to be very generic in another couple of decades in a way. And it’s almost like there’s going to be a semi-throwback to more naturalistic environments that are entertaining.

 

I can’t tell you very much, but I was paid recently for an entire morning with probably one of the most important, far-out theme park designers in the world, and I can’t say anything more than that. But that was the thrust I could see that they’re headed at. And this person has always been in the forefront.

 

So, all I can share with you, is that, yeah, I might be the 86 year-old guy on the bus, but I did get invited to poke my nose into that next wave of the future.

 

Because it’s out there. ~

 

Many thanks to Bob Gurr for his time and generosity. Connect with him at BobGurr.com

Thanks to Bob’s manager, Ernie Alonzo for arranging the time and for giving Bob a platform to share his fascinating stories with us. Click the image below to get on board the next WaltLand Tour.  – FM

 

If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.

If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE

The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 2

When you have a legendary Disney designer on the line, you never know what amazing stories you might hear. In this second installment (2 of 3) of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob tells how he thinks through a project at the beginning, and how it never abides by a prescribed process.

He reveals some of his most incredible show pieces made for clients other than Disney. Can you say King Kong, the King of Pop, and Queen? And he tells how he keeps a careful eye out for that most deadly of Imagineering traps, no, not hippos. Hubris.

Click HERE if you missed The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

Click HERE to skip ahead to The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3.

 

Freddy Martin: In building the nuts and bolts of somebody else’s dreams, how did you work through some of the big ideas?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, first off you’re okay. You didn’t say the word “process.” When I’m doing my lectures and somebody says, “Bob tell us about your process,” I start laughing, and look at them. And then they catch on that they’d asked a boo-boo question.*

 

So many people are highly educated, they’re trained in college, they got a 4-year course. Everything is by rote. In other words, if you start with A and you end with Z, and you do all the steps in between, ergo, you will have a successful outcome of whatever it is you’re doing.

 

Well, that’s the theory, but I can assure you that’s not the way the world works.

 

And specific[ally] at Disney, and for the 27 years that I was there, I jumped on whatever it took to get started on anything, and modified it as I went – [without] a total idea of “process.” And that methodology, if you want to call it that, went 45 years of doing things exactly the same way, in which you do not have an organized way of doing anything.

 

Because every job is different. Every client is different. Every question is different. Some are big and take years. Some are quickie and might take a day or two.

 

You do whatever it takes, making it up as you go, based upon the goal that you see the thing is ultimately going to have to go through and everything that’s involved in it.

 

The only thing that might be [considered] “process” would be, as you’re looking very quickly at everything that’s going to be involved, you sort of form a general idea as to what our, what we would call, “long lead” items or expensive items or things that are items that would be a make-or-break as differentiated from a lot of conventional stuff that will come along in its own time.

 

And that way you can automatically prioritize what are the big sticky ones you’re going to jump on immediately, to get those solutions underway, so that you can then share it with anybody else working on it, generally where you’re headed and what has to be done first and why.

 

For example, later in life I had this 26 year-old kid who can do a moon dance, a guy by the name of Michael Jackson. He comes over. I show him around our place for two hours, and then he asked me if I can do a custom lighting device.

 

I know nothing about lighting, but I’d be willing to learn. And within two days we were having a business meeting to seal the deal. And then he says, “What do you need?”

 

I said, “Well I need fifty thousand bucks in the bank from you tomorrow, because this is a 9 week job and the hardest parts to get that are very expensive, that are long lead, are a thing called servo valves for some of the pneumatic controls. And to get this in time, it takes several weeks to get em, but I’ve got to order em tomorrow morning and we gotta have a deposit paid.”

 

It’s things like that. In other words if you had a process, and you were a trained engineer, and you had a license, well first off, you would lay out your parameters of the job. You’d begin to identify the elements and then you would do estimates of labor and materials. And then you would assign people to it, and then you would gather a budget, and then you would submit the budget, D’you follow me?

 

No! Don’t do it that way. Goodness sakes!

