Friday, March 15, 2013

A Long Look at Tom Sawyer Island

Tom Sawyer Island is one of the very best attractions at Magic Kingdom.

Yes, you read that correctly. At Magic Kingdom, the park that contains the highest number of attractions per square acre that represent why people go to that crazy Walt Disney World anyway, in a park featuring such brilliant and hauntingly beautiful creations as the Haunted Mansion and 1971 Jungle Cruise, a low-tech oddity like Tom Sawyer Island can still go up against timeless classics and the newest of the new.

I sometimes hear scoffs about that, but it's always from people who haven't seen Tom Sawyer Island, which is not the same as saying they haven't been - because to see Tom Sawyer Island means it has to seep into you, you have to let it into dark spaces where your mind doesn't often travel. One can raft across to the island, disembark, walk around for twenty minutes and leave without actually seeing a darn thing - without looking past the tip of her nose.

Tom Sawyer Island is essentially a collection of low-tech gags that build to an imaginative space of astonishing richness. Many of the gags could've been thought up and installed by almost any theme park - but they weren't. Like the best Disney special effects, the disarming transparent simplicity of the Island gags encourage our imaginations to fill in the blanks - and that's how it gets to us.

Tom Sawyer Island is one of the very last flowerings of a primal mode of themed design representation which most closely resembles a magic trick - rather, misdirection. A speaker and light in the right place can populate a cave with Pirates, or a staircase rising to a sealed door creates an imaginary room. These simple images engage our conscious imagination and create highly pleasurable illusions. This is, to me, what themed design is all about at its best - the scribble in the margin that so enriched rides like Horizons and If You Had Wings. The Island is rich with texture and detail, from the uneven "earth" pathways to the rock-edged waterfalls and babbling brooks.

Tom Sawyer Island is a fantastic place to observe one of the major structural concepts which underlines every Disneyland-style theme park: the dynamic of control versus chaos. Disney creates real-feeling environments where, unlike our unordered cities or uncivilized countrysides, everything has been placed for specific aesthetic effect - from the tiniest white rock to the color of the water in the fake lakes. This effect is especially pervasive at Walt Disney World, where everything as far as the eye can see both inside and outside the theme parks has been placed there by Disney. But while this is pleasing and reassuring, it's also unnatural, and part of our mind draws back. To contrast this  uncanny effect, Disney creates spaces inside their attractions where their orderly world appears to break down and Things Go Horribly Wrong.

Of course, just as it's a carefully controlled illusion of perfection in the theme park, it's a carefully controlled illusion of peril - Brer Fox is an animated chunk of metal and fiberglass and nobody has yet perished from riding a log down Chikapin Hill. Just as we suspend our disbelief in admiration as we walk down Main Street, we suspend our disbelief in gratitude as we pretend to think we're in danger on Big Thunder Mountain.

There are few attractions where the sense of rules having been suspended is as pervasive or effective as it is on Tom Sawyer Island, especially in those caves, where we almost think that we won't make it out again. The Magnetic Mystery Mine, where physics become disturbingly unhinged, or the Escape Tunnel, which is narrow enough to give many adults momentary panic attacks. We run, saunter, shput, tremble, snooze, or daydream on Tom Sawyer Island - we tromp through the flowerbeds, get wet, step off the pathways, shoot fake guns, and generally get away with things. And there are few places where we feel as genuinely unchaperoned- and alone.

Why does Tom Sawyer Island feel so uninhibited? Part of it, I suspect, is symbolic - we take a raft to get there, and therefore experience a physical transition to another place - we feel as though we're outside the theme park, and no longer governed by its rules. Thus the (highly engineered, it's worth noting) adventures we experience take on an ominous undercurrent - not because they are dangerous, but they could be. Just as Mark Twain wrote a fantasy version of his childhood from the perspective of an adult, Tom Sawyer Island zips us right back to the "once upon a time" of a dimly remembered childhood afternoon when we went exploring - an ingrained cultural memory that maybe very few of us ever actually did. But it's a evergreen myth - from Tom Sawyer to Little Nemo to Stand By Me and The Goonies.

No other attraction makes exclusive use of daylight in quite the same way, which is probably why Tom Sawyer Island closes at dusk - although at Magic Kingdom, in particular, a very large number of lights and lanterns have been positioned on the island to illuminate it at night so that it appears to be real place, or at least enough of a real place to have a continued existence after we leave it. But maybe Tom Sawyer Island is most impressive for being basically unlit - scenes like Harper's Mill ask us to step into dim rooms and strain to make out the details - just as in life. Even the caverns mostly refrain from theatrical lighting - if we see a light, it's from a lantern or a torch. The rest is allowed to fall off into obscurity.There is also a remarkably simplistic sound design - next to no music, and the bulk of the sound effects are motivated by a source that can be seen. If we hear birds, they probably are real birds. This contributes to the feeling of being unrehearsed and overall quite different than the carefully crafted, lit, and scored world of the rest of the theme park in general.

