My family and I have been to Disney World in Florida a number of times over the years, but there are still some attractions we never had a chance to experience. They’re on our “list of things to do” and with each trip we check off on or two more items from the list.
On our most recent trip we discovered a little hidden gem of an area right inside The Magic Kingdom itself. It wasn’t the fastest ride or had the most amazing visual effects. It didn’t have a huge line and you can’t use FastPass+ to experience this attraction. You walk past it ten times a day and yet you may not even know it is there.
It was one of the most magical, engaging experiences we’ve had a Disney World… I’m referring, of course, to Tom Sawyer Island.
It was my son’s reading of a Disney World touring book a month or so before our vacation that first piqued our interest in Tom Sawyer Island. He read that it was a “playground” of sorts and immediately asked if we could check it out during our trip. We had a few days planned in the Magic Kingdom, so we added it to our agenda of “must see” places.
Everything I read about Tom Sawyer Island said it was “nice” and peaceful and generally a little different from the sometimes frantic activity of the rest of the park. We didn’t really know what to expect. The few descriptions and write ups you read about the island don’t usually give you a lot of descriptions and rarely include any meaningful photographs.
With a genuine lack of knowledge about the attraction my family and I boarded a little motorized raft one morning in Disney World and puttered over to Tom Sawyer Island.
The journey over to the island feels slow and warm in the Florida sun as you and 20 or so of your park companions are steered from the port of the Magic Kingdom mainland to the port of the island. You disembark the raft and take a few steps up a little path and then…
And then you’re on your own.
Almost every other Disney attraction you come across is fairly linear:
- Start at one end of a line and continue moving with the line, experiencing various sites and effects along the way.
- Enter the beginning of he ride.
- Experience the ride.
- Exit the ride through a gift shop (yes, this really is how it usually works).
- Exit the gift shop and repeat the process for the next ride.
You start at a very definite beginning and you finish at a very definite end.
That’s not how Tom Sawyer Island works, and it takes a few minutes to get used to this. There are winding paths and forks in the road and very few real maps to give you a sense of where you are or what you’re supposed to do. Tom Sawyer island is essentially a little park within the amusement park.
My children understood the concept of Tom Sawyer Island much quicker than I did. They walked and skipped along the paths, reading the signs, taking in the sites, climbing the stairs. There are various buildings scattered along the paths and you begin to get a sense of time and place. There’s an old windmill that you can enter and climb up. There are a few simple playground areas that feel as though they could be right out of one of Mark Twain’s books. I hadn’t read Tom Sawyer for at least 20 years but I instantly recognized the time period and the theme of the island I was on.
My children would follow one path for a while and then see something off in the distance and try to follow the path in that new direction. The island is large enough that you never really feel crowded, but it’s small enough that you never spend more than a minute or two walking from one interesting area to the next. There are suspension bridges and barrel bridges and buildings with simple animatronics and places to poke your head into and plenty of chances to let your imagination run wild.
The island really “clicked” for us when we stumbled upon an “injun cave” (remember: Mark Twain was before the time of political correctness) and my kids just stood in front of the entrance, genuinely not sure what to do. They were used to seeing an open cave leading into darkness with no ropes, no chains, no barriers preventing them from continuing in. I went in first and they quickly followed.
The caves are dark and cool and twisty and mildly spooky. Lighting is sparse and cleverly placed. The cave floor slopes in one direction and then another. The passages are narrow and a little uncomfortable at times. And you go down, down, down into the earth. Or it feels that way. The caves are long and disorienting and just when you think it has to open up there’s another curve or another twist and you have to keep going. The caves have a few “rooms” that open up and allow you to stop to rest and regroup. It is in these rooms that you realize you can sit and relax or keep going forward or do pretty much whatever you want because there’s no line, no time schedule. You also have no idea where the other end of the cave will open up.
While you’re exploring it will eventually hit you: you can move as fast or as slowly as you want. You aren’t on a particular time schedule other than worrying about when you have dinner reservations or your next FastPass+ appointment. You could go to the island at 10am and sit for hours, just enjoying the scenery. The island closes at dusk for safety reasons, but otherwise you’re on your own.
Once you emerge from each cave you can follow more paths and double-back or get lost but it’s all in good fun. You’re on small island, so you can’t possibly go that far. But you’re also on a wilderness path that twists and turns around other wilderness paths, so getting turned around and lost is almost inevitable a few times.
So, yes, you will get lost on Tom Sawyer Island. You will not get lost on any other Disney World attraction. You may not even remember the last time you allowed yourself to get lost by walking down a path. This isn’t the sort of stressful “I missed my exit and I have an appointment downtown” sort of getting lost. This is the “Oh, I don’t know where I am but that’s okay, I’ll see what’s up here” sort of getting lost. It can be a refreshing and welcome change of pace.
Our first journey around Tom Sawyer Island gave us this sense of wonder, this sense of discovery, this sense of true surprise that we all enjoyed so much. Back in the early days of the Disney them parks characters would unexpectedly walk down the street and stop for photos along the way to the delight of children and adults everywhere. Appearances were not planned, interactions were not scripted. Every sight and sound at Disney was unique in the world because no one had ever seen a real theme park before and it was all so remarkably different.
Now theme parks are sophisticated, mature businesses. We “get” the idea of a theme park. We understand the rules of theme parks. Theme parks are designed around “crowd control” and sophisticated traffic prediction algorithms rather than simply give their visitors a sense of wonder. Characters appear at certain spots with certain times and professional handlers to make sure everything goes smoothly. We are not surprised as much as we used to be.
But how many of us have wandered down a twisty path through the woods, found a cave and gone exploring? In a strange twist, this low tech little forgotten island park can give you a more unique experience than the dozens of million-dollar rides and attractions surrounding it.
Tom Sawyer Island, at the heart of the Magic Kingdom, is essentially an oasis in the middle of the Magic Kingdom’s commercialized excesses.
When it was announced that Disney would be expanding its parks one of the first areas that was to fall victim to the redevelopment was Tom Sawyer Island. My heart sank until I learned that the plans were to only modify the back (and unused) portion of Tom Sawyer Island. Disneyland’s version of Tom Sawyer Island may suffer a little more.
If you’re going to Disney World and you want to give everyone a break from the hustle and bustle of a normal theme park, take them over to Tom Sawyer Island for an hour or so. It may be hot (bring some water) and it may be slow (take a break). If nothing else, you can get some wonderfully unique photos of some of the other attractions surrounding it.
I urge you to visit Tom Sawyer Island with your family if you have the chance. There aren’t a lot of special effects, there are no fast rides or talking robots and you won’t be ushered through a gift shop on your way off the island. But you will get lost, be confused and delighted and be able to take a few deep breaths of (moderately) clean air.
For me and my family it was a refreshing and delightful surprise. And isn’t that what a Disney World vacation is really all about?