Before the Tom Sawyer theme was chosen, other themes were proposed such as naming the island "Mickey Mouse Club Island" and serving as a club headquarters or making the island into "Treasure Island". Otherwise, on opening day, the southern parts of the island were minimally landscaped to give the riverboat something to look at.
The area opened in 1956, one year after that of Disneyland. The attraction has the distinction of being the only one designed by Walt Disney. Sharing a strong affinity for the world Mark Twain created in his novels, Walt found himself unsatisfied with the island’s original design. Days before construction was set to begin, he took the plans home and re-imagined the landscape design, creating the inlets, coves, and overall shape that the island is known for today.
Prior to the debut of Fantasmic!in 1992, when the south end of the Island was re-built to facilitate a stage for the nighttime show, Tom Sawyer Island saw very little change, though some elements were stripped down for safety reasons. A very early removed element was Catfish Cove, which during the opening summer of 1956, allowed guests to go fishing for live fish that the river had been freshly stocked with. However, this proved impractical as catches that weren't released usually ended up in park garbage cans. Though fishing ended, the fish that remained lived in the river for some time until one of the assorted river refurbishments.
The Island received major upgrades, new show elements, and a complete re-theming in 2007 when it reopened as Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. The retheming eradicated much of the previous Tom Sawyer theme in favor of characters and elements from and inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. The remaining Tom Sawyer connection was justified through chapters in the original book where Tom and Huck enjoyed playing pirate games on the island, suggesting by extension that the Pirates of the Caribbean elements were all part of their vivid imaginations.
The Magic Kingdom version was also home to a small counter-service restaurant, Aunt Polly's Dockside Inn, which served snacks and desserts. Because of the awkward location on the island, the restaurant closed during the late 90s and vending machines were installed around the seating area. It has seen occasional seasonal use during summer 2015 and the 2018-19 holiday season.
In the early 2000s, cast members would establish "White Paintbrush" scavenger hunts where six paintbrushes leftover from Tom's fence whitewashing were scattered around the island. Returning a paintbrush to the raft castmembers would reward you with a Fastpass for a Frontierland attraction. This unofficial program has since been discontinued.
Tokyo Disneyland's version opened with the park in 1983. It is less forested than the others and like much of Westernland, features red-rocks geology similar to Big Thunder Mountain to form its version of Castle Rock Ridge. It also features an Indian Camp near Fort Sam Clemens.
Features of the Tom Sawyer Islands
When guests arrive on the island from the rafts, the Landing serves as the entrance and exit station for Tom Sawyer Island. Rafts are generally named after characters from the books, such as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Becky Thatcher, and Injun Joe.
Tom and Huck's Treehouse
Tom and Huck's Treehouse can be found at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland, accessed by a hole in the trunk and a stairway leading up to the top. At the roots of the tree, three waterfall streams pass through, which according to legend, emerged from the tree after it was hit by lightning. The three falls became the headwaters of the Rivers of America. As the Magic Kingdom has no treehouse, the waterfalls are instead a standalone element hidden in the forest.
The Pirate's Lair updates at Disneyland would leave the treehouse as one of the few remaining elements of Tom Sawyer on the island, with the treehouse being themed as part of Tom and Huck's pirate playtime with painted masks and the boy's "Pirate names" lining the walls. However, in 2014, the treehouse permanently closed due to safety and accessibility concerns. While it still remains on the island, guests can only walk up to the base.
Injun Joe's Cave
“There are thousands of caves in America. Many of them unexplored, even today. Here is a labyrinth of secret tunnels… colorful strata and curious fossils. A hiding place for buried treasure… Stalagmites form fantastic shapes… and eerie sounds sometimes echo through the silent rooms.”
―Original Disneyland signage
Injun Joe's Cave is inspired by the cave from the climax of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where Tom and Becky are on the run from Injun Joe. It features included a "bottomless pit", cave formations taking on eerie shapes and faces, and unnatural fossil fish.
When Disneyland's version became Pirate's Lair, Injun Joe's Cave was transformed into Dead Man's Cove. This would become the home to some of the supernatural elements of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with the Dead Man's Chest, a treasure room guarded by a cursed Pintel and Ragetti, a skeleton trapped in the former Bottomless Pit, and a prison where an animatronic pirate would turn into a skeleton under the moonlight.
