Park Spotlight: A Hidden Gem, Tom Sawyer's Island
I have been going to Disney World as long as I can remember. Somehow, Tom Sawyer Island was one of those attractions that my family skipped. Nestled in Frontierland amongst its flashier neighbors Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, it's easy to miss. If you have elementary school aged children, I encourage you to check out this little gem that is an oasis of sanity! I learned to really appreciate it when I took my grandson Wesley.
First, a little background
The first Tom Sawyer Island opened in Disneyland in 1956, a year after the park opened. It has the distinction of being the only attraction designed by Walt Disney himself. When the park opened, it was more of a backdrop, not an attraction. Walt had an idea of what he wanted but the plans presented to him didn’t hit the mark. The story goes, that after he was frustrated with the various designs put before him, he took the map home and sketched out what he wanted and brought it back the next day. Tom Sawyer Island was born! Imagineer Dick Irvine told Reader’s Digest in 1960. “Walt was brought up in Missouri—Mark Twain country—and that island is all his. He didn’t let anybody help him design it.”
Photo credit Chad Sparks Flikr
The island opened to the public at the Magic Kingdom in WDW on May 20th, 1973. Although it is just one island at Disneyland, it is comprised of two at the Magic Kingdom. This attraction has remained, for the most part, the same as it was when it opened in 1973 making it a unique monument to Walt Disney himself. Tokyo Disneyland also has a Tom Sawyer Island with many similarities to the one in Florida.
Tom Sawyer Island Facts
Everything about the island is a nod to the Mark Twain novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Scattered around the island are "handwritten" signs from Tom such as: "Ifn you like dark caves mystery mines, bottomless pits shakey bridges n big rocks you have come to the best place i know ifn you dont like creepy old scary places don't wurry... Huck Finn an myself wuz plenty scared too. Huck wuz more scared than me"
The island opens after the park and closes before dusk. To get there, you need to board one of the rafts that leave from the dock near Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The rafts are not on a track- they are real and are piloted by cast members who fit right into the story.
Once you are on the island, there are a ton of things for kids to explore. Disney lists this as an attraction for all ages but it certainly is targeted at kids who are still at the age where they enjoy pretending, exploring and being adventurers. This is old school! The most "tech" you will find is an animatronic horse and chickens in the fort and various sound effects. Trails cover the island that lead to barrel bridges, mills, caves and an old west type of fort. There is Scavenger’s Fort Playground for children under 12 that looks like something kids would build out of things they found lying around. The whole island lends itself to imagination: like walking into the books it was inspired by.
The rafts will bring you to Tom’s Landing. There are bathrooms here and inside the fort (always good to know) and you will find a map so you can get a sense of where things are. The good news is that the two islands that make up this attraction aren’t that large so all trails will eventually connect back with where you started. It is made up of hilly, winding paths that take you over bridges, stairs, inclines, floating barrels and over a variety of terrain. If anyone in your party isn’t up for the physical end of it, there are places to sit that are really lovely and peaceful (which can be a much needed break from the hustle of the park) where you can just relax. Aunt Polly’s Dockside Inn has a nice shaded gazebo area which faces the Haunted Mansion and is another wonderful place to sit in the shade. Pack your lunch and enjoy it here! There are a few vending machines at Aunt Polly's and scattered water fountains but there is no food service here.
Why is this a hidden gem?
I rediscovered Tom Sawyer Island on a trip with my adult daughter. I try to find something new every single time I visit the parks. So off we went pretending to be eight year old boys. Climbing, going in every cave, following the winding trail and investigating every building until we explored the whole island. All we kept saying is “Wes is going to love this”!
Well, Wes did absolutely love it. He was five the first time we took him and he has always been the kid that lives in his imagination. This was an adventure he could really appreciate! We let him run- no hand holding here. Go and explore! There weren’t people to bump into. He could climb the fort and “shoot” the guns for twenty minutes. He befriended other kids there and they made an army. He didn’t have to sit still and be quiet or wait in line. He ran through the caves twice. He was in heaven.
My grandson Wes, really enjoying Fort Langhorn
Disney can be overwhelming for kids with sensory issues. Our previous trip with Wes was a reality check. The crowds, the noise and the massive amounts of stimulus are a recipe for an epic melt down. Once we understood this and adjusted our expectations along with the schedule, things went much smoother. Wes loves the rides and the excitement but he is just as happy watching the fountains for thirty minutes.
Photo credit Walt Disney World
After a busy morning in the park, he needs to decompress. Tom Sawyer Island is a great place for exactly that. It’s quiet and peaceful and you explore at your own pace. It is an oasis within the park. Run off that energy! Sit on a bench and watch squirrels! Find a rocking chair and wave at the people in the paddle boat. It’s up to you.
Here's Wes reporting on his favorite things to do on Tom Sawyer Island.
I think Tom Sawyer Island is an underappreciated gem sitting right in the center of the Rivers of America. I had just as much fun wandering through the caves and following right along with Wes and his imagination. It reminds me of playing "cowboys and Indians" and you would play in the woods imagining all sorts of adventures. I also enjoyed being able to sit in a chair in the shade doing some people watching and just chilling. You are in the middle of the excitement but as an observer. It's a great break for everybody, from the toddlers who are tired of being stuck in the stroller to the adults who are just tired of the pace. If you haven't taken the time to explore it, especially with elementary school aged children, give it a chance on your next visit. It's definitely worth it!