 

Sometimes you have to, on complicated jobs that are going to take a couple of years. Yes, you better do it that way. But you can see the futility of applying a standardized way of working across the board as if you were a licensed trained engineer. The less training you’ve got means generally, I think people have their minds really wide open as to, “Okay, what do we do next? What do we jump on?”

 

Freddy Martin: What did you build for Michael Jackson?

Bob Gurr: Do you remember The Victory Tour back in 1984? It went to, I believe, 27 different venues for the entire summer. A massive amount of trucks. It’s still the biggest rock and roll tour show ever done in America because it had so many sets. It was such a massive, massive collection of stuff, normally in the lighting business you write out your lighting plan, and you select the instruments, and most times you rent the instruments at a lot of venues. And then you rent the lighting trusses and all that stuff, because this is store-bought, catalog stuff that’s available all over the world.

 

He [Michael Jackson] wanted something that is not rentable. He wanted something that is different than anybody else is going to have. And he’d been looking at people outside the rock and roll industry and he happened to wind up looking at our shop (which at that time I think we were called, let’s see, it was before The Sequoia Company, Applied Entertainment Systems. That’s what it was) because we’d done a little of the rock and roll stuff. We reworked some of lighting equipment for Queen, a band called Queen.

 

So he was looking sort of outside of the industry. And then I guess he was kind of surprised to see, “Oh my gosh! They’re doing some Queen stuff.” So then that’s when he, at the end of the tour, he just went off the top of his head, and said, “Could you do lighting? It was the same thing as the business of going to Disney. “Well I don’t.” I didn’t, but I said, “Yes.” Because you always say, “Yes.”

 

So it was a 9-week, very fast job. Learned a ton. Got to meet a whole bunch of people in this industry. A lot of them from England to do with lighting, audio, set direction, y’know, putting stuff together, taking it apart. I learned how roadies work, all that kind of stuff. Great people to learn from.

 

And out of that job came another job which was only 5 weeks long. The guy that designed the custom stages for Michael, a guy name of John McGraw, he was working on a deal for a flying saucer for the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Los Angeles in August of 84.

 

And then he ran out of time and money, but he had a lot of vendors pulled together on the “if come,” nobody paid. And then he said, “Oop, can’t do it, so why don’t you take the job?”

 

And I said, “Why sure, I’ll do it.” (laughs)

 

So I wound up with a 50-foot diameter flying saucer held by a helicopter and more lighting stuff. But this time I knew more about lighting so it went quick.

 

Freddy Martin: I’m going to have to look that up on YouTube.

 

Oh yeah! There’s pretty good videos of it that last a couple minutes and it gives you an idea, “What in the world was that?”

 

Freddy Martin: What was your biggest challenge?

 

Bob Gurr: Y’know, that’s the other word I don’t respond to is the word “challenge.” Challenge implies that you’re stuck and you’ve been brought to a halt.

 

I’ve always seen that in the other way around. It’s like when you get in a discussion with some people about a new project up potential thing to do, I can see several ways to do it very quickly in your mind, if you’re talking and looking at something.

 

So by the time somebody says, “Well hey! Yeah let’s go do this thing. Yeah, hey, let’s do it. Okay, make a deal. We’ll do it,” you actually might have two, three, or four general ideas. And the challenge, if there was a challenge at that moment, you would say, “Well, which one has the most likelihood of being successful and can get going the easiest?” Knowing that, if the one you just picked starts to bomb out in a day or two, or in a week or something, don’t worry about it. You have these other ideas, We can shift over to the other ideas.

 

So it’s kind of a long-winded way of saying I don’t ever recall seeing a challenge. And the only thing that would have come close is when you’re designing something that’s super simple and it’s only a two-week job or something and then suddenly a part of it doesn’t work.

 

That’s usually because you trap yourself in your own hubris.

 

And those are the ones you that I absolutely hated. I don’t think there was more than just two or three. Cause I really did not like the idea of I’m standing there and the shop guys are there and their money is burning and the time is burning and my thing doesn’t work. And then the look on everybody’s face, if you can visualize this in a way, they generally know my stuff works. And then, all of a sudden, they’re standing there and my stuff doesn’t work. The look on their face kills. You know, you’ve seen people, just like, “Okay smarty-pants. Oh look, you bombed out. We’re standing here and we’re watching.”

