Tuesday, January 5, 2016
January 5, 2016: DisneyStudying: Tom Sawyer Island
[In November, I finally visited DisneyWorld for the first time, accompanying my 9 and 8 year old sons. We hit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios in a whirlwind three days—and as you might expect, this AmericanStudier found a great deal of interest in all three places. So this week I’ll DisneyStudy five such details, leading up to a special weekend post on themes parks in America!]
On the history, appeal, and limits of Disney’s most unique space.
Most of the rides and attractions at the Magic Kingdom park fall into one of two categories: those inspired by existing Disney characters and stories (Mickey and company, fairy tale princesses and their friends like the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, and so on) and those that represent original settings created for the park that have now become part of popular culture (with the Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion as exhibits A and B). But in the middle of a small lagoon that stands in for the Mississippi River, and accessible only by raft, sits an attraction that’s in a third category unto itself: Tom Sawyer Island, a walkthrough area based on Mark Twain’s novel and its characters and world. As detailed at my Dad’s Mark Twain in His Times website, the island (originally built for California’s Disneyland and then copied for Disneyworld) is apparently the only park attraction designed by Walt Disney himself; Disney was from Missouri and had grown up on Twain’s novels, and had such a specific vision for Tom’s island that he scrapped Marv Davis’ original design and came up with his own.
I’m glad he did, as the resulting attraction is not only unique but full of wonderful small details that my boys were very happy to explore for longer than we spent at any other part of the park. We were particularly big fans both of the winding system of caves (labeled Injun Joe’s Cave, natch) that connect one side of the island to the other and of Fort Wilderness, the site of Tom and his comrades’ imaginary battles which includes a secret passage that leads out to the safety of the woods. But there were a number of other areas and elements to discover, and unlike most of the park’s crowded and time-limited rides, we were able to explore them at our own pace and return to them as many times as we wanted (I won’t divulge how many times we exited the fort through the secret passage, but suffice it to say that Tom would have been proud). That sense of leisurely exploration is, of course, entirely in keeping with not only the overarching tone of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but also and most especially the world of Jackson’s Island and how it serves as an escape and respite for Tom, Huck, and their friends in that novel.
Twain followed up Tom Sawyer with its sequel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (originally subtitled Tom Sawyer’s Comrade), however, and while the latter novel does likewise feature an island that serves as an escape from the harsh shore world, it also and far more centrally refuses to let its title character, his runaway slave companion Jim, or its readers stay separate from those dark Southern realities for too long. It stands to reason that the Disney attraction would be based on the first novel, which is far more clearly and fully a children’s book; yet at the same time, just as Twain in Tom Sawyer mentions but refuses to engage with the existence of slavery all around its characters (much less the ethnic questions raised by a character like the villainous Injun Joe), so too does Tom Sawyer Island miss a chance to include any engagement with those social and historical issues. I’m not suggesting a slave auction site on the island, necessarily—but even a space dedicated to the character of Jim, perhaps a representation of his camp on the island after he had runaway from both slavery and his family, would help add this vital layer to the world of Tom Sawyer as we experience it at Disney.
Next DisneyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of Disney or theme parks you’d AmericanStudy?