These reasons alone are enough to argue for the continued preservation of this remarkable attraction, but, as always, there are more.

Although it probably seemed a lot less special in 1973, today Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is notable for being a very well preserved example of a homespun American original - an attraction which once proliferated across the country and made good use of simple perspective tricks - the Mystery Hill or Mystery Spot. The most famous one still operating today is in Santa Cruz, California, although Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is more likely inspired by the Haunted Shack at Knott's Berry Farm.

The Mine is a creative interpretation of this traditional roadside attraction, as well. Since the attraction has no host or guide which is required for the various scale and perspective illusions of something like the Knott's Haunted Shack, the Disney version uses visual and sensory grammar to make sense of its illusions. An entry tunnel gradually increases in pitch although its walls appear to remain upright, making the audience feel as if they are being pulled to the left, while an ominous humming, the sound of the mystery magnets, can be heard. Inside the main room, a sluice placed under a trickle of water seems to run uphill into a barrel, and a small indoor waterfall becomes a river running upstream towards a formation of jewels which juts out of the wall, shaped like the profile of a man. The entire room is tilted, making travel unsteady and forcing viewers to lean towards the magnetic jewels. The final room is a variation on a traditional scene in classic dark rides such as those by Bill Tracy - the diminishing mine shaft, where visitors appear to grow larger as they reach the end.

Aunt Polly's in better days, Photo by Al Huffman
Old Scratch's Mystery Mine is, as far as I know, the only "mystery spot" ever built by Disney, and that alone makes it worthy of preservation. Tokyo Disneyland got a version of the Disneyland Island in 1983, after which the attraction stopped being built. Disney literally does not make them like this anymore.

But the entire attraction overall is remarkably unchanged since June 1973, and that itself is a wonder. We can pretty much account for the changes on one hand:
 - The "Explorer's Maps" are no longer handed out at the entrance, although a number of metal versions have been placed around the island to aid navigation.

- After years of spotty service, in 2001 the sign was finally removed from Aunt Polly's Refreshments, meaning the closure of this simple snack stand. In the early days it sold cold sandwiches and soda, and later expanded to include things like potato salad and cold fried chicken.

 - The Cantina in the Fort is no longer the place to go for frozen lemonade. I personally have no memory of this ever being open, so its demise may have been far earlier than Aunt Polly's.

 - The extremely cool "spinning rocks" playground was removed and an off-the-shelf playground designed to look like a "salvage fort" was added a few years earlier. Thankfully, we can still see it being enjoyed by children in pyjamas in the late 80's souvenir video "A Day at the Magic Kingdom".
Left: the merry go round, Right: the teeter-totter / Photos by Al Huffman, 1999

This places Tom Sawyer Island in extremely select company at Magic Kingdom, alongside the Riverboat and Peter Pan's Flight and It's a Small World and the Peoplemover as attractions which substantively have never changed. Who in 1973 would've guessed that Tom Sawyer Island would outlast Country Bear Jamboree or the Tiki Room in their original forms? In June of this year, it will have gone forty blessed years without so much as a Pirate intervention.

Which means it's no time like the present to start documenting it. I recently spent several days on the Island trying to document those things likely to be overlooked when and if the time comes to close it - the winding paths and trails and picnics areas on the hills over Injun Joe's Cave and the two ponds which open into slow moving waterfalls, the Hangman's Steps and Gallows Getaway and Hickory Switch Hill and textures and tones and impressions of a few hours exploring.

It's not intended to be a fast-moving overview, but rather an opportunity to explore and contemplate an attraction rich in fascinations. In other words it's meant to document some of the pleasures I find in this attraction and perhaps preserve something of the atmosphere if the time ever does come to close it.

Why do I think Tom Sawyer Island stands high among WED Enterprises' finest creations? Because it both requires and supplies imagination - a little bit goes a long way. It's the retreat inside the retreat - the ritualistic crossing on the raft, the swaying of rocking chairs, the dapple light through the trees becomes a space which perhaps supplies little if we are not willing to stop, look, and listen, but becomes tremendously real and hauntingly deep. Harper's Mill and Potter's Windmill and Fort Langhorn feel as ancient and real today as anything at Walt Disney World, and the effect can be spooky as well as transcendent - like the rest of the Magic Kingdom was just built around it, and there it remains as it has for perhaps a hundred and fifty years.

That's a convincing illusion. And Tom Sawyer Island, untouched these forty years, still has the power to circulate wild and indomitable energies and rich imaginative constructs, a graceful and lingering prose poem that draws its energy from the lapping of the river which surrounds it - the Magic Kingdom's most successful and beautiful lament for the spirit of a bygone time.


Unknown said...


I love people who use tripods. I've enjoyed quiet PB&J sandwich lunches at Aunt Polly's. But I've never really explored the island. Next time I will. Thanks. Rod

Greg Maletic said...

Indeed, Tom Sawyer Island—along with Swiss Family Treehouse—are my favorite attractions at Walt Disney World, and probably any Disney park.