 

In one case it took 2 hours to come up with a brand new design and they stood and waited and watched me draw. (laughs)

 

The only worst one was we were putting King Kong together at Universal. We had the legs installed. We had the whole upper middle body installed and we were getting ready to install the torso, which was a big assembly and it had never made it up to the pelvis frame because we couldn’t do it in the shop. It was physically impossible. Everything else had been pre-fitted.

 

And this great big thing is hanging from a big crane and we were starting to set it in place and there’s a bind! There’s about a half inch of metal in the wrong place and I’m mortified. And so I look at the crane operator and I say, “Oh, just a minute. Hang on. Hang on. Go get a grinder. We’ll get this thing cleared here. Just give me a little bit of time.”

 

And the guy looks at me and says. “Mr. Gurr, the crane is $600 an hour. Take all the time you want.” (laughs)

 

If there was a challenge, it was like, “Oh God! How can I make this thing less than $600?”

 

It was only about 15 minutes, and I would just grinding off a little piece. But it was something that had not been pre-fitted. Cause I like to prefit everything. Because if you’re doing a field installation and and it’s big and expensive and there’s a big crew, your burning money. So you try to not get in that fix.

 

Freddy Martin: As a Jungle Cruise Skipper, I’m always curious about Jungle Cruise stories. Did you have anything to do with the Jungle Cruise?

 

Bob Gurr: Jungle Cruise? Yes.

One of my more spectacular, unsuccessful pieces of show action equipment was a couple of charging hippos. And this was long before good animation systems were available, and I was trying to do something – this was in like 1957 or 8, I think.

We were trying to do stuff where the hippos would come out on two different tracks to attack the boats. And then, when the boats go by, the hippos would turn and go back to where they were, and then turn around and reset themselves. And I was trying to do it with a spring set up, so that it went out one way and came back another way.

Due to the unpredictability of, y’know, falling leaves in the machinery, and water, y’know, and you never know what the hippos were gonna do anyway, every once in awhile the Jungle Cruise guys would come back with a report to the management and say, “You got to do something with the hippos!”

“What’s wrong with the hippos?”

“Well, some days they come out backwards and they moon everybody in the boat!”

And so the mooning hippos had to go. (Laughs)

Freddy: (Laughs) There’s a “backside of water” joke in there.

Bob Gurr: You probably caught my joke on the bus tour, where we stood out there (behind Imagineering headquarters in Glendale) and we talked about 1401 Flower –  everyone knows 1401 Flower, and this bland colored building here, “That’s the backside of 1401!”

 

Which is about as important.

 

Freddy Martin: You were there with the original team that mapped out Epcot. How did Future World and World Showcase actually come together?

 

Bob Gurr: Epcot was a very lengthy development. It was, I would probably say, the classical, long-winded committee project with people coming and going. Obviously then opinions would change from week to week. You know it was just a long, long arm wrassle [sic].

 

The company figured out about where they were going to put Epcot, so that pretty much stayed the same. And then we had a place called TCC or Transportation Control Center where the Monorails, and the parking lot trams, and the ferry boats that go over to the Magic Kingdom. That’s kind of a central place.

 

And there was an area Southwest of that juncture where the land was very good. Everything [else] down there was pretty much sinkholes.

 

And somebody started an idea where, and I think they did refer to it as, like a “world showcase.” This was like an extra activity. It had nothing to do with Epcot.

 

And the idea was that it was going to be a round installation where if you were in the center of the thing, if you look all around at these different countries, they all had the same width frontage. But if you look at it in the plan view, some countries might be tiny and some might be massive. And of course the property would be like expanding pieces of pie going way out pretty much unrestricted behind the opening. And they made they made models. They made drawings of this stuff, nice paintings. And somebody from marketing, I guess, comes in and says, “What makes you think all these competing civilizations are going to share the same front window?”

