Book Review: Working at the Disney Parks – On-Stage and Off-Stage


It’s pretty easy to find books written about Walt Disney, but not so easy to find books written about or by Disney Imagineers or Cast Members. Disney Editions has books on Mary Blair, Marc Davis, John Hench, Roy E. Disney and Marty Sklar, which are all terrific and must-reads. However, these are just a few of the thousands of stories about working for Walt, The Walt Disney Company and in the theme parks that have been told. Until now. Founded in November 2012 by Bob McLain, Theme Park Press is the world’s leading independent publisher of books about The Walt Disney Company, its history, films, animation and theme parks. "A few years back, someone gave me Jim Korkis's original edition of 'The Vault of Walt' to read on the train down to Disney World," says Bob McLain. "It was the first 'Disney Insider' book I read. So I looked for more on Amazon, but couldn't find any. In the four years since I re-released Jim Korkis's book, I have published over 140 new books." adventuresTomNabbe Tom Nabbe’s book, Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer to Disney Legend: The Adventures of Tom Nabbe, starts with a Forward from Charlie Ridgeway, Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s former publicist. Ridgway writes, “Tom Nabbe holds a unique place in Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He began working in Disneyland at age 12 when the park opened in 1955. He was then hired by Walt Disney himself to be ‘Tom Sawyer’, official host of Tom Sawyer Island after it debuted in 1957.”

Tom worked at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris before retiring in 2003. During his illustrious 48 year career, Nabbe discusses his various careers at the three parks, as well as time spent away from Disney.

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Walt Disney and Tom Nabbe Image: Tom Nabbe

Starting his Disney career selling the Disneyland News, Nabbe would occasionally get pulled into publicity shots because, as Eddie Meck, Disneyland's publicity manager, once told him, "... with [his] red hair and pudgy cheeks, [Nabbe] looked like an all-American kid." One day, Nabbe saw Walt walking around the park. He approached him and told him he heard he was putting in a Tom Sawyer attraction and since he looks a little like Tom, someone said he should play the part. Walt told him he’d think about it.

He did have some doubts that Walt wouldn't cast him as Tom.  "Sure I had doubts, but I was only a 12 year old kid, so my expectations weren’t the same as an adult would have had to the same question," said Nabbe. "Also, the Island hadn’t open yet. Plus Walt hadn’t said 'No' - he said he would think about it." Bobby Burgess D-L 60th

Tom Nabbe and Bobby Burgess at Disneyland's 60th Anniversary Photo: Tom Nabbe

During his time working at Disneyland, Nabbe got to meet quite a few celebrities, and because of Eddie Meck, had his picture taken with them. Aside from Walt, one of Nabbe's favorite meetings was with the Mickey Mouse Club's Bobby Burgess - who later went on to fame with The Lawrence Welk Show. "Bobby and I grew up at Disney, but on different paths," said Nabbe. "I’d run into Bobby through the years. Several times in the 60s when he was on television, as well as in his Long Beach dance studio. Later on, I would see him at different press events at Walt Disney World and in the past few years at Disneyland’s Anniversary events. The most resent was in July 2015 at Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary. After four years of playing Tom Sawyer, Nabbe grew out of the part. He discusses about life after Tom Sawyer which included working in other parts of the park, a stint with the U.S. Marines and a horrific car accident. Nabbe eventually makes his way back to Disneyland and then down to Florida to open Walt Disney World. Nabbe tells some amazing stories about opening Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center, as well as working at the Disney warehouse. My favorite is when he describes how he used to walk on the monorail beam while Walt Disney World was under construction, “I used to walk from the Transportation and Ticket Center station up the beam into the Contemporary Hotel to check the station, says Nabbe. “Then I would walk the beam from there down into the Magic Kingdom station.” For those who aren’t familiar with Walt Disney World’s monorail, and even for those that are, that monorail beam is only 30 inches wide and at its highest point it is 60 feet off the ground. He also talks about his “invention” - the “Nabbe Grabber,” a modified custodial picker upper, which was used to retrieve guests’ personal items that fell down the trough of the monorail beam. It’s still used to this day. togetherDream Having worked at Walt Disney World in the mid-seventies and starting out in the same department, the monorail, albeit at different times, Together in the Dream, written by husband and wife Suzanne & R.J. Ogren, tells the tale of their Disney careers. They eventually ended up working in the areas they really wanted to be in – the entertainment division for Suzanne and for R.J. - an artist. suzannerjtoday

