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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Good News, Bad News

Disney and Universal news, plus reader mail

A little good news, a little bad news (but mostly good), as I sift through reader emails over the past two weeks.

Good news:

The aging watercraft on the Rivers of America (above) may soon get a new addition. A cast member reveals: "A new raft has been sighted on the river. It is larger (width and length) than the original rafts, and the railings are much higher. It is hidden in a cove to the right of the once-burning cabin. During park hours, it is covered with a camouflage net so guests would not notice it. The name of this new raft is the 'Huck Finn.'"

Bad news:

A Disneyland character manager reports that the Merchandise department had been pressuring Entertainment to have face characters, such as Belle and Alice in Wonderland, wear pin lanyards and trade pins with guests.

Good news:

Although describing Merchandise as "the most powerful department at Disneyland/DCA, thanks to Pressler's background in retail," she says this is one battle Merchandise will not win.

More good news:

The comfy purple couches are back in the Animation building's central lobby.

Bad news:

Al beat me to it, reporting the bright yellow safety stripes that now deface the steps leading up to the drinking fountains and bronze statuette on the west side of the castle courtyard (below). Cast members describe the striping as "tacky," "ugly," and "bad show."

"The guests must be blind," huffed one ride operator. "Or is that our managers?"

Soon after, the Mad Striper struck again -- leaving his mark at the entrance of the Pioneer Mercantile in Frontierland.

I shudder to think what will happen if this guy finds his way over to Tom Sawyer Island...

Good news:

The Indiana Jones Adventure received a clean bill of health following a surprise inspection last week by state safety inspectors. "Disneyland was paid a visit by our good friends over at D.O.S.H.," an employee reports. "Among the lucky attractions to see them was Indiana Jones. We were Code 100 (delayed open at park open) until just after 11 a.m. They were inspecting all vehicles to make sure that in the event of a seatbelt fault (a belt coming off or undone) the vehicle would time-out in Zone 7 (The Chamber of Destiny)."

"They were pleased with what they saw, and asked that before opening, the yellow and black stripping on the edge of the station platform be cleaned, as over the months since that has been there, the heavy foot traffic has turned it into a uniform black strip. Before leaving the building, I overheard Theme Park One commenting that 'hopefully, they would be left alone.' One can only imagine the fun it has been with D.O.S.H. popping in."

Promotional art  Disney
Promotional art Disney

He continues, "Also, found out our station gates will be installed, and Indy leads are faxing in show concerns left and right hoping that some or all will be addressed. The gates will look like 'gas cans stacked one on the other, with the gates being made out of simulated bamboo.' At least a theme is still alive and well somewhere in the park.

"I have heard that it will be a two-month rehab. This will be the second that I know of, the first of which was when they raised the belt check platform to be level with the jeeps. When all is said and done, we will be loading wheelchairs on both sides instead of just the north side of the station. Also effective yesterday, cast members will no longer ask guests to 'try to stand up,' since D.O.S.H. is confident in the new belt software. Many, if not ALL Indy cast members were more than ecstatic when we got word from our leads."

More good news:

Below is a photo taken last Sunday by David Lane showing the repainting/refurbishing of Gadget's Go Coaster in Toontown.

Even more good news:

Our fantasies of digging a few long-shuttered attractions may not be thoroughly impossible. A cast member reports: "There are at least four PeopleMover cars over by the entrance to TDA Casting! There are at least two more floating around behind Toontown. There's also all of the Sub Voyage stuff back there. It's right by Fantasyland/Toontown costume issue! I saw it every time I went to work in one of those areas!"

Not that the vehicles will be put back into use any time soon, but at least they still exist.

Good or bad news -- I'm not sure:

Universal Studios Hollywood's popular Rugrats show is set to close September 2 to make way for the Shrek 4-D movie experience. "Just in case you didn't get enough movie type attractions at Disney's California Adventure. Or Terminator 2 3-D or Back to the Future at Universal," jokes an USH employee.

"Shrek 4-D is planned for both Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Studios Florida, and will be a simulator ride like Star Tours," says one insider. "The plan is to open it in both parks at the same time to tie in to a national advertising campaign. Universal senior management claims to want to open it next summer, but middle management says that it would be impossible to design, build, and open a simulator ride that soon."

Hopefully it will be a vast improvement over USH's latest offering, the crass stage show "Spider-man Rocks!" Evidently, a primary reason the Wild, Wild, Wild West show did not reopen this summer was because all the money originally allocated for it was instead spent on the Spider-man production.