 

 

I mean it was such an obvious, obvious fact of history. But everybody was so close to the idea of this thing, nobody bothered to draw back and look at the historic reasons why civilizations fight to kill one another. And they’re still doing it!

 

You know, we’ve got the Ayatollahs, y’know, are bound and determined that, y’know, the Shiites are going to beat up the Sunnis, even though the Sunnis got them outnumbered by 5 to 1. But they’re not going to give up. That still goes on and on and on. You know, that’s just the way civilizations behave.

 

The United States says, “Well, we’re on top. We’ll be on the top forever and nobody can challenge us… Hello! China? Who? Who’s China?? What? How many? What? You got a billion people? You got a big Market! Let’s sell you something!” (laughs)

 

Well, what happened was, one day John DeCuir Jr was working on the job – he had a famous father. That model (World Showcase) just sort of slid over into the Epcot area and they said, “Well, it’s different. Well, we’ll put a lake between them. And they built quite a few models and then one day somebody said, “How big is this? It looks good on the floor, here in the model [shop] on the table. How big is this?”

 

And then they went out and they measured how big it really is and they had to cut the whole thing in two! They were making it twice as big as you could do it, (laughs) and they’d built models and drawings and everything before somebody said, “Well, how big is it?”

 

I remember that was, sort of, everybody looked at everybody and everybody went, “Oops!”

 

Freddy Martin: Wow! They were dreaming way too big.

 

Bob Gurr: Yeah, so designers, you know, there’s a hubris in every endeavor throughout history. I imagine, y’know, there’s a reason why the Greeks invented the word hubris, cause you know, you can be good at what you’re doing and one day you will fall on your Plutarch.  

 

And it’s something you really, really have to pay attention to. Don’t let that happen to you.

 

You know we’ve got a famous guy that’s got a rocket company. It’s very successful and he’s going to build a half million cars a year and he can’t even get the first cars to work… Mr. Musk, up there. He made some assumptions that, ergo, if robots are good for some things well, ergo, there good for everything.

 

So he said, “Oh, well then we’ll have the cars final assembly. We don’t need people to put the parts together. We’ll have the robots put the parts together, you know, the self assemblies of course will build the car. And he says, “It will be so perfect. We don’t need to build a prototype, pre-production pilot line to prove it out. We’ll just save all that time and money. Hmmm, read the continuing story of Mr. Musk’s Tesla Model 3.

 

Well, I’ve been up to the factory. I met Musk years ago. And I’ve got a lot of friends with Teslas, but I follow two things; the technical decision-making side and the financial side.

 

So that hubris is there, and I’ve got burned a couple of times, but not too bad.

 

As long as you’re on that subject, one of the things about while you’re designing stuff, you’re in a constant reiteration, literally hourly as you’re doing stuff. You keep going around and around and around, looking at the stuff, trying to say, “What is wrong with this? What is the Achilles heel of everything I’m sketching, or thinking about doing?”

 

And you go round and round. And you got to do that all the time, cause you want to be the first person to find the Achilles heel in your designs and then fix them before anybody knows about it. You don’t want to know that you’re a proud and famous designer and have someone else point that out after you spent the time and money.

 

So this anti-hubris thing is, I think the people are pretty good if they pick that up early in life.

 

Click HERE to jump to The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 3.

Click HERE if you missed The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

*Full disclosure: I did actually ask Bob what his “process” was, but he somehow missed it. I edited it out above because it was confusing.

The Bob Gurr Interview – Part 1

Some days you’re just going through the motions. No big deal. But some days, you get to interview Bob Gurr.

Bob Gurr is the wildly energetic and witty industrial designer who created the vehicles for most of your favorite Disney attractions. From the Autopia cars and the Monorail to the Main Street Omnibus and the Haunted Mansion’s Doom Buggies, Bob’s drawings and mechanical intuition brought them to life.

He’s an official Disney Legend (the Disney Kingdom’s equivalent of Knighthood) and one of the last living designers of Walt’s original theme park dream-come-true, Disneyland.