Heather said...

Thank you, loved this article! I love watching my three boys take off and enjoy thier childhood wandering around the island. There is something special about the boyish delight in the fort and searching out the bottomless pit!

Griff said...

I spent some time, not a whole lot though, on Tom Sawyer Island during my last trip and I found it interesting and charming, next time I'll have to maybe spend a little extra time there

I don't see why Disney would bother closing it though, I mean what would they replace it with and what's it hurting? it just seems like it would be more trouble than it's worth and while I guess never say never, I would be really surprised if they did close it

Leonard said...

Thank you for an astute and compelling portrait of a wonderful place. Tom Sawyer’s Island, I would agree, is one of the great (and underappreciated) Disney experiences. It’s cunningly simple, and yet is, at the same time, very much a thinking person’s attraction, requiring something in the way of imagination from the participant. Given this fact, I admit to an undercurrent of fear for the island’s future, since there is little to indicate we Americans are becoming more thoughtful, let alone more imaginative. And, let’s be honest, we all know what has happened to Disneyland’s island. (Note: when I was last on the island at WDW, Aunt Polly’s was still very much alive, selling cold sandwiches and cold drinks, and my thoughts are based on an experience of the island when it was in its original state.)

The island was the one place where you really did feel you had left civilization, much more so than, for example, on the Jungle Cruise or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. On Tom Sawyer’s Island, once you walked away from the shoreline and until you reached the fort, you felt as if you were on your own. The movement into the “wilderness” was palpable. The “town” buildings (Aunt Polly’s house, the mills) were on the edge, facing the more established settlements and the steamboat. They were a transitional space, and their presence made the interior of the island seem all the more wild and cut off (that effect is mostly ruined if Aunt Polly’s sits abandoned or if the mills feel abandoned).

The island also represented a very specific locale and moment in the American frontier, that tamer experience that was within walking distance of town, not the frontier of cowboys, or forty-niners, or mountain men, but of families, schoolmasters, and barefoot youth. It was the idyllic frontier of American boyhood, the frontier that happened when you spent the day in the woods, at the creek or on the riverbank, building forts and tree houses, free for a blessed moment from the constraints of society, parents neither seen nor heard from daybreak until well after dusk. (I was fortunate to have experienced such a boyhood myself.)

It was, as you have pointed out, the remembered idyll of American writers from Mark Twain to Ray Bradbury (see Dandelion Wine), and it was also the remembered idyll of Walt Disney. Mark Twain wasn’t the only one to recall with nostalgia his Missouri childhood. We tend to think of Main Street as the part of any Disney park that most directly links us to Walt Disney’s personal history, which is rightly so. But Walt was just as enamored of the fields and woods outside the town of Marceline, and they figured just as prominently in his memories as did the town itself. Tom Sawyer Island is not just the “boyhood frontier” on the outskirts of Hannibal, Missouri, circa 1850, but also the “boyhood frontier” on the outskirts of Marceline, Missouri, circa 1900.

I’m not one of those who think the Disney parks must exist in a sate of stasis, but here’s hoping that Walt Disney World’s Tom Sawyer’s Island suffers no more indignities than it already has and that it remains a part of the park for a long time to come. In a nation where youth have become more or less electronically hypnotized, it seems more important than ever that it remains.

Melissa said...

Thank you for the lovely video!

Getting "lost" in the caves and jumping on the barrel bridge are two of my favorite memories from my first WDW trip as a kid.

Unknown said...

The cantina is the one place I can remember being able to order Coke or Pepsi. Of course, I remember getting an iced tea!

Foster Coker said...

Just went there last 9-year old grandson's first visit and my first since 1982. We had SOOOO much fun on the island. We ditched the rest of the group and explored on our own, just the two of us, for nearly an hour. He has inherited my love of westerns and the fort was so much fun for him. He got a big kick out of the caves, too, We live in northeast Florida and around here caves are just places you see on TV. I will treasure the memories we made for the rest of my life!

Unknown said...

I just discovered your blog and I love this article. Tom Sawyer Island, while not being my #1 most bombastic "attraction," still has a special place in my heart. As a precocious child I found the island to be fascinating for its literary roots (based off a book from a hundred years before park opening?) and its restraint (There's no actual Sawyer animatronic yelling to kids, "Come on, let's go on an adventure!"). There's just so much action at a Disney park, so many cartoon characters, and so many long lines, and the island was a perfect reprieve from this hubbub. Despite its central location it felt hidden and personal, as if no other child had explored Fort Langhorn like I had. As I write this in 2020, Disney has been even more forceful about shoving movie-based IP into their parks. I hope Tom Sawyer Island is never touched (though if anything I'd give it a hefty refurbishment to illuminate its best aspects). The island is honestly the place where, as a boy, I felt respected and encouraged to live my own life and pursue my own interests. Twain novels can and should fall under the "Disney magic" just as much as Frozen or Mickey Mouse.