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Old Time Fun Becomes New Again: Tom Sawyer’s Island and Walt Disney World Railroad

By Cassie

In a day where our children are so hooked on video games, electronic devices, TV, etc. actually getting out and playing in caves, forts, playgrounds and trails are unusually new to some of them. And in a place that they are mostly part of an audience, Tom Sawyer’s Island gives them the chance to explore, climb, play and imagine. The Walt Disney World Railroad is a heartwarming experience of simpler days.

Tom Sawyer’s Island is based on Mark Twain’s stories of a young boy named Tom Sawyer, his friends Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher, and their adventures on the river and small town. TSI is lined with footpaths that lead to old fashion fun like exploring caves, Harpers Mill, “shooting” rifles from the old fort, and bridges that move below your feet when you walk across them. There is even a playground on the island. Sometimes kids just need to use their energy in these old fashioned ways where they are free to be a kid. So if your kids are tired of being just spectators, take them over here for some great physical fun. Perhaps you would like your children to know what story this attraction is based on, check out The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi, all written by Mark Twain(aka. Sam Clemmons).

To get to Tom Sawyer’s Island you must board a raft made of logs, just as Tom and Huck (Finn) would have used to set off down the Mississippi. This river is known as the Rivers of America. The rafts share the river with Liberty Square River Boat and they exchange signals throughout the day to avoid any collisions. There is no hidden track under the water that these rafts move on. The Cast Members must be skilled at maneuvering this raft across the river using only a diesel engine and a tiller. The rafts at Walt Disney World have names: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Injun Joe, and Becky Thatcher. They carry a maximum load of 55 people. This is an outside attraction, so if a thunderstorm pops up, it will close down until there is no lightning in the area. If the Liberty Square River Boat runs into any trouble, it is these skilled TSI rafts-men and women come to rescue the River Boat guests. So, try not to insult the raft pilots by asking them if the rafts are connected to an underwater track.

Note: Tom Sawyer’s Island attraction closes at dusk, and the Walt Disney World Railroad closes prior to the park close. Check your Times Guide for actual times of operation for that day.

Harper’s Mill is the building you see near the landing, with the waterwheel. Its counterpart, Potter’s Mill is reached by crossing a bridge. Injun Joe’s Cave is a popular, and fairly cool spot, on the island. If you have read about this cave in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer this is a fun literary exploration. Otherwise, it is just fun! There is a second cave on the island, don’t miss it. Did you know that the most popular engagement spot at Walt Disney World is in Injun Joe’s Cave? There are many jewels in there that almost rival those found in Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train ride. Fort Langhorn on the far end of the island has much to explore. There is a blacksmith shop, stables, towers with toy rifles and even an escape tunnel! (There are also modern day bathrooms available.)

I don’t care how old you get, an escape tunnel is always fun! The Barrel Bridge takes you toward Aunt Polly’s which is now just a nice shady place to sit and observe Liberty Square, Frontierland and the other vessel on Rivers of America, the Liberty Square River Boat. Enjoy the old time rocking chairs and giving your feet a rest. You will find benches scattered over the island. There is also an old-style suspension bridge that tends to swing about as guests step on it. If you get lost, just look for the conveniently located map signs on the island. You can even play a game of checkers over there while the kids play. (The island is not accessible to guests in wheelchairs.)

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Tom Sawyer Island is an attraction that originally opened at Disneyland, in 1956. Amazingly, it is the only attraction completely designed by Walt Disney. Word is that Walt was somewhat dissatisfied with his project and redesigned it just days prior to construction was to begin. If the rest of your party is going on Splash Mountain, or Big Thunder Mountain, don’t just sit with the kids, take a raft over to Tom Sawyer’s Island and let the little ones run and play in the shade while you take a seat. This really is a hidden gem in the Magic Kingdom. Honestly, after you take a break, go explore the island. This attraction is better when you participate in its story. Explore the caves, cross the bridges, take the escape tunnel, just explore!