I got to know Bob via his guided bus tour through Walt Disney’s Los Angeles stomping grounds. When I asked him if he would interview with me, I expected a polite “no.” Instead, and to my great surprise, Bob said, “Yes!”

It turns out that saying “yes” is Bob’s M.O. 

In this first installment of The Bob Gurr Interview, we meet a World War II kid with an endless curiosity for machines that go, and and a penchant to follow after anything that interests him. That’s what led him to his first job at Disney, designing the vehicles for Disneyland’s Autopia. 

 

Freddy Martin: What motivated your curiosity in planes, trains and automobiles as a kid?

 

Bob Gurr: You remember we started the tour over on Los Feliz Boulevard before we went over to the Lyric Avenue housing sites, I pointed out that we lived on the hill, up on the right, just to two blocks down from Walt.

 

I do remember two things when I was like, my father said I was 18 months old, I knew the sound of the metal bells on the front of a Good Humor ice cream truck (laughs). It was something in tune, that I’d hear that jingle and then I’d make a big ruckus. And then, of course, they’d take me out there and buy me an ice cream. And that was kind of a regular thing, so I was like, (beginning to understand) “Okay, okay!”

 

It was an horizontal bar with bells, and had like a string on it. It was not electronic, I mean it was really bells on a truck!

 

And at the same time, I’d be out in the yard sometimes and an airplane would fly over and I was just entranced when I saw something! Because, obviously later on, from where the Grand Central Air Terminal is, the aircraft would take off and fly to the South, which meant they went right over Grandma’s house.

 

So those are two of the most vivid, vivid memories, very very early on. And then sometime not long after that, but before we moved to Glendale in 1934, it was cars! I was just fascinated with cars.

 

And then there was actually a fourth thing that I do recall. My grandmother was getting some painting done inside the house. And there was a truck that showed up that was configured like an old fashioned banana wagon cart. Y’know, it’s got a bed on the back and it’s got a canvas roof on it. In there was a compressor for compressing air for the paint. And this thing had open connecting rods and a crankshaft and somehow I was fascinated and completely terrified by it. Couldn’t get near it.

 

So those are the seeds that were strictly visual. There was the first clue. And as children’s synapses develop and are filling up by the millions a day, those got locked into my brain real quick.

 

Freddy Martin: Tony Baxter recently talked about the importance of being 12 and how, when he was 12, he started modeling things. That’s when he started to get ideas of who he might be as he grew up. Who were you at 12 and where were you headed at the time?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, at 12, I would have been, lemme see, I’ll do some math here. I would have been building model airplanes for about 5 years by the time I became Tony’s age where he started modeling things.

 

Let’s see. 12 years old? That would have been 1943. Okay, well World War II has been going for 2 years. I’m utterly fascinated by it. And in the third grade, just before the war, before Pearl Harbor, I was making model airplanes and I was a troublemaker. And I got thrown out of the third grade and I was immediately put into this Military Academy as incorrigible.

 

But the good part was, they had a little shack on the marching field where there was model airplane kits available that the students could build. So thereafter, I thought, “Boy, the more you misbehave you have more opportunities to do stuff.”  

 

At the same time, the classes were very small. The teachers were men and they had ties, and we had to wear wear ties. And instead of just doing a stupid test like you did in the third grade, they gave us little projects we had to research and figure things out. And that, really, I vividly remember that, because my assignment that the teacher gave me was, “Go to the library and read about oil wells and see if you can make a model of an oil well derrick.

 

In hindsight, what that said [to me] was, what if students were given stuff that they could think about, go learn about, and then go DO something with it rather than sitting there with a standard, y’know, arithmetic & spelling (sheet) over and over and over. I do remember the third grade. That got me out of there.

 

Do you know doing multiplication tables? When you multiply three numbers by three numbers? If you’ve been shown that in 5 minutes, ok! You know how to do that on the day you need it. Why do you sit there and do it over and over and over for a test paper? I mean that is really dumb!

 

So [I left] the really dumb public school system, where you do multiplication tables, three by threes… and [then] I’m building a model airplane in a military academy!

