Sharon is a recent college graduate who spends her work week at the lab and her weekends at Disneyland. She didn’t think her favorite place in the world could get any more magical until the day she meets a man who sounds like Walt Disney and who looks like Walt Disney because he is Walt Disney. Sharon thinks the one thing she wants more than anything is the one thing she can never have. Can Walt teach her that at Disneyland, dreams really do come true?
“Call Me Walt” is my love letter to Disneyland and to the extraordinary man who created it. This is part one. The conclusion of the story will be published in one week, on December 5, the 116th anniversary of Walt’s birth.
The first thing Sharon bought with her first paycheck from her first real, post-college job was an annual pass to Disneyland.
Monday was work, Tuesday was work, Wednesday was work. Thursday was lots of work because the senior chemists enjoyed dumping grunt work onto a junior at 3:00 so they could be done for the week. Sharon spent Friday catching up after the Thursday pile-on, which made the day long, but mostly quiet. She picked up her Friday night feast of pho and french fries on the way home, then went out with friends. She’d only been in Irvine a short time, but she’d already made a decent-sized social circle. Being good at meeting new people and bad at being alone was a powerful combo. Saturday she took care of any chores that needed to get done, bought the groceries, and went to bed early because Sunday was Disneyland day.
She would wake up early and drive up to Anaheim. St. Justin Martyr had a 6:45 AM Mass which never lasted more than an hour. An adorable couple, Mr. and Mrs. Lester, had sort-of adopted her, and she sat with them every Sunday. They told her she felt like another daughter to them. They reminded Sharon of Carl and Ellie, with fewer balloons.
After Mass, it was a five-minute drive down Ball Road to the Mickey and Friends parking garage. Most days, she was on the first tram over to the parks. She’d pass through the gates, walk under the train trestle, and smile at the plaque above her which read, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” And once she got a glimpse of Sleeping Beauty Castle at the end of Main Street USA, she’d breathe a sigh of relief and say a prayer of thanks for having made it back one more time.
While she waited for rope drop, she would nosh on a latte and a croissant from the Market House Starbucks and say hello to any friends she spotted amongst the crowd. She was a semi-regular attendee of the MiceChat.com Sunday park meet-ups and had met a lot of great people at them. When the park’s loudspeakers played the announcement by Jack Wagner asking the crowd to please walk to their next destination and to enjoy their day at the Happiest Place on Earth, she obeyed. Well, she obeyed the “enjoy your day” part. The “no running”? Maybe not so much.
Come early evening, she’d buy herself a Firehouse Dalmatian Mint Sundae from Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor and sit on a bench in the park’s central hub to call her folks. On all of those Sundays, they told her how proud they were of her and her hard work. They said they told every customer about how their daughter, the brilliant scientist, was going to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry one day. On all of those Sundays, Sharon changed the subject as quickly as she politely could. But on one of those Sundays, she’d just gotten off the phone with her parents when a family of obvious tourists stepped up to the life-size bronze statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.
“Wow,” a teenage girl said without emotion. “A statue of a man and a mouse.”
Sharon glared at the girl who dared to insult the Partners statue. The two young boys in the family leaned against the railing surrounding the statue and posed while their dad took a picture. It was a great photo spot, what with the statue in the foreground and Sleeping Beauty Castle further back. Sharon smiled, remembering her dad taking a similar picture of her and her mom on each of their three trips. After their photo opp, the family moved on at a brisk pace, except for the snarky girl, who didn’t look to be in a hurry to go anywhere. She stared down at her phone as she lagged behind.
“Have you ever heard of the goat trick?”
The man, seated on a bench on the other side of the statue, had spoken to the teenage girl, not to Sharon, but Sharon looked up anyway. She couldn’t see him. The statue was in the way. But there was something familiar about his voice.
“You… you’re asking me?” the teenage girl finally responded.
“There’s a goat on the top of the hill on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” the man explained. “He’s chewing on some dynamite, so you’ll probably want to get past him as fast as you can. As you go by, turn your head around and keep watching him as your train speeds down the hill.” The man chuckled. “You’ll feel like you’re on a rocket ship from Tomorrowland instead of a runaway mine train.”
