Happy Birthday Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Disneyland Resort, Features, The 626

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Published on November 18, 2012 at 5:03 am with 13 Comments

Today, Sunday November 18th, is the birthday of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Or, rather, it would have been if it was still at Disneyland today.

What had been a landmark Johann Wyss novel in 1812 and a blockbuster Disney adventure film in 1960, became the world’s most elaborate tree house in 1962 at Disneyland.

Disney was looking for something to complement the Jungle Cruise, which had been operating as Adventureland’s only high-profile attraction since 1955. After the success of the film, it was decided that the Swiss Family Treehouse would be a clever addition to the northern border of Adventureland, where guests round the corner to Frontierland. It would also give guests a chance to explore the Treehouse from the film for themselves, up close and personally.

Opening as a B-ticket walk through attraction, the tree house took its design and décor from the Swiss Family Robinson movie sets and props, which included items salvaged from the Robinsons’ sinking ship and homemade creations fashioned from jungle materials. It included a library, kitchen, private rooms and viewing platforms. All of this was furnished and functional, as if the family did actually live there. You were able to view all this using the 139 steps on the wooden stairways throughout the Treehouse.

The most memorable thing about the Treehouse was an ingenious water-delivery system that lifted hundreds of gallons of water per hour to the upper levels using pulleys, bamboo dippers, and bamboo chutes.

Throughout the tour, a lively Buddy Baker composition from the movie, “The Swisskapolka,” served as the background music.

Almost as impressive as the Treehouse itself was the “tree” it was made upon. Officially known as a “Disneyodendron semperflorens grandis” (which translates into ‘big ever-blooming Disney tree’) by its designers, the massive steel-and-concrete structure rose “70 feet over the jungle and spread brilliant colored branches 80 feet in width,” according to Disneyland’s 1964 souvenir book. And yes, that meant that it was longer than it was tall!

Underneath the tree itself was the foundation of its “roots” which drove another 42 feet downward and helped hold up the 150 ton structure. The 300,000 leaves that adorned the tree were artificial and reddish in color until they faded in the harsh sun and were replaced by green plastic instead.

True to the Robinson’s heritage, a Swiss flag flew from the top of the tree.

The film’s stars were on hand for the dedication, which featured a hand-painted sign in the Jungle Lookout that welcomed guests with the following inscription:

” . . . In this compound we often pause to contemplate our small world. Here adventure beckons . . . with every view & every sound, the jungle & its river call out their mystery. . . . invite us to new discovery.”

That jungle & river alluded to in the description were actually visible from the treetops, because it afforded spectacular views of Adventureland and the Rivers of America.

As cherished as the Treehouse was for almost four decades, it got a dramatic makeover in 1999 and reopened as Tarzan’s Treehouse. A few souvenirs have been retained in Tarzan’s new home in tribute to the departed Robinsons, including a version of Swisskapolka at the exit.

Though it no longer exists at Disneyland, the Swiss Family still have homes in Florida, Japan, and France.

Did you enjoy the Swiss Family Treehouse Disneyland? Do you miss it or make a special point to visit it in Orlando?

Source: The Disneyland Encyclopedia, by Chris Strodder.

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by Jeff Heimbuch

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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Comments for Happy Birthday Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse are now closed.

  1. I vastly prefer Swiss treehouse to Tarzan, it had more charm, ingenuity and fun. Don’t know why Disney sometimes insists on taking something that works and then “upgrade” it by making it worse. They should have left well-enough alone if they are not going to substantially improve something. There are so many other things that could use the attention first, like pretty much everything in Tomorrowland.

    • There’s nothing wrong with Tarzan’s treehouse.Not improved? If anything it’s much better. It still fits in Adventureland, has a suspension bridge entrance, interactive elements throughout the tree, and the “swiss-ka-polka” can even still be heard.

  2. This is sacrilegious, but I like Disney’s “Tarzan” movie even more the “Swiss Family Robinson” movie, and I like having different attractions at WDW & Disneyland, so I don’t mind the change. If they has also changed WDW’s tree, I might have been annoyed.

    As a CM, I was once moved from the Jungle Cruise to the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse for a day. Although I was able to tune out the music, it was a boring day, and I probably came away from that long day liking that attraction less. It’s good they don’t make a CM spend all day in front of some attractions asking guests to not bring in beverages. Better to send in a sweeper every hour in case there is a spill. Most grown ups won’t spill and being told “No, you can’t do that.” is a drag for the guest and the CM. We like being able to eat and drink in the Tiki Room.

    Instead, Disney should have a small, slightly elevated stand marked “Information” appropriately themed in each land. Universal Hollywood had a couple of these this summer and they were great. I’d like that job. Any CM who isn’t happy to help 100 guests a day find the nearest bathroom shouldn’t be working at Disneyland.

  3. I like Disney’s Tarzan. It’s a fun film with some interesting music. However, those static plastic characters make you feel like the movie was frozen in time and you are in the Twilight Zone walking through it. The Treehouse as it is now has no emotional resonance for me. It’s just an excuse to walk up and down some stairs and look for the remains of the Swiss people.

    I understand why the Robinson’s were evicted, what kid today knows that film? Personally, I loved the old treehouse. I hadn’t seen the film either when I first experienced the treehouse as a child. However, I still loved the experience and marveled at how they attempted to create a livable house in a jungle tree. The running water alone was worth the trip.

    Toward the end of the Swiss Family Robinson’s days, very few people were making the trek up those stairs. Disney had to do something. There was a real risk that the tree would be completely removed. The decision to give the tree a Tarzan overlay was clever. Sadly, it just doesn’t quite work as well as it would if those characters had some movement.

