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, but that was before Walt Disney himself began spending every Disneyland Sunday with her. Only Sharon can tell that it’s him, and their time together is nothing but wonder, until Walt tells her she has a wish she’s not ready to make. What’s the real reason Walt befriended her?
“Call Me Walt” is my love letter to Disneyland and to the extraordinary man who created it. Part one was published last week. This is the conclusion of the story, published in celebration of this 116th anniversary of Walt’s birth.
Sharon watched Frontierland go by from her seat on the Disneyland Railroad. It was almost time for ice cream, but she was not in the mood for ice cream.
“Are we getting off at the Tomorrowland station?” Walt asked. “Or the next time we get to Main Street? Or shall we begin a third grand circle tour around the magic kingdom?”
The railroad chugged past the waterfalls. The secret entrance to the cave where they stored the floats for Fantasmic! was obvious if you knew where to look. And Sharon knew where to look. But she didn’t look.
When the train resumed after a brief stop at the Tomorrowland station, Walt folded his arms across the lapels of his suit. “If you leave what we do entirely up to me, I’ll tell you right now, we’re going to ride my railroad. A lot.”
“I read about Snow White,” Sharon said.
Walt raised one eyebrow. She speaks, at last.
“The first feature-length animated motion picture in history,” she said.
Walt nodded. His smile carried a wisp of pride. “You have seen it, haven’t you?”
“No one had ever made an animated feature before it,” she said. “What made you want to try?”
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible,” Walt said.
That cracked through Sharon’s malaise enough to make her smile.
“We were doing well with the Silly Symphonies and, of course, with Mickey,” Walt said. “But I knew we could do so much more. Took us a long time to get it right, though. Boy, we broke that story so many times. Went back and forth on what the Evil Queen should be like. And I don’t remember how many sets of seven dwarf names we went through.”
“Did they really call it Disney’s Folly?”
Was he embarrassed that she’d brought it up? For a moment, he looked like it. But then the character, the showman, the Walt Disney was back, and he chuckled. “Some did, yes.”
“Some including your brother Roy? And your wife?”
“There were some tense times,” Walt admitted.
“Why?” Sharon asked, loud enough to make Walt startle. “Why would you do something when the entire world was telling you not to?”
“Why do you sound almost angry about it?” he asked. “It’s been over eighty years since any of this happened.”
“I read on Wikipedia you mortgaged your own private home to raise the money to make the film. Why would you do such a thing? What would you have done if it hadn’t been successful?”
“I just made sure it was successful.”
“Look,” she said as the train entered the tunnel containing the Grand Canyon and Primeval World dioramas. “You always mention that we need to visit Snow White’s Grotto, and last week, you told me it wouldn’t be time for that until I was ready to make a wish. I’ve been thinking about that almost non-stop. About what you said, and about the making of Snow White. I think I’m starting to understand what this is all about.”
“Well, that makes one of us.”
“You said you just wanted to see Disneyland through the eyes of the young, but that’s not what this is about,” she said, loud enough for a few heads to turn in her direction. “That’s not what this has ever been about.”
He didn’t deny it. On the contrary, the twinkle in his eye almost dared her to say it.
She shook her head. “I can’t. Sorry, but I can’t. And if you think I can, it’s because you don’t really know me at all.”
“You can’t what?”
“Don’t play dumb with me! I know what you want me to do. And I can’t. You’re not my father, you understand? My dad is up in Emeryville, working day and night, and so is my mom. You have no idea all they’ve done for me. All they’ve sacrificed. All they’ve wanted for me.”
Walt folded his hands in his lap and looked her in the eye. “No, I’m not your father, Sharon. But I’m a father. And the most important thing to me is my girls’ happiness. I imagine the same is true for your folks. I know you want to be happy, everyone does. But you’re only happy one day a week. Now, you know exactly how to change that, but something is holding you back. Why won’t you tell me what that is?”