The insider also expects no suitor to make a serious bid for the Universal theme parks. "Even though Vivendi stock has now fallen 80% this year, the theme parks are still business as usual -- although overtime is no longer authorized at USH," he says. "Barry Diller has said that the theme parks will probably not be sold because there are no buyers out there, because of the current economic climate. USH is projecting low paid attendance through next spring -- so look for some more of those season pass deals to be offered after Labor Day."

Finally, mostly grumpy news -- in the guise of letters addressing "Tom Smaller Island:"

Former ride operator David Bess speaks up:

I was a cast member during 2001 and found truth in the comment that guests should be "bubble wrapped." I worked most of the attractions in Fantasyland (known to cast members as the routes), including Matterhorn. It was not unusual to see a guest risk injury by doing something they would never do in the "real" world.

One incident that stays with me occurred while I was working dispatch on Mr. Toad. This ride in particular can be stressful to operate due to the short distance between load and unload. It is necessary to work quickly to avoid a shutdown due to a "cascade;" that is when more cars are coming in before the cars ahead are dispatched.

Being a trainee on the ride and working dispatch for the first time alone, a guest decided that she and her daughter did not wish to ride. She proceeded to walk into the track load area between the track and queue fence. This required that I initiate a station stop to keep her and her child from being caught between the car and the fence. She appeared oblivious to the whole scene.

It is very sad that Disneyland has to bubble wrap such attractions as Tom Sawyer Island. I, too, carry many wonderful memories of a place that truly allowed a child's imagination to run free. A skinned knee was merely a mark of bravery for having faced the danger of Injun' Joe's Cave. Today, that same skinned knee would result in managers, security, a nurse and sadly, a lawsuit.

While I believe that safety is paramount, personal responsibility is of equal importance. My sadness is for the boys and girls who will never enjoy the opportunity to receive the "skinned knee of bravery."

A cast member writes:

About those barriers around the Treehouse on the Island, I heard that a hole had opened up along the path. Because Indian Hill (that is the name of the hill the Treehouse rests on) is artificial, and Injun Joe's Cave is underneath it, part of the underlying concrete had collapsed. This happened about a week ago.

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

On your disappointed guest quoting about the park's Legal Department, there is a sign when you get off the rafts on the island dock for parents to "watch their children."

Overall, the park is afraid of telling parents to take some responsibility and watch over their children. As one manager was heard to say, "It would be rude to tell parents to watch over their kids." Of course, this came from someone who never had to face a parent who allowed their 3-year-old son to wander off before the parade.

Jeremy muses:

Recently, it seems Disney believes that islands are not the "in" thing. In my past trips to Walt Disney World, my favorite place was ALWAYS Discovery Island. A place, like Tom Sawyer Island, a boy could run around and explore. Unlike Tom Sawyer Island, animals ran around freely and the cast were always available for questions.

Now, they moved Discovery Island to Animal Kingdom, where it isn't really an island at all. And the animals do not run freely, and the trails are not dirt but asphalt. Now Tom Sawyer Island is going by the wayside.

Another disappointment for the faltering Adventureland/Frontierland area. My cousins and I have memories of running up and down those trails while my parents and grandparents relaxed in the shade with a cool Lemonade. It was more than just a place to be a boy, it was a place for a boy to feel like a man. To explore unknown territory, to shoot guns, to misbehave. It was great. But of course, whatever is great needs to be improved so it could possibly be even better (which it rarely is).

I've even read in other places that the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie will also lead to changes of the ride. All I can say, God help us. Except for Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain, the left side of the park will be empty. What will they do then? Redesign it? Close half the park and put in roller coasters? What a disappointment.

A reader writes:

I find it somewhat sad to hear about the Safety Nazi's overhaul of T.S.I. It has needed a major, major refurbishment for quite some time (since about 1980). I'm sure you're aware of this, but the way Disney got around building codes back in 1954 was he had them constructed as "temporary buildings" (not because he was cheap, but because he had limited cash and Roy was not convinced that Disneyland would be successful) which according to the state laws at that time only had to withstand 11 years of use.

A fair portion of the Temp buildings have been slowly replaced over the years, but to my knowledge Sleeping Beauty's Castle, the fort and shops in Frontierland, and most of Main Street (I am unsure of the status of the two main buildings on either side as you enter Tomorrowland, but I suspect they) are all still made primarily of wood and fiberglass and have remained relatively unchanged since 1966, 36 years after their building permits should have expired. It is something the Disney company should have addressed years ago.

As for trying to "idiot-proof" the park, there is no way they can ever achieve such a thing. Never underestimate the ingenuity of idiots. The truly gifted ones seem to be able to worm their way into management.

Maus squeaks:

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

You hit the nail on the head with this comment: "Unfortunately, it's a place for a more innocent time when a kid who ran and twisted his ankle didn't file a lawsuit."