Castle Rock Ridge
A series of rock spires near the center of the island at Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland, Castle Rock was one of the highest points on the island, allowing the guests who climbed to the top of a stone staircase view of the river and surrounding Frontierland/Westernland. Near the base of Castle Rock, guests could travel through the "Dungeon of No Escape". The ridge was also home to "Teeter-Totter Rock" and "Merry-Go-Round Rock", which would be stripped out from Disneyland in later years due to safety concerns. To compensate for their removal, as well as make the Castle Rock spire a safer place, a homemade fort created by the kids was added in the early 2000s. The Castle Rock fort received minimal additions for Pirate's Lair in the form of extra barrel props.
The Magic Kingdom had the Merry-Go-Round and Teeter-Totter Rocks as a standalone play area until the 90s when they were also removed and replaced with the "Tom Sawyer's Salvage Fort" playground. The only park to still retain these elements is Tokyo Disneyland.
Located around Castle Rock Ridge at Disneyland, Pirate's Den was originally a small hideout for River Pirates. With the Pirate's Lair additions, it would be expanded with the addition of a walkthrough shipwreck, alluded to as being the victim of a Kraken attack. When guests walk through the shipwreck, the voice of Davy Jones can be heard warning those who dare inspect the ruins, which contain a skeleton, old weapons, and assorted cargo.
Smuggler's Cove lies on the eastern coast of the island and is home to the island's pontoon barrel bridge and a suspended bridge. Together, these bridges connected the two parts of the island and allowed access to the Fort.
As part of the Pirate's Lair updates new interactive activities were added to the area with shipwrecks that guests could use bilge pumps and pulleys to "salvage the treasure" and reveal the skeletons of pirates still very much attached to the chests. Additionally, a photo-opportunity with the bone cage from Dead Man's Chest was added nearby.
On the far ends of the islands are the forts, known as Fort Wilderness at Disneyland, Fort Langhorne at the Magic Kingdom, and Fort Sam Clemens at Tokyo Disneyland. The forts serve as "last outposts of civilization" on the edge of the backwaters of the Rivers of America. The forts are generally on two-levels, with the towers and upper levels being home to mounted rifles where guests could "shoot" out across the river, and the lower levels being home to a blacksmith shop, stables, and a canteen as well as a secret escape tunnel.
Fort Wilderness at Disneyland was themed around Davy Crockett, with a diorama of him, George Russell, and Andrew Jackson being featured in one of the Fort's offices. Near Fort Wilderness was a small pioneer graveyard, which can also be seen at Tokyo's Fort Sam Clemens. As the original wooden fort became a victim of termites and old age, it closed down to guests in 2003 and functioned as a cast member break-area and dressing room for Fantasmic. While it was totally rebuilt in 2007 as part of the Pirate's Lair work, it never reopened and maintained this function, with a roof being added over the courtyard during the 2016 restructuring of the Island.
Fort Sam Clemens, which was renamed Fort Langhorne at the Magic Kingdom in 1996, took its name from Mark Twain's real name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. While the dioramas at Disneyland were static figures, simple animatronics are used in these forts, including a stable for the horses and a guard sleeping on the job.
Harper's Mill, named after Tom's friend, Joe Harper, can be found in different forms at all three parks, often near the tip of the island closest to Frontierland.
Disneyland's Harper's Mill was originally simply billed as "The Old Mill". In 1992, as part of the development of Fantasmic, the original mill was torn down to create the stage for the show and was officially billed as "Harper's Cider Mill". When Pirate's Lair took over the island, the mill was renamed as Lafitte's Tavern and during the opening summer, was home to a Pirates of the Caribbean stunt show.
The Harper's Mills at the other parks are more of a walkthrough space where guests can see the mechanisms of the water wheel and gears moving. In an homage to the Silly Symphony short, "The Old Mill", an animatronic owl can be seen and heard here, along with the bluebird nest in one of the gears avoiding being crushed. The Mill's gears "creak" to the tune of "Down by the Old Mill Stream". Additionally at the Magic Kingdom, Harper's Mill is joined by a Windmill named Potter's Mill, which lies in the path of a stream.
Old Scratch's Mystery Mine
“I have explored many old mines, but this'un is the best ever! Strange things happen in here so keep a sharp eye out and don't stop for nuthin - Tom”
Found at the Magic Kingdom, Old Scratch's Mystery Mine (originally known as the Magnetic Mystery Mine) is a second "cave" that is designed in the style of "Mystery Spot" roadside attractions to disorient guests as they travel through the dark tunnels, featuring water going uphill, shovels embedded into the rock by some unknown magnetic force, and in the deepest spots of the mine, glowing crystals just out of reach of guests.
Other Pirate's Lair Additions
Near the southern tip of the island is the blacksmith shop of Will Turner. Additionally, deeper into the island is a treasure hoard photo-op that occasionally serves as a meet-and-greet with Jack Sparrow.