Tom Sawyer Island.

It is important to remember that during the time that Disneyland was built, play areas for children were typically limited to a city park, the street, a private yard or within unsupervised areas. Walt wanted to create something more memorable. He had his Imagineers apply a narrative to the physical environment.

Tom Sawyer.

The Island was part of a $2,000,000 expansion along with four other attractions. It opened to the public on June 16, 1956 and was one of the earliest examples of a highly themed playscape for children in America. It became a model for others to follow.

The island is approximately three acres and is twelve times longer then it is wide. Overall, the island measures about 800 feet from top to bottom. At the ends, the island measures approximately 250 feet to accommodate the turning radius of the Mark Twain. At the middle, it is approximately fifty feet to conserve space.

The Imagineers who worked on the project include Vic Greene, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, and Sam McKim. Bill Evans created the landscaping plan. The island was built with the fill from the Rivers of America.

Tom Sawyer IslandE-Ticket

Tom Sawyer Island provides opportunities for learning. This is not a passive environment. Children are asked to participate by making things happen. The result is a more rewarding and richer experience.

Entering Fort Wilderness was like walking on to a movie set for a Western. You could peek into the Regimental Headquarters to see what Davy Crockett and Georgie Russell were up to. Then you could climb up to the stairs to the towers guard the fort with guns supplied.

Over the years, some of the trails, caves, and activities have been eliminated. The fort is closed. There are fewer options and details that encourage free play. An overlay of Pirates has shifted the narrative to a more contemporary film franchise.

Along with the Tree-House, the trails, the caves, and the Fort, Tom Sawyer Island

There would also be opportunities for motor skill development. Children can run, climb, and work their way across unusual rope bridges. Back when the island first opened to the public, they even had a chance to grab a pole and fish for catfish, perch, and bluegill. This is an open-ended experience where there were no time limits other then darkness.

Another benefit is the opportunity for social development. This is the place where your children can interact with others. The island is filled with tiny, cave-like places. The entrances to these paths are low and difficult for adults to navigate. This creates a special realm that is only comfortable to those who fit. The environment helps in the selection process of who gets to play. In the course of play, ad hoc playgroups develop and new stories are created. For many children, this unfettered play may be more fun and more memorable then any other attraction in the park.

Those are my reflections on an attraction dear to my heart. What are your thoughts about Tom Sawyer Island? Favorite memories? Views on the Pirate invasion?

We hope you enjoyed today's SAMLAND. We'd like to invite you to join us at the Huntington Gardens in July for a panel discussion on "Invented Places" hosted by our very own Sam Gennawey. Reserve your place today:

  • David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
  • Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
  • Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
  • Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners
Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20

Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington

Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011