I will not mourn the loss of Tom Sawyer Island. I mourn the loss of those innocent times. Today "someone" (the "not me" syndrome) has to be responsible for every accident that befalls one, and "someone" must be made to pay. I don't fault Disney for protecting themselves. Rocks and trees can be climbed elsewhere for a lot less than $45.

Alan Taylor answers my article's question: "What will remain left to do on the Island is anyone's guess."

Say, howdy folks!

Set yerself right down and enjoy a Rip-Roarin' game of checkers!

Jes' be mindful and don't put those pieces in yer mouths, ya hear?

And keep matches and firecrackers far, far away from that board, ya hear?

JJ shares:

I too have found memories of the "old" island. I can even recall being slightly injured while climbing the rocks. Instead of my parents filing a lawsuit, I got one heck of a spanking for being so unsafe.

Oh well, times have changed. I do hope they keep some of the attractions that will live on in my memory.

A Disney employee writes:

The first time I went to Disneyland as an adult in 1997 I was amazed that Tom Sawyer Island was even allowed to be open, knowing how closely Disney watches dangerous conditions in the park.

My cousin's friend (also an adult) banged his head in one of those caves. We all almost tripped and fell several times. I think we even said, "This damn island is a lawyer's dream come true!"

I do hate to see Disney theme park attractions disappear (disappear! disappear! ... sorry, the trolls from Norway just got stuck in my head) but on the other hand, why have a safety issue when you don't need it?

Sure, I'd love to see them do something really, really cool with the island -- a new attraction, something combining memories with new technology -- something with the Country Bears or the mine car ride through Nature's Wonderland -- something new and fun but respectful of Disneyland's past. I know that won't ever happen under this regime, but it WOULD be nice.

Sydney inquires:

After recently convincing my best friend to buy an annual pass, he was greatly disappointed to find Tom Sawyer Island in its current state. We both remember being kids (well, young kids -- we're 22) and playing hide-and-seek in the caves.

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

So my question to you is this: Given the current state of the island (bad) and the current legal climate (worse), what would you do in Disney's place? Would you rather have a Redwood Creek Challenge-style play area put in? Since they're not about to build another new E-ticket in the near future, should they leave the island abandoned?

As far as what to do with Tom Sawyer Island, I'm honestly glad that I don't have to be the one to make that decision. I don't fault Disney for going overboard in trying to protect guests from themselves, but it is irritating and frustrating. In the end, I'd probably make changes that were improvements rather than just boarding things up -- all the while regretting that things had to come to this.

Frank Doll shares:

Enjoyed your latest concerning the problems Tom Sawyer Island is experiencing. Your childhood memories reminded me of my one and only experience there in '59. I was 13 and we lived in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by farms, streams, woods and a major river within a two-mile radius.

Our first visit to Disneyland took place that year when we visited relatives in California and spent one very long day in the park. The Matterhorn, Submarines and Monorail were the hot new attractions that summer, and we did them all but also managed to find time during the heat of the day to take a raft over to the Island. It was a delightful respite from the crowds and even though I had the "real" thing in my own backyard, my sister, cousin and I found it to be a wonderful experience. We loved the caves, rock climbing and bridges and played in the fort without amputating a finger.

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

It's amazing that us baby boomers managed to survive our childhood without all the protection and safety devices that are abundant today. Thanks to overly protective and greedy parents AND the army of hungry attorneys who walk arm in arm with them we'll probably see a New & Improved Tom Sawyer Island for the New Millennium. Guests will be ferried to the island on rafts while tethered to benches with seat belts. Once on the island guests will be required to sign release forms before being issued safety goggles, helmets and aluminum walkers (themed to appear they are made from branches from young trees) and then embark on their tour of the Island accompanied by their Scout Leader Cast Member who will be appropriately costumed but not barefooted. Thanks for exposing some of the madness!

P.S. I just remembered taking the Mule Train into the back country that same day. My mule must've been having a really bad day since it continually tried turning its head to bite my legs. Imagine allowing that attraction to exist in the Disneyland of today.

Kevin Eiden writes:

It is a sad thing when the park has to take the responsibility of being the parent. In a recent trip to the park, my 4-year-old son had a great time in what is left of Tom Sawyer Island. Yes, he did fall a couple of times, but that is being a kid, we wiped away the blood and that was it. As parents we made sure that he didn't go into places he shouldn't and that he was safe in what he was doing, that is a parent's responsibility.

I also remember my childhood at the park and it is pretty sad that my 4-year-old will not be able to remember Disneyland the why I do.

