Ridley Pearson can ride Space Mountain at 2 a.m.
Any night he wants.
That was his condition when Disney/Hyperion asked him write Kingdom Keepers, which Pearson describes as “a series about five teenagers who get inside Disney after closing hours to discover there’s a whole world they didn’t know.”
If you grew up as a teenager in Florida, that was pretty much the fantasy — sneaking into the Magic Kingdom when you’re not supposed to be there.
“That was mine when I was coming up,” Pearson admits.
Walking through the Haunted Mansion when, if there really are 999 ghosts, they might really be out in force.
Wondering if the dolls in It’s a Small World ever come to life.
Why does Pearson get to poke around wherever he wants, whenever he wants, in any Disney park in the worldwhen the rest of us have to content ourselves with the onstage areas — the Disney term for guest areas — during park operating hours?
Well, it sort of has to do with Dave Barry. Barry and Pearson played in the Rock Bottom Remainders — a rock band comprised of writers, including Stephen King, Amy Tan and Roy Blount, Jr. — together and had a friendly rivalry, which led to a game of one-upsmanship when planning a joint Disney vacation (see, famous people really arejust like you and me).
A woman at Hyperion, Disney’s publishing arm, arranged for the royal treatment — tickets waiting in the room, extra goodies, VIP treatment (OK, so they’re not exactlylike you and me). Pearson, a good Missouri boy, called her to thank her.
While on the phone thanking her, she asked him to consider writing one of his adult thrillers, only for a YA audience and set in the Disney parks (mom was right — good manners really do reap rewards).
Sound like a dream for a writer? It was — until she threw down these guidelines:
Nothing bad could happen. Kids in the story can’t get hurt, the rides can’t get sabotaged. No weapons, no abductions. Basically, a Disney-fied thriller.
“And you want this to be a thriller?” Pearson asked.
Challenge accepted: Kingdom Keeperswas born.
The series takes five teens who, in the form of holograms, guide guests through the Magic Kingdom. Something goes wrong and the teens find themselves in the park after dark — as holograms. They must battle evil (led by Maleficent, of course) for the future of the Kingdom — and the world (Editor’s note: Although these are YA books and I don’t typically enjoy YA, I find these excellent reads).
Pearson’s name sound familiar? That’s because a play based on a book he wrote concurrently with the Disney series opens locally this week. Although not part of the Kingdom Keepersseries, while he was working on the first book, his daughter asked him how Peter Pan met Captain Hook, so he and Dave Barry went on to write Peter andthe Starcatchers — later adapted for the stage and opening this week at freeFall for the second year running (last year’s shows sold out).
Here’s the fun of publishing: Although Pearson finished Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Darkbefore Peter andthe Starcatchers, Disney attorneys had to approve the Kingdommanuscript, so Peter andthe Starcatchers came out first.
The approval process took 11 months, and if that sounds like typical Disney, this doesn’t: They didn’t change a thing.
“They did not edit a word of that book,” Pearson says. “It went all the way up the ladder in Disney and they all said, ‘This is so fun and so exciting, we’re not going to make you cut any of it.’ My editor and I certainly cut things and changed things, but not the people who control the laws and the rules, not even the people like the Imagineers who might have said, ‘you know, this just steps too much on our idea.’ They said, ‘This is a fun, fresh take and let’s just let it run.'”
By contrast, editing a book can take years, depending on the publisher’s resources. And, logically, writers like Pearson — who have a following and publishing houses may consider less of a financial risk — often get through the process more quickly.
Pearson’s bankability may have had something to do with Disney agreeing to the conditions he set for writing the books.
“If I was going to write these books, I was going to have to get inside their parks when it was dark and crazy in there, including into the rides when they were shut down,” he told them.
“They said, ‘well, we just don’t let anybody do that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I kinda figured, but you asked if I wanted to write this, and I would love to, but I really can’t if I can’t do it the way I write.'”
Disney said OK a month later. They allow Pearson into any park, any time of the day, anywhere in the world. He’s done that 30 times.
And no, he cannot bring a guest — we asked — except for the one time he and Dave Barry went in together to ride Peter Pan’s Flight while struggling with part of the story of Peter and the Starcatchers. They rode the ride 12 times in a row and, even then, Barry returned to the ride later to get the story the way they wanted it.
Writing’s hard, even when it means having Walt-like privileges at the happiest place on earth. Also, Pearson says, being at Disney without the crowds? It’s not always a dream come true. An Imagineer — Disney-speak for attraction designers — always accompanies him, and Imagineers have a reputation as jokesters.
Case in point: In the Haunted Mansion, the plates on the table change every week, putting the hidden Mickey in a different spot.
These, then, are the wrong people to find out a certain famous author has a full-on fear of Maleficent.
“I’ve done so much research into her and I’ve built her into a thing in my series,” he says “I really don’t like being around her. When they found out I had a phobia about Maleficent, they hired her after hours to be in her full deal and hide.”
He came around a corner, “and there was Maleficent, all six feet of her, saying (adopts screechy voice), ‘Ridley, what are you doing in my park?’ and I just took off running.”
Even without the Imagineers’ — we’ll call it “playfulness” — even without that, Pearson says, “The most magical place on earth is one of the creepiest places on earth. It’s only under intermittent lighting and the rides that I go on are only under hurricane lights. It’s really creepy in these places.”
Pearson tends to ride the rides unlit, just as they would be for his Kingdom Keepers.
And it’s not only the lack of lighting that makes it makes it spooky.
“[It’s] just like a ghost town — when you’re in a place that looks so beautiful but there’s no music and no people. It’s really strange to be walking down Main Street without another human in sight.”
Creepy? The Haunted Mansion, although, Pearson says, “it’s almost creepier with the lights on.”
Creepier still? It’s a Small World.
“I saw those dolls move,” he says, and he’s not joking. “All the dolls were frozen when I went through. It was probably a couple of shadows, but I swear two of those dolls stepped forward and it just gave me chills.”
The Kingdom Keepers series has seven books. Pearson’s written another Kingdom Keepers series, The Return, which has three books. He’s also starting work on another iteration of Kingdom Keepers, which delves into the worlds of EPCOT.
This article originally appeared in the 2016 issue of Creative Loafing. Link.