Thursday, 8 April 2010

Tom Sawyer's Island, a Recollection

Though I write little about him in this weblog, Mark Twain is one of my most favorite authors. The blame for my making his acquaintance lies squarely on the heads of two men: Will Vinton and Walt Disney. The former is responsible for making The Adventures of Mark Twain, a beautiful Claymation animated film in which Mark Twain takes Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher along in his airship to his fateful 1910 rendezvous with Halley's Comet. The ship and set-up is itself a reference to Tom Sawyer Abroad, and during the course of the movie we also see adaptations of The Diary and Adam and Eve, The Mysterious Stranger, Captain Stormfield's Trip to Heaven and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County. A stunning, melancholy, delightful, sensitive, literary film, it alone would have been enough to interest me in the American Bard.

Then Walt Disney enters the effort. My first trip to Disneyland USA was in 2005, a mere day after the kick-off of the park's 50th anniversary celebration. It was a trip that I had been preparing for some time, and one of the sights I told myself I must see was Tom Sawyer's Island. A childhood ritual of mine was coming home after school every day to watch the afternoon line-up on Family Channel, what was then Canada's closest equivalent to the Disney Channel. Amidst that line-up was the original Mickey Mouse Club. Of that I remember very little, save for the vignettes promoting Disneyland. Of those, the ones that implanted most strongly all featured Frontierland. Perhaps because I am a native of Canada's own Wild West, the images of canoes, steamboats, cowboys, and palisade forts burned into my memory.

Original map brochure of Tom Sawyer's Island.

1955 artwork.

Tom Sawyer's Island, around which the mighty Rivers of America loop in Frontierland, was the heart of it. I had great ambition for running amok... as amok as an adult is socially permitted to run... through Fort Wilderness and Injun Joe's Cave. Only to discover that Fort Wilderness had long since been closed and the island in general wasn't fending too well. Nevertheless, it still became one of my favorite spots in Disneyland. It was especially placid in the mornings, when the mist hung low on the artificial river and it almost took on the air of really, truly being somewhere on the shores of the Mississippi of romance and imagination.

Morning on the Rivers of America.

The island has the distinction of being one of the few places in Disneyland that was personally designed by Walt himself. It took some time to settle on the island being based on the writings of Mark Twain. Concept art and maps also have it designated as "Mickey Mouse Club Island" and "Treasure Island". Sensibly enough, Twain won. The theme fit best for Frontierland and the author held a place in the movie-maker's heart. Walt grew up in Marceline, Missouri, a mere 80-some miles from Twain's own hometown of Hannibal. He is right in Twain country.

It was Walt who drafted up the shoreline of Tom Sawyer's Island and decreed that the paddlewheeler plying the rivers around it should be called the Mark Twain (and the Mark Twain Riverboat is, in fact, the only Disney attraction poster I have in my house). The island itself did not open until 1956, a year after the park. For the opening, a boy dressed as Tom and a girl dressed as Becky planted a box of soil from the Mississippi.

The Mark Twain Riverboat, dressed
for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland.

The landing and rafts that take
visitors to Tom Sawyer's Island.

Tom Sawyer's Island, I would later discover, was only nominally inspired by Twain's most famous novels. If anything, it was really an inspiration of spirit more than an inspiration of specific elements. A grist mill put in for atmosphere took on the name of Harper's Mill, from the character Joe Harper. A half-whitewashed wall pays tribute to what may be The Adventures of Tom Sawyer's most iconic scene. The largest extended reference came via Injun Joe's Cave.

Harper's Mill and the Mark Twain.

Taking its queue from the final chapters of the novel when Tom and Becky were trapped in an endless series of caverns with the murdering thief Injun Joe, his eponymous cave was a walk-through that cut underneath the south end of the island. Sculpted rock layers and fossil remnants could be felt along the walls, but Joe's ill-gotten gold could not be found. Instead, one hazarded the Bottomless Pit that tormented the characters so. Joe's treasure beneath the sign of the cross was actually hidden behind a heavy wooden door beneath Castle Rock in a different section of the island's caverns.

Injun Joe's Cave and the gloom
of the Bottomless Pit.

Castle Rock and its riches.

