How Tom Sawyer created a template for today's top theme park lands

June 19, 2017, 1:23 PM · This past week, the theme park world celebrated an anniversary of the opening of the first fully-immersive themed land based upon an enduring entertainment franchise.

It wasn't Cars Land (opened June 15, 2012), or The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (opened June 18, 2010). No, the theme park attraction that created the template for those IP lands to follow opened decades earlier — on June 16, 1956.

Happy birthday, Tom Sawyer Island.

TSI celebrated its 61st birthday last Friday by reopening to the public after being closed for nearly a year and a half at Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif. Disney had closed the island and the surrounding Rivers of America in order to dig a new channel for part of the river in order to create more space north of it for the park's upcoming Star Wars land, which is scheduled to open in 2019.

As long-time readers of the site might know, Tom Sawyer Island was my "home" attraction when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. So the original version of the island holds a special place in my heart. If you are looking for a dispassionate analysis of TSI and its place in the modern theme park industry, look elsewhere. I love this attraction, and that love colors everything I think about it.

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer might be America's first major, cross-generational entertainment franchise. It certainly established the pattern — much later followed by The Godfather, Star Wars, and Toy Story — of the sequel being better than the original. (According to pretty much every English and American Lit teacher, ever, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn > The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.) The original offers a series of mildly irreverent set pieces aimed at entertaining children, while the follow-up expands the universe with a powerful narrative about race and justice that continues to rile communities to this day.

Tom gets the starring role in the first novel, while Huck takes center stage in the follow-up, predating Disney's plans for spin-off features on various Star Wars characters by more then a century. Twain wrote two lesser sequels featuring Tom, Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), showing future entertainment industry leaders how to milk a franchise long past it falling from favor with critics. At his death in 1910, Twain left five unfinished manuscripts featuring Tom and Huck.

Walt Disney grew up in Marceline, Mo., 90 miles due west from Mark Twain's Hannibal. Twain was said to be Walt's favorite author, and his influence on Walt's storytelling is unmistakable. Mischievous, irreverent, and resourceful, what is the early Mickey Mouse, if not an animated rodent version of Tom Sawyer?

After Walt opened Disneyland in the summer of 1955, its first expansion the next summer would include a major new attraction inspired by the Tom Sawyer franchise. This wasn't just another dark ride or tour, like the other attractions in the park. It would bring together a ride and multiple walk-through attractions, all unified by a single theme, to create an experience unlike anything else in the park. You would ride rafts over to the island, where you could walk through caves, climb hills and over bridges, and explore a treehouse and the massive Fort Wilderness.

I fell in love with Tom Sawyer Island years before I started working at Disney. This is the one place inside Disneyland or Walt Disney World where you could forget completely that you were visiting a theme park and instead allow your imagination to transport you into another world. You weren't sitting in a theater seat, a boat, or an Omnimover, taking in the show at Disney's pace. No, here you could explore the island at your own speed and on your own terms. Here, you write the story.

And, remember, this is an island. No one's walking around here who didn't come across on the raft first. That essential raft ride frames Tom Sawyer Island as a world apart from the rest of the park — without it, Tom Sawyer Island would become just another decorated playground.

But TSI is more than that, because it created a magical formula for theme park attractions, one followed today from Potter to Pandora. Find within an IP an environment that people want to inhabit, then recreate it with multiple experiences that people can discover and enjoy at their own pace, inspiring them to imagine that they no longer are customers visiting a theme park, but instead characters inhabiting the universe of the IP.

You can't do this with a single ride or show.

So, how is Tom Sawyer Island looking these days, after its 15 month refurbishment? Unfortunately, pretty bad.

Tom Sawyer Island

Disneyland in 2007 rechristened the island "Pirates' Lair on Tom Sawyer Island," trying to increase its appeal by tying it to the wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, whose original installation lies across the river. But while the pretense that Tom and Huck are pretending to be pirates works within the Tom Sawyer franchise, a pirate island in the middle of America has no place within the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Without that reciprocity, the rebranding reduces the always-clever Tom and Huck to poseurs, trying to ride on someone else's popularity. And that betrays the essence of their characters, undercutting the credibility of the IP.

Not that it matters, for over the past decade, Disneyland has obliterated almost all references to the Tom Sawyer franchise from the island. It's all pirates now. But without a reference back to the island from canon of the PotC IP, the pirates here seem... inauthentic, almost generic. Rather than existing at the intersection of the Tom Sawyer and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, the island stands apart from both. It all feels a bit like those old Paramount Parks attractions that used to be themed to Star Trek, Tomb Raider, and The Italian Job, but now have lame names like Nighthawk, The Crypt, and The Backlot Stunt Coaster because their parks no longer have a contract for those movie studio IPs.

It's just a decorated playground now.

And Pirates' Lair fails on that count, too. Disney appears to have done nothing to refurbish this island over the past year. Fort Wilderness remains closed, as are the treehouse and suspension bridge. The graveyard is gone. The old cider mill wheels still don't turn.

Bridge closed

Fort Wilderness

Old mill

The pirates overlay did add some nifty interactive elements, and the shipwreck in the middle of the island provides plenty of tight spaces where kids can escape their helicoptering parents for a moment.


But the raft operation is lackadaisical, typically running one raft at a time and sitting in dock waiting for a full load, rather than cycling continuously, which increases capacity and minimizes waits.

Not that it matters much. Without a compelling IP to fire visitors' imaginations, and with so closed attractions on the island, this is no longer an inviting, engaging attraction in Disneyland. It's broken shell of its former self. So the rafts can wait in dock as long as they want. Not many people want to come visit.

