By Zach Johnson
New York Times bestselling author Ridley Pearson recently revisited his wildly popular Kingdom Keepers series, and now he’s sharing the first chapter from his updated Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark novel exclusively with D23 fans! Featuring a new cover design and additional content, the story follows five young teens tapped as models for theme park “guides” (using a new hologram technology developed by the Disney Imagineers) who find themselves pitted against Disney villains and witches that threaten the future of Walt Disney World and the stability of the world outside its walls. Want to know what happens next? For a limited time from May 11-15, you can get your own copy the book for just $0.99!
“A great deal can change over the years, especially at Walt Disney World: new technologies, new attractions, and whole worlds. As a Keeper of the Kingdom, I felt so much has changed that it was time to update my stories to reflect those changes,” Pearson tells us. “Sometimes I changed only the name of an attraction or the description of a waiting line, but I often rewrote chapters or even whole sections of a book. The fun of that is, you are holding a new and updated Kingdom Keepers novel. (And the first editions remain available for those who like things just the way they were.)”
“So join the Keepers and me on new adventures inside Disney’s new attractions, but following the same important mission: to prevent the Overtakers from stealing the magic and ruining the fun,” he adds. “Disney after dark has never been so unexpected. Enjoy!”
Disney Publishing also shared new covers for the second and third books, Kingdom Keepers: Disney at Dawn and Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow, available now. Both include bonus content and a sneak peek at the next installment, coming out in March 2021.
Begin your Kingdom Keepers adventure with this exclusive Disney After Dark excerpt:
He found himself standing next to the flagpole in Town Square, in the heart of the Magic Kingdom. In his pajamas. How he’d gotten here, he had no idea. His last memory was climbing into bed—it felt like only minutes earlier.
Gripped by a sense of panic, awed by the sight of the Cinderella Castle at night, Finn Whitman briefly recalled that he’d had other, similar dreams recently—always in the Magic Kingdom, always at night. But in his thirteen years, none so real, so vivid as this: he felt a breeze on his face; he smelled the wet earth of a flower bed not far away; he heard the distant whine of traffic and the buzz of a motorboat on the lake behind him.
“It looks so different,” he thought, only to realize he’d spoken out loud. Main Street stood empty, not a person in sight. He glanced around and quickly saw that he was all alone.
“Not so different as all that,” came a man’s voice. Though faint, it startled Finn. He looked around again, this time trying to find the source of that voice.
There! An old guy with white hair, on a bench in front of the Town Square Theater.
Finn moved toward the man, crossing the empty street. He felt unusually light, almost buoyant.
The old man wore khakis, a collared shirt, and a name tag: WAYNE.
“Where is everybody?” Finn asked, struck by the electronic sound of his own voice.
“Is it empty?” the man asked, looking up anxiously.
“Tell me what you see.”
Finn wondered if the old guy was blind. He seemed to be looking right at Finn; his blue eyes looked perfectly normal. Still, maybe he couldn’t see.
“Well,” Finn said politely, “it’s like… empty. And it’s dark out. And it’s just the two of us.”
Wayne’s expression changed to disappointment.
“What am I supposed to see, exactly?” Finn asked.
“You’re only supposed to see what you can see.”
“Whatever that means,” Finn said.
“It means exactly what it says.”
“If you say so.”
“Listen, young man, I’ve been around here since long before any of them were even created. I live in the apartment above the fire station.” He pointed right at the firehouse and then looked back at Finn. “That takes some seniority, believe me.”
Seniority or senility? Finn wondered. Living above the firehouse? Finn doubted it.
“Nice pajamas,” the old guy said.
Finn looked at himself. His pajamas seemed to be… glowing. What was with that? He said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but if you can see, if you’re not blind, then why’d you ask me about the park being empty?”
Wayne’s ice-blue eyes drilled into him. “How do you think you got here, young man?”
“That depends on where I am,” Finn answered honestly. This felt like no dream he’d ever experienced.
“Very good answer. I expected no less of you.”
“I assumed that you’d question this—that’s only natural—but ultimately there’s only one explanation, isn’t there?”
“Is there?” Finn asked, confused.
“The other ones I wasn’t so sure about. But you, Finn Whitman. By the way, that’s a fine name you have. A name with real potential.”
Finn took a step back. How did this old guy know his name?
“What other ones?” Finn asked. He studied Town Square and Main Street. The street lamps shone yellow. Cinderella Castle glowed in the distance. All the familiar streets and paths and attractions, but empty.
