Dueling Disney: A Battle Over Tom Sawyer Island

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney Parks, Disneyland Resort, Dueling Disney, Features, Walt Disney World

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Published on February 13, 2013 at 4:04 am with 20 Comments

Welcome to the third installment of Dueling Disney. This time ‘round, we’d like ya’ll to join us for a good ol’ fashioned hoot n’ holler over a little plot of land that can only be reached by crossing the mighty Rivers of America. Fancy a trip with Tom, Becky and Huck? Would you like to explore a Pirate’s lair?

Two islands, one winner, you be the judge . . .

The Battle Over Tom Sawyer Island

Keith: This one is going to be a difficult debate for me, since I have a very negative memory of the island. It is the only place in Disneyland (or anywhere, come to think of it) in which I got separated from my family. I was around 5, and I remember very vividly bawling my eyes out, looking for my mom. A CM found me and gave me some sort of purple slushee drink to make me happy as they tried to locate my parents. It worked, because I stopped crying instantly. Until I dropped the slushee.

Jeff: It’s funny you say that, because I *also* had a very negative experience on Disneyland’s version of Tom Sawyer Island. Back in the summer of 2011, when I was out there working “It’s Kind Of A Cute Story” with Rolly Crump (I will never stop dropping that name), I went exploring on the island. I wound up deep in the caves…and couldn’t find my way out! And of course, no one was around me either…just me all by my lonesome. Now, maybe it was just my mind with the panic attack, but I swear to you, the cave was getting smaller and smaller. Within minutes, I was in a full blown panic. Luckily, I finally made my way out, and got the heck off the island! However, through a sequence of events that started with that panic attack, I wound up meeting Miley Cyrus in Frontierland. True story.

Wait, what were we talking about again?

Keith: Apparently we’re exchanging nightmares we’ve both lived. Still want to tackle this subject, or should we switch to an attraction that hasn’t convinced us we were going to die alone in Disneyland?

Jeff: Provided we don’t have to set foot on the island while we discuss it, we can certainly continue on with this topic!

Keith: Haha, okay. I guess I should start off with a little history. In 1955, the year Disneyland opened, Tom Sawyer Island was there. It was not, however, accessible. The island was unfinished, and no transportation to it had been created. It wasn’t until early 1956 that work finally began on theming the mostly empty island. Its first name, “Mickey Mouse Island,” did not stick. Soon it was renamed “Treasure Island,” but that wouldn’t last either. The Imagineers then realized that the entire area could be themed after the world of author Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer Island opened on July 16, 1956, just one day shy of the park’s 1st birthday.

Jeff: Disney Legend, Tom Nabbe, played the role of Tom Sawyer for years after the island opened, showing adventurous kids every nook and cranny that the island held. Of course, that is what made the Disneyland version so unique. It was a truly interactive experience for kids, who go to live out an adventure with Tom Sawyer himself. But unfortunately, Disneyland visitors no longer have that luxury, because Tom Sawyer Island has been invaded by Pirates these days. So, Walt Disney World is the only place you can still get the pure Tom Sawyer fix.

Keith: Well, technically, it still is Tom Sawyer Island in Disneyland. It’s official name is Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, and per the Disneyland website: “Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island recalls the plucky adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when they ran away to a remote island to live the carefree life of a pirate.” So, uh, yeah. Okay so I don’t personally love the Pirate’s Lair “overlay.” But for those who are into pirates, it’s pretty cool. And since this island has always been more of a draw for kids, the contemporary theme (I say contemporary meaning pirates are more relevant these days than Huck Finn) adds incentive for them to ask their parents to traverse the Rivers of America with them on one of four rafts: Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, or… Tom Sawyer!

Jeff: There seems to be an odd man out on those raft names…hmmm…

Anyway, I actually seem to find myself enjoying Tom Sawyer Island more now than I did as a kid. I always saw it as a no man’s land, disconnected from the rest of the Park, and away from the action. Now, I like to explore it’s many trails, pathways, treehouses, and all that jazz. It actually makes me feel like I’m a (big) kid again! Plus, sitting along the waterfront, rocking in a rocking chair, watching the paddle wheeler go by . . . an excellent way to while away an hour.

Keith: Well, before the “pirate infusion,” the rafts were named: Huck Finn, Injun Joe, Becky Thatcher, and Tom Sawyer. The new names make sense, even if redoing the island’s theme didn’t.

