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David Koenig
Tom Smaller Island

There's little left to do on Tom Sawyer Island

Sign at the Rafts loading dock warns of decreased activities on Tom Sawyer Island
Sign at the Rafts loading dock warns of decreased activities on Tom Sawyer Island

As a boy, I found in Tom Sawyer Island something offered nowhere else in Disneyland: the opportunity to act like a boy. To run. To jump. To climb. To scream. To explore. To play.

That's all changing before our eyes. The Island has been earmarked as the next victim in Disney's overbearing yet well intentioned campaign to remove any conceivable threat to guest safety -- to "idiot-proof" the park.

A fence obstructs a final view of Ambush Rock
A fence obstructs a final view of Ambush Rock

Tom Sawyer Island's number came up a few months ago after two accidents days apart. In one, a child suffered a sprained wrist on Teeter Totter Rock. Then, another child slipped while climbing on the rocks and landed on her head. X-rays reportedly revealed a hairline skull fracture.

Immediately, the rocks in the center of the island were roped off. Guest control personnel manned the perimeter to keep visitors away.

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

Meanwhile, Disney's Legal Department arrived on the scene. Soon after, cast members began spotting Imagineers, safety experts and carpenters scouting around the rocks on the Island trying to figure out what could remain and what couldn't. Where to put railings. How to make some areas easier to climb. How to prevent other areas from being climbed on. And so on.

Instructions such as "Remove," "Raise," and "Hand Rail" were painted onto the rockwork around the Island. The subterranean caves were all marked for "Fill In." Ambush Rock has been marked to be cut out of the rocks and disappear forever.

Low-hanging Ambush Rock is set to be sliced off (Markings have been highlighted for you)
Low-hanging Ambush Rock is set to be sliced off
(Markings have been highlighted for you)

Fully half of the Island -- from Teeter Totter Rock back -- has been closed off. Cast members have been instructed that the area will be down for refurbishing for a minimum of six months. "Guests are not to happy to find out that the island is half closed," notes one cast member.

Late last week, a more permanent wood fence with padlocks was erected.

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

Ironically, the Country Bears -- whose attraction was displaced from Critter Country a year ago -- also got the boot from the Island. Costumed bears recently had been appearing on Tom Sawyer Island to promote Disney's new Country Bears movie, but when the fence went up the Bears were removed. Some say the bears were "having a hard time getting back and forth" around the constricted island. Others explain that, with the movie fizzling at the box office, the bears' 15 minutes of fame had passed.

Partitions prevent guests from going behind the Tree House.
Partitions prevent guests from going behind the Tree House

Although carpenters already have begun replacing all the railings on the Island, cast members predict the full-scale rehab will begin in January -- to coincide with the draining of the Rivers of America -- and last at least three months.

Cast members have high hopes for the River rehab. Possibilities under consideration include:

Rejuvenating and upgrading the Indian and animal characters along the riverbanks;

Reigniting the Burning Cabin with Mylar effects instead of fire, which could allow a greater portion of the Island's now-off-limits area to be opened for the first time to guests, and

Reinstalling a smaller waterfall, replacing the dearly departed Twin Sisters Falls, which helped circulate and filtrate the River's increasingly murky waters.

What will remain left to do on the Island is anyone's guess. Cast members speculate that additions could be in the vein of the safer, more supervised activities offered by California Adventure's Redwood Creek Challenge Trail.

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

Most tenuous is the fate of Fort Wilderness. Although it continues to serve as a Frontierland icon and the major dressing area for Fantasmic performers, it appears to be on its last legs.

"The termites have been getting the best of the battle," explains one employee. "It's severely termite-infested," agrees a co-worker. "It is in such bad shape, you can walk by in the morning before the island opens to guests and see chunks of it that have just fallen off."

Ft. Wilderness closed gun turret where a small girl lost a finger - File photo by Bruce Bergman
Ft. Wilderness closed gun turret where a small girl lost a finger - File photo by Bruce Bergman (2/27/01)

Certainly, the entertainment value of the Fort has dwindled over the years. In the early years, the Fort had its own black cannon, to exchange fire with the Sailing Ship Columbia. It also had its own snack bar, which was closed about five years ago as a cost-saving measure. And until early last year, the Fort's turrets were armed with toy rifles. The guns were removed after a small girl's finger was torn off when she slipped with her finger inside the trigger.

Ft. Wilderness gun turret interior where a small girl lost a finger - File photo by Bruce Bergman
Ft. Wilderness gun turret interior where a small girl lost a finger - File photo by Bruce Bergman (2/27/01)

Can Fort Wilderness be preserved? "The Fort will be torn down and rebuilt," an Island security officer was overheard telling guests this week. He added sheepishly, "Well, that's what they tell us."

If it is razed, will it really be replaced with another Fort or just pathways and picnic benches? An entirely new structure, of course, would be subject to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements.

Devotees of the park wonder where it all will end. "The general opinion is that cast members are getting pretty disgusted with guests not using any common sense in the park," says one exasperated employee. "A ride operator joked that the guests should be wrapped in bubble wrap before entering the park."

Or, as one disappointed guest wonders, "Why can't Legal agree to requiring parent/guardian supervision on the Island?"

The neglected entrance to the suspension bridge
The neglected entrance to the suspension bridge

To me, the end of the Island as we know it appears to be a done deal. I'll remember it as the one place in the park where I was able to play hide-and-seek. Unfortunately, it's a place for a more innocent time when a kid who ran and twisted his ankle didn't file a lawsuit. If Tom Sawyer Island were built from scratch today, its footpaths would be made of dirt-colored foam rubber.

Now, I'm all for improving safety, and I have nothing against altering aging attractions. Certainly, the Island today provides a slightly different landscape than the playland I enjoyed as a child. Part of the island has been converted to outdoor decking to double as a stage for Fantasmic. The Burning Cabin has long been extinguished. Merry-Go-Round Rock is a fading memory. The aging suspension bridge has been unusable for years.

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

I fear that most of the changes will not be improvements. There probably will be less to do and any additions will be significantly more docile than what they replace. I envision passing through safety gates to have one cast member help me board Teeter Totter Rock as a second employee lowers lap bar over my head, all the while a safety spiel plays over and over in nine different languages.

Most likely, the New Tom Sawyer Island will offer less excitement. Consequently, fewer people may want to visit the island. And, of course, decreasing attendance is the first step to closing an attraction altogether.

It's no secret that Disney has back-up options to replace the Island with a new attraction or to just leave it abandoned. With a half-hearted rehab, they may be tipping their hand.


Send your comments to David here.

Tom Smaller Island

Photos (except where noted) by David Koenig (8/13/02)


Editor's Note: Few people know that the Island was one of the few parts of Disneyland that Walt Disney pretty much designed himself.

From the Spring 2002 issue of "E" Ticket Magazine (which is devoted to the Island): "The general shape of the island, the way it curves and so forth, was Walt's idea." said Disneyland master planner Marvin Davis. "Things like the fishing pier came later. The idea for Pirate's Cove on Tom Sawyer Island was also Walt's." The various features of the Island attraction would be completed in two stages about a year apart. Opening ceremonies were held at noon on Saturday June 16th, 1956.

- Al Lutz

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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