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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  • whamo

    I get tired, and bored, frankly, quickly, when I visit Tom Sawyer’s Island. It’s exciting to go there the first time, riding the raft, but once you get there it’s just a long walk, it’s hot, it’s dusty, and it’s uncomfortable somehow. I thought it might be different when it went Pirate, but it’s not. There are a couple of cool things on the island, now. I want to eat a picnic lunch on the tables by the shore facing the Mark Twain harbor sometime. I just never get around to it. I think it would be good to go back to the Tom Sawyer theme, and include scenes from the great American novel. Charge people to paint the fence, and have a Tom Sawyer barker pitch how fun it is. Have a Mark Twain robot spin tales by a fishing hole. Have Injun Joe throw knives at a target with uncanny aim. Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare, and we should honor him.

  • Athlonacon

    I’m sorry but I’m going to vote for Disneyland every time, without fail and without regard to which is categorically better. I grew up with it, I’ve visited it many times and all my memories are there whereas I’ve never stepped foot inside WDW. This edition of the column was the best yet, they are definitely improving each time. I’m starting to like it now.

  • FredSimmons

    I haven’t been to WDW, so I can’t really comment on the difference between the two islands.

    But just a few comments about Tom Sawyer island in general.

    It was one of my favorite places at Disneyland when I was a kid. One reason is that it was the only place at the park where kids could be kids – where they could be free to explore and play and use their imaginations.

    Most of Disneyland is a very structured place. You get in line, wait, sit down in whatever ride vehicle is provided, and let the ride take control of your experience. It’s great for adults, but for a kid, it is also somewhat restrictive. In the same way that very young kids sometimes prefer the box to the present inside, it is often better to give kids just enough material to spark their imaginations, and then provide them a safe place to act out those fantasies on their own. Tom Sawyer Island did just that, immersing kids in the atmosphere of a Mark Twain adventure, providing intriguing spots to find & explore, but leaving the actual play up to the kids.

    It’s a shame the fort is closed. I fondly remember firing rifles from that fort, during an Indian attack. It added another layer of adventure to the island.

    Speaking of which, while I completely understand the desire not to offend Native Americans, I think the overall whitewashing of history (such as the elimination of the burning cabin) at the park is unfortunate. The truth is that Native Americans and our European ancestors were, for the most part, mortal enemies. We had invaded their country, driven them from their land, and when they saw even more settlers & soldiers moving in, they naturally tried to defend themselves. But the result was a very bloody, vicious series of deadly wars in which both sides slaughtered civilians and warriors alike. The frontier was a very dangerous place back then, and from the limited perspective of whites at the time, the Indians were the enemy. Any recreation of the period can’t simply ignore that and pretend that relations between the two groups were wonderful. Much of the sense of adventure from the pioneer/Western period stems from such potential dangers, and to eliminate them from the picture also eliminates the sense of thrilling risk that, from a dumb kid’s perspective, makes the place fun.

  • Dizzey

    Good comments, Fred, and right on point.

    For myself, I like the DL version just fine. The pirate stuff does seem a little out of place, but it makes the island a bit more relevant to the current generation of guests. I do miss the fort quite a bit – as much for nostalgic reasons as any others. But here’s the most important point, in my opinion… there is still some peace and quiet out on the island. The rest of the park is very “dense” with stimulus. Lots of sound and visual “flash,” kiosks of all kinds, even plenty of smells. Throw in tens of thousands of guests and, for introverts like myself, it can get overwhelming at times and overly tiring.

    The island has “unornamental,” natural-feeling trees, less flash, and a few great places to just sit and hang out for a while. Recharge the batteries, so to speak. In general, such areas are becoming more and more scarce inside the park, and that’s a shame. It’s a park, after all.

  • shevys

    I’m sorry, did I miss the part where they discussed Tom Sawyer’s Island in Walt Disney World? Seemed more like an afterthought than anything else.