Suzanne and R.J. Ogren Image: Suzanne and R.J. Ogren

Suzanne and R.J. talk about their journey and experience working at Walt Disney World in alternating chapters and give an honest and candid account of what it’s like to work in the park. Getting a job at Walt Disney World is no easy feat. A chance meeting with a National Guardsman proved to be R.J.’s lucky break. He decided to join the Orlando National Guard and during his meeting with the recruitment office he told him of his desire to work at Walt Disney World. One thing led to another and R.J. had an interview with Disney Casting the next day. Shortly after arriving for his interview he had a job. Because her husband was already working at Walt Disney World, Suzanne’s path was a little easier and simpler - R.J. spoke to his contact in casting. R.J. and Suzanne’s stories are equally fascinating and surprising. On the one hand, it’s interesting to hear what happens on- and off-stage, as well as shocking to hear what some guests do to Disney characters and to Disney attractions. R.J. eventually got the job he wanted - working as a Disney artist. On his first day he found out he was replacing Leota Toombs! RJ

R.J. touching up a lion on the Jungle Cruise Image: R.J. Ogren

Some of the many fascinating stories R.J. tells is how park guests try to take things from the attractions as souvenirs. Limbs went missing from a number of popular attractions including Pirates of the Caribbean. One guest even yanked the head off Dopey from Snow White’s Scary Adventures. He was walking down Main Street U.S.A with Dopey's head tucked under his arm. Security stopped him before exiting and he was taken to jail while Dopey's head was taken back to Imagineering. R.J. worked with a number of Walt's Nine Old Men, as well as other notable Imagineers. "When Marc Davis and I would talk about specific characters, he would be sketching that figure, from different angles, as we talked," said R.J. "These hard-line drawings were incredibly accurate. I wanted to talk about a figure in a show just to be able to watch him draw it! I remember walking into the Country Bear Jamboree, one morning before the Park opened. Wathel Rogers was sitting, in the first row of the audience, behind the control board which animated all the figures in the show. As the figures moved, Wathel would be changing their movements – similar to an orchestra conductor in front of the musicians. Fascinating to watch!" As surprising as R.J.’s stories are, his wife Suzanne has equally and unbelievable stories to tell. Although Suzanne wanted to be an on-stage performer, her first job at Disney, like her husband, was working on the monorails. R.J.’s stories give a unique perspective what it was like to work at Walt Disney World from a behind-the-scenes point of view. Suzanne’s stories give readers what it was like working on the front lines from an hourly employee’s point-of-view. monorail

Monorail Pilots R.J. and Suzanne Image: Suzanne and R.J. Ogren

Suzanne and R.J. both spent time working and driving the monorails. Like working other areas of the park, the monorails did present some unique challenges. Suzanne: "The most difficult maneuver (if you will) to learn as a Monorail pilot was backing a train up into a station or to a specific spot on the beam. This would be done, sometimes, for maintenance reasons, or to remove a train from service. It was a challenge I mastered, however, and was quite proud of it! R.J.: Learning to stop the train inside a station, with no hard braking, and hitting the exact mark for unloading was difficult, yet very rewarding when you were able to do it all the time. You didn’t want to stop the train so that it “rocked”, which was uncomfortable for the guests and a strain on the axles. For those who wanted to work as a character or live performer in the Park, Suzanne gives a dose of reality that may not have been thought about until now. As much fun as it is to be able to make kids smile and create magical memories dressed as a beloved Disney character, there are also those not-so-magical days. Some of her roles included playing Dopey and Sleepy, as well as Bianca from The Rescuers. Suzanne describes what it was like working under various conditions as a character, but the most shocking stories were about the rude guests who manhandled, punched and kicked the characters. Guests seem to forget that there are actual people inside those costumes. In spite of those negative experiences, Suzanne said she always felt proud to be working at Walt Disney World and with such a great group of people. RJ and Suzanne

