Goodbye Tom Sawyer Island? Disney considers major change

June 26, 2023, 1:25 PM · Expansion is coming to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Disney Parks Chairman Josh D'Amaro at the latest D23 Expo teased several potential attraction additions to Disney's most-visited theme park. And we detailed last week the attendance struggles Disney is having in Orlando that are making the addition of new attractions and capacity at the Magic Kingdom a priority for Disney. Walt Disney Imagineering is working on those plans now, according to multiple Insiders.

Where can Disney place new attractions within the Magic Kingdom? It just filled in some available space behind the Tomorrowland Speedway with the new TRON Lightcycle Run. D'Amaro suggested that new attractions could go in on the west side of the park, beyond Big Thunder Mountain. But a quick look at a map shows the problems there.

Magic Kingdom map
Image via Google Maps

Big Thunder Mountain is surrounded its queue to the south, the Walt Disney World Railroad tracks to its west, and the Rivers of America to the north and east. There is some available space north of the Rivers, but how would guests access that? There's no space for them to walk around Thunder on the right, and backstage facilities, including Thunder's roundhouse, push up against the coaster on the left.

There is an obvious potential solution here, and if you know me from reading my work for any length of time, you will know that this long has been my nightmare. But sources have told me that is Walt Disney Imagineering is actively considering it now.

Disney could fill in the Rivers of America.

This would mean the end of the Liberty Square Riverboat and my beloved Tom Sawyer Island (that's the original page on this website, by the way), as well as the Disney cast's annual Canoes Races of the World event. But it would open a huge tract for new attraction development, allowing WDI to create new experiences that not only would have to replace the park capacity lost by the removal of these two attractions but also could expand the park's overall hourly guest capacity.

Remember that Tom Sawyer Island is perhaps the largest non-Disney-IP attraction space within the Magic Kingdom. Yes, Disney made a Huckleberry Finn movie in 1993 and "Tom and Huck" in 1995, but those are largely forgotten, and the original Mark Twain novels now are in the public domain. That makes the island a top target for eventual conversion to something that promotes a lucrative Disney IP.

The challenge with redeveloping TSI for another attraction is, of course, access. The only way to and from the island is via the rafts (or maintenance jon boats), which creates a bottleneck for high-capacity attractions on the island. Disneyland Paris addressed this problem with its installation of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad by having the coaster trains go under the Rivers of America to get to the island - a next-to-impossible option in Florida. Installing any sort of bridge over the river takes the Riverboat attraction out of the picture, and remember, the whole idea here is to increase park capacity, not decrease it.

So at that point, the logistics drive Disney to say screw it and fill in the whole thing. Do the Rivers like it did the 20K Submarine lagoon for the New Fantasyland expansion more than a decade ago.

Filling in the sub lagoon had nowhere near the design impact upon Fantasyland that eliminating the Rivers would have upon the west side of the Magic Kingdom. The Rivers of America provide the focal point for two entire lands of the park: Liberty Square and Frontierland. This is the nuclear option for Magic Kingdom development - one that would require the reimagining of nearly half of the world's most popular theme park.

But the nuclear option might be the only option remaining for Imagineers as they consider how to expand Disney Parks' largest crown jewel. Tom Sawyer Island the Rivers of America not only provide a large space for redevelopment, their removal would unlock the best possible access to potential development space north of the park.

Perhaps needless to say, as the self-appointed protector of Tom Sawyer Island within the Disney fan community, I would hate this development. TSI is one of the few "Walt-approved" Disney theme park attractions and the one most representative of his early life growing up in Tom's home state of Missouri. Its removal would represent one more step toward taking the Walt out of Walt Disney World. If Disney needs space for more of its modern IP in the Magic Kingdom, I would invite WDI to remove the Tomorrowland Speedway, The Hall of Presidents, and Swiss Family Treehouse first.

But I think a better alternative would be to use of the thousands of undeveloped acres at the Walt Disney World Resort to build the long-anticipated fifth theme park gate the resort. Just build another park on the land between the Grand Floridian and the Magic Kingdom, or across World Drive from the Transportation and Ticket Center.

That said, I just report the news and very rarely get to make it. So Disney will do what Disney does. So if you, like me, are a fan of Tom Sawyer Island and the Rivers of America at Walt Disney World, you might cherish your next visit to these attractions - because they might not be around for much longer.