The girl blinked. “Thanks,” she said. She trotted quickly across the hub, to catch up with her family. “Hey, can we ride that train?” she said to them. “The roller coaster one?”
Sharon leaned her body slowly to the left, adjusting her line of sight so she could see the man instead of the Partners statue. Maybe it was because she was sitting near a statue of Walt Disney, but the man had sounded just like every recording she’d ever heard of…
Woah. He didn’t just sound like Walt Disney. He even looked like Walt Disney.
She must have stared longer than she intended, because the man caught her eye, smiled, and waved. “That’s a great outfit,” Sharon said. “I’ve never seen anyone DisneyBound as Walt Disney before. Original.”
The man’s salt-and-pepper mustache twitched above his grin. He chuckled and waved a hand over the gray suit he wore. “I always dress this way when I come to Disneyland. I want to look my best when I meet my guests.”
My guests? So he was a method actor. Cute. Bay Area transplant, welcome to SoCal.
“What’s your name?” Sharon asked.
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I get it. I mean, when you’re not DisneyBounding, what do people call you?”
“Call me Walt, Sharon.”
Had she said her name? She hadn’t said her name. How did he know her name?
“Do I know you?” she asked.
“You do now,” he said.
“I can help the next guest,” shouted a cast member over the overlapping conversations in Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor.
Sharon walked up to the available register and smiled. “Hi. I’ll have a—”
“Firehouse Dalmatian Mint Sundae?” the cast member interrupted.
Sharon blinked. “How did you know? Is this an AP thing? Is there a microchip in my pass telling you my name and what I’m going to order? No one told me that when I signed up for it.”
“No, I just recognize you,” the cast member sheepishly replied. “You always come in on Sundays, and you always order the same thing. We’ve talked a couple of times, but maybe you don’t recognize me with my glasses on. I ran out of contacts.” She pointed at her name badge. “Andrea. From Irvine. Remember?”
Even the cold of the ice cream on the other side of the counter couldn’t get the heat off Sharon’s cheeks. “Right. Andrea. I’m sorry.”
“You live in Irvine, too, right?” Andrea said. “But you’re new to the area. You recently graduated from UC… Davis, I think it was? I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name, though.”
“Sharon,” she said. “And I am really embarrassed.”
She got her ice cream – Andrea put an extra cherry on top, God bless her – but just as she had last week and the week before, she headed south down Main Street, towards the flagpole, to eat it. Her anxiety in the ice cream parlor and her change of venue for her Sunday phone home were both for the same reason: the creepy DisneyBounder she’d met three weeks earlier. She wasn’t exactly sure why he’d made her feel so uncomfortable. He’d probably just overheard her name while she’d been talking to her folks. But the way he’d been so confident, it had felt like he’d been stalking her or something.
She’d nearly taken a seat on a bench adjacent to the flagpole when she saw him. The creepy DisneyBounder. Right there on the bench across from the one she’d been about to claim. Smiling. Looking right at her.
“Haven’t seen you around for a while,” he said, “but I knew you’d be back.”
She was startled, but after the initial fright, she decided she wasn’t going to let this weirdo ruin her Disneyland day. She only got one per week. “Hey, ‘Walt.’”
“Hello, Sharon,” he said. “You know, one of my daughters is named Sharon. She’s the one Lillian and I adopted.”
Sharon sighed and frowned. He still knew her name. #Stalker. “You mean one of Walt Disney’s daughters. He had two, Diane and Sharon. They’ve both passed away. So has Walt, ‘Walt.’ He died in 1966.”
“Do you know what that light is?” He pointed at the lamp in the window above the Main Street Fire Station.
Did she know what that light was? Every Disneyland fan knew what that light was. Walt Disney’s personal apartment inside the park had been above the Fire Station. The lamp in its front window was kept perpetually lit in his memory, but when he was alive, the lamp was only turned on when he was at Disneyland.