The third set of caverns led from Fort Wilderness to the former Eastern raft landing: an escape route in case of attack. By the time of my visit, this cavern had been largely plastered over. An escape route was no longer necessary after the shuttering of Fort Wilderness. The Fort, when open, featured gun turrets and snack stands and mannequins of Davy Crockett, Georgie Russell and Andrew Jackson from the first episode of the Davy Crockett trilogy.

Behind Fort Wilderness, one of
Disneyland's five graveyards.

Tom Sawyer's Island held other attractions. At what was originally the highest point in Disneyland, a Tom and Huck's Treehouse stood. Waters from underneath the treehouse spilled out to pour down three different streams that in turn fed the Rivers of America. An overhang of rock was dubbed the lair of the river pirates, a reference to Davy Crockett and the River Pirates. Smuggler's Cove had both a pontoon barrel bridge and a swinging suspension bridge. It also had about the nicest view of the river in Disneyland's most naturalized area. This gentle respite was something like a true park in the midst of the theme park.

Smuggler's Cove.

Tom and Huck's Treehouse.

Unfortunately, this is all gone now. Tom Sawyer's Island in its original form is an extinct attraction. With the popularity of Pirates of the Caribbean, the area was transformed into Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer's Island, yet another victim of Jack Sparrow after the vandalism on the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Smuggler's Cove was filled with shipwrecks, a high and dry pirate shipwreck adjoined Castle Rock, and Injun Joe's Cave was renamed Dead Man's Grotto. The bottomless pit acquired a bottom and a new life as the dig site for Davy Jones' Dead Man's Chest. Fort Wilderness lost its fight with termites, the elements and the managers, being demolished and replaced with a ghastly surrogate that houses bathrooms and staff breakrooms. Behind it is a photo spot for Jack Sparrow fans.

The only remaining Twain reference is in the Treehouse. There is a part in the middle of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where the boys run off to play pirate, commandeering a spit of land in the river to become their pirate's lair. There they take on names like "Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main", "Huck Finn the Red-Handed", and "Joe Harper, the Terror of the Seas". These have now been scrawled upon the walls of the Treehouse.

As I was to discover, these references are really no less than was present before. The delightfulness of Tom Sawyer's Island compelled me to finally read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Between my two trips in 2005 and 2006, I inhaled it, hoping to better catch the references made through the island... Only to discover that the whitewashed wall and the name of the cave were about it. In that respect I am not too offended by the transformation of the island into Pirate's Lair. I am more offended that park management felt the need to fill up space with more things (sometimes less is more) and that they did it with more pirates.

Unlicensed properties don't seem to sell, the logic goes. But why Disney has not yet made an animated version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is beyond me. Since they haven't, however, that leaves an island park of vague literary references as an open target. At least Tom Sawyer's Islands still remain in Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disneyland.

The Mark Twain Riverboat by Night.


Amanda said...

Totally depressing that it's gone. Is there anything left in Disneyland that is original? I can't bear to go to it these days because of the destruction. Why won't Jack Sparrow go away?

ArtSnark said...

my son & husband love running around Tom Saywer Island Disney World - it really is a blast from the past. & it still has lots of the original parts (including guns) open.

The best part - it's never crowded even when the park is full

Steam Odyssey said...

I always did love the steamboat and playing hide and seek with my brother whenever we visited Tom Sawyer's Island. We tried to recreate it in our backyard, but it was easier to walk down to the river and pretend we had all the cool caves and bridges.

Cory Gross said...

This is great! Hearing these recollections is fantastic!

Amanda, oh, there's still a few. Back during the 50th anniversary, they affixed plaques to all the remaining original rides and dubbed them the "Class of '55". I made a checklist and ticked them all off when I went: Snow White, Peter Pan, Mark Twain, Main St., Jungle Cruise, Dumbo, etc. ^_^

ArtSnark, that was one of the advantages of TSI at Disneyland. It was a nice escape. Unfortunately, the suits saw lightly-used space as a loss.

Steam Odyssey, awesome! I've actually been trying to get my hands on a remote-control paddlehweeler for a while now, just so I could some recreating of my own. No such luck, unfortunately.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

When my wife and I went to WDW in 2008, I asked her to give Tom Sawyer Island a try even though she wasn't enthused about it. As it turned out, she loved it and didn't want to leave! She was thrilled with the caverns and spacious sense of quiet. Wifey loved the barge ride over, too.

As I've mentioned before, I'll be going in just ten days! Can't wait to see it again.