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Reflections On Tom Sawyer Island

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
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:

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

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Updated 05-04-2011 at 09:11 PM by Dustysage



  1. Gwenchanter's Avatar
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    When I was a kid I did concider it the best playground in the world. I remember the teeter toter and the push-carousel.

    I do hope the "Pirate's Lair" is an overlay that will be removed with time. Tom Sawyer is a great book and the rivers of America captures the feel of it so well. I wish children today would understand it and apprechiate it for what it is rather than having to give it a Pirates overlay to spark their interest. Disney should do an animated Tom Sawyer movie and show kids what the island is really about.
  2. DLRaddict's Avatar
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    ^I would love a Tom Sawyer animated film, done by Disney and maybe then, we can bring back the original theme for the place.
    The only part I like from the upgrade, is Dead Man's Grotto.
  3. lctom1's Avatar
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    Although I share your desire and memories of the original Tom Sawyer Island, I doubt that we will ever see the pirate theming removed. When I look at the island now, I see the children having fun, but it doesn't seem to be the same as when I was an eight-year old exploring the caves.

    I remember when the tree house was the tallest spot in Disneyland, and when we could run around the fort pretending to fire the rifles there. I had forgotten about the secret tunnel leading away from the fort -- until reading this article, that is. I knew every corner, every step of those caves and would spend hours (it seemed) within their darkness.

    Thanks for rekindling these memories for me.
  4. bamato's Avatar
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    Interesting article. I've still yet to raft over to the island. As it's one of those things that always gets bumped for other things to do in my limited time constraints during vacations. Is there much to do over there for adults?
  5. Mousecat's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bamato
    Interesting article. I've still yet to raft over to the island. As it's one of those things that always gets bumped for other things to do in my limited time constraints during vacations. Is there much to do over there for adults?
    It is a great place for adults to decompress. No matter how busy the park is, you can find a quiet spot with fabulous views of the park. Just having dirt beneath your feet will slow you down and allow you to take a breath. Personally, you will find me with a soda taking a slow walk and sitting and staring here and there.

    Thanks for the great comments as always. Getting the itch to go there right now!

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  6. SoCalFan's Avatar
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    I am a huge fan of American Literature and since my childhood have absolutely loved Tom Sawyers was an escape from the busy and hustle and bustle. A truly immersive play that took me away from the structure of the family Disneyland trip and let me have fun and play around. To this day I still enjoy going to Island and love taking my 2-year old nephew to it. He has such a blast and along with the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail (which is done in a similar vein to Tom Sawyer's Island and a nice escape at DCA which is why I get disappointed when people are so quick to say replace it with a ride.). I still do lament the loss of the Tom Sawyer theme and while appreciated the Imagineers managed to keep some reference to it by continually mentioning the river pirates from the book, it is quite obvious the overlay was built with the Pirate movies in mind. I know Pirates are more relevant to today's society but I think they went a little overboard with it. They could have added very clever little pirate additions that mainly connected to Tom Sawyer's desire to be a Pirate and them playing pirates on Jackson Island in the book but also hinted towards the movie (which some are like this) but instead they chose to go over the top. Thank you for such a great article.
  7. Disneykin Kid's Avatar
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    I recently took the canoes around the island. I was struck by the serene, wide open spaces in contrast with the cramped, crowded conditions of Fantasyland, Adventureland and even Tomorrowland. It is worlds apart. I do like the escape from the crowds, but it makes me think they should make better use of this real estate, like the Discovery Cove idea they had a while back. I miss the teeter totter rock, merry go round rock and escape tunnel from the fort. Sigh, lawyers. I don't mind the Pirate overlay so much, I just don't like that they neutered the island. It seems like this video generation just doesn't know how to act in a real natural environtment, and needs to be protected from it.
  8. aduecey's Avatar
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    It is one of the most magical attractions when your at that right age. The hours spent on that island playing with my potc sword are some of my most fond dl memories. Attractions don't always need to be million dollar endevours to be special.

    With todays society I am surpised it is still open. I won't be shocked the day I am greeted at the dock with a release form and required knee pads and head gear to be allowed to participate. In a world that is very eager to force you to over prepare for the worse case scenario i'm sure some day it will come to pass. Back in my day you weren't have much fun unless you came back with a few scraped knees and a minor concussion.
  9. bee1000's Avatar
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    I hadn't been on the island for years (and barely remember going on it as a kid) until I went with my nephew and his parents earlier this year. My nephew was almost five and it was fun watching him have fun. He pretty much took charge while we were there, telling us to help pump water or just choosing which direction he wanted to head. As an inveterate clock-watcher it was tough for me to give up ride time for island time, but it was a fun diversion from the rest of the park.
  10. vnormth's Avatar
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    I remember some mixed feelings about my young son "shooting" the rifles from the turits of Fort Wilderness...insisting that he aim at the ducks in the water and not the people eating across the river.