    Happy Birthday Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Perhaps if Disney did a better job re-releasing it’s older live action films, you’d never have lost your home!

  4. While I can see where people who like that Tarzan movie also might also like the bad Tarzan makeover, I just block out the cheap Tarzan overlay each time I go in. The old tree house gave a sense of adventure, letting you feel you were in midst of an active family fortress with its coolest feature being its cool running water system. The cheap fiberglass Tarzan characters just remind me of a cheap 50′s fairy tale land park that you find in rural america.

    I like the treehouse in paris DL where you can walk below it through caves and see its roots. But I wouldn’t endure the oppressive Florida climate just to re-visit the old treehouse.

    Every once and a while there is rumors of a new movie remake and possible revamp of the old swiss family treehouse. I hope this happens because I don’t even think the Tarzan cartoon would sell in the 99¢ bin at Kmart, so it shouldn’t continue to have a place in Disneyland.


  6. The Swiss Family Treehouse was so Kinetic with it’s water wheel revolving, water buckets cycling around, water flowing from bamboo chute to chute, and the great movie tune playing on the pump organ. You knew you were in Adventureland when you heard the Swiss Family Treehouse. What a view while eating next door. Before Tarzan there was a brief study on bringing the Treehouse up to date near what the end of the movie had hinted too, if the sequel were to be made. Lot of great ideas there that would have brought more guests back in for a visit with the renovated family quarters, and to try out the newer interactive elements from the movie. Some historical nautical items were purchased for that newer addition, but ended up in the Tarzan makeover. It has been said you have to go to Tokyo Disneyland to see what Disneyland used to have, which is a good thing I believe. Congratulations Swiss family Treehouse.

    • Happy 50th Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse! I have no memory of ever exploring it back when it was still the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, but I have to say… I’d rather the tree be there and filled with static character figures, than to not be there at all. At least when I climb those stairs and explore the rooms I try to imagine what it would have been like in it’s heyday. I feel lucky that its still standing after all… the treehouse is not ADA compliant! Its the only Disneyland Resort attraction that I can think of that isn’t. Only time will tell if the treehouse will withstand the harsh confrontation of today’s common lawsuits. I hope it does… and maybe if the movie were remade to appear more modern… they would have new reason to renovate it and make at least a few areas toward the base of the tree ADA compliant.

    • In 1981/83 when the New Fantasyland was being designed and built, the Captain Hooks Pirate Ship almost sailed up to the base of the tree house where Indy is now. Pirates were a part of the Swiss Family Robinson movie and would have been a good fit in Adventureland back then, as it happened later in Paris Disneyland. Miss those Tuna Burgers, but love Indy more, which better compliments the Jungle Cruse Era. I wonder how many kids Fritz and Jenny had after their marriage in the 2nd movie and If Ernest became a Captain in the families shipping company?

  7. I have many found memories of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. It was always a wonderful escape from the crowds below and a place to find a cool breeze. While I don’t indentify as strongly with the Tarzan theme, it’s still a relaxing escape and great views!

  8. Swiss Family Robinson’s Tree House was just one of those minor attractions that made Disneyland Disneyland. It was not designed to have the “hey look at me” astethic, and it wasn’t designed to roll in buckets of cash, it was designed to improve guest experiences. I feel that modern Disney does not understand the appeal of attractions like SFRTH, which is probably why we are seeing fewer and fewer small additions like this. As for Tarzan’s takeover, I heard that Imagineering saved the tree house from becoming another shop by putting up the Tarzan stuff. I’ll take Tarzan forced theming vs a store any day.

    • I completely agree. The current thinking seems to be “keep refreshing, or else people will become bored and think Disneyland is stale and static.” I don’t HATE the Tarzan overlay, as the ability to mess around with the”musical instruments” at the end is a real neat thing for kids to play with, but I DO miss the original version myself.

      I think the Tarzan overlay works fine by and large, but the house of wax characters seem superfluous. There are two schools of thought in this sort of attraction: 1) leave the environment in state as though the characters just stepped out and you’re sneaking in to get a look at where they live. the other is 2) to put figures in place like the dioramas in many museums to give a sense of how the environment was used. The reason I don’t think #2 was a wise choice in this case is multifold. The first is that the biggest and most memorable diorama in Disneyland is the Primeval World on the train, which has several huge moving AAs in it, most notably the T-Rex and Stegosaur. Nobody forgets them after seeing them and their motion gives a sense of wonder and awe that a static depiction (like the Grand Canyon scenes for instance) could never equal. the second is that in a way, by placing the characters IN the scene, it dumbs down the attraction for the audience and insults their ability to imagine… (remember IMAGINATION? its the basis for the term IMAGINEering for instance… it ONCE had a WHOLE pavilion dedicated to it in EPCOT until it was decided that fart jokes would be better. Disney once LOVED you to use your imagination instead of feeding you your lines.) and thirdly, these characters come from an ANIMATED FILM, not a picture book. It is actually weird to see the characters so still, especially in the case of THIS film which went to great lengths to show the jungle as a living, breathing, moving thing.

      So while I appreciate the Tarzan overlay for SAVING the tree, it could have done it in a much better fashion by respecting the guests intelligence.

  9. the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse had so much to offer compared to Tarzan’s Treehouse (another “eisner” era concept that’s an epic fail as it borrows from an animated film which wasn’t an ever lasting blockbuster & not even the syndicated animated tv series could improve upon it – nor the direct to dvd sequel – another “eisner” era epic fail idea) ….

    What would it take to get my Adventureland back? (complete with a Tahitian Terrace & the type of merchandise we used to get near the Jungle Cruise – especially the shrunken heads) ….

    Once again – great pictures in this update –

    C J