“I told you, there’s no one here. No one but us. It’s empty.”
Wayne said nothing as he stood and walked up Main Street, past the shops and toward the castle. Finn found himself following right along. They reached Central Plaza, an island in the center of a traffic circle, the spokes of which led to the Magic Kingdom’s various lands—Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Liberty Square. They stopped in front of a statue of Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse. The castle rose majestically into the night sky.
“What time is it?” Wayne asked.
As Finn brought his arm up to look at his watch, he saw that his arm wasn’t exactly his arm. It was… glowing. Not only glowing, but he could almost see through it. As if—
“What’s going on?” Finn asked. “What’s with my arm?”
Wayne sounded critical as he said, “Figure it out.” He then reached into his pocket and removed what looked like a remote control for a car: a small black plastic fob with a single red button. It looked like a garage-door opener.
“What’s with that thing?” Finn asked.
“This button will send you back.”
“Back where?” Finn felt a jolt of fear. What if this wasn’t a dream? He studied his arm again. Then his other arm. He looked down at his legs. His whole body was glowing and vaguely translucent.
“Back to bed,” Wayne answered.
“So it is a dream? I thought so.”
“It’s not a dream.”
Finn saw a pair of four-foot-tall chipmunks come out of the castle. They walked down a path and turned left, toward New Fantasyland. He felt himself staring.
He recognized them.
“What?” Wayne asked excitedly.
“Nothing,” Finn answered.
“You saw something!” he practically shouted into Finn’s ear, causing Finn to jump back, startled.
Wayne leaped up, suddenly years younger. He pulled Finn to his feet.
“You saw something!” he thundered.
“Hey! What’s the big deal?”
“Tell me what you saw.”
“You saw it too!” Finn told him.
Finn felt relief. Wayne knew Finn had seen a character, which had to mean he’d seen it too. He was clearly playing some kind of game, making Finn actually name the character, but Finn was good at games.
“Which character did you see?” Finn asked.
“You want me to push this button?” Wayne threatened.
Did he? Finn wasn’t sure. If it was a dream, the black remote-control fob represented a way out. When was the right time to use it? He hoped to stretch this out a minute longer. It was fun here.
He glanced around at the sound of footsteps. Goofy went tearing past them, not thirty feet away, and headed into Liberty Square.
Wayne never moved. Never looked in Goofy’s direction.
“You’re playing head games with me,” Finn said.
“Goofy,” Finn said.
“Are you asking me if I’m goofy? I’ve been called worse.” Wayne studied Finn. His old leathery face brightened as he said, “You saw Goofy!”
Maybe Wayne needed a hearing aid—he seemed prone to fits of shouting.
Finn backed off. “Yeah. So what? You would have too, if you’d bothered to look.”
Wayne probably couldn’t hear all that well. He obviously hadn’t heard Goofy’s footsteps, because he hadn’t turned toward the sound.
Finn decided to test Wayne. “Chip and Dale,” he said. “You saw them, right?”
“You saw Chip and Dale?” He made it sound like Finn had won the lottery. What was with that?
“I, ah . . . This is getting a little weird. I think I want to go back now.” Finn heard himself repeat some of what Wayne had told him, though the words didn’t fit in his mouth all that well. It sounded to him like someone else doing the talking.
“I’ll push the button, if you like. But I have to warn you…” Wayne fiddled with the nametag pinned to his uniform.
“Warn me about what?”
“You’ll be missing the park after dark. Having it all to yourself. One would think the attractions do no operate at night. Not necessarily so.”
“Now I know I’m dreaming.”
“But you aren’t,” Wayne explained. “Are you forgetting your arm?”
Finn studied his arm once more. “I’ll admit, that is… interesting. It’s almost like—” Finn caught himself.
“Like you’re glowing,” Wayne said in an all-knowing, I-told-you-so tone of voice.
“What might account for that?” Wayne inquired.
Finn understood somehow that a lot hung on his answer—his imagining this place, or dreaming it, or whatever was happening to him. His ability to stay here. To return. He wasn’t quick to answer. He didn’t want to face what Wayne was suggesting.
“I give up,” he said.
“No, you don’t,” Wayne protested. “You never would have been chosen for this if you were the kind who gives up on things. You’re a finisher, Finn. That’s what I liked about you from your first audition tape.”
Stunned by what the old guy had just said, Finn felt his mouth go dry. How did Wayne know about his audition tape? Exactly how complicated could a dream get?
“Who are you?” Finn blurted out.