So just why is Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island better? I’m glad you asked, Jeff. The pirate theme appeals to a lot of folks these days. Ours still has trails, pathways and tree houses. It also has a rope bridge, a treasure dig, and you can even be “haunted by ghastly apparitions inside Dead Man’s Grotto.” Spooky! Like you, we can also watch the Mark Twain go by. And our Tom Sawyer Island doesn’t offer refuge to an abandoned Aunt Polly’s. One of the coolest things though, is the fact that our Tom Sawyer Island doubles as a “stage” at night for performances of our superior Fantasmic show [editor’s note: Fantasmic will be part of a future Dueling Disney]. In fact, the coolest part of the show takes place on the island. And as usual, in this still very young series, I am saving the best for last. Our Tom Sawyer Island was designed by Walt Disney himself. Yeah, that’s right. Walt took the blueprints for the island home one night, and laid them out across the drafting table in his barn. That would be the barn constructed for his personal Carolwood Pacific Railroad he had installed at his Holmby Hills home. He came back the next day with a piece of tracing paper, which had the island drawn to scale (including all the inlets), and handed it to Disney Art Director Marvin Davis. “I put it down and traced it off,” Davis said in an interview. “And that’s the way it is today. He did it literally, he drew it out himself.”

Jeff: Yeah, well, you know how OUR island got designed?

OK, me either. We don’t have a cool story like that. But that’s OK. Because it was naturally formed that way! Wait, it wasn’t? Oh, OK. Well. I got nothing then.

Well, except for the fact that our Fort is still open to the public. That’s pretty awesome. Your version is now the home to a big, white trailer. Nothing says “Pirate’s Lair” like a big, white trailer. While we may not have a Tom Sawyer running around, or a rush to find the sacred paintbrushes any longer, we do still have a bit of the original charm of the island. And for that, I say we win.

What say you, loyal MiceChatters? Which version is superior? Let us know in the poll and the comments below!

Dueling Disney is written by Jeff Heimbuch & Keith Gluck

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected]

You can follow us on Twitter: @DisneyProject and @JeffHeimbuch

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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  • DizneGreg

    I say Disneyland wins just because of the newer interactive stuff. Frankly, I think it is an improvement over what was there before, which wasn’t much. I do miss the Fort, however, some of the animatronics at the Fort at WDW were broken last time I was there. Both islands are a nice escape from the rest of the park, and I recommend you check it out if you never have before.

  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    WDW’s island wins hands down! Disneyland’s Island is a half-realized mess. They started to make it Pirate Island and never finished. Disney seems to have trouble with projects done in phases. The idea may have seemed good to them at the time, but they either couldn’t find the funding or simply figured that half baked was good enough (it isn’t).

    Would I rather that Disneyland’s island was still Tom Sawyer? yes. But now that they’ve altered the theme, they should complete it or revert back. Not leave it in its half finished state.

    So, WDW, you easily win this one, even with the shuttered Aunt Polly’s. Your island still has an unified theme and a working fort. More than enough reason for anyone to visit.

  • Trumpet

    Great Article Guys

    I have to agree with Dusty that if Disneyland’s island had completed the Pirates Takeover theme, then it would win. However, it is half and half, which makes it a mess. Hopefully, they either choose to take away the pirates theme or complete it. Having said that, I have never been on the island, only heard about it on the forums. Maybe, I will visit it next time I am in the parks.

    WDW will have to win, despite having the closed Aunt Pollys and Disneyland’s island has more of a history.

    Thanks Again Guys


  • jmuboy

    The pirates stuff is cool, but half hearted in that it does not really fully flesh out over the entire island. And some of those cool effects in the cave and the ship wreck with the skeleton you can “fish up” are cool – but could be given a Tom Sawyer / western feel and work just as well.

    Finally, I hate the rebuilt fort at DL. Even if it is just for looks can they at least add roofs back onto the towers? The towers look undone in their current form.

    I say WDW wins out here – easily. I do wish they would reopen Aunt Polly’s – even if just as a giant ODV location selling fruit, popcorn, bagged chips, and soda / juice / water.

