Reflections On Tom Sawyer Island
by, 05-04-2011 at 06:10 PM
The environment within Disneyland is highly structured. Although it may appear to the guest that they have many options, the reality is much different. The spatial design, the attractions, and the circulation pattern all restrict choices. However, Walt clearly understood that not all play could be pre-programmed. Children would rebel and they needed a place to blow off some steam, a space where they can run free while allowing the parents to take a rest. Disneyland needed a place dedicated to unstructured play. So Walt decided that he would take a piece of very valuable real estate inside of Disneyland, the island surrounded by the Rivers of America, and create a children’s wonderland of beauty and imagination. Welcome to Tom Sawyer Island.
It is important to remember that during the time that Disneyland was built, play areas for children were typically limited to a city park, the street, a private yard or within unsupervised areas. Walt wanted to create something more memorable. He had his Imagineers apply a narrative to the physical environment.
The result was an immersive place where children could roam, explore, and be inspired by the stories by Mark Twain of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, and the rest of the gang. This notion of basing a themed playground on popular film and literary characters was unheard of. The playground is loosely based on the fictional Jackson Island from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
The Island was part of a $2,000,000 expansion along with four other attractions. It opened to the public on June 16, 1956 and was one of the earliest examples of a highly themed playscape for children in America. It became a model for others to follow.
Marvin Davis, Disneyland’s master planner, said, “The general shape of the island, the way it curves and so forth, was Walt’s idea.” Walt’s daughter Diane said, “He kept on adding things until he felt that there weren’t any missing parts.”
The island is approximately three acres and is twelve times longer then it is wide. Overall, the island measures about 800 feet from top to bottom. At the ends, the island measures approximately 250 feet to accommodate the turning radius of the Mark Twain. At the middle, it is approximately fifty feet to conserve space.
The Imagineers who worked on the project include Vic Greene, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, and Sam McKim. Bill Evans created the landscaping plan. The island was built with the fill from the Rivers of America.
At the southern end is a hill called Lookout Point. Tom and Huck’s Tree House was once the “highest landpoint in Disneyland” according to press releases. Just behind the tree house is the man-made Injun Joe’s Cave. It’s narrow passages and visual effects remind visitors that this is no ordinary playground.
Getting across Smuggler’s Cove are two unusual bridges. Guests can choose between a suspension and a pontoon bridge. Between the bridges is a water pump, which feeds the waterfalls that circulate the river water. Many of the features of the on the island have changed considerably over the years. Even Fort Wilderness, at the northern end of the island, has been blocked from the guests.
What Walt originally built was something specifically designed to spark a child’s imagination. Yi-Fu Tuan noted that, “Playing and role playing are part of the ‘fun’ of being in a pleasure garden or in a Disney park. Play accommodates – indeed requires – illusion.”
Tom Sawyer Island gives children opportunities to explore and for decision-making. From the very first moment children step off the raft, they have choices. “Should they take a pathway straight up the hill or turn right toward the shabby old grist mill? Should they head left up the trail along the river, or chance the dark entrance of the nearby cave?” asked E-Ticket magazine. The magazine concluded, “It’s this fun combination…total freedom of movement within an adventure-packed environment.”
From a child’s point of view, they have many paths to choose from. The island is just big enough to get mildly lost. For the parents, they experience a certain level of freedom and security as well since there is only one point of entry or exit from the island.
Tom Sawyer Island provides opportunities for learning. This is not a passive environment. Children are asked to participate by making things happen. The result is a more rewarding and richer experience.
When the island first opened, children had to figure out how to make Merry-go-round or Teeter-Totter Rock work (both now gone), find the cave that leads to the hidden treasure (still there), and to search for the door in Fort Wilderness that leads to the escape tunnel (also gone). Children loved the opportunity to speed away from their parents due to the narrow passages and the “low bridge” places where adults will bump their heads.
Entering Fort Wilderness was like walking on to a movie set for a Western. You could peek into the Regimental Headquarters to see what Davy Crockett and Georgie Russell were up to. Then you could climb up to the stairs to the towers guard the fort with guns supplied.
Over the years, some of the trails, caves, and activities have been eliminated. The fort is closed. There are fewer options and details that encourage free play. An overlay of Pirates has shifted the narrative to a more contemporary film franchise.
Along with the Tree-House, the trails, the caves, and the Fort, Tom Sawyer Island also has a cemetery. According to Christopher Alexander, “No people who turn their backs on death can be alive. The presence of the dead among the living will be a daily fact in any society which encourages its people to live.”
There would also be opportunities for motor skill development. Children can run, climb, and work their way across unusual rope bridges. Back when the island first opened to the public, they even had a chance to grab a pole and fish for catfish, perch, and bluegill. This is an open-ended experience where there were no time limits other then darkness.
Exploring the island created opportunities for dramatic play. Here, children would be in control of their own narrative. The design for the landscape architecture is based on the popular westerns that dominated the television airwaves in the 1950s. It is a timeless setting. Robin Moore said, “The richness of physical elements in the setting and their relationship to each other should arouse curiosity and trigger imaginative associations.” It would be easy for a child to slip into role-playing. Moore adds, “If the environment is too literal, imagination will be limited; if too abstract, imagination will not be fully stimulated.”
Another benefit is the opportunity for social development. This is the place where your children can interact with others. The island is filled with tiny, cave-like places. The entrances to these paths are low and difficult for adults to navigate. This creates a special realm that is only comfortable to those who fit. The environment helps in the selection process of who gets to play. In the course of play, ad hoc playgroups develop and new stories are created. For many children, this unfettered play may be more fun and more memorable then any other attraction in the park.
Those are my reflections on an attraction dear to my heart. What are your thoughts about Tom Sawyer Island? Favorite memories? Views on the Pirate invasion?
We hope you enjoyed today's SAMLAND. We'd like to invite you to join us at the Huntington Gardens in July for a panel discussion on "Invented Places" hosted by our very own Sam Gennawey. Reserve your place today:
“LOS ANGELES: INVENTED SPACES OR AUTHENTIC PLACES?”
Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the Huntington Library and Gardens
Presented by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Huntington Library and Gardens, Friends’ Hall Saturday, July 9, 2011 Coffee & Pastries: 9:30 a.m. Colloquium and Lunch: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination. The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – has provided planners, designers and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure. What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented”
places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible. A distinguished panel, moderated by author and planner Sam Gennawey, will address these questions.
- David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
- Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
- Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
- Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates
- Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners
Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20
Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington
Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary
[email protected] (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011