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More 'Stories from a Theme Park Insider': Running aground on Tom Sawyer's Island

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Published: August 7, 2011 at 5:40 PM

Many Disney theme park cast members use horror stories to scare the people they train into doing their jobs right. Just tell the new hires about a few epic screw-ups and maybe they'll be too scared to let their attention drift on the job.

Here's the horror story that left Tom Sawyer's Island raft drivers either waking up in the middle of the night, or... laughing hysterically at the stupid noob.

Suspension bridge on Tom Sawyer's Island
The suspension bridge on Tom Sawyer's Island, with Big Thunder Mountain in the background.

Typically, Tom Sawyer's Island cast members drive visitors on one or two rafts that cycle between the attraction's entrance and the main dock on the island. But there is a second dock on the island, a few yards north of the first, that can be used if a third and fourth raft are needed to move the crowds.

The only times I ever used the second dock were in post-parade rushes during the summer or the Christmas holidays, when thousands of people descended upon that corner of Frontierland following the afternoon parade. We'd put a third raft into rotation to move people out of our growing queue and quickly onto the island. Then we'd sometimes add a fourth raft 30 minutes later to bring them off the island without forcing the crowds to wait there too long.

We only had four rafts at Tom Sawyer's Island, so if one of them was being refurbished, we couldn't use the full line-up. And there was one raft we tried to avoid using even if it was available. Ironically, that raft was the one named "Tom Sawyer."

The "Becky Thatcher" was our favorite raft. The Becky could fly across the water like, well, a JV swim team member with a mild cramp. And it turned like minivan with a distracted soccer mom behind the wheel. But compared with the Tom, the Becky was a Ferrari Enzo. The Tom's throttle was as responsive as a groomsman the morning after the bachelor party. Turning its heavy tiller felt like paddling through mud. To make a turn, the Tom needed more space than a teenager after a bad break-up.

So you knew the line was getting long at Tom Sawyer's Island if we fired up the Tom.

When the line for the rafts backed up into the line of guests waiting to get on Thunder Mountain one summer afternoon, the raft crew knew that it'd have to bring on the Tom. Since no one wanted to drive that cow, the newest raft driver got stuck with it. Let the newbie suffer.

Driving from the main dock over to the island's second dock isn't that big of a deal. Just start your turn earlier and drive a little longer to get to that dock, which is located farther up the river than the main dock. Getting back, though, is the trick. The river narrows significantly between the second dock and the suspension bridge over to the northern half of the island. Plus, you've got the canoe dock directly across the river, with canoes cutting across your path back.

An experienced driver on the Becky can make the required sharp turn back to the Frontierland side, without too much effort. But Newbie, on the Tom? Yeah, maybe that wasn't the best idea, looking back.

Newbie cast off from the island, just as a canoe paddled away from the dock. Rather than stop and wait for the canoe to pass, Newbie decided instead to drive parallel to it for a bit, up toward the suspension bridge, where the river widened.

That's where Newbie started to make his turn back toward the Tom Sawyer's Island Frontierland dock. But Newbie didn't know how to coax a sharp turn out of the Tom, and drifted even farther up the river as he turned.

"Gee, that tree's getting kinda close. Maybe I need to back up and try again," Newbie thought. He shifted the throttle into reverse and...

Crunch.

Newbie had run the Tom into the bank. Right in front of Thunder Mountain.

As Newbie hopped off the raft to give it a push back into the river, he heard a tape-recorded spiel start playing on the loudspeakers near the roller coaster track: "Sorry for the hold-up folks..."

Thunder Mountain was down. "Oh, great," Newbie thought. That meant more people would be coming to Tom Sawyer Island, with Thunder next door closed temporarily.

What Newbie didn't know is that when he hopped off the raft and onto the bank, he'd tripped the electronic "fence" that ran around the perimeter of the Thunder's track, automatically shutting the roller coaster.

Nor did he know that by running around at that exact spot in the river, he was blocking the canoes from exiting their dock.

Nor did he know that by blocking the canoes from exiting their dock, the arriving canoes were backing up into the space between the Tom Sawyer's Island Frontierland dock and the main island dock, preventing any of the other rafts from cycling back and forth.

Nor did he know that with the canoes blocking the rafts, they were also blocking the keelboats and the riverboat, which would have to shut down until the traffic jam was cleared.

So, by missing one turn on the river, Newbie had taken down five Walt Disney World attractions: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, the Tom Sawyer's Island rafts, the Mike Fink Keelboats and the Liberty Square Riverboat.

Heckuva job, Newbie.

For more: You can read 40 of Robert's stories about working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in "Stories from a Theme Park Insider", available for just $3.99 from Amazon.com, Apple's iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, and Google Books.

And finally... if you've read the book, and are a fan, please consider submitting a review of the book using one of the links above, or becoming a fan of the book on Facebook. Thank you!

Readers' Opinions

From Tyler Stover on August 8, 2011 at 9:34 AM
I'm glad the Cast Member stories are back.

Giving the newbie the hardest raft to pilot and the most difficult route was just asking for this. Rank has its privileges, but also its responsibilities and a veteran should have stepped up to make the difficult stuff go smoothly.

From Robert Niles on August 8, 2011 at 4:32 PM
Sure, but slick, efficient and thoughtful management isn't nearly as much fun to laugh at after the fact.
From 108.20.24.245 on August 9, 2011 at 6:17 AM
i have no memory of either the keel boats or canoes. i have been going to wdw since 1974. how long ago did this occur. not saying i dont believe you, i think my family just didnt choose to fully utilize that area and see everything it had to offer. i do now having a family of my own chris
From Robert Niles on August 9, 2011 at 8:39 AM
The canoes and keelboats were seasonal attractions, so if you didn't visit in the summer or around Christmas, you likely wouldn't have seen them. The canoes still run at Disneyland, but have been gone from the Magic Kingdom for several years. (FWIW, I worked attractions from 1988-1991.)
From Adam Dodds on August 12, 2011 at 8:45 AM
This isn't a great story. No offense Robert, but like so many other former Cast-Members who try to write books, the fact is they aren't writers. I do have my BFA in Creative Writing, so I am picky though.
From TheAmericanMedley ღ on August 12, 2011 at 2:01 PM
Ha!
From Robert Niles on August 12, 2011 at 8:45 PM
The "submit a blog entry" button on the front page is always available for you, Adam.

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