Ken Coates notes:

Thanks for the article about Tom Sawyer Island. We recently visited Disneyland with our 5-year-old twins, and we didn't bother going over there since so much was off limits. It is really a shame how they have let it deteriorate.

On the other hand, I think that if they put some money into it, they could make a safe place where kids could have fun running, jumping and playing hide and seek. Our kids had a great time at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at DCA.

Leonard Bottleman offers:

I too remember the Tom Sawyer Island of the early to late '60s and lament its passing.

As far as the half hearted rehab, it appears to fit in with the thinking for every other project at Disney right now.

Indeed anyone who has watched Disney flounder over the past few years will have little difficulty concluding that the current Disney financial strategy is "The less we spend on a project, the less we'll lose when it fails."

Greg Ottinger wonders:

Is Tom Sawyer Island any more dangerous than the pseudo park/play areas that are now in almost every shopping mall and fast food outlet? From what I've seen, kids go wild in these areas and when they hurt themselves I wonder if a lawsuit is immediately filed or the area is shut down or revamped. Indeed, the age of personal responsibility has long since passed.

Stanley asks:

Whatever happened to the days when the folks at Disneyland used to keep everything sparkling new?

Bryan writes:

It's sad to hear about the fate of Tom Sawyer Island. Unfortunately, not only is common sense gone from many people's minds when they go to Disneyland (or Disney World) but also their brains automatically tell them when something goes wrong, sue Disney!

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

In this day and age where anybody can get a lawyer and waste their valuable time and money on something that was there responsibility in the first place, it sickens me that the excitement of attractions of this caliber have to be neutered. Your parody of the teeter totter rock was funny yet disturbing at the same time, for the reasons that they probably will stick a cast member out there.

You just can't have fun anymore. Next time I head to Disney World, I'll make sure to make a trip to old Tom and Huck's stomping grounds, before they neuter that too.

Richard A. Harris, Ride Safety Expert, submits:

From a safety expert's point of view, I think the lawyers are going way too far on this issue. What it looks like to me is they are trying to account for their job. What they should do is just leave it the way it was and always has been.

I'm for safety, but there comes a point where the legal eagles should leave things alone. As for the rehab, Disney should have done this a long time ago.

And, Susan Schaar weighs in:

I just read your article about the present and possible future state of Tom Sawyer Island in Disneyland, and am left struck yet again by the complete incompetence of the suits-in-charge. I probably shouldn't continue to be so amazed after their incredibly stupid knee-jerk over-reaction to the girl who caught her finger in a Fort Wilderness gun trigger; removing all the guns was a permanent, stupid response to a singular, isolated incident. I should be tipped off by now, and yet here I am again, sitting with my jaw agape at the precarious position of Tom Sawyer Island.

What impresses me most is how the park bean-counters manage to continuously ignore that maintenance is a cost-SAVING measure that is ESSENTIAL to a long-term operation like a theme park. Accounting is a matter of simple mathematics, and yet no one in management seems to grasp the concept that it costs less to correct a problem at its onset than it does to wait until that initial problem has manifested into a hundred more that could have been avoided with prompt attention in the first place. Disney management policy is to ignore the little problems while they can, until they turn into great big problems that they can't. Most people with even a basic understanding of the cost of living realize that it is cheaper to replace a light bulb than to buy a new lamp.

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

The bottom line is -- and it's always about the bottom line -- the suits do not see Tom Sawyer Island as having any intrinsic value to Disneyland because it does not generate any revenue. And because they are so myopic, they do not even appreciate that compared with all the electronic and mechanical attractions in the park, the upkeep -- if it was done -- on TSI is minimal. Moreover, the time guests spend on TSI is time they do not spend waiting in line for other attractions (happier guests) or riding other attractions (less wear and tear on Indiana Jones, etc.).

And if money is ALL that matters -- and we know that it is -- the idiots in charge continue to squander yet another legitimate opportunity to increase sales revenue. It's HOT on Tom Sawyer Island; lemonades would FLY off the carts. What better place for a snack bar/lemonade stand/souvenir "post" than in and around Fort Wilderness, and what better time to extract money from guests than when they are "stranded" on an island? What better place for one of those professional Disneyland photo stations than on arguably the most picturesque location in the park?

Tom Sawyer Island is ageless, in part because it is based on an ageless piece of truly great American literature that we've all read and remember fondly, but perhaps in greater part because kids will always be kids, and Tom Sawyer Island even appeals to the kids in us adults. And, gee, wasn't that Walt Disney's whole original idea in the first place?

My heart is breaking.

Send your comments to David here.

Good News, Bad News

Tom Sawyer Island photos (except where noted) by David Koenig (8/13/02)


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.


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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