 

So going back to being 12 years old, you can see that by the time I reached, 12 I was already busy doing all kinds of things.

 

So when 12 comes along, World War II, I’m utterly fascinated by it. I’ve got a paper route I’m delivering the Hollywood Citizen News. When I got home, I loved to lay the newspaper on the floor and read about the war, and follow the maps of the Pacific War and the European War. I was just fascinated by progress on stuff you could hear about on the radio, of course. But then when you look at the pictures of the charts, and you could really see what’s going on.

 

So there was a whole bunch of interests right off the bat. And of course you know pre-pooberty and pooberty [sic] was raising its wild head in the middle of all that. And I lived sort of on a half-acre Farm in the middle of in North Hollywood, which was all pretty much Farm area so I pretty much grew up in the wild-farm-kid-on-bicycles era, and building bigger model airplanes.

 

Freddy Martin: There are stories from San Fernando Valley residents having extremely vivid, imprinted memories of Pearl Harbor because there was a terrible train fire in Chatsworth that same week. The smoke in the air made a deep impression for some people. Do you remember that?

 

Bob Gurr: No, not the smoke, but I can certainly understand why people were concerned, because I remember Pearl Harbor was such an instantaneous shock. Anybody who lived through it, you can remember exactly what you were doing, where you were, what the weather was like, what everything sounded like, what everybody did.

 

And within a day or two I think we were all sensitized to… “Oh my God they’re going to attack us next!” So anything that was startling made you very scared. Even little stuff like sounds in the night. Like we had a railroad track that ran 1/4 Mile from us. You knew it was a train but all of a sudden you were waking up by clanking or clunking or hissing or something and you thought, “Oh my God, they’re here!” So I think you can lay in bed at night and you can imagine terrible things are now coming your way. So, yes. I could see any local thing that didn’t mean anything became an emblazoned memory.

 

Freddy Martin: What was your path to becoming an Imagineer?

 

Bob Gurr: Well, [to your] curiosity thing, here’s what’s curious. A lot of people, sort of in hindsight, they will make up a good story as to their chosen path and how they planned their curriculum, and how they have their goals, and all that. I didn’t have a lick of that.

 

I was just having such a good time choogling through everything in life that by the time I’m up in high school. I wanted to be an aircraft engineer over at Curtiss-Wright Technical Institute (Which I failed to mention about the Grand Central Air Terminal building – That was also after the war was the Curtis Wright Technical Institute) But I got an A in algebra and I got an F and a Pass in Geometry one in the 10th grade and so there went my engineering dream. My math was no good so I can’t design airplanes. Okay, well, I’ll just draw cars instead. And I’d been drawing ‘em both Anyways so I thought, okay, you don’t need math to do cars.

 

So that was the prime feature all the way through High School. And then at about halfway through, y’know, I was taking drafting which is an obvious course. Then I had architecture class.

 

And then the architecture teacher noticed I was drawing cars all the time and suggested, “Say, when you graduate from 12th grade, why don’t you go down to Art Center? They teach cars.”

 

And so that set that in place that I would, “Oh, I could go down there and I could learn…”

 

Note:At this point in the interview, we briefly lost connection with Bob. Here he explained his timeline that he was given a scholarship from General Motors to study industrial design at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, and then was recruited to Ford Motor Company in Detroit.

 

Bob Gurr continued: …that’s not too expensive. I’ll take Detroit.

 

Before I even graduated, John Wards picked me out and said, “Come on back now,” about a month before graduation. Then I got rated out of that job into the Ford Motor Company.

 

And then a year and a day later I didn’t want anymore of Detroit, so I came back to California. I popped in on a friend of mine who had a typewriter company, which was also a publishing house, where I’d published my books earlier, and was there. Then I went to help an industrial design company whose employees all quit. They needed staffing immediately.

 

And then while there, I get a phone call to go to the Disney Studio.

 

So you can see how random this path to being, ultimately being what’s later called an ‘Imagineer.’ And it was not on the horizon, not thought of, didn’t know anything about it.

