What's So Important About the Rivers of America?

October 1, 2015, 11:06 AM · 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.

Rivers of America

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.

Sailing Ship Columbia

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:

Tom Sawyer Island in Tokyo Disneyland
Play areas on Tom Sawyer Island in Tokyo Disneyland

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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Replies (22)

October 1, 2015 at 11:24 AM

Great write-up, Mr. Niles. I'll add that Tom Sawyer Island is the only part of Disneyland that Walt Disney single-handedly designed himself. True story: he took tracing paper at his home workshop and came up with the fort, the caves, bridges and winding paths that millions of kids have explored, with or without parental supervision. Last winter, during the height of the holiday season when Disneyland was packed wall to wall with guests, I took my boyfriend's adorable 8-year-old niece on a raft to Tom Sawyer Island. Best decision ever. We had a blast running around playing tag, climbing on rocks, hiding in caves and swaying on bridges. It's escapism in its purest form. Unfortunately many elements - like the fort and the treehouse - have closed over the years. It would be unfortunate for Star Wars Land to whittle down even more of what makes the river and the island so special.

October 1, 2015 at 11:53 AM

So, will the river be drained for an extended period of time again, or will the work be done in stages? The last time we were at WDW, the moat was drained, and I was surprised at home much the lack of water affected the mood. I did not think before arriving that it would have been an issue, but it actually was. I would go so far as to postpone a special trip. The only time I have been to Disneyland, the river was drained then. My travels will bring me to SoCal more in the future, and I hope the river is not completely an eye sore for too long.

October 1, 2015 at 12:57 PM

While I like it personally, most guests wouldn't care if the whole thing was bulldozed and replaced with Star Wars themed stuff or marvel superheroes.

Sad, but true.

October 1, 2015 at 1:08 PM

Tracy, that is a rather strong statement. What evidence or proof do you have to back that up?

October 1, 2015 at 1:28 PM

I am certain when the ROA and Mark Twain riverboat reopens, people will climb to the third floor and try to take photos of the new Star Wars Land before and after completion. I quite enjoyed Tom Sawyer Island when I was a kid. Too bad I had to grow up physically since I'm too large to fit the many tunnels and play areas. I also quite enjoyed the canoe and the Columbia. The canoe ride was a bit long since you're rowing the boat. The Columbia was a great history lesson. I hope the ideals of ROA remains, but we are too politically correct these days. Who knows if Tom Sawyer Island will last much longer.

October 1, 2015 at 1:47 PM

I hope this isn't closed when I am there in March. Great place for my son to wear off some steam. I enjoy it as well.

October 1, 2015 at 2:14 PM

Walt is turning around in his grave, for at least the 5th time now. All started with the damned SIX-FLAG-ISATION under brutal superhero Eisner (or, do I mis-spell and should it be Icecold ?) We're eventually getting a at point, that a competitor coming out of the blue, is rebuilding a new true "Walt" park. Already the constant screaming from both 'mountains' destroyed completely the theme of the area, starting some 35 years ago.
For me it's LOST. ALLREADY now, whithe the pirate lair showstage cutting off the nose of "living adventure" of the island. It's gone.

I've been blogging/teaching years ago about the art and prerequisites of "total theming", total theming meaning : building an environment that is so much make believe, that mentally, you're transported to the other place, era, etc... With rivers of America, Walt accomplished that. Eisner and follow up, DESTROYED it.
Destruction factors with total theming are : non themed soundscape (screaming rollercoaster destroys the make believe nature & boat sounds that where once 100% fit), skyline pollution destroys (you should NEVER see something from one themed zone, in another one), pavement ignorance destroys total theming.. etc etc

October 1, 2015 at 2:17 PM

Another wonderful article. I believe Disney understands the importance of ROA because it would be easier to just get rid of it all together. It might not be the most popular part of the park, but it has its fans, and it adds to the atmosphere of the park. Some people on here complain Disney is lagging behind Universal. But to me the difference is most of Disney's attractions have been around for decades, and space is limited. The argument isn't valid at Disney World, but with so many loved attractions, why build new ones just to keep up with the Jones'? Disney has spent decades building their resorts to what they are today, and while changes are needed, Disney's parks offer a magic Universal has lacked until a few years ago. Both are wonderful, but Disney knows most of what they have is special and worth preserving, and not even Star Wars is worth getting rid of ROA. Universal used to pride itself on keeping up with the times, which meant most the attractions they've gotten rid of were already expired by the time they closed.

October 1, 2015 at 2:53 PM

As Walt Disney said, Disneyland will never be completed. That remains true today, and the upcoming changes to the Rivers of America are just the latest evidence of that. For a theme park to grow, change is inevitable over time, and with Disneyland close to maxed out it is time to look at what needs to be sacrificed in order for new attractions to come in. Disney is smart...they will not do any more than they have to in order to facilitate growth, but they will not allow themselves to be trapped in the past and fear replacing old attractions with new ones. In this case, the park is receiving a modification that won't matter to the average visitor. Who cares if the Mark Twain is a couple minutes shorter or if the inaccessible portion of Tom Sawyer's Island goes missing? Probably not very many people. Now, if the Rivers of America was removed completely or was fundamentally altered (such as making it purely decorative), that would be a problem, but what they are doing at the moment is only worth complaining about if you consider EVERY ROA attraction a must ride (my guess is very few do).

