For almost three weeks this past month, author Ridley Pearson traveled coast to coast on his tour for Kingdom Keepers VII: The Insider (Disney-Hyperion), the last novel in his series about a group of five high school students who are locked in battle against the Overtakers (Disney Villains) who seek to destroy Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., and Disney World in Orlando, Fla. About 200 pages of the 600-page novel were crowdsourced, with Pearson’s fans reading serial chapters and outlines once a week for about six months and voting for the next direction in which the novel should move. Pearson would then take the results under consideration while writing the next chapter, which would be posted the following weekend. Several dozen people who wrote fan fiction inspired by Pearson’s novels also had paragraphs they’d written included the new book.

“The idea is to engage kids and to keep them writing,” Pearson told PW a few days after the tour ended. “I’m a big one for education. The more you read and write, the smarter you are.”

Being smart, as well as committed to educating while entertaining his audiences, Pearson explains that he doesn’t simply stand up and read during an appearance. Instead, he makes PowerPoint presentations that include optical illusions to challenge students' powers of observation. “I’m a writer,” he said. “My job is to observe the world around us and then to make it even more interesting.”

Pearson, 61, has been to the two parks almost 30 times since his first visit to Disney World with his family about a dozen years ago, accompanied by humorist Dave Barry, who collaborated with Pearson on the Peter and the Starcatchers series of novels for young readers. After that first visit to Disney World, Pearson said, he noted to Wendy Lefkon, Disney Publishing Worldwide editorial director, that every ride and attraction “tells a story, with a beginning, a middle, and the end.” Lefkon responded to that observation by inviting Pearson to write a thriller novel for teen readers set in a Disney park. The series was launched with the release in 2009 of The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark. “She’s been my editor [ever] since,” Pearson said, explaining that he wrote the first novel in The Kingdom Keepers series before Peter and the Starcatchers was published in 2004.

For years, Pearson told PW, he has been allowed unrestricted access to the parks after hours for research purposes. He said it’s “spooky, because it’s dark and you’re all alone.” Describing how he once got up close to Blackbeard in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, a ride that he describes as “just me, flashing through the dark in one of those boats,” he recalled that the figure was completely lifelike, with warts, scabs, scars, and bloodshot eyes – even its arms were covered with black hairs that were seemingly human. The entire effect was, he noted, “just freaky.”

Despite the rigors of, first, writing a 600-page novel in collaboration with his fans, and then embarking on a national tour promoting the final novel in the series, Pearson said he “literally can’t give up these characters.” Good thing he doesn’t have to: he’s starting to write the first novel in a trilogy he’s calling The Return, featuring the same characters in the same Disney parks settings. We’re betting he also wouldn’t mind continuing that unrestricted access to the Disney parks, either.

Below, some photographic highlights from the tour. Photo credits: Ridley Pearson and Jennifer Wood.