Which breaks my heart. Several years ago, I visited Tokyo Disneyland, where Tom Sawyer Island retains its original theme and where the island and its operations remain pristine. Look, I know that Tom Sawyer is public domain now, and Disney seems to have no interest in making movies or other entertainment based on it, as it is doing for so many other theme park franchises. But kids are still reading Twain in school. And, from visiting Tokyo's TSI, I know that the experience can remain as magical as a visit to Hogsmeade or Pandora.

I love Tom Sawyer Island. I just wish that someone at Disney felt the same.

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Replies (13)

June 19, 2017 at 2:37 PM · All the money went to Fantasmic!! Or to Star Wars Land and river re-routing. Can't spare a dime for Tom Sawyer Island. Maybe politically incorrect.
June 19, 2017 at 3:16 PM · Robert, what do you think of the WDW version?
June 19, 2017 at 4:08 PM · The WDW is the one I've spent the most time on, having worked there so long, but it lies in between the Tokyo and Anaheim versions for me, though it's closer to the Tokyo ideal than the Anaheim wreck.

Now, let's reopen Aunt Polly's as a real restaurant, on a regular basis, and we'll talk....

June 19, 2017 at 4:25 PM · I thought the Pirates Overlay gave some nifty guest actuated effects. I mean, this is going to be the closest we are going to get to a haunted house ala Universal Style.

Still, I get your point. Its probably super expensive and time consuming to keep up Island appearances. Then again, ITS DISNEY!

June 19, 2017 at 4:42 PM · That is a pity about the Anaheim Tom Sawyer Island. I went there in 2015 and could have spent the whole day there. In 2016 we went to Tokyo Disneyland and we thought there was even more to do there on Tom Sawyers Island. Such great fun. I don't think it necessarily needs to tie in with a movie franchise, the island is just pure fun, in the olden days kind of way...
June 19, 2017 at 9:45 PM · Beautiful article Robert, but you know you cant compare anything to Tokyo and come out ahead lol.
June 19, 2017 at 10:53 PM · Maybe it's in need of refurbishment, but I greatly prefer the Disneyland version. The interactive pirate elements give it such a fun vibe. The MK version was a yawner for me, sorry.
June 19, 2017 at 11:51 PM · I grew up in So Cal,born 1954. I remember TSI from an early age and absolutely loved it as a kid growing up. Dad went across the pontoon bridge with me and I'm pretty sure the first time was on his shoulders.
I worked at the park my first few years of college and still consider it the best job I ever had.
I still go to DL when I'm in the area and still enjoy it amensely
I remember the disappointment I felt when I realized the Fort was closed to the public.I used to have so much fun in that place. There was even a snack bar for kids...mostly junk but they did have Star Kistler tuna sandwiches! The suspension bridge is missed also but from what I know it will not come back because kids were dropping stuff on people below...the main reason also for removal of the Skyway.
People have changed since 1955 and are just not that concerned with others it seems. I remember when I worked there in the seventies,the characters could go out into the park without escorts now they MUST have them because people are just more intrusivery.
I agree I wish it could be like when I was a kid and DL should have done more to bring fun to TSI over this last year. With all the money they are spending on rides and entertainment couldnt they spend a bit more on this Jewel?
Robert Jones
June 20, 2017 at 8:31 AM · As a kid I remember going to TSI in the Magic Kingdom and thought it was awesome. The crystal cave was so cool, since I had never been inside a real cave. It was peaceful and it's just nice to sit in the rocking chairs and relax away from the mobs of people.
June 20, 2017 at 8:31 AM · As a kid I remember going to TSI in the Magic Kingdom and thought it was awesome. The crystal cave was so cool, since I had never been inside a real cave. It was peaceful and it's just nice to sit in the rocking chairs and relax away from the mobs of people.
June 20, 2017 at 9:05 AM · Back in my Orlando days, it was not uncommon for me to take a book to the MK and then spend a couple of hours sitting on TSI in a rocking chair, reading and watching the world go by. I love how peaceful spots can be found inside the chaos of a Disney park if you just know where to look.
June 20, 2017 at 9:29 AM · I confess to never having read the books or even been familiar with the stories, my only passing familiarity was Tom painted a picket fence and Huck helped a black slave.

There was a Disney movie years ago starring the kid from Home Improvement, but it seemed to be a dud.

I checked out your link about Tokyo's TSI, but it didn't seem to have enough information to convince me how much better it is than Disneyland's, unless you can fill in some more info.

I kind of like the Pirate overlay, but agree that the theme is shoehorned, the original island with the open fort, (with real logs) snack bar, teeter totter rock, merry go round rock, and climable tree house was awesome.

June 21, 2017 at 3:36 AM · Here, I follow 100% your harmed feelings about TSI, Robert.
"Total theming" is a goal not so often acheived anywhere in theme parks.
I'm so sad about the industry's destruction of the original content of the term "themed", reducing it to bluntly contentless "decorated".
Theming is the complete translation process from mood & storyline, into a make belief physical environment. I even can't stand 'themed' (decorated) standard industry trashcans to be around. And concrete paving in, say, 16th century London, is a blatant sin. Most theme park designers do not even understand this... look at all the "Theming Companies" who can or cannot excell in their decoration skills, but do not have any decent feeling with profound storytelling !
Tom Sawyer Island / Rivers of America, did it. Indeed. What a shame to degrade TSI as a senseless 'decor' for a different theme. Re-theming, is a bad thing, it's reversing the rightfull creation process, and mocking on it !

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