The Story of Tarzan's Treehouse

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Things are ever-changing at Disneyland. I enjoyed the Swiss Family Treehouse when I was a kid and was especially impressed by the ingenuity of adapting things to make the house a home. Actually, it reminded me of the treehouse I had seen in the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films where the "Lord of the Jungle" lived with Jane and Cheetah.

At Disneyland, the treehouse had a quaint, but effective, plumbing system that actually worked and provided kinetic entertainment for the guests. A huge, river driven water wheel at the tree's base provided the power for a mini-bamboo-bucket brigade that scooped up the water and transported it to the uppermost room, where it flowed into a bamboo canal system.

Disneyland's Swiss Family Treehouse utilized six tons of reinforced steel.

From there, gravity would rush and twist water through each treehouse section to an eventual return to the river below. Disney claimed it cycled through 200 gallons an hour from the river.

In 1960, Disney released a popular live action adventure film titled Swiss Family Robinson, based on the 1812 novel of the same name by Johann David Wyss. However, Disney made some significant additions to make the story more exciting and amusing.

Directed by Ken Annakin (whose name inspired George Lucas to create an Anakin Skywalker character) and shot in Tobago (in the Caribbean) and Pinewood Studios (outside London), the film recounts a large Swiss family on their way to New Guinea whose ship is attacked by pirates.

Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, the father and his two eldest sons salvage material from the ship, including furniture, supplies, and ship parts, like the steering wheel and construct a treehouse on the island.

The treehouse (designed primarily by Disney animator and director Wolfgang Reitherman with input from John Hench) was built in a 200-foot spread samaan in the Goldsborough Bay area. Samaan is a wide-canopied flowering tree with a large symmetrical crown native to tropic regions.

Director Annakin said that the treehouse "was really solid - capable of holding 20 crew and cast, and constructed in sections so that it could be taken apart and rebuilt on film by the family." Unfortunately the surrounding dense foliage only allowed three hours a day when there was enough sunlight to shoot on that particular set.

After the filming was completed, the locals begged Disney to let the treehouse remain (without the interior furnishings) and it became a popular tourist attraction, but was finally destroyed in 1963 by Hurricane Flora. While the treehouse was destroyed, the tree itself remained, but fell into obscurity as new generations are now unaware that the Disney film (which has also fallen into obscurity) was ever filmed there.

Walt Disney felt that children of all ages wanted a treehouse of their own and decided using the centerpiece from the film would be a great addition to Adventureland because, at the time there was only one attraction: the Jungle Cruise.

Imagineers thought that it would be a waste of time, space, and money, because guests would never want to climb all the way up only to have to walk all the way back down. When the attraction opened, adult climbers outnumbered kids three to one. They studied the gnarled roots of the mammoth Moreton Bay Fig Tree planted in the 1800s by Anaheim horticulturist Tim Carroll to aid in authentically creating details of the Disneyland version. Imagineer Bill Martin was in charge of the ultimate design with input from those people who had worked on the tree for the movie.

The 62 concrete banyan-like roots go down roughly 42 feet and were installed on January 17, 1962. Ten months later at 2 p.m. on November 18 (just in time for the extended Christmas hours, the tree was unveiled. Actor John Mills (who played Father Robinson in the movie) and his daughter, actress Hayley Mills, were there for the dedication, along with the rest of their family.

A roughly four minute video of scenes of Walt, Mills, and his daughter Hayley at the opening of the attraction and enjoying the experience appears on the two disc Vault Disney DVD of the film. Hayley provides commentary for this featurette where she remembers the experience.

Landscaper and Disney Legend Bill Evans, with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, dubbed the original tree "Disneyodendron Semperflorens Grandis" which means "large, ever-blooming Disney tree" and the new version as Tarzan's Treehouse retains that same designation.

The tree's final cost was $254,900. It utilized six tons of reinforced steel and a 110 cubic yards of concrete. The smaller branches were taken from real manzanita trees and were adorned with vinyl leaves fiberglassed onto each branch.

The steel limbs had an 80-foot span and supported a network of 1,000 branches with 300,000 handmade vinyl leaves and floral blooms that all had to be attached by hand. The Swiss flag flew from the top of the treehouse, which sparked a comment from a confused, but still irate, visitor from Switzerland who told the hosts at the attraction that "the Swiss people do not really live in trees!"

The film version of Swiss Family Robinson, adapted by Disney in 1960, was shot in Tobago.

Disney guests had to climb up 68 steps to see all the different rooms and areas like the kitchen, library, Mother and Father's master bedroom, the boys' room and more. Interestingly, they had to walk down 69 steps (one extra step) to return to the ground.

It closed March 8, 1999 to become Tarzan's Treehouse. A version of the Swiss Family Treehouse still remains untouched at Walt Disney World in Florida, as well as in Japan and France.

Imagineer Tony Baxter was in charge of the transformation recalled his thinking behind the change at the time:

"I don't think we should ever take out anything that is regarded as a 'classic' or even a 'semi-classic' for that matter unless whatever we were going to do was the same quality if not better than the original we were replacing.

"I think all of us who love Disneyland liked having the Swiss Family Treehouse there but the reality was that people would walk by and smile and love hearing the music but would just keep walking. Disneyland is so tight for space that you need to have everything pulling its share. The attraction had dropped from 1,200 to approximately 300 guests per hour, and yet there was an hour-and-a-half line for Indiana Jones and a 30-minute wait for Pirates, just minutes away.

