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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
David's Ear-Mailbag Week of September 19, 2002

Readers shared their own experiences in reaction to my last few articles.

Ear-Mail:

After "Smash Mountain," one reader wrote:

I was on Space Mountain a few months ago when they had one of those "cascade" stops. We stopped right in the lighting tunnel where they take your picture. The scary thing about it was that while we were stopped, you could hear all the other rockets still traveling. Everyone in our rocket was freaking out thinking that the rocket behind use would rear end us. Lucky it didn't, but I knew that it was just a matter of time before what happened during Labor Day weekend would happen. Very scary.

Tony asked:

In regards to the Space Mountain rehab that is slated to begin in January 2004. I read in your article that it is going to be eight months. Will Space Mountain be closed for the whole eight months?

IF the rehab goes as planned, I'm sure Space will be down completely for that whole time. It will be quite a serious reconstruction. That's a big if, as Disney is apt to change its mind at any time.

It does bring up the problem of, if Disney does rebuild five major attractions for the 50th anniversary, winter/spring/early summer 2004 could be without those five rides, plus any others on a regular rehab. Picture green construction walls everywhere.

A cast member reported:

Ft. Wilderness in an earlier file photo by Bruce Bergman
Ft. Wilderness in an earlier file photo by Bruce Bergman (2/27/01)

I have heard from several sources (including Imagineers) that Fort Wilderness is history. Their recommendation is that if you want a last photo of the landmark, take one now (from the Mark Twain or the Columbia) because it could be torn down before year's end.

David Michael Kearns wrote:

Thanks for sharing another great article ("Good News, Bad News" and "Tom Smaller Island"). I remember when my dad would take my brothers and I to Disneyland for a day on Tom Sawyer Island. We'd play hide-and-go-seek all day long.

My brother and I were always pretty daring, him more than I, so we would challenge each other to see who could climb higher on the Chimney Rock. He, of course, always won, but it sure was fun trying! We would search for Injun Joe's Treasure and the first one who found it would be the King and would receive all of the treasure as his own. We knew we wouldn't be able to have it, but it was great just using the imagination and dreaming of what we could do with it.

That is what this generation is missing: imagination. Parents forget to teach their kids to imagine. As a kid, my parents were always giving me books to expand my already powerful imagination! It's so sad to see something that means so much to me and many others be amputated like this.

Lisa Edwards offered:

I know you've probably had your quota of comments on the subject of TSI (Tom Sawyer Island) and injury lawsuits, but I wanted to chime in as well.

After reading the numerous comments regarding the TSI issue posted today it occurred to me that ultimately this is not just a TSI issue. Anyone, child or adult, could easily be injured anywhere at anytime. I'm thinking about how easy it would be for someone to fall on stairways, trip on planter surrounds, bang a head or knee on a railing or even on a merchandise shelf -- the potential list could be endless.

The area surrounding Teeter Totter Rock is marked for drastic changes
The area surrounding Teeter Totter Rock is marked for drastic changes

Does this mean that if one of these incidents happen to me, and I just happen to be in Disneyland, that I should sue them for failing to provide a safe environment? If I did something like that in my own house, or in someone else's, I'd curse myself for not being more careful; I likely would not sue the homeowner! It makes me extremely nervous to think how far all the potential safety initiatives could go, and I fear the day when Disneyland is no longer a magically interactive park.

Roy shared:

Again, great coverage on the good and bad of the park. This is what I love about MousePlanet. Sure, lots of bad stuff IS happening in the company, but you also let us see the glimmers of hope. However, its time for me to gripe.

Like so many others that wrote in I will miss the Tom Sawyer Island I knew as a 5-year-old back in 1979. I too received the Skinned Knee badge, and my parents' reaction? Well, they were concerned, but told me to be careful. They didn't run to get a lawyer. People today are so sue happy that it sickens me to death. Do these parents who experienced Tom Sawyer Island as kids forget the magic they felt climbing, exploring, and getting scared by the Injun Joe cave? I guess not.

Now, I have seen Disneyland do many things over the past year that has made me think that they could not reach a new degree of stupid, but I stand corrected. I am speaking of the yellow safety tape around the Sleeping Beauty drinking fountain. I was so flabbergasted by that sight that I could not speak. I am still a bit speechless about it. What's next, safety tape around the railings where you eat beside Pirates Of The Caribbean inside The Blue Bayou? Cargo netting under Tarzan's Treehouse in case you decide to jump? A sign in front of Jungle Cruise stating, "No Swimming"?

Better yet, a sign at the main gate that says, "Welcome to Disneyland! No running, jogging, power walking, walking out of boundaries that have been set for you, climbing, shouting, screaming, charging the characters in childlike glee, children that are not either leashed or in a stroller, strollers in crowds, touching the merchandise unless you are buying, photo taking unless you buy one of our custom photos, having fun on the rides, and, most importantly, no allowing yourself to be a kid again. Other than that, enjoy your day!"

Allen Huffman wondered:

Was it you that mentioned TSI becoming a play land like the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at DCA? It seems something like that would solve a lot of the problems -- it could be highly themed with many tributes to the old island, and offer a safe environment for children to climb and play. You can get into a lot more "adventure" at that area at DCA with all the high catwalks, rock climbing walls, rope swings, etc., than TSI ever had. Perhaps that would keep everyone happy, except for us who long for nostalgia...

I've personally been through the DCA area several times and had a surprisingly good time over there. At age 32. Go figure!

P.S. - If there is a new, larger capacity raft coming (maybe so they only have to run one?) does this give us an idea that they do plan to keep TSI around?