    Why can't they re-open Fort Wilderness? Fantasmic worked fine for a long time with it open, no?
  11. alanplm's Avatar
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    During my last visit to the park, some friends and I ventured over to the island. I hadn't been over in a very long time. It still has a tranquil charm. I would love to see a return
    of more caves and trails and the fort : )
  12. Disneykin Kid's Avatar
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    I didn't know the fort was closed, they should open it and sell picnic lunches, it'd be great to have a relaxing picnic lunch on the island.
  13. CaptainEO,ATIS's Avatar
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    I guess I'm one of the few who like Pirate Invasion...
  14. bayouguy's Avatar
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    My nephews enjoyed Tom Sawyer's Island more that I did. I was not too interested in visiting the island while a child. Disneyland was my playground. I haven't taken my daughter over to the island. I'll bet she will enjoy it.
  15. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Disneykin Kid
    I didn't know the fort was closed, they should open it and sell picnic lunches, it'd be great to have a relaxing picnic lunch on the island.
    The old fort became unsafe and had to be torn down. What you see today is just a shell to hide the Fantasmic dressing rooms and equipment. Hopefully, one day, they'll get the budget to fully restore the fort. Pirate or Cowboy, I don't care, just get it open again!
  16. napamaninsocal's Avatar
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    It was GREAT as a kid going to tsi. As awesome as the rides are, being able to run free and have fun and not having to wait in a line was a great release of energy. This article describes perfectly what it was like as a kid on the island. I think it was a great release for my mom too. Being able to get out of the hot sun and relax while me and my cousin entertained ourselves. Then we we go thirsty, the fort was open to get a nice cold pink lemonade. Great times
  17. RebelMouse's Avatar
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    I can barely remember going to the island as a kid, but I think we went once when it was late and didn't have a lot of time. I went there as an adult a few years ago. My girl and I wandered around following the kids, it was kind of a pleasant surprise as we came into a small clearing (I think where the pirate's loot is) and there was Jack Sparrow sitting there being himself. We thought that was a nice touch. Pirates are fun and do fit the island. All in all though, I am in favor of the original Tom Sawyer theme. They should do a movie for that story. We also read somewhere that Disney had to remove the pirates from the island, because women kept flashing them from across the river. Classic!
  18. Streamliner's Avatar
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    Great column once again. I always love reading the Samland articles.

    I loved this island as a kid, and I love it as an adult. Sam described its appeal perfectly. Its amazing how you can feel like you're discovering something new, even though millions have been there before you.

    As for the Pirate overlay, I'm not too excited about it. Back when I was an Annual Passholder in 2005, I would go to Disneyland, find "my" corner of the island, sit on the bench, read a bit, and relax. Unfortunately, that corner and bench is now taken over by a pile of treasure.

    One of the things I love about Disneyland Paris is how they incorporated Tom Sawyer-like aspects throughout the park. For example,there's Adventure Isle (with its suspension bridges, caves, lookouts, and paths), Fantasyland has its own caves and maze, Frontierland's fort walkthrough reminds me of TSI's old fort, and even Main Street has side arcades (though that's probably more for crowd control). I would love to see if Disney could incorporate this "unstructured" flow throughout their California park.

    I am very excited for the event at Huntington Library and Gardens. I RSVP'd today!
  19. Turner120995's Avatar
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    1st time reading your blog...The subject matter caught my eye...TSI was my favorite memory when I took our 4 young children 2 years ago. While waiting to catch the 1st boat over, my wife sent me on a coffee run. It was a ploy. I got back just in time to see the barge leaving. My wife calls and informs me that they would be playing hide and seek... and I was it!

    After several adventures, with my wife and kids (staying together) hiding all over the island, my wife decided it was ok to let the kids have one cell phone and my wife and I (with the other cell phone) would hide together. She asked if I knew where I wanted to hide. In my earlier searches, I found the perfect spot!

    She said that if the kids were smart, they would call our cell phone and listen for the ring. I told my wife she was a genious! She said that if I had done the same, she would have set the phone on vibrate! She's a sneaky one, that wife of mine...

    Anyway, we had the most glorious few hours on TSI. It was by far my favorite memory while at Disneyland!!!