“It’s my way of letting my cast members know I’m here,” he said. His smile widened. Sharon had yet to see it disappear. “Keeps them on their best behavior.”
Sharon sat down without breaking eye contact. The corners of her mouth were turned in a slight frown as she carefully ate a spoonful of cherry and whipped cream. Fine. Part of her didn’t want to give this guy the pleasure, but she had to know. “How do you know my name?”
The man just raised an eyebrow at her. “You know the exact year I died and the names of my children, but you’re bothered because I know your name?”
Should she call security? This was starting to make her feel a little unsafe. He was really taking his method acting to a slightly macabre extreme. Disneyland had a policy against adults wearing costumes in the park, to ensure fans and the “real” characters remained distinguishable. Sharon had to admit this guy’s costume was so great, it crossed the line from DisneyBounding into unlawful costume. She could report him on those grounds alone.
But the cast members at the front gate should have told him the same thing. How did he even get in?
Was he even a person at all? Was he some kind of really great new audio-animatronic? A hologram, like in the Kingdom Keepers books? Maybe someone backstage was controlling all of this, and they knew her name because there was a microchip in her annual pass. She was RF tagged, and they were using it to play a not-so-funny form of Turtle Talk with Crush with her. It was the only explanation. The only one that wasn’t a complete creepshow, anyway.
Sharon placed her sundae on the bench, leaned forward, and pressed her index finger hard against his shoulder. She touched suit jacket and flesh underneath, not hydraulics and servo-motors. Real person. Her throat tightened a bit, but she was in a very public place. Security was just a scream away if she needed them. So fine. She could play along.
“So, Walt,” she said, “according to the urban legends, shouldn’t you be frozen in a lab somewhere?”
He laughed, and it convinced her what couldn’t possibly be true was. The laugh had been so loud and so sudden, it attracted a few glances from passersby. But that was all it attracted – glances. That meant other people could hear him. They could see him. But on a busy Sunday afternoon, with the park filled with annual pass-holding Disney geeks, not a single person complimented him on his realistic costume or asked him to pose for a picture.
“Can other people see you?” Sharon asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Everyone can see me,” Walt said. “But most of them don’t see me. People see what they want to see.”
He wasn’t an audio-animatronic, he wasn’t a DisneyBounder, and if no one else saw him for what he really looked like, then… could he possibly be…?
Oh. My. Disney.
“You’re dead,” she said.
“Prove it,” he said.
They sat there, just looking at each other, for some length of time.
“Why me?” Sharon asked. “You have grandchildren. Why not go…”
She almost said haunt.
“Why not see them?”
Walt leaned back against the bench. “I like seeing Disneyland through the eyes of the young. I always imagined it as a place where age could relive fond memories of the past, and where youth could savor–”
“The challenge and promise of the future,” Sharon finished with him. It was a line straight from the dedication speech Walt Disney had made on Disneyland’s opening day. This was so surreal…
She covered her mouth to stifle an incredulous laugh. “You’re Walt Disney. The Walt Disney. You’re supposed to be dead, but you’re not, and instead of making new movies or building new rides, you just want to hang out. With me. At Disneyland.”
Walt shrugged his shoulders. Wasn’t that what he’d just said?
Sharon blessed herself with the sign of the cross, and when that didn’t make the man in front of her disappear in a puff of brimstone, she decided she was all in, even though this was insane. Like, Jafar cackling over ex-Prince Ali level insane. This was Walter Elias Disney some fifty years after his death, in the flesh and… and he wanted to ride It’s a Small World with her.
She was either going to have the experience of a lifetime, or she was going to go insane.
She leaped to her feet. “All right. Let’s go.”
“Space Mountain,” Sharon said. “For years, everyone on every Disney website and chat room on the internet has debated what you would think of all the attractions added to the park since you passed away. I’m going to settle those debates forever.”
“That’s a classic,” Sharon said as they stepped out of the exit of the Haunted Mansion and back into the bustle of the walkway between New Orleans Square and Critter Country. “An absolute classic. Might be my favorite ride in the whole park. They finished it three years after you died.”