“I’m Wayne. I work here. I was one of the first people hired by Walt Disney to imagine this park. The rides, the attractions. They call us Imagineers.”
“You knew Walt Disney?” Finn tried not to sound impressed.
“He was my boss, you might say. At any rate, he’s the reason I’m here. The reason you’re here.”
“I know this can’t be easy.”
“It’s a dream,” Finn said, thinking, What’s so hard about a dream?
“No, it’s not a dream,” Wayne said. “Take a look at the moon.” Finn didn’t move. Wayne’s voice became more severe. “I said: look at the moon.”
Finn had to turn around to locate the moon. A half-moon, like a crooked smile, hung well above the horizon.
“When you wake up—when you think you wake up—take a look out the window. You’ll see the same moon, and you’ll know.”
“Know what?” Finn asked.
“That you were here. Sitting here in Disney World with an old guy named Wayne.”
“You’re telling me this isn’t a dream?” Finn felt his words catch in his throat.
“We’ve got a problem. A big problem. A problem that affects not only the park, but the world outside the park. We call them the Overtakers.”
“The what?” Finn didn’t like the sound of that.
Wayne said urgently, “You need to contact the other hosts. All four. Arrange to meet them here at the same time. That will mean all of you going to bed, going to sleep, fairly close to the same time. Within a half hour of one another. Tell them that. That should work, I think.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s a fable, a story, a puzzle of sorts that was left in case of a problem like this. It’s called the Stonecutter’s Quill.”
“A problem like what?” Finn felt totally confused. The Stonecutter’s Quill—the title had an eerie sound.
Just then, Tom Sawyer came out of Liberty Square and headed up a long ramp into the castle. Is that really the Tom Sawyer? Finn wondered. The barefoot boy was smoking a pipe with a long stem. Wayne did a good job of not reacting, of pretending he didn’t see the kid.
Wayne said, “The puzzle has to be solved to be understood. It has to be understood to be of any use to us.” He paused and looked over at Finn. It felt to Finn as if Wayne were looking right through him. “You’re going to solve it.”
“The five of you,” Wayne said.
Finn jumped away from the man. Again he thought: how complicated can a dream get? If Wayne was only a part of the dream, how could he possibly know about the four other hosts? How could he talk about Finn’s audition tape the way he had? It was all related, all rolled into one, but Finn couldn’t sort it out.
Finn said, “You’re talking about Disney’s Hollywood Studios.”
“Of course I am,” Wayne said. “You see? I knew you were the right one. You’re the leader, Finn.”
“I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re talking about,” Finn said.
“Nice try. But of course you do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. You just don’t want to face it. Perfectly understandable. That will change.”
“A fable,” Finn said, testing him again. Could a dream remember itself?
“The moon,” Wayne reminded him. “Don’t forget the moon.”
“All five of you. I need you together. Here. All in the same place at the same time. I can explain it to you then. Once. As a group. Just the one time. You can decide—as a group—to help us or not.”
“Us?” Finn said.
“I’ll explain that as well.”
“This is the weirdest dream I’ve ever had!” Finn said, not realizing he was shouting.
“You’ll get over it,” Wayne said. He raised his right hand—the one carrying the black remote-control fob— and pressed the button with his thumb.
Finn awoke, sitting up in bed. His bedside clock read 2:07 a.m. He collected himself, checked his surroundings. He reached out and touched the glass of water next to the clock. Just the feel of it was reassuring. Thank goodness, he thought.
A dream? he wondered. “Whoa,” he heard himself say aloud. “What a dream!” This time his voice sounded more the way it always sounded, which reminded him of how thin and electronic it had sounded in the park.
“Whoa,” he repeated, just to hear himself say it. He scratched an itch on his head, and another on his belly. That felt better. He lay back down, his head on the pillow, his green eyes wide open to the dark room.
All at once Finn spotted a shaft of light—bluish light—on his ceiling. It was in the shape of a knife blade. Moonlight.
Finn slipped out of bed with trepidation. He crept toward the window, afraid to look. The closer he got to it, the more his face was bathed in that pale light seeping through a small crack in the curtains.
Finn raised his arm and caught sight of his watch. His arm appeared solid. It did not glow and shimmer the way it had while he was with Wayne. That came as a relief.
Finn parted the curtains.
There, out the window, hanging in the exact same place in the sky, where Wayne had pointed it out to him, Finn saw the curving smile of a half-moon. Could he have known that in his sleep? How? He looked again.
The moon seemed to be laughing at him.