Excellent article, Robert, and I agree 100%. If the Rivers of America remain functionally identical after this modification, nobody's going to care that the layout was modified. If the core elements are removed from the river, however, then people will take notice and Disney will suffer backlash.

October 1, 2015 at 3:25 PM

FYI, the Rivers will be closed starting in January and we expect them to be closed for the remainder of 2016 and into early 2017. With any refurbishment/construction project of that length, predicting the exact reopening date gets tricky.

October 1, 2015 at 4:51 PM

The purists cried out that Walt's Disneyland was being destroyed by Space Mountain then Thunder Mountain then Indiana Jones then Pirate's Lair then Haunted Mansion holiday overlay then Pirate's of the Caribbean movie enhancements then It's a Small World holiday overlay then Submarine overlay, etc.

Now they cherish most of the post Walt rides, overlays and enhancements.

Change is hard to handle, but when executed in the right manner, it's opens protective hearts and critical minds!

October 1, 2015 at 4:56 PM

Progress as promised.

October 1, 2015 at 8:43 PM

Thanks for a great article, Robert. I'm really conflicted on this. Part of me gave up on Rivers of America once Splash Mountain arrived. There used to be a real feeling walking from Adventureland and Frontierland through New Orleans Square that I was walking into a true rustic, rural setting with the river going off into infinity. With the addition of Critic Country, it felt like I was walking towards something plastic and fake. Occasionally I can still sit at a nearby table and ignore all the blankets in the cement and asphalt Fantasmic staging area and pretend I'm looking at a quaint river walk.

My biggest concern is if the new route is so short, it is going to be obvious the Mark Twain isn't really going anywhere. As soon as it rounds the corner out of view, it immediately appears on the other side of the island. If that's the case, as much as I hate to say it, I'd rather just see the whole thing go away.

October 1, 2015 at 9:38 PM

I don't understand how the Potomac is represented.

It was my understanding that the river in front of the Haunted Mansion (WDW) was the Hudson and by Liberty Square would be the Delaware River.

October 1, 2015 at 9:45 PM

I'm so extremely disappointed that Disneyland is building the Star Wars land. To me, Star Wars belongs at Universal Studios in the Valley. We all love the Island, and to see it might be changed is heartbreaking.

October 1, 2015 at 9:46 PM

Always makes me proud that my hometown, El Paso, Texas, is represented in Disneyland via the Rio Grande version of ROA. That and the classic Marty Robbins song "El Paso" (minus lyrics) plays as background music in Frontierland.

Not a lot of real life places can say they have a presence at Disneyland.

October 1, 2015 at 11:22 PM

Great article! You absolutely nailed it. The rivers of America have always had a special feel to them as has Tom Sawyer's Island. And your right, each element (boats, train, island, water, forest, caves) adds something to the whole that is much greater than even the sum of it's parts. I just hope the scaled back version of Rivers of America/Tom Sawyers Island can match the feel of the original or the cost of adding Star Wars within the tight confines of the Disneyland footprint will seem too high. Either way its going to be a long 18 months or however long without that river.

October 2, 2015 at 5:11 AM

While I enjoy Tom Sawyer Island and the Rivers of America at MK. It does have a few factors that work against it. It takes up a lot of real estate for an attraction that opens an hour late and closes at dusk. It causes not one but two dead ends in the walkways of the MK. Would it be better served if Tom Sawyer Island got re-themed for attractions open the entire day and using draw bridges or other methods to eliminate the dead ends in MK. While it would change the environment of the park you could add incredible amount of capacity to the park.

October 2, 2015 at 7:13 AM

Wonderful article. Thoughtful, well-written, informative, meaningful. Thanks for your work!

October 2, 2015 at 7:46 AM

I thought about going to Disneyland next year but if Tom Sawyer Island, The Rivers of America, and the Railroad is closed, I think I will go to WDW instead. It seems like crowd control might be really bad? Plus, at least for my family, those attractions are really nice to spend time with when the park is overly crowded. Plus, I hope they never bulldoze Tom Sawyer Island and turn it into Marvel World. Seems like they can do that over in Tomorrowland or maybe California Adventure.

October 2, 2015 at 8:27 AM

I think what I'm going to be most sad about will be the loss of that feeling of great space that one gets while walking around the edges of the Rivers of America. From the moment you move past the Mark Twain/Columbia dock until you reach Harbour Galley there is a real feeling of space. I don't think you get that anywhere else at Disneyland park. You do in DCA, but not at DL. When those ever present construction walls go up it is going to make that area of the park feel just as tight and narrow as most of the rest of the park.
As soon as it's all done, I am confident it will be amazing. I'm just not excited at all about losing the one area of the park where space feels plentiful.

October 3, 2015 at 3:07 PM

This makes me glad our (WDW's) version of Star Wars Land is being built in DHS. Even though I've only visited Tom Sawyer's Island and Mark Twain Riverboat in few occasions, I've always loved looking at it, it really completes the look of Frontierland and Liberty Square. I'm crossing my fingers for all you Disneyland fans.

This also makes me realize that this is a new chapter in the history of Disney theme parks. Which has the two sides of me in conflict. The logical adult side of me, who argues that they have to take away old stuff and make way for new stuff in order to stay ahead of Universal. But then there's the emotional child side of me who says that they should keep the old stuff as it's so amazing and has given me some of the best memories of my life.

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