Here’s a thing that I have learned about people: the same people that will wait for 60 minutes to ride Space Mountain will completely reject any idea of taking a short raft ride across water. TOO HARD. TAKES TOO LONG. BORING.
I know this, because I was once one of you. That tiny body of water called The Rivers of America seemed as vast and as wide as the raging Mississippi. And what’s the point, anyway? Why go to all that effort to cross it just to see, what, a windmill and a closed-down quick-service snack bar? NOTHING LOOKS SHINY OR EXCITING OVER THERE SO WHY WOULD I BOTHER?!
That is exactly why you should bother.
Remember when I said I was once one of you? (You should, because it was literally seconds ago.) Well I was one of you until….February. So, last month. I had been to the Magic Kingdom more times than I could remember to count and hadn’t been to Tom Sawyer Island since I was a kid. I kept meaning to, of course. But was it really worth it? Other things took precedence. There are FastPasses to get to, parades to catch, Dole Whips to eat, and dining reservations to be seated for.
So it’s not like I was actively ignoring it, I just had others things to do. You probably do, too. I understand.
But this time, we took that long trip across the ginormous Rivers of America over to Tom Sawyer Island and I CANNOT BELIEVE what we were missing!
A (Brief) History of Tom Sawyer’s Island
The original Tom Sawyer Island opened in 1956 at Disneyland – one year after the park opened. It was said to be the only attraction completely designed by Walt himself, and his favorite place in the park.
“Tom Sawyer Island is the only part of Disneyland that Walt single-handedly designed himself. He always planned for an island in the middle of the Rivers of America, but he debated about what the island was going to be. […] it was Imagineer Marvin Davis who labored through dozens of map designs trying to find a workable pattern for the actual Disneyland that opened in 1955. He struggled over the contours of Tom Sawyer Island, but his efforts failed to please Walt.
’Give me that thing,’ Davis remembers Walt saying. That night Walt worked for hours in his red barn workshop in the backyard at his home in the Holmby Hills. The next morning, he laid tracing paper on Davis’ desk and said, ‘Now that’s the way it should be.’ The island was built according to Walt’s design.” (Jim Korkis, The Revised Vault of Walt)
Sadly, the original in Disneyland was re-themed to “Pirates Lair on Tom Sawyer Island” back in 2007, retheme-ing the area adding references to the Pirates of the Caribbean film series – while scrapping most of the Tom and Huck references.
But in better news, Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World (and the one at Tokyo Disneyland) is still largely the same as the island that opened there in 1973, about a year and a half after the Magic Kingdom first opened. (For some extra “edutainment” before you go, add reading Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to your reading list with your kids. They will appreciate the details much more….and you will too. How many of you really remember reading the books in school? ) There’s something of that “old Disney” magic that can definitely be experienced there. Maybe your parents shot the same gun from Fort Langhorn!
Room To Explore
I have a four-year-old boy who LOVES to explore outdoors, and there’s so much to find at Tom Sawyer Island! Even though he was a bit under-the-weather during our trip, he couldn’t wait to finish his lunch and start on the trails. And he didn’t even know what he was going to find, since it was his first time too! That’s the magic of exploration, and Walt Disney knew it. I think setting out and finding adventure there on the island is part of the fun (we didn’t even look at the map!), so I won’t spoil too much for you but try and find the blacksmiths shop, the ever-popular barrel bridge, a place to play checkers and the birds nest in the gears at Harpers Mill (an homage to the famous Disney short film The Old Mill)
Like most parents, I probably take too many photos of my kid. He’s just so darn cute, I can’t help it. But at Disney, when I get home I find that we often have wide shots filled with, well, LOTS of other people. It’s just hard to get a picture of JUST your kids without cropping or getting a SUPER ZOOM SHOT.
This is where Tom Sawyer Island comes in. Because it doesn’t get as much traffic, along with being filled with hidden areas and foliage, you can get some great photographs of your kids and family WITHOUT all of humanity hanging out in the background of your shot. Try some shots on that barrel bridge, in the staircase at the mill, or just running around and acting like KIDS on the walking trails!
Far from the Maddening Crowds
What finally got me to make the effort to go out ALL THE WAY over that wide river (hard eye roll, Michaela) was trying to find a peaceful spot to eat lunch with my family. We enjoy bringing food and snacks into the parks sometimes (when we are trying to keep costs down), but it can be tricky during meal times to find a place to eat in peace. It’s not exactly kosher to just walk inside a quick-service restaurant and eat your homemade sandwiches without purchasing something (though I don’t think you’d be asked to leave), but a lot of the outdoor seating areas can be less than ideal too. While we do like the table area near Tangled bathrooms, you are literally surrounded by people, and it can be hard to get a table in there due to it being one of the few places in the park to charge your phone. There are some hidden away spots to eat, but usually those mean giving up actual tables.
So for a little extra effort, you will be rewarded kindly over at Aunt Polly’s at Tom Sawyer Island. Aunt Polly’s used to be a quick-service restaurant and snack bar, but it is now very rarely open. (The last documented opening I can find was back in 2015 for Disney’s “Limited Time Magic” promotional year – and then, it was only open for Spring Break, for a few weeks, offering a very limited menu).
The benefit, however, of the closure of Aunt Polly’s? Lots of open, clean tables (and a few rocking chairs) right there on waterfront! We sat there for probably an hour with NO other visitors stopping to share our tables. And this was in the middle of the lunch rush!
It wasn’t until later that we also found a small picnic table area just up the hill behind Aunt Pollys. This is even more private and quiet, but doesn’t offer the great people watching and water views of Aunt Polly’s seating area. We enjoyed a really unique view of The Haunted Mansion, Liberty Square and Frontierland that most people never stop to see!
(Bonus: Both sides of the island offer nice rocking chairs for nursing moms! There are a few near Aunt Pollys, then some other ones facing Big Thunder Mountain RR. Be warned if you have light sleepers, however – the occasional horn blowing on the Liberty Square Riverboat – which circles the island – and the ride noises from Big Thunder could bother your little nappers.)
But aside from a place to eat, I just love getting a little removed from the noise and crowds. Sure, you are probably sharing the island with probably a couple hundred other people – but most of the time, you’ll find you aren’t UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL with them like you often are in the main areas of the parks.
At one point, while I was in the middle of the caves, I said to Ben: “Do you hear that?” “What?” “EXACTLY!” We were in the middle of the most popular theme park in the world and I couldn’t hear a single sound from the outside in there. It was glorious.
Just The Facts, Ma’am
If you only have ONE day to spend at the Magic Kingdom – okay, fine, you can skip Tom Sawyer Island. I’ll allow it.
But if you have at LEAST two days, then I would definitely suggest spending some time over there! Early afternoon is a great time, especially if you are there during the busy summer season – you can escape the crowds AND a little bit of the heat, given all the nice shade.
If you didn’t bring your own food to the parks, don’t worry – you can still enjoy your lunch over at the Aunt Polly seating area. Just grab some food packed to-go from Pecos Bills or Columbia Harbor house nearby and head over on the raft.
Remember that Tom Sawyer Island is only open until dusk each day though, so don’t go over too late to enjoy it!
Looking for restrooms over on the Island? You’ll find some near Tom’s Landing (where the raft usually docks) and some very small ones at Fort Langhorn.
Look, don’t be like me and avoid this amazing place for years – especially if you have young kids. It’s such a fantastic breath of fresh air that you’ll keep wanting to go back!
(Also, but don’t tell TOO many people, okay? Let’s keep this gem just between us! 😉 )
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