Sharon still felt kind of strange referring to Walt’s death when there he was, walking right next to her. He gazed longingly at the churro cart as they passed it. Could he just take a churro if he wanted one? It was his park, after all, even if no one else seemed to recognize him. How didn’t they? Who else wore a suit to Disneyland, except on Dapper Day? Not even the managers wore suits. Did he even need to eat?
“Hello?” Sharon said. “Come on, say something. What did you think of the Haunted Mansion?”
“Oh,” Walt said. “It will do.”
“This has been the craziest day of my life,” Sharon said. “I can’t even fathom what could be crazier than today. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep for a week. Which will make work tomorrow fairly interesting.”
“What do you do?” Walt said.
“I’m a chemist,” she said after a long exhale.
“Chemist? Wow. That must have taken some education.”
“Where do you work?” Walt asked.
“Baxter Pharmaceutical. They recruited me out of college.”
“That sounds nice,” Walt said. “Good pay? Benefits? Room for advancement?”
“Apparently, I have a lot of potential. I could make Lab Tech II within two years. Might be running the whole R&D lab before I’m 35.”
“Work hard,” Walt said with a nod. “It will pay off.”
The topic had to be changed. Immediately. “I guess so. What next?”
“You’d better be getting home if you have work tomorrow.”
She blinked, shook her head. “No, I’m not ready. This has been…”
“We can meet again next Sunday,” Walt said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Unless you don’t want to.”
“I want to! For sure. I absolutely want to.” Another day like this one? Not just another day at Disneyland, but another day here with Walt Disney himself?
“I’ll have to show you Snow White’s Grotto sometime,” Walt said.
“Sure,” Sharon said. “And there’s so much more I’d like to get your thoughts on. Like, oh! Do you know there’s now a second park right across from this one, where the parking lot used to be?”
Walt looked like he thought it was cute, the way she tried to teach him about his parks. “You know, I had heard something about that.”
Sharon had once heard of a book called Tuesdays With Morrie. Her life became Sundays with Walt.
They rode Storybook Land Canal Boats, and Walt told her about his original ideas for the attraction. She watched Walt marvel at how similar the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage was to his original Submarine Voyage, and yet how different and modern, too. They surveyed the park from the top of the Tarzan Treehouse. And across the esplanade, California Adventure, on the whole, got a firm, “That’ll work” from Walt.
No one but her ever noticed who he was. When they passed a mirror, Sharon saw Walt Disney’s reflection in it. When they boarded a ride, and he told the ride operator, “Two,” the cast members heard him, and responded to him. But Sharon realized they must not see him or else they’d have been as floored as she’d been the first time.
People see what they want to see.
“Why do you like Disneyland so much?” Walt asked her one Sunday evening as they rode Mickey’s Fun Wheel high above the Paradise Pier section of California Adventure park. When their gondola reached the ride’s highest point, they could see all of DCA and most of Disneyland. She loved bringing Walt up here and watching him survey his kingdom.
“Magic is real here,” she said. “It’s the only place in the world where storybook heroes come to life.”
“And dead animators?”
Sharon grinned. “That, too. It’s not the world as it is out there, but as it could be. Happier. Kinder. Better.”
“Interesting,” he said, almost under his breath. “How old were you when you first visited?”
“What, are you like one of the cast members out in Downtown Disney with an iPad, taking a survey about how many food service establishments I visited today?”
“I told you, I like to see Disneyland through the eyes of the young. Gives me a new perspective.”
“The first time I visited I was seven-years-old. My folks and I came again when I was twelve, and then again when I was seventeen, the summer before I started my senior year of high school. Each trip down was a three-day weekend, which after drive time gave us two days in the parks. I spent the whole drive down talking my parents’ ears off about what I was going to ride and which characters I was going to meet. And when we got to the Anaheim city limits, I just stared out the window. I didn’t even blink for fear of missing that first glance of the majestic snow-covered peaks of Matterhorn mountain. We had so much fun. We had to pack our own lunch and dinner from home, but on the way out every night, my dad bought me a Firehouse Dalmatian Mint Sundae.”