The landing for Tom Sawyer’s Island is just below the entrance to Big Thunder Mountain in Frontierland of the Magic Kingdom. Between Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain is the staircase leading to the Frontier Station for the Walt Disney World Railroad. Both of these attractions have that old fashioned feel to them. The Railroad is a great way to move from one place in the park to another, saving your feet some wear and tear. Since the removal of the old Sky Buckets, the Railroad remains the only attraction to get you from one land to another. There are WDW Train stations at Main Street U.S.A., Frontierland and Fantasyland. Make sure you take in the whole circuit at least once.

The Walt Disney World Railroad consists of four steam engines named “Walter E. Disney”, “Lilly Belle”(Named after Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife), “Roger E. Broggie”(lead Imagineer on the railroad project for Walt Disney World), and “Roy O. Disney”(Walt’s brother). These engines, built between 1915 and 1928, were used in southern Mexico to transport hemp, sugar, jute, and some passengers. Disney Imagineers went to Mexico to see them and then purchase them. Following the purchase the steam engines were taken apart and shipped to the Gulf Coast where they were carefully rebuilt and restored. Each of these engines are painted a different color scheme and they pull 5 passenger cars, open-sided, between three train stations. The stations are at Main Street U.S.A., Frontierland and Fantasyland. The track is a 1 ½-mile long journey around the park.

This steam train waits to take you on a 20-minute journey around the Magic Kingdom borders. It feels like you are stepping onto an adventure that takes place, well, in the past. Step up to a seat in the brightly painted open-air passenger cars. See the steam from the engine in front of you. You hear the bell ring and the Cast Member call out “Allllll aaaaboooaarrrdddd!” before you feel the wheels start chugging and you exit the station. If you didn’t make it on this train, don’t worry, there is another one coming anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes away.

Walt Disney was a big train enthusiast, building a small railroad, 1/8 scale, in his backyard. It was called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad and he built it in 1950 for his daughters to enjoy. It was also steam powered and was laid out to circle his property, which is the same idea here in Walt Disney World. He was so happy with this one that he decided he must build one in Disneyland for all the guests to enjoy. Every Disney Park has a railroad as one of its attractions.

Make sure you checkout the displays in the train stations, especially Main Street U.S.A. Walt wanted the most realistic experience for guests and there are items traditionally found in train stations that he made his travels through, cross country. There is a shoe shine chair, time wall with departure/arrival times. In our modern day it also serves as the stroller rental area. There are photos and descriptions of each train found in the Main Street U.S.A. station. No Disney strollers can travel on the train but if you want to park yours, remove your items and board the train. When departing at a different station, simply ask the Cast Member there for a replacement stroller and they will give you a new one. Personal strollers that fold are permitted on the train.

The Main Street U.S.A. station is one of the most decorated spots in the Magic Kingdom. See some of the different seasonal decorations in the photos below. The Walt Disney World Railroad transports over 1.5-million riders annually. Each steam train has a tender and five of the open-air passenger cars. They carry 365 passengers. Since it is a steam train it needs to take on water every third or fourth time around. They can reach speeds of up to 25 mph.

If you would like to learn more about these carefully restored trains you can take the Disney’s The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour. You will visit the roundhouse where the trains are cared for, cleaned, and readied for service, then take the train into the Main Street U.S.A. station announcing the opening of the Magic Kingdom that day. It starts early, before the park opens. It is 3 hours long. You will learn more about these wonderful machines that were built between 1916 and 1928. You will learn more about Walt Disney’s lifelong passion for trains. This is an outdoor tour, so dress appropriately. Photography is permitted, except for back stage areas. Guests must be 10 years old or older.

 

About Cassie

Cassie L. I am a lifelong Disney fan. I attended Walt Disney World in 1971, and was there during the opening week of EPCOT, and have visited the Disney Parks for than 30 times. I have had the privilege of visiting Disneyland as a child, and then again with my children. My family recently moved from the northeastern United States to the Walt Disney World area. I now have cast members in my family and enjoy hearing the magical stories at the end of a shift. I love visiting all of the parks and getting to try more Disney food and being able to share it with you to help you plan your own magical day at Disney.