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Replies (26)

June 26, 2023 at 1:41 PM

The three attractions suggested are, importantly, not contiguous, and not large enough (except perhaps Speedway) for a large scale development which MK needs. Not happening for a large number of reasons!

June 26, 2023 at 1:51 PM

Wow. Removing the Rivers of America would greatly change the visuals on the west side of the park. That's a huge part of what gives MK that pizzazz. For example the Haunted Mansion really seems like a gothic mansion in upstate New York by the Hudson due to the Rivers. Big Thunder Mountain seems like a place with its canyons and mountainous terrain next to the Colorado River. I'm all for expansion and new attractions but this is a heavy cost.

Based on the photo from the photograph, doesn't there seem to be some workable space behind Fantasyland (behind the Be Our Guest restaurant and Little Mermaid show building)? Seems like there's a backstage access road there, nothing WDI hasn't worked around before. Plus you could use the Rivers of America and its water back there as more scenery for the Latin American inspired tales of Coco and Encanto which are the officially presented rumors by Disney.

June 26, 2023 at 2:16 PM

I just don't understand why you want to make MK even bigger than it is right now. It's already an unwieldy park to navigate because of its size, and there is plenty of unused and/or under-utilized space within the current park boundaries without touching ROA.

Also, given the recent attendance reports, MK hasn't gotten back to its high water mark from 2019, which it reached PRIOR to Tron opening. That indicates to me that the park has plenty of room to grow within its existing boundaries, and that resources being utilized to explore MK expansion would be better served to maximize attendance at the other WDW parks (or explore the oft-rumored 5th park). The way I look at it, what good is it to make MK bigger if it just means guest have to spend 2 days to explore the park? Wouldn't it make just as much sense to build a new park (focused around a different theme) that would have a much larger impact on the overall WDW resort.

Expanding MK even further is dollars chasing dimes.

June 26, 2023 at 2:34 PM

I'm going to be that guy and say never been a huge fan of Tom Sawyer Island or the boat and such and yeah, now and then a tad annoyed having to take huge walk around the Rivers to get out of Frontierland.

That said, I can admire how they fit the area and the great waterways add something special so I just can't see Imagineers being serious about this. They know how special this area is to so many and still popular as a photo spot among other bits so filling it up is something that may get some push but in the end back down and figure better using some of the unused space around the property.

June 26, 2023 at 2:56 PM

I can see a fifth park making sense if Disney believes they can coax the average WDW vacationeer to extend their stays on property from a week to 10 days or so. If not the Mouse would be better off building a new park pretty much anywhere else in the world. Visiting four parks in a weeks time can be a daunting task. Adding a fifth will only increase already high visitor stress while cannibalizing attendance from their less popular parks. IMO it makes much more sense to add new attractions (and countries) to EPCOT and Animal Kingdom than constructing the Orlando area's 9th destination park or draining the Magic Kingdom.

June 26, 2023 at 3:31 PM

I agree with Robert on the removal of the 3 attractions he mentioned. I realize that the footprint for potential expansion that the gutting of TSI would allow would be vast, but it would fundamentally alter such a beloved part of the park that I just can’t envision it as a positive.

June 26, 2023 at 3:36 PM

I think the most likely outcome here is that they'll chop the river in half, leaving the front part of the island and a circular river to preserve the waterfront of Frontierland and Liberty Square, then fill in the back half and build a new land there. It'd be similar to what Disneyland did for Galaxy's Edge, but would be more of a 70% reduction than the 20% at Disneyland. Theoretically, they could probably work a solution that allows the riverboat and island to keep operating, but it would be in such a diminished capacity it may not be worthwhile.

The reality is that while the river attractions are nice and do improve the atmosphere, they take up a very large footprint relative to the attraction capacity that they provide. In a park that sees the visitor numbers Magic Kingdom currently does, that's something that is causing crowding issues elsewhere, and unfortunately there are few other easy expansion options. It will be a huge change and likely upset many longtime fans of the park, but it's one I feel is inevitable in the next decade or so.

June 26, 2023 at 3:45 PM

I see what AJ is saying and yup I agree. Best of both worlds. Keep part of the water and island but lose the back part of the Rivers of America. Looking at the map you can even imagine where they will make the river circular (the obvious pinch point between Haunted Mansion and BTMRR).

That could work and potentially keep TSI somewhat still there while allowing the expansion. I for one would rather take the 5th gate but this is another viable and somewhat realistic option.