"It was around May of 1998 when I got to see a rough cut of [the animated feature] Tarzan and I just felt it was extraordinary. The last three animated films just were not appealing to me and I didn't connect with them like I did with the Disney classics. I found a great depth of emotion in the film and that you cared about this character. It was centered around home and family, just like the Swiss Family Treehouse.

"It just seemed obvious that if Jane was going to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and there was this treehouse that his parents had built that it was where they would set up their home. When we talked to the co-directors Kevin Lima and Chris Buck, they kind of smiled because they had the same idea if there was to be a sequel to the film.

"Today, people just aren't as familiar with the Swiss Family Robinson movie. People don't see the film anymore and think they want to go visit it at Disneyland. It took on a life of its own as this Disney attraction even when the film was forgotten and we felt we could increase attendance if it was somehow connected to something Disney that the current generation knows and loves.

"My biggest fear is we would make these changes and the same 300 people an hour would still just visit it. When we started hitting 1,200 or more almost immediately and they had to erect a little queue for the bridge, I knew we had made the right choice."

The Treehouse reopened on June 23, 1999 as Tarzan's Treehouse towering 80 feet in the air (roughly 10 feet higher than the original) and now flying the flag of Great Britain rather than of Switzerland and sports hanging moss and vines to make it appear more African rather than Caribbean.

The giant artificial tree received a massive makeover, including 6,000 replacement vinyl leaves as well as additional foliage and a new suspension bridge entrance from a new neighboring approximately two-story artificial tree that helps obscure the end of Adventureland and New Orleans Square.

The idea was not just to remove all the Swiss Family items and replace them with Tarzan items, but to make it definitively Tarzan's tree. Disney raised the main trunk of the tree by 10 additional feet, held it there in place, welded in a new section and had to get structural approval before they could continue. The initial modeling was done on computer to adjust the look before it was connected.

The tree weighs 150 tons, features 450 branches, and is still anchored 42 feet into the ground. The treehouse features several rooms in the branches that are connected by a series of ramps and winding stairs.

A poster encourages guests to come visit the Tarzan Treehouse.

These rooms feature key scenes from the animated film and life-size fiberglass figures that were digitized from the maquettes used in the making of the film and then enlarged so that they would be right "on model." Baxter's original idea was to use folk wood carvings to represent the characters, while others had suggested Audio-Animatronics.

Baxter felt that using Audio-Animatronics would be the wrong way to go, since they would be out in the sun and the weather and worse, guests could stand there for a long time watching them and hear the mechanical sounds whereas in an attraction, guests just see them briefly in a controlled lighting situation.

In the room where Jane is drawing Tarzan, one of the books on the table is a copy of the Swiss Family Robinson novel.

The music is by Phil Collins, who supplied the songs for the movie. Show Writer Bruce Gordon took it and made it cyclic so that it could repeat naturally without ending and starting over. It is instrumental without vocals to establish the same tone as the movie.

The background music that plays throughout the tree and the love scene between Jane and Tarzan were newly recorded by Andy Belling, because, in the original film, they were either too powerful or with vocals and wouldn't be easy to repeat.

In the campsite play area, the teapot and chipped teacup on the left are, of course, Mrs. Potts and Chip from the animated feature Beauty and the Beast. They had made a cameo appearance at Jane's tea party at the camp in the animated film Tarzan.

In the conversion, the Imagineers lovingly included some significant tributes to the original Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse attraction and their re-use also saved money while adding to the overall detail.

The blue ore on the entrance staircase is from the original side fence. The lower railing pieces on the entrance staircase are from the original Treehouse's railings.

The ship's bell is from the Swiss Family's library. The sea shell planter is originally from the main living room.

The chest in Sabor's area is originally from the boys' room. The chest in Kala's room was originally found in the parents' room. The paneled side wall is in the exact same place. The organ used to sit in front of it.

One remaining branch of the original leaves still exists hidden under the final room, but is only visible from below. The hanging barrel is from the original tree.

The curious baby elephant known as "Li'l Squirt" is from the Jungle Cruise's sacred Bathing Pool.

A rope ladder on the mast is the original bucket chain from the water conveyor system. Many of the new orchids are planted in buckets from the original Treehouse's water conveyor system.

Several of the lamp posts are from various locations within the original attraction. Many of the light fixtures are from the original Treehouse.

Originally, Imagineering had plans to upgrade the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, including more kinetics for children to interact with. A lot of expensive nautical antiques were purchased for this new concept and got absorbed into Tarzan's Treehouse.

The famous Swisskapolka, composed by Buddy Baker for the film and later at the original attraction, is now playing on the Victrola gramophone near the base camp.

Imagineer Baxter told historian Rick West:

"We took the Swisskapolka and converted it over to a very scratchy, 'used' 78 r.p.m. record version and it's performed on the gramophone. We're actually using a tiny little speaker that is using the horn in the same way that the music would be reproduced authentically.

"We thought that was appropriate because if the Swiss family happened somewhere in the mid-1850s, the sheet music could have easily been recorded around the turn of the century, when Tarzan was taking place. There was a gramophone in the [animated] movie at the camp so all of this kind of worked out real nice, and we have our homage to what is truly a wonderful piece of Disney music!"

Even though the animated Tarzan feature did not make as strong an impact as the Disney Company had hoped, the film did inspire a memorable Disneyland attraction that will probably outlive memories of the movie.



  1. By nickjandrews

    Good story, as usual, but Tarzan's Treehouse is really lame compared to the Swiss Family Treehouse. I read the book between 3rd and 4th grade in the 70s, and now that I'm 46, I still want my own treehouse big enough to sleep in.

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