“That’s fantastic,” Walt said. “You walked out of here eating ice cream and smiling.”
She looked out over Disneyland and chewed on a fingernail. Should she tell him? “Actually, he always bought one for me to try and cheer me up. I left Disneyland in tears every time our trip was over.”
Walt looked taken aback. “Why?”
“You have to understand. My family was poor. My folks worked so hard, they still do, and it wasn’t until later in life that I realized just how much they sacrificed to make those three trips. So every time we’d leave…” She paused until the lump in her throat went away. She took a deep breath. “I never knew when I’d ever come back. Or if I’d ever come back.”
“What do your folks do?” Walt asked quietly.
“They run a store,” Sharon said. “Convenience store with a gas station. Three now. My mom and dad were immigrants. Came here with nothing, and…”
“And now you’re a college graduate,” Walt said.
“First in my family.”
“And you have a great job. So much potential for promotion. Your parents must be proud. Only in America. Isn’t it wonderful?”
When the ride ended, they strolled around Paradise Pier, back towards the park entrance, mostly in silence. Talk of those childhood trips, of how hard her folks worked, and especially about her university achievements had soured Sharon’s mood. Walt broke the silence when they reached Buena Vista Street near the front of the park. “Getting late. You headed home?”
“Gotta work tomorrow,” Sharon mumbled with a shrug. “That great American promotion isn’t going to happen all by itself, is it?”
Walt stopped walking and leaned against a planter. “Why don’t you like your job?”
“It’s a good job,” Sharon said.
He gave her a dismissive wave. “I know it’s a good job. But I’m the one who calls it that. You don’t. You don’t like it, and I don’t get that. Don’t you like chemistry?”
“I own a t-shirt with the periodic table of elements on it,” Sharon said. “I love chemistry. It got me first place in the Emeryville All-City High School Science Fair. Twice.”
“But you don’t like your job.” He pointed towards the Storytellers statue – the statue of himself as a young man, with Mickey standing on his luggage. “You came all the way from Emeryville for it. Came to Orange County just like I did, with a suitcase and a dream.”
Sharon looked at her shoes. Her shoulders were tense. There was something she wanted to confess, something she’d never before told anyone, but it was… rebellious to even think it. It would be ungrateful and insulting to say it out loud.
“It, umm,” she said.
Walt watched her. Patiently. Gave her all the time she needed.
“It was not my dream to be a chemist,” she finally admitted.
Walt just nodded as if she’d said Mickey was a mouse. “What is your dream, Sharon?”
“Of course it matters.”
The Red Car Trolley made its way through Buena Vista Street. Some children asked their parents if it was time for a Mickey Mouse ice cream bar. A young man assured his date she wouldn’t be too terrified on Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, and that if she were, he’d hold her hand.
When it became obvious she wasn’t going to answer, Walt said, “I don’t think we’ll make it over to Snow White’s Grotto today.”
“I totally forgot,” Sharon said. “I have time to visit it before I go if you want to park hop over?”
“Maybe next time.”
“But you mention it every time we’re here, and we’ve never gone yet.”
“You’re not ready.”
Umm… huh? “I’m not ready? To go see some statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves?”
“Snow White’s Grotto has a wishing well,” Walt said. “I can’t take you to the wishing well until you’re ready to make your wish.”
“Make a wish?” Sharon stuttered.
“You know so much about Disneyland,” he said, “but I made movies before I ever made this. Go home and read about what it took to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. We’ll talk again next Sunday.”
He put his hands in his pockets and strolled away towards the Elias and Co. gift shop as if he had a few souvenirs to buy before he left the park for the day. Sharon had become so used to spending time with him, it was easy to forget every minute with him was some kind of magic. But now he was talking about making wishes?
What the Tinkerbell was that supposed to mean?
Come back next week for the conclusion. If you enjoyed part one, please consider buying me a coffee.