June 26, 2023 at 3:48 PM

Before discussing a fifth gate, I think Disney needs to focus on making a 3rd & 4th full-day park. MK may be the only true full-day park in WDW. Epcot has a lot to offer for drinking-aged adults, but less for kids or teetotalers. Hollywood Studios is nearly a full-day park if only because of the lines. It could use another themed land to truly be a full-day destination. Finally, Animal Kingdom is a great park, but a half-day at best (again, depending on lines). It could use several more lands/attractions to increase its offerings.

I'm unsure why Disney is putting so much focus on MK. To me it feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy of induced demand, like adding additional lanes on a road. Instead, Disney should turn to some of its other parks to drive demand away from MK, while increasing its overall offering supply. Otherwise, Disney will soon start to sound like the road construction apologists.

"Just one more lane, bro. I swear, we're gonna fix traffic."

June 26, 2023 at 7:06 PM

If Disney do eventually intimate at closing Hall of Presidents I will be on the first plane over, resplendent in my replica George Washington uniform, and start a revolution.

Walt loved nostalgia (so do Mrs Plum and myself) and MK is still the embodiment of that in large swathes so please keep it as it is with TSI, RoA, HoP and CoP etc and, as mentioned above, make AK and DHS a full day for the paying public. We certainly don't get VFM there.

If they want to create a large parcel of land at MK then get rid of the outdated, gasoline emitting Tomorrowland Speedway. It's outstayed it's welcome by at least 20 years regardless of it's ride capacity. At the very least, update it with shiny, modern looking electric cars. Have a word with Elon to sponsor it with Teslas. Where's your eco responsibility Disney?

MK still represents Walt in places, the other parks represent IP overkill. This is what, ultimately, separates and defines MK from any other WDW park.

June 26, 2023 at 7:36 PM

It may be time for Disney to up the innovation. We have received a couple of new rides post-pandemic (Guardians, Runaway Railway), but some others (Tron, Ratatouille) are clones of existing rides. Right now, the only new attractions we know about is a retheme of Splash Mountain and the Moana walkthrough attraction (and I don’t think any families are building their next WDW trip around the latter).

Meanwhile, their biggest competitor is building a whole new park. The attendance gap between the two companies has been closing since 2019, and when Epic Universe opens, Universal will be able to brag they have the highest attended theme park resort in the country.

As already stated, a fifth gate is likely going to take away from their other 4 gates unless the average American family suddenly starts taking 10 day vacations (I know this time is not unusual for overseas visitors). Their only recourse is to redevelop other parts. Iger and D’Maro have stated they will be focusing on high capacity attractions, and redeveloping large amounts of land that are now highly attended is Disney’s best option.

June 26, 2023 at 8:25 PM

Whatever sentiments those have about TSI, I can’t help but laugh at how the much smaller park in California can seem to not only add rides without removing like WDW seems do more often, but also keep their TSI after building SWGE. A fifth gate doesn’t seem serious either, DHS & AK are so under built & Epcot still has many stale attractions, they should fix their existing parks first. I’d suggest finally adding something of substance besides JC in Adventureland & finally tear out the embarrassing Tomorrowland Speedway that looks like it belongs in a Six Flags park before ruining the ambiance of two lands. For the Disney park with the most land, they always seem to have to remove a ton of classics.

June 27, 2023 at 4:03 AM

A couple of things: First, a primary concern of this MKP fan (related to the filling in of the ROA) can actually be seen at EPCOT. While I have never bought into the complaint that it takes too long for Disney/WDI to complete a construction project (it doesn't) the re-imaging of EPCOT's Future World has left an unsightly pit at that park's center. Shuttering TSI and putting a hole in the middle of the park would be ugly. Like the magicians that they are, if team WDI is going to pursue a new vision for that space (and there is plenty of chatter about it in the Central Florida construction community) they should first follow through on the re-work of Frontierland -- changing it to a New Orleans theme. Give us something shiny and new to keep us occupied before showing Aunt Polly the door.

My second consideration is the timeline and the chess board. If this were to happen construction would unlikely commence before early 2026. Three years of demolition and building would put a grand opening in 2029. And what I mean about the "chess board" is that before anything could take place, Disney would have to take a serious look at re-working the backstage area in the far west side of the park. Anyone who has spent any significant time behind the scenes of the Magic Kingdom will affirm that there is not a lot of elbow room around the outside of the guest areas. Before Disney can get serious about blowing out the Magic Kingdom, they will have to move some pieces around the chess board. Specifically, on the west side, they will have to re-locate office trailers, the parade production center and other support areas.