The train came to a stop at the Main Street Station. Sharon disembarked and practically ran back to street level and out the park gates. She didn’t care if she ever saw Walt again. Heck, she almost didn’t care if she ever saw Disneyland again. She went straight to the parking tram, rode back to the parking garage, and sped down I-5 back home.
Who did he think he was, trying to tell her how to live her life?
Who did he think he was?
He was Walter Elias Disney. The man who made a career out of making magic. Out of inventing the impossible. He built an entire company that embodied the idea, “If we can dream it, we can do it.”
Sharon could dream it. But she still wasn’t sure she could do it.
As soon as she went through the turnstiles, she marched straight up Main Street, walked a path adjacent to Sleeping Beauty Castle, and stepped into Snow White’s Grotto. Statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves perched atop rocks in the midst of a waterfall. In front of the statues, there was a well that looked just like the one Snow White drew water from in the film. When you threw a coin in it, you heard Snow White sing, “I’m Wishing.” It was one of the most peaceful places in the park, and one of the most popular places for marriage proposals.
Of course, Walt was there. Waiting for her with his unspoken proposal. Not of marriage, of course, but a proposal for her future.
“I’m afraid,” she told him. “OK? That’s what’s holding me back. I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
She thrust her empty palms upward. Where did she even begin? “What if I can’t support myself? What if I can’t pay off my student loans? Loans that would be pointless, I might add. I’m afraid of wasting my education. I’m—”
She leaned on the wishing well and stared down at the water inside it. This was all just filler. There was really only one thing she was afraid of.
“I’m scared to death of being a disappointment to my parents.”
Walt meandered closer to the well until he was standing right next to her. “When I made Snow White, I didn’t mind the criticism from the other studios. Or even from Roy. I knew he’d get over it. But when Lillian expressed her doubts… that was the one time I almost canned the whole thing. Because if I didn’t have the support of Lillian, then I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it.”
Sharon closed her eyes. The thought of telling Mom and Dad… She couldn’t bear being a failure in their eyes. She couldn’t bear being a quitter in their eyes.
“She may not have believed I was right about the feature until it was a success,” Walt said. “But she believed in it because she believed in me. Your parents will do the same.”
“Were you scared, too?” Sharon asked.
“A little,” Walt said.
“You’re not supposed to say you were only a little afraid. You’re supposed to say you were terrified.”
Walt hugged his arms around himself tightly. “Sharon, I was scared out of my mind!”
She laughed and cried at the same time.
“The ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence from Fantasia, with Chernabog, that is all about how afraid I was. I couldn’t even sign my name, my hand shook so much.”
“That’s much better,” Sharon said.
Walt shrugged. “I did it anyway. And that feature built the studio. And the studio and all the features and the mouse, they all built Disneyland. This happy place ‘dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America. With the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.’”
It always made her laugh, hearing him quote his park dedication speech.
“Think about it this way,” Walt said. “Will it make you happy?”
Sharon closed her eyes. “Very much.”
“Happy enough to wish for it?” Walt asked.
She looked down into the well and took a deep breah. “I want to quit the job for which I spent four years in college,” she whispered, “and instead, I want to be a cast member at Disneyland.”
No coin dropped in the well, but Snow White sang “I’m Wishing” from the hidden speaker anyway.
She took her phone out of her purse. “Will you sit with me while I call them?”
He nodded and led her into Fantasyland. They sat on a bench in front of King Arthur Carrousel. Walt had been sitting on a bench much like it one day at the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. There he’d watched his daughters, Diane and Sharon, ride the sculpted horses, and he had an idea. An idea about a park where adults and children could have fun together. It was the spark that became Disneyland.
Sharon supposed this visit to this park bench, in front of this carousel, was the first spark of her dream.
She squeezed Walt’s hand as the ringing stopped and her father answered on the other end of the line.
“Hi, Dad,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“Are you having a good time today?” Sharon asked the family of four standing next to the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor counter.
“Yes!” the older child said. “We rode Star Tours, and Darth Vader was in the hangar bay, and he tried to use the Force to keep our ship from leaving, but Artoo blasted him with the ship’s cannons – pew pew pew pew — and he deflected them with his lightsaber! Tssss! Tsss! Tsss!”
