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Disneyland Article
Getting To Disneyland Star Wars Land Needs To Be Magical

Source:Orange County Register
Author:Robert Niles
Dateline:January 09, 2016
Posted:January 28, 2016
Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer Island
Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer Island
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As the final scheduled day for the Rivers of America attractions at Disneyland comes to an end, it marks the closing of Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, the Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia and Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes and "Fantasmic!" for more than a year. Also included in the closures is the Disneyland Railroad.

All of this is so that Disney can reroute the Rivers of America to free space for the "Star Wars" land.

The Rivers of America and the Mark Twain Riverboat opened in Frontierland with Disneyland in 1955, though the Walt Disney-designed Tom Sawyer Island and the canoes did not open to guests until the next year. The Columbia joined the mix in 1958, while "Fantasmic!" debuted in 1992.

For Disneyland fans with long memories, the Mike Fink Keelboats ran on the river from late 1955 until 1997. You can see one of the old keelboats berthed along the shores of Tom Sawyer Island, across from Skull Rock.

Tom Sawyer Island was my "home" attraction when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom for many years while I was in school. When I showed up for my job interview, the attractions supervisor took one look at my freckled face and assigned me to driving the rafts to and from the island.

Yes, those drivers you see on the back of every Tom Sawyer Island raft aren't there just for show. They really are driving the rafts - a task that typically takes several days of practice to master. You're essentially learning how to parallel park on water, using a tiller to steer instead of a wheel. More than a few new hires couldn't get the hang of it and switched jobs to go push the button to start the Country Bear Jamboree show, instead.

We didn't have any assigned spiels on Tom Sawyer Island, as cast members on the Jungle Cruise or keelboats would have had. But that didn't keep us from making up stuff to entertain the guests on the short rides to and from the island. My favorite bit was to borrow the popular airline safety spiel and to tell the raft riders that, as we would cast off from the dock, "in case of emergency, oxygen masks will drop from the compartment above your head, and your seats may be used as a flotation device."

Of course, everyone is standing on the raft, which has no seats and no roof. In other words, if anything happens on this rickety looking thing, you're on your own, suckers. It might not have been the most Disney thing to say, but I always thought that Mark Twain would have approved the wisecrack. Hey, the line never failed to get a laugh.

As a raft driver, and as a fan that has been enjoying Tom Sawyer Island since I was a child, I loved the rafts because they create a vital transition between the island and the rest of the park. The fort, the treehouse, bridges and caves simply would not be as special - and would not elicit the same level of imaginative play - if Disney had just dropped them into Frontierland.

Placing the playground on an actual island puts them into their own world - a place where kids (and, well, even a few grownups) can more easily imagine being out on an island in the Mississippi, playing with Tom, Huck and Becky.

Disneyland offers several more of these transitional moments: walking under the train station onto Main Street, walking through the castle into Fantasyland, and most recently, the passage under the rocks from Pacific Wharf into Cars Land in Disney California Adventure. But Tom Sawyer Island's transitional moment tops them all by using one attraction - the rafts - to transport fans into another - the island itself.

Universal recently showed that it learned some lessons from Disneyland's model with its work on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. For that land, Universal created a life-sized London street front, which visitors traverse to reach Diagon Alley, hidden behind it. It's fun just to sit on the steps of Gringotts Bank inside Diagon Alley and look back to watch the expressions of wonder and amazement on visitors' faces as they turn that corner from London into Diagon Alley.

If "Star Wars" land is to top Universal's Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter as the world's most immersive theme park land, it will need a transitional moment of its own - one that represents to fans the passage from its neighboring lands in Disneyland onto the planet from a galaxy far, far away upon which the land is set. If we're lucky, Disney's designers will come up with something that inspires visitors' imaginations as much as my first trip on a raft across the Rivers of America did, so many years ago.

Attractions Referenced

Country Bear Jamboree

Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes


Fort Wilderness

Injun Joe's Cave

Jungle Cruise

Mike Fink Keel Boats

Pirate's Lair at Tom Sawyer Island

Rafts To Tom Sawyer Island

Sailing Ship Columbia

Skull Rock and Pirate's Cove

Tom And Huck's Tree House

Tom Sawyers Island

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