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An Island Paradise Designed for Children

One of Walt Disney's first new ideas after Disneyland opened involved shuttling kids to an overgrown island where they would not be able to buy food or merchandise and could stay as long as their heart's desired. The park's original General Manager had just quit. Anyone have a problem with Walt's plan? No? Good.
Fort Wilderness, built by the same crew who built the entrance to Frontierland. For a dime, you could shoot a rifle from one of those towers.
The island in the middle of the so-called Rivers of America lagoon which the Mark Twain (and later, other boats) circled was a pile of dirt with weeds crowding out a few intentional plants and a smattering of trees. Walt wanted to make it a playground, ignoring concerns that children might climb trees and fall, or slip into the water.

Marvin Davis remembered that Walt took the tracings from him and designed the two-acre island himself, filled with a log fort, a cave, an old mill with a waterwheel, and a fishing pier. Before it was built, art director Vic Greene took over for the details. The upper acre, delimited by a barbed wire fence, would be off-limits.

Treasure Island, from the 1950 film, or Mickey Mouse Club Island (for the new television show) were considered, but they settled on Tom Sawyer Island (not Tom Sawyer's Island, please).

Art director Vic Greene confers with Walt Disney as Fort Wilderness is built.
Vic Greene established that the date of Fort Wilderness would be during the Indian uprisings leading to the War of 1812 by flying the 15-star, 15-stripe flag (1795-1818) above it. This was the flag that Francis Scott Key saw was still flying above Fort McHenry by the dawn's early light. Andrew Jackson's name would be associated with the Regimental Headquarters inside the fort—he was fighting Creek Indians in Alabama before he became the hero of the War of 1812.

Davy Crockett was 24 in 1810; Jackson was 43. The story has Indian scout Davy reporting to Major General Jackson. Full-size wax figures of Davy and his friend, George Russell, were moved to the island from the Davy Crockett Arcade. Peeking through windows at wax figures—this was one of the only times that Disneyland imitated Knott's Berry Farm.

Greene placed the fort at the north end of the playground half, with the landing dock at the south end. The entire island was 770' north to south (not anymore, due to Star Wars Galaxy's Edge). He planned a network of about a quarter-mile of footpaths on the southern half. The lower part of the island would have most of the features and the Wilderness Road, leading over the part of the island only about fifty feet wide, would connect with Fort Wilderness. The paths were decomposed granite, which seems like dirt but which doesn't turn to mud.

Construction of the island (note log skid in the distance). Photo: Major Pepperidge, Gorillas Don't Blog
The Old Mill was quite accurate, powered by an eight-foot-diameter overshot water wheel, turning real wooden gears with real grindstones. (When I was a kid, my impression was that kids couldn't care less. As an adult, when I hear about a millstone or a grindstone or "grist for the mill," I'm grateful for the memory.)

Injun Joe's Cave was a concrete building with a concrete roof, over which dirt was piled. The cave building included a pump from which sprang three streams—one directed by a wooden flume to the mill's waterwheel, one heading north to a little cove, and the third tumbling west. Climbing the artificial hill led to Point Lookout.

Perva Lou Smith, Walt Disney, and Chris Winkler, Tom Sawyer Island opening day, June 16, 1956
Construction took place on the island—the Rivers of America had only been filled less than a year before and it was not drained for this—which means that concrete was likely batch-mixed on site.

The cave entrance was on the east side, across from the Mark Twain dock, and more than one child was disoriented to emerge into the daylight on the west side of the island with no familiar landmarks in sight. One serious concern was drainage for the cave in the event of a massive downpour (such as occurred in January 1956). The always-clever imagineers put a "bottomless pit" in the middle of the cave and sloped the cave floor toward it. No more flood worries.

Canteen in Fort Wilderness (Photo: Merica and Jim Curran)
Fort Wilderness was built by the same French-Canadian log hewers that constructed the stockade for the entrance to Frontierland. They built the fort backstage by the Staff Shop and the warehouse, then took it apart and floated the pieces over to the island for reassembly. Pine logs float. The asymmetrical fort featured a log palisade with blockhouses at the corners. Children could climb to the "fire walk"—the catwalk that allowed shooting above the wall. There were coin-operated guns (just a dime) in the blockhouses from which to shoot at the Mark Twain, the Keel Boats or—new with the island—the Indian War Canoes.

Walt "plussed" the fort by including a narrow, winding secret escape passage. That was the sort of planned serendipity that made Disneyland so awesome when Walt was alive. Under Walt's direction, the fort, the cave, a suspension bridge from Point Lookout, and the other things cost more than a quarter million dollars to build. With all the unguarded hazards, there have been extremely few accidents and no fatalities in 65 years. (One young man tragically drowned, but not as a guest on the island.)

The original island had a lot to see and do. Walt added more a year later.
Tom Sawyer Island opened on Saturday, June 16, 1956—the day before Father's Day. Walt Disney dedicated the island with the help of Chris Winkler and Perva Lou Smith, in character as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. The seventh-graders won the honor back home in Hannibal, Missouri and were flown out to meet Walt Disney. Two weeks later, Walt was in Missouri, but that's another story.

Everyone reached the island the same way—14' x 23' diesel-powered rafts that could hold about fifty people, coming and going from a dock on the waterway that connected the Rivers of America with the Jungle Cruise river. As attractions go, the three rafts were high capacity—they could transport nearly 2,500 people per hour in bursts.

Herb Ryman rendering of the island with the artificial hill over Injun Joe's Cave. (Photo: Daveland)
There were three docks on the lower part of the island, because the original plan had been to allow Indian War Canoes and Mike Fink Keel Boats to stop at the island as well.

The Fishing Pier at Catfish Cove didn't last very long. It was an underwater pen stocked with fish, so even the most inexperienced anglers could expect to snag something. The little shack handed out waxed-paper wrappers, but many a Disneyland guest discovered during hot summer days: Fishing = fun. Carrying fish around = not so much fun.

The original Tom Sawyer Island must have been a blast. Walt plussed it again in time for the following year, adding a tree house, climbing rocks with another small cave, and a pontoon bridge. And it stayed like that for fifty years.
The Old Mill and Point Lookout in 1958. (Photo: Gene Compere, courtesy of Bob Compere)

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