Tom Sawyer Island, some thoughts

I’ll admit right off the bat that I have some emotional ties to Disneyland’s Tom Sawyer Island. My grandfather was one of the Imagineers who helped realize Walt’s plan for the area (he’s two seats behind Walt in this photo from the Disneyland 50th exhibit). So all this talk about a rumored switching over to a ‘Pirates’ theme on TSI has me doing some serious thinking.

The general idea of spreading the Pirates theme through other areas of Disneyland isn’t anathema to me. The park, especially the western end of Frontierland (now New Orleans Sqaure and Critter Country) has changed significantly many times since the park opened. Heck, Pirates were in park even before NOS. Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse featured cannons and battlements to protect against the pirates from that story and the Keel Boats featured a back story about river pirates in some versions of the spiel. Even one of the existing caves on TSI features buried treasure. 

However, I also agree with those that say this appears to be another case of Disney Management deliberately cutting the capacity for an attraction, usually via cutting back on maintenance and labor hours, then using the resulting lower draw numbers as a justification for closing it and putting something in its place. See the Skyway, Peoplemover, Circlevision, and Keelboats for some examples of this practice. With TSI some of the most exciting areas have been shuttered or ignored for years (the fort, see-saw rock, tree house, snack shack, etc). The lack of river activity (no Keelboats, reduced hours for the canoes, etc) also serves to reduce the draw for TSI.

So for Disney to turn around and say that low draw is the justification for the change, is really just another way of saying "we want change here". To Disney’s credit they did try to overlay some adventure playground structures on the island and that hasn’t been working either. But without fixing the fort, treehouse, and sprucing up the other broken areas, it’s not really a fair test of the island’s draw.

The excuse of children not reading Mark Twain doesn’t fly as the TSI was always about more than Twain’s stories. It was about capturing the spirit of exploration and adventure that the untamed west exemplified.
My biggest concern that this may be a mis-step is that management thinks that somehow kids will be as interested in Pirates ten, twenty years from now as they are today. Do they not recall the box office disappointment of Treasure Planet? Even the juiced up Pirates Of The Caribbean attractions at Disneyland and Disney World aren’t generating long lines all day long and it hasn’t even been six months.

Of additional concern is the general story concerning that part of the park. The island sits in the Rivers of America, it’s surrounded by American Forest, American Indians, an American Settler’s Cabin, and the river has two decidedly American boats on it (The Mark Twain and The Columbia). Then there are sightline issues dealing with Frontierland, and Critter Country.

It won’t be easy to move the island to the Caribbean without affecting all those other stories. To me this would be the real reason not to change the theme of the island to Pirates. Story.

Story has to be the driving force behind every change in theme at Disneyland. Making a few bucks off a popular movie theme is not. If Disneyland wants to go ahead with this change, new park president Ed Grier had better be sure of his motivations. Change for marketing sake has failed every time in Disneyland’s recent history (see MSEP for Light Magic and Country Bears for Winnie the Pooh (heck even throw in the Parking Lot for California Adventure)). The question is how confident are we that Ed will make the right decision?

8 thoughts on “Tom Sawyer Island, some thoughts”

  1. If only Disneyland was recognized as an historic monument. Perhaps some of these more precious areas would be kept in tact. I’m always wondering what’s going to disapear next. But I got to admit… this one really surprises me.

  2. I think it’s an exciting idea. Maybe it is because I envison all sorts of new and exciting things that Disney might dream up.
    The Pirates franchise is huge. Kids love it, teens love it, tweens love it, adults young and old love it…
    If the company were able to keep the best things of the Island, which in my opinion are the exploration, never knowing what might be around the corner, and combine that with the story of Pirates, it could be be a huge draw!
    So… with that said, I welcome the change and the challange Mr. Grier is putting himself up to the task of. Go, Disney, Go!!!

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more (and what a great photo of your grandfather with Walt!). I’d hate to see an area or an attraction disappear – for all the wrong reasons.

  4. agreed on most fronts. having just returned from a family trip i can tell you my two girls got more out of the island as it is than they would potentially from changing the theme. my girls are athletic and like to run and climb andloved my telling them the story behind the various aspects of the island (too young to read twain, thee memories will go off like time bombs as they get older). in this case i provided the story and the park provided the setting and it all worked better than any planned interactive attraction.

    one question: my understanding with the closing of the skyway comes from not being able to imagineer adjustments necessary to comply with the americans with disability act of 1992. something about not being able to accomodate wheelchairs, or not being able to do evacuation of same in an emergency. any truth to that?

  5. John,
    You bring up some good points about the overall story of that entire area of the park. I hadn’t given much thought to how it would integrate with critter country and frontier land.

  6. The only issue I see with the rumored change of TSI is making the pirate “story” work with the Rivers of America setting. That’s a huge hurdle. But otherwise, I’d love to see some change come to that sad, faded part of the park. I used to love it as a kid, but that’s back before almost all of the compelling features were removed or shuttered.

    And why wouldn’t kids be interested in pirates in 5-10 years?? It seems like a pretty timeless theme, just like cowboys & injuns. Why would switching to a pirate theme take away the spirit of adventure and exploration (and running around burning off a sugar high)? I don’t see these arguments as valid. They’ll still be able to explore and run, rught? And what if the kids could search the island for buried treasure? How cool would that be?

    Pirates as a theme is far more universal than the literature of Mark Twain. You don’t have to read any particular book to know what a pirate is. I’m a long-time, old-school Disneyland fan, and I’m excited about the idea.

  7. My late grandfather Hugh Jass is also in that photo. He’s oaring the boat up front. I wonder if he knew your grandfather). I believe the park is ever evolving and welcome the change.

  8. My primary problem with them changing TSI is, as you said, simply because they’re not letting it live up to its full potential at this point in time. They’ve taken out certain attractions on the island (I can only assume due to liability), and have thus made it a sad shadow of what it used to be. I cherished that island as a kid, and at 20 I still do- I was heartbroken to ferry over and find the balancing rock missing.


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