They need to do this regardless of what happens with the ROA -- and it would be no small task. I mean some of the infrastructure stuff underground has been there for more than half a century.


Actually, if they are gonna put a big hole in Frontierland (ROA), maybe another distraction could begin with a re-build of the parade production center (on the other side of Florida Way) to support a new, elaborate parade. Maybe one that features the kind of floats that don't occasionally burst into flames.

Side Note: There are no credible "reports" saying that attendance at the Magic Kingdom is increasing, decreasing or going sideways. None!

June 27, 2023 at 7:05 AM

Put tom sawyer stuff in fort wilderness. Bring back river country in some capacity. Put the tiki room in poly. Keep the island but put a people eating 1 hour experience on it like rise of the resistance where the boat is apart of the queue. Make it villans themed ir whatever. You probably can't get a dark ride on there, but a walkthrough attraction like an hhn house would be cool.

I would rather say goodbye to jungle cruise. That ride takes up so much real estate. I would rework those animatronics into the old discovery cove island or an island on the seven seas and have cruises leave from the front of the park.

June 27, 2023 at 9:56 AM

definitely a conundrum...regarding tomorrowland speedway as an option and (another real estate grabber), i don't expect it to go away but i do wish they would install electric cars with gas powered sound effects as the inevitable stench of exhaust can be overwhelming, especially on hot summer days. i noticed walking off tron recently that the exhaust fumes are very present and annoying in that walkway.

June 27, 2023 at 10:21 AM

Why have gas powered noises? It’s supposed to be Tomorrowland speedway, not yesterday.

June 27, 2023 at 11:39 AM

@Manny Barron - The backstage access road goes to the utilidor system under the park, I imagine they would have to build over it in order to expand north - remember the center of Magic Kingdom is essentially built over the top of the utilidors which is on ground level.

Lets not forget in the South East of the park there's also the old Alien Encounter/Stitch ride space being underutilised. They could also move or compact the backstage area between Buzz and Main Street USA (hidden parking garage etc). There were plans decades ago to expand partly into that plot from Main Street. If Tomorrowland Speedway was replaced at the same time or in phases that's two or three fairly massive plots of land to develop without losing any existing attractions. I'm fairly sure Speedway could be replaced by multiple attractions or its footprint dramatically reduced by moving it over multiple levels and modernising it.

June 27, 2023 at 12:13 PM

@Chad H, only for sentimental reasons since it's always been gas powered. you know how "purist" the disney fans can be. and i agree on your tomorrowland comment

June 27, 2023 at 12:28 PM

@Nik - Actually at D23 2017 Disney announced its intention to build a theater in that space behind Main Street.

June 27, 2023 at 12:54 PM

@TH: I remember seeing that concept art but I was under the impression it’s been permanently mothballed. Is the theater still in the long-term plans of MK that you know of?

June 27, 2023 at 3:02 PM

@fattyackin - A GC was chosen to build the project. Production in the area behind Main Street USA actually commenced. But WDI found problems in the design and the project was eighty-sixed. The GC was paid to both start tearing up the parking area behind Main Street and then to put the same lot back together when the theater was cancelled.

It had nothing to do with the project being "de-prioritized" or WDI getting "neutered".

June 27, 2023 at 3:07 PM

Thanks for the information guys. Sad to see it shelved

June 27, 2023 at 10:14 PM

Get rid of Autopia and make a plussed version using Electric cars in Epcot. Tokyo made an amazing mini land in their Autopia space so it's plenty of room for a decent expansion. A reimagining in Epcot would add another family friendly attraction that the park needs.

June 28, 2023 at 10:01 AM

personally, i'd like to see tomorrowland speedway replaced by the cars land radiator springs racers, although shoe-horning it into tomorrowland may be a bit of a challenge

June 29, 2023 at 1:39 PM

They've sat on their laurels too long, and desecrating the most popular park is not the answer. Like many above have mentioned it makes inifintely more sense to increase attraction count at the parks that are lacking.

June 29, 2023 at 4:13 PM

You’re advocating for a 5th gate when at least 2 of their current ones aren’t even full day parks?

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