  • eicarr

    Due to strict California codes I feel safe at DL’s. I also enjoy how they make use of it at night to stage Fantasmic. The pirates overlay spices up the place and helps compensate for items removed or replaced with dull lawsuit safe replacements in the 90′s. But due to the lack of oppressive heat/humidity and frequent downpours to get stuck in… the DL version is the one I enjoy the most and won’t hesitate going over to. Looking out at the intensely detailed DL from the island is also a beautiful/magical experience.

  • Primogen

    I’ve always loved going to Tom Sawyer’s island since I was a little kid — the treehouse, teeter-totter rock, the rock mazes, the pontoon bridge, the bottomless pit in Injun Joe’s Cave and especially the fort, from which you could “shoot” rifles at the passing ships.

    Unfortunately, teeter-totter rock (as well as the merry-go-round rock) is gone and Fort Wilderness (with its secret underground escape route) is gone, but I do enjoy the Pirate’s Lair theming. The shipwreck decorations on top of the rocks looks great, and the interactive spooky pirate stuff in Injun Joe’s cave is a lot of fun.

  • DisWedWay

    Actually Tokyo Disneyland is probably the most like the original and in the BEST shape of all of them. It was a flip flop of Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island per 1982. I really hate to think TDL might remove it for a Cars Land. What a waste that would be. PD

  • Imagineer2B

    I may be in the minority here, but this is one “attraction” that I never cared for as a child or as an adult. I do enjoy looking at it from the banks of the Rivers of America and the transformation that the DL island takes for Fantasmic is nothing short of an engineering marvel. I wish that there was something to draw me out to the island other than a great place for kids to run free and blow off steam. I’d love to see the Country Bears take up residence or as suggested a completely overhauled Pirate theme would be fun.

  • Illusion0fLife

    I would have to say Disneyland’s wins here, but with a few caveats. I’m a big fan of the Pirates movies (except On Stranger Tides, seriously, that movie can jump in a lake) and I like what they did with the new overlay. Dead Man’s Grotto has some really neat effects, and I enjoy the new layer of interactivity throughout the island. That being said, the Pirate’s Lair overlay worked a lot better in 2007 than it works now for one very important reason: live actors.

    When the whole thing reopened in 2007 Tom Sawyer’s Island had a life that it hadn’t had in years. There was a pirate band, a rather fantastic Jack Sparrow impersonator, a stunt show, and various pirates wandering around the island interacting with guests. As cliche as it sounds, it was magical. Now, though, the island has gone back to being relatively dead. The interactive stuff is still neat, if in need of some TLC, but the Bootstrappers have been marooned on the mainland, the stunt show is gone, Captain Jack Sparrow is gone, and there are no more pirates on Pirate’s Lair. It’s really rather disappointing.

    Also, the Fort is closed, which sucks, but it was kind of inevitable due to the sad neglect it received from Disney management.

    All that said, I still slightly prefer the Disneyland version. It could be my home park bias kicking in, but I think the interactive elements, the intricate series of caves and walkways, and, of course, the fact that it houses the most spectacular nighttime show Disney has ever done (yes, I still prefer Fantasmic! to World of Color) give it the edge.

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  • DisneySarah

    WDW, hands down. Horse AAs and a fort you can actually explore go a long way. Disneyland’s has been in a sad stste since even before the pirates moved in, due to the safety “improvements”. Tom Sawyer Island is on my must-see list every time I go to WDW. I hardly ever visit it at Disneyland, my home park.

  • Johnny

    I can’t wait for the Fantasmic Duel. Jeff, you are going down… hard :-)

  • Ravjay12

    Disneyland’s Tom sawyer Island lost a lot of it’s charm once Fantasmic rolled in. After the show moved in, the island began to go downhill. No Fort, closed caves, and a big huge obvious stage? Disney World wins this one.

  • danielz6

    I feel like this is a real special part of the park, being one Walt personally designed. I do feel, however that it hasn’t reached its full potential. I like the pirate upgrades as they are nice surprises and special effects. But I feel it needs more. After experiencing dead mans grotto there really isn’t a reason to revisit this part of the park. I hope in the future they will further enhance the offerings on the island and rivers of America too(always bothered me how some of the AAs are so lifelike and others are static). Maybe incorporate a little American history into the island as well, the kind of stuff that pertains to mark Twain’s genre, mississippian and frontier culture, that’d be great. I feel like with a little love this could be one of the best areas of the park.

  • Ravjay12

    I heard from Imagineer Herb Ryman that Walt Disney didn’t design the island but just named the play areas.