Tom Sawyer Island: An Explorer’s Heaven
Of all the attractions within the Magic Kingdom, Tom Sawyer Island is perhaps the most interactive. It asks the most of Guests, because it requires them to be an active participant in the adventure. You can’t simply sit back and watch a story. A visit to Tom Sawyer Island compels you to participate, to explore and discover all its hidden wonders.
The attraction also holds the distinction of being the only one completely designed by Walt Disney. Marc Davis was charged with providing the initial designs, but Walt was unsatisfied with the result. So, he decided to sit down and design it himself. The original opened on June 16, 1956. The Magic Kingdom version opened on May 20, 1973.
The experience begins with Guests boarding a “log raft” (actually a motorized boat), which carries them across the Rivers of America. The boat ride only takes a couple minutes, and then Guests are free to explore the island at their leisure. The visit can last as long or as short as you’d like it to.
There are paths that wind all over the island. Some take you through wooded areas, while others take you to deep dark caves. Tromping through the caves is one of my favorite experiences. The air is filled with spooky ambient noises, like water dripping and wind howling through the tunnels. In one area, holes in the rock resemble a skull. In another, you’ll find glittering gems in the walls. They sparkle and glow in the dark, beckoning greedy explorers like a moth to a flame.
Outside, one of the hiking paths leads to a small playground. Benches are scattered along the paths, allowing you to stop and soak in the ambiance or rest your aching feet. Another path leads to Harper’s Mill. A water wheel turns outside the mill. Just outside the mill is a sign indicating that the mill was named for the father of Tom Sawyer’s friend Joe Harper. There’s also a note not to scare the birds. Step inside the mill and look up into the rafters and you’ll catch sight of an owl and several other birds.
Keep wandering and you’ll come across a barrel bridge. If you don’t feel like braving it, there’s a path that bypasses the bridge, but it’s a lot of fun to try and scramble across the bobbing barrels. It’s also the spot where I unintentionally scared a young Guest. Our family had visited the old Pirate’s League and been transformed into vicious looking pirates. I was a zombie pirate. The young man crossing the bridge did not expect to find a zombie on the tranquil little island. I can only hope he wasn’t too traumatized.
Fort Langhorn is another highlight of Tom Sawyer Island. Guests cross a suspension bridge to reach it. You can climb steps inside the fort and find mounted rifles and cannons. Every trip, my kids stop at these rifles to pretend they’re firing at bandits on Big Thunder Mountain, which sits just across the river. There’s a blacksmith in one room, and there are areas set up to sit and play checkers. There’s also a small “escape tunnel” which you can take out of the fort, a narrow, winding cavern that leads you back to the suspension bridge.
There’s a seasonal dining area on the island called “Aunt Polly’s.” Not far from there is a bit of fence with the names “Tom” and “Becky” painted in white paint. Every visit, my wife and kids get a picture next to the name Tom (my father-in-law’s name).
Tom Sawyer Island is easy to overlook and is rarely crowded, but it is more than worth the time to go explore it. Walking around on the paths, sneaking through the caves, and imagining battles in the fort have created some of our best family memories at Walt Disney World. It has become a traditional part of each visit we make to the park.
However, if you happen to visit, just remember to keep your hands off the treasure in the caves. That’s mine.