I had thought of this same thing, and it's why I listed this "Good News." The downside, I suppose, would be that the drivers often prefer to wait until a raft is full before casting off and sometimes will only leave the dock at less than capacity if the second raft is ready to go.

If there's only one raft and it's much larger, I wonder how long it will take before they cast off on slow days.

Rene wrote:

We were at Disneyland Paris last year (which we enjoyed SO much more than any of our recent trips to Disneyland) and their version of the Island was thoroughly enjoyed by our kids, who spent hours there. If there is a rehab, I hope it goes in this direction. Maybe Paris is a little "safer," but it's still fun. Granted, their Island is in their Adventureland, which affords thematic opportunities missing from Frontierland (skulls, pirates, etc.), but it was very well done, with caverns and waterfalls far superior to anything in Anaheim. There were excellent lighting effects and a backstory involving a hidden treasure trove which the kids could discover themselves in the deepest tunnel.

In fact, Anaheim could learn a lot from Paris in terms of presentation. The whole park was cleaner, far better landscaped, etc.

Disneyland Anaheim reminds me of Michael Jackson's face. They had such a good thing going, but they've been "improving" it to the point it doesn't even resemble the Disneyland we all fell in love with years ago. The irony is, they're taking out all the rides that matched kids' fantasies: riding in a sub, getting miniaturized, playing on a wild island, etc. As fun as some of the new rides are, they match movies, not kids' dreams. No kid fantasizes about driving a four wheel drive vehicle through ancient ruins.

Norm wrote:

Thanks again for a great article. Tom Sawyer Island was always an interesting place for me. Almost a Pleasure Island-type place where kids were given the freedom to run rampant and explore every corner of the island. You could hide in the recesses of Injun Joes cave, scale the rocky terrain, explore the treehouse, jump on the suspended and barrel bridges, run around the fort, get a quick Coke and a snack, then shoot at the passing ships from the fort.

Times, unfortunately, have changed. I would love those carefree days back again, but we live in a different era. Today parents have to be reminded that they are parents and that they need to, well, parent. They actually have to be reminded that they are RESPONSIBLE for a little human being who has a boundless amount of energy, a lack of experience to tell them that they could get hurt, and no comprehension that there are consequences to every action. Further, some today actually teach their children that there is no responsibility for their actions by shirking blame and pushing the responsibility of supervision onto the park. "My kid fell from this rock, it was too high." "My daughter lost her finger, she shouldn't be able to put her finger in there." "My kid lost his balance and scraped his knee, that shouldn't happen."

Next, Disney is not up on its upkeep. As evidenced by the recent cave-ins near the treehouse, we see that certain parts of the island are in dire need of repair. The bridges have been closed for years now. The fort is being invaded by termites. Most of the island is roped off for repair and Disney is unsure where to go with it.

Finally, times are not as innocent. The dangers inherent in allowing children to run loose without keeping a direct eye on them are evident. The caves were a fun place for hide and seek and exploration, but dark, out of the way places are perfect places now for dangers to linger. Children fall into the danger of being abducted, and what's more our country is under the constant threat of a terrorist act.

With all these situations looming, one can understand Disney's not being sure what to do. It seems virtually impossible to create a safe, durable escape island that Disney would feel safe opening to the public in an increasingly litigious/irresponsible/dangerous society.

Padlocked fence keeps guests away from Teeter Totter Rock
Padlocked fence keeps guests away from Teeter Totter Rock

I argue that it is possible, though. It would take a lot heavier planning and money than I am sure Disney is willing to pour into it, however. Three or four separate enclosed areas where children can play freely with trails leading to one another is one suggestion. The Injun Joe's Explorer Caverns (with only one exit and a central area that parents can sit and supervise), the Old fishin hole (complete with restored bridges and water cannons), The New Fort Wilderness (with slides, passageways, and cannons that shoot foam balls, along with a new snack bar and picnic area), and maybe even a Treehouse play area on top of the subterranean cavern area.

The difficulty with changing the island is that you are playing with people's memories. Parents want their children to enjoy the same things that they did while growing up. Time moves on, though, and even Disney said he didn't want Disneyland to be a museum, but a constantly changing piece of work. I think that if you stay true to the core idea but at the same time, build for the new times we live in, purists are less likely to cry foul. That includes myself. And Disney would only be respected for it.

And finally, Michael Howe noted:

This world is getting even crazier all the time. I still cannot believe that it seems that Tom Sawyer will feel like nothing more than a shuttered "ghost island" of childhood.

I had never been to Tom Sawyer Island until summer of 2000 (I was 20 at the time). I took my youngest sister (13 at the time). It really was a nice little place to visit, and one of my favorite memories before I left for college was crisscrossing through the caverns and scaring the beejeezus out of my sister. We went all over the island, but neglected to go to Fort Wilderness. "I'll go next time I come," I thought. Of course, that will probably never be.

Sadly, both of the suspension bridges were closed as well.

The suspension bridge has been ignored for years
The suspension bridge has been ignored for years

While I was there, I was sitting around and watching the kids play on teeter-totter rock, and just running around, and just the unbridled feeling that when I think of it, this was what Walt envisioned for the island: if only I had come here when I was 8 or 9.

When I was 13, I was playing a game in the dark with some friends and ran smack into a clothesline and fell to the ground. Heck, I've slipped, knocked my head by a pool and fell in, but did I turn around and file a lawsuit? No, because I knew it was my own fault for running on a slippery surface.

Common sense, it saves more lives than lawsuits ever will.

Send your comments to David here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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