“And I saw the Yeti on the Matterhorn!” the younger child said.
Sharon feigned shock. “You saw the Yeti? Were you scared?”
“No!” the two children replied in unison.
“My husband and I enjoy the rides that are a bit calmer,” the mother said, blushing a little. “The railroad is our favorite.”
“Good choice,” Sharon said. “That’s also the favorite of a very good friend of mine.”
Andrea came up beside Sharon on the cast member side of the counter, sliding the family’s sundaes towards them. “Here you are,” Sharon said, handing them each a spoon. She watched the family walk away, and when they stepped out onto Main Street, she noticed a familiar man in a dapper suit standing on the sidewalk.
“I’m going to take my break,” Sharon told Andrea. It was nearly dark outside. A few people had already camped out places to watch the parade and the fireworks.
“Now that I’m a cast member, do I call you Mr. Disney?” Sharon asked.
“Call me Walt,” he said. He strolled down Main Street, towards the flagpole, and she walked beside him. “So here you are.”
“Here I am. Quit my job at the lab. And now I make Firehouse Dalmatian Mint Sundaes.”
“I hope you still eat them, too,” Walt said. “When off duty, of course.”
“Of course. And I do. Except now I have a cast member discount.”
“And your parents?”
“They got over the initial shock of that first call,” she said. “You were right. In the end—”
“What’s that?” Walt interrupted. “I’m an old man, my hearing’s not so good.” He looked like he could barely restrain his grin, the rascal.
“I said, ‘You were right.’ My folks just wanted me to do what makes me happy.”
They’d arrived at the corner of the sidewalk where the street turned into a circle surrounding the flagpole. Park guests walked in and out of the open double doors to the Emporium gift shop.
“Good,” Walt said with a nod. “Life’s too short not to do what makes you happy. You’ll do all right, Sharon.”
And she knew. Maybe it was something in his voice. She’d come to recognize the tone he used when he was done speaking on a subject. Or did he sound a little sad, maybe? Whatever the tell had been, Sharon knew this would be the last time she’d see Walt. He just didn’t need to hang out with her anymore. He’d recruited her to work at his magic kingdom. Mission accomplished. Walt Disney was on to his next project.
And somehow, she was OK with that. Maybe later the pixie dust would wear off, and she’d grieve the loss of her friend who died almost thirty years before she’d been born. But for now, she savored the gift she’d been given without sadness or regret.
She looked at the window above the fire station, the window to his old apartment. The lamp was turned on, of course.
“You’d better be on your best behavior,” he said, taking notice of her gaze. “I’ll be here, you know. Keeping an eye on things. Anytime that lamp is on, I’m around here somewhere.”
“It’s always on,” Sharon said.
Walt smiled at her.
Two parents and a boy in a Spider-Man t-shirt stopped short before entering the Emporium. “Can I help you?” asked Gilbert, the cast member greeting guests as they arrived at the store.
“We were looking for ice cream,” the mother said.
“Ice cream!” the boy said. He was maybe eight-years-old.
“Allow me to help you,” Sharon said. She extended a hand towards the child. “Spider-Man. Uncle Ben. Aunt May. Follow me.”
The boy looked up at her and smiled. When his eyes drifted to Walt, they widened… and widened… “You look a lot like…?”
Walt winked at him.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Sharon asked the boy as she led him and his parents back down Main Street towards her ice cream parlor. “Very few people know this. This is true insider Disneyland secret stuff. I probably shouldn’t even be telling you, but I will. Just don’t tell Donald I told you, or he’ll quack my head off. Are you ready?”
The boy nodded vigorously.
“When you sit down in your car on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, before you start crashing all through Toad Hall, ask the cast member who seats you if they can make it extra wild, just for you.”
“They can do that?”
“Of course they can!” Sharon said. “This is Disneyland!”
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed “Call Me Walt,” please consider buying me a coffee.