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.
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.
Tom Nabbe and Bobby Burgess at Disneyland's 60th Anniversary Photo: Tom NabbeDuring 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. 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.
Suzanne and R.J. Ogren Image: Suzanne and R.J. OgrenSuzanne 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!
R.J. touching up a lion on the Jungle Cruise Image: R.J. OgrenSome 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 Pilots R.J. and Suzanne Image: Suzanne and R.J. OgrenSuzanne 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.
R.J. posing with Suzanne as Sleepy Photo: Suzanne and R.J. Ogren