The second coming

It's arguably one of America's greatest urban legends, right up there with the crash at Roswell and the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

It's Disney on ice.

No, not the traveling ice show. But the real Walt Disney, who -- or so the story goes -- wasn't going to let a little thing like lung cancer stop him after the lifelong smoker learned in the fall of 1966 that he had just months to live. Legend says he and his staff tried to come up with something, anything, to help him cheat death so he could stay focused on his dream for all the land he had just bought in Central Florida.

It was during research for Epcot that Disney's staff supposedly discovered Walt's "Get out of Jail Free" card: cryogenics, the science of inducing a state of suspended animation by exposing a living creature to super-cold temperatures.

Walt immediately saw an opportunity. He would allow himself to be frozen, then lie in Snow White-like slumber till a cure could be found. When that happened, his loyal staff would thaw him out for treatment, and Walt would just pick up where he left off.

Great story, isn't it? Larry Pontius thought so. And as the former VP in charge of marketing for Disneyland and Disney World, he was a guy who knew something about the power of good storytelling. Only Pontius thought it was time to move the legend to the next level. That's why he decided to write a novel based on the notion that the Walt-sicle really did exist. Particularly what might happen if Walt were revived.

Having worked at the highest levels of Walt Disney Productions from 1974 to 1980, the Longwood retiree had a true insider knowledge about how the Mouse House operated. More to the point, Pontius worked side by side with senior execs who had been Walt's intimates. Dick Nunis and others would oblige his inquiries with tales about what a contradiction Walt was. Charming one minute, a real ball-buster the next. A guy whose work celebrated the joys of home and family, yet who was so busy building his empire that he had little time for his wife and two daughters.

"I really wasn't looking to write about Walt the icon, that kindly old gentleman who hosted 'The Wonderful World of Color' every Sunday night," says Pontius. "I simply wanted to tell people about the real Walt."

This he does beautifully in his fantasy novel, "Snowbird." Both salty and sentimental, Pontius' Walt is always trying to bully or charm those around him into doing what he wants. At the same time, this fictitious Walt doesn't quite know what to make of the modern Disney Co. Pontius uses his Walt to make some pretty cutting comments about the Eisner regime, as well as the squandered opportunities Epcot and Celebration represent.

Pontius also does a great job presenting the book's principal setting: Orlando. He knows what the inside of a home in Bay Hill looks like, how it feels to get stuck in traffic on John Young Parkway. He even has his protagonist grab a bite at the oversized McDonald's on Sand Lake Boulevard, giving the author a chance to comment on the whole International Drive experience.

Mixed in with the colorful setting, however, is a just-plain absurd backstory about how the Russian Mafia wants to get its hands on the Disney Co. to create a front for laundering drug money. And there's a subplot involving Washington insiders who want to make the Disney deal happen because it will make the president look good. Better to skim the book and go straight to the good parts where Walt talks.

But you won't find it in the bookstores. Pontius finished his novel almost 14 months ago and began shopping it around to agents and publishing houses. Positive response would be followed by polite refusal. "A lot of these folks told me that they didn't dare touch the thing because they were concerned about Disney's lawyers," he says. "They seemed certain that were they to do anything with this book, all those attorneys would swoop down and keep us tied up in court for years to come."

Pontius opted for another route. Earlier this year, he placed his novel with aghostwriter, an online publisher that was willing to post "Snowbird" on its site in serial form. On March 1, the first chapter went up on the web. Over the past four months, more than a million readers have accessed the novel, undaunteed by its size -- 40 chapters, or more than 600 pages.

Given the amount of mail Pontius has received, "Snowbird" has taken off. Readers seem to appreciate the way he portrayed the man whose 100th birthday forms the centerpiece of Disney World's upcoming "100 Years of Magic" celebration.

"Sure, he was a genius," says Pontius. "But Walt was a guy who also liked to drink, smoke, swear and cry. Just like the rest of us."