R.J. posing with Suzanne as Sleepy Photo: Suzanne and R.J. Ogren

"Sleepy was the character I performed most often, and will always be my favorite," said Suzanne. "Portraying his personality for all the guests was so much fun, and I was rewarded with thousands of smiling faces. The only character I didn’t get to do, but would have liked to, was Mickey. I was too tall to fit the costume!" In later chapters, Suzanne talks about her transition from being a performer to working in various departments at the resort including an administrative assistant in transportation and in Special Events. It is very evident to hear the love for Walt Disney World through the voices of R.J. and Suzanne. It’s not only the guests who are having a magical day there, but more often than not, so are the Cast Members. magicThat Would You Like Magic With That?, written by Annie Salisbury, gives a completely different perspective on what it’s like to work at Walt Disney World. It’s a look mostly from the day-to-day interaction with the people behind the magic. This book, like Suzanne and R.J.’s, is an honest look at what it’s like to work at Walt Disney World. Annie (not her real name) opens the book with her acceptance into the Disney College Program and the reality when you get the area that you want - attractions, but not the attraction you want– The Great Movie Ride. Her internship was working at DisneyQuest. Before getting the job she really wanted at The Great Movie Ride, she applied for a Guest Relations position. After 6 days of working at The Great Movie Ride, she was offered the Guest Relations position and left after 10 days. The stories Annie tells about working in Guest Relations are eye opening. There are guests who try to scam the system in hopes of skipping the lines at the attractions, receiving refunds and even free tickets. Then there are those guests who have legitimate issues or needs. Aside from managers, Guest Relation Cast Members wield more power than you might think. "We are the first line of defense between the guest and management," says Salisbury. "There was nothing a manager could do that I couldn't do (for somethings, though, I did need a manager's approval), but every Cast Member at Walt Disney World can make some kind of pixie dust in their job. Pixie dust comes in many shapes and sizes." She tells about working with the other Cast Members. Most of them were very nice, but like any other jobs there are those who she worked with that were unhelpful, unfriendly and rather un-Disney like. Annie also tells the reader about eating in the Disney cafeteria, riding the Cast Members' bus, promotions, salaries, dealing with guests, working schedules and more. This book is definitely a primer for those who dream of a career in one of the Disney Parks. For those looking to work at one of the Disney Parks, Salisbury says, "Know that it's going to be tough and it might not be what you expected. If you work hard and give it your all, it'll pay off in the end. Also, it's going to be hot and you might have to stand outside and that always comes as a shock to people."   EXCLUSIVE BONUS STORIES Tom shared a story for our DIS readers not found in the book: There was the time when a Tom Sawyer Island Raft almost sunk in the Rivers Of America. As opening shift foreman for Tom Sawyer Island (T.S.I.), part of the job was to deliver supplies to the UPT Concession in the Fort Wilderness’ Canteen. The normal operation was to drive the raft loaded with the daily operating supplies that consisted of apple cider, chips, hot dogs, condiments and orange drink syrup to the dock located at the entrance ramp to the Fort and the UPT people would unload the raft and move the supplies to the canteen. So on this one morning I went through my opening processes. When the UPT people showed to go to the Island, we left the mainland dock and headed to the Fort. About a 100 feet into the trip, the front of the raft started to nose dive and water started to cover the whole deck of the raft. The water was a few inches deep and the supplies were starting to float around on the flooded deck. The UPT people pointed out to me that we were sinking. I knew we were in trouble when the boxes started to float to the back of the raft. I stopped the forward movement of the raft. As soon as we stopped the raft came back up to a safe level right and it stopped sinking, however the engine compartment was full of river water. I couldn’t drive it so we used the pole that we had on each of the rafts and poled it back to the dock. We unloaded the raft and called Maintenance to check it out. So why did this happen? The night before, a new maintenance man was fueling the rafts and not all of the rafts are the same. This raft had three metal caps in the deck. One for the fuel tank and two for the ballast tanks - located on each side of the raft. Well the newbie maintenance man fill the ballast tank with fuel and thankfully he ran out of fuel in the fuel truck at the end of his shift. It didn’t take long to repair the raft. They pumped out the fuel and it was ready to operate the next day. Right after that incident, they welded ID markers on the top of all of the caps to stop any future problems.  

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