The Rivers of America attractions probably don't top many people's to-do list when then visit Disneyland. In fact, we're willing to bet more than a few of you just asked yourself, "The Rivers of America? What's that?"
Frontierland's Tom Sawyer Island and the waterway that surrounds it — The Rivers of America — have been attracting an unusual amount of attention this week, following a report that Disney would shorten the river's course to make way for the construction of Star Wars Land.
We've written much about Star Wars Land, and will write much more. But for now, today, let's take a moment to look at the Rivers of America, and why these attractions help create a unique and engaging experience for many Disney theme parks.
Disney uses the plural "Rivers of America" because the waterway that surrounds Tom Sawyer Island is meant to represent several important rivers in America's history: the Mississippi (upon which The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn take place), the Columbia, the Potomac, and the Rio Grande. In 2010, Disney Imagineers took what long had been an informal concept for the waterway and made it explicit, with changes to foliage and rockwork around the waterway's edges to represent better the different environments around these rivers that flow through America's midsection, northwest, mid-Atlantic region, and southwest, respectively.
This isn't the only Disney attraction that's meant to represent multiple rivers around the world — that's the conceit of Adventureland's Jungle Cruise, too. But the Rivers of America addresses its setting on a much larger scale. And it's out in the open, too. While the Jungle Cruise's queue hides its rivers from the rest of Adventureland, the Rivers of America flow through multiple lands in Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland, defining the look of those lands. The interplay of land and water help create a vision of a much more natural and engaging environment that people find in most theme parks, where you're lucky to find a few trees to disrupt the collection of iron rides.
If the Rivers of America were just a decorative waterway, it would provide an important element in creating the wonderfully immersive environment found in Disney's "Magic Kingdom" parks. But Disney does much more than that with this setting. The Rivers of America also create a platform for multiple attractions, defining the Tom Sawyer Island play area and providing a course for the Mark Twain riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, and Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes (and their counterparts on other ROAs around the world).
By running multiple attractions through and around the same publicly-visible space, Disney creates a visually engaging, kinetic environment for an entire side of its park with the Rivers of America. The rafts crossing the river in front of the majestic Columbia, while other guests paddle their canoes alongside, just demand that you stop and take a photo.
These attractions wouldn't command that type of attention if Disney had built them to a smaller scale. But Mark Twain stands three decks tall (four if you count the pilothouse), and the Columbia is full scale. The rafts can carry more than 50 people at a time. (And sometimes, much more.) The scale and kinetic environment of the Rivers sell the illusion — this place is real and it is alive. This fires your imagination and inspires you to want to explore the area.
And that's where Tom Sawyer Island comes in. The rivers provide separation between the island and the rest of the park, defining it as a special place, inaccessible, save for the journey across on the Tom Sawyer Island rafts. The island delivers upon that promise by providing an expansive play area that offers multiple sights and settings to discover.
Many theme parks offer play areas. You can find fancy playgrounds in many public parks and even in the middle of some shopping malls. But Tom Sawyer Island offers some uniquely themed play elements:
As a child Tom Sawyer Island was my single favorite theme park attraction on Earth. I loved having to cross over the river on a raft. I loved being able to get good and lost in the caves, the fort, and all the other "private" places on the island. And I loved that privacy even more for allowing my imagination to come alive without suffering the self-consciousness that kept in in check throughout the more public spaces in the park.
So as Disney moves forward in January with its changes to the Rivers of America, let's remember what makes them important. As much as many of us might have fallen in love with its specific course and particular themes and settings, there are more elemental principals that drive our collective attraction to this space. It's the interplay of land and water, the kinetic environment of multiple attractions in the same space, the full-sized scale of those attractions, the definition of a "special" place, and the unique play elements that create a safe space for imagination that make the Rivers of America a compelling and beloved environment.
If Disneyland honors those principles and preserves the Rivers of America's ability to serve them, ultimately, people will accept the changes and welcome its new neighbor, Star Wars Land, with the same enthusiasm those fans have felt toward all of Disneyland over the years. But if Disneyland compromises the principles that have made the Rivers of America so special, it will have lost an important element that made Disneyland something more than just another theme park.
A shorter Rivers of America won't matter. A lesser Rivers of America will.
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