 

I knew where the Disney Studios were, because my father would drive me to his shop in Glendale and pointed out this new building, “Ooh, that’s where Donald Duck lives there.” Because I knew the comics. I know I didn’t like the mouse. I liked the duck a lot better. And my father would always say, “Well that’s where the duck lives over there.” That’s all I knew about Walt Disney.  

 

So you see what I mean by people have their grand plans, which, usually they answer the question after you’ve asked it, which is after they did what they did?

 

I don’t have a story! Because I was always open to any idea anything that looked interesting. And all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, that looks interesting!” Y’know? And it turned out to be!

 

But it was strictly off the wall. In other words, from the time I got the call to go out to the Disney Studios and then actually going in the front door was only about 20 minutes. So in other words the getting ready to being an Imagineer was only about 20 minutes long.

 

Freddy Martin: So who introduced you to the folks at the Disney Studios?

 

Bob Gurr: That’s another kinda complicated story. The Art Center School, like all colleges, they had, let’s call it a job placement officer. And the job placement officer makes deals with the car companies before graduation because the car companies like to raid the good students before the other companies get there. So they’re always trying to get there before graduation.

 

And of course I was one of two guys that got picked out of the school immediately. And the arrangement was made by a guy by the name of Johnny Thompson who was a professional drunk, who was sort of like a lobbyist in Detroit with Art Center. And so he had made the deal and he also made the deal to get me out from General Motors and to go to the Ford Motor Company on a weekend before I would go to work on a Monday. Y’see he was a deal maker.

 

Well anyway, the same guy was at Art Center in 1954. I went down to see a friend. In fact, the friend was Alex Tremulis, the guy that designed the Tucker automobile, which was a good friend of mine. He was visiting there.

 

And in the course of walking through the corridor of Art Center School, there was Johnny Thompson again, the drunk. And just in passing, just going by, he stops and says, “Oh, by the way Bob. I know you’re working at Channing Wallace Gilson company. Do you ever do outside work?”

 

Well, I didn’t, so I said, “Yes.”

 

Simple as that. And the next day he calls because he had been making a deal between Disney and Art Center. (laughs) I just happened to walked by! Ten seconds one way or the other and I never would have been an Imagineer.

 

And so he calls and he’d been talking to Dick Irvine out there, who was running all of the designers at that time, which was October of ‘54. So, I go out there. And I know, maybe a couple weeks before, that there was a new project called Disneyland. It was in the LA Times, a great big drawing on the front of the paper.

 

And at about that same time I knew there was a little car, a little chassis, running around the backlot of the studio, because Ub Iwerks, who was a good friend, he was on my paper route. And I was friends with his two sons, one of which was my age, and we were in the same car club together. He (Ub) always showed movies at their after church Sunday meals about what’s going on on the lot. And one of his pictures was this ugly little car, green and yellow car, with the name Disneyland painted on it. And they also had another car nearby that was just a chassis, no body. And the Ugly car had Kirk Douglas giving his two boys a ride.

 

So in the 20 minute drive to go out to the studio, I thought, “Do you suppose that picture of the amusement park in the LA Times and that little car that doesn’t have a body on the back lot at Disney, where the guy told me to go, if they’re connected?”

 

And so, I can recall being at the front gate and meeting Mr. Irvine, who came out to the gate to meet me, rather than a guard sending me into the building. I had figured out, “Aha! Those two things are connected! Sure enough, Mr. Irvine walks me out to the back lot and there’s that little chassis. So I knew what they needed. So, y’know, I go,“Yeah, I can make some drawings. I’ll bring them in Saturday.”

 

And that’s how it careers get launched with a 20 minute warning. So, I have no grand story for ya.

 

Freddy Martin: That is a grand story! Often times, people will say, “No, I can’t.” But it sounds like part of your story is saying, “Yes, I can.”

 

Bob Gurr: Yep.

 

Read Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview HERE.

 

If you want your own unique experience with the one-and-only Bob Gurr, get on board the WaltLand Disney Bus Tour departing monthly. This is a limited opportunity, so don’t hesitate to get your tickets. You won’t be sorry you did. 

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