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5 Ways to Face Your Worst Nightmares on Tom Sawyer Island

Injun Joe Cave Skulls

The Haunted Mansion. The Tower of Terror. Expedition Everest. The most Magical Place on Earth is no stranger to giving guests a scare. While the most disturbing attractions in Disney history have largely disappeared to the land of lost legends (such as the unusually-violating ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter or Typhoon Lagoon’s nightmare pool, Shark Reef), one bone-chilling experience has stood the test of time from opening day.

Thing is, most guests have never even visited it.

Tom Sawyer Island.

Tom Sawyer Island Sign

Photo: Jett Farrell-Vega

For those unfamiliar, Tom Sawyer Island is the small mass of land across the Rivers of America from Frontierland. It is only accessible by raft and only opens during specific hours during good weather. It’s such an out-of-the-way place that despite thirty years of Disney trips, I’d not stepped foot on it since childhood.

After writing the recent Introvert’s Guide to Walt Disney World (Tom Sawyer Island is a superb refuge from Magic Kingdom crowds), I decided to pull on my explorer’s boots and take a trip to revisit the island, and it was during this reconnaissance mission that I noticed something I’d never realized before.

Tom Sawyer Island might be the scariest attraction in Disney World.

"Welcum" sign

There’s no drops, ghouls, or drooling xenomorphs. Tom Sawyer Island wins this accolade a different way. If one really pays attention, Tom Sawyer Island maintains its mysterious air by preying on base human fears—true phobias that cross the line from fantasy into reality. Indeed, we found five different opportunities on Tom Sawyer Island to plunge into the swirling cauldron of your deepest trepidations—one of which truly can test the mettle of even the most seasoned guest.

One caveat to be aware of: to fully experience the raw terror that is Tom Sawyer Island, time your visit on a weekday in the off-season so that as few people as possible are on the island with you. You’ll thank me (or hate me) later.

Care for a little eerie atmosphere? Pop in a pair of headphones and listen to this while you read.

1. Fear of drowning in a muddy abyss – The Rivers of America

Rivers of America

Your journey begins on a dock. You leave the chipper banjo-strumming of Frontierland behind, wooden planks creaking beneath your feet, and step onto a raft. A cast member smiles warmly as you’re ushered onboard with other explorers, but something about that toothy smile unsettles you as you hear the screams of guests plummeting into a watery void on nearby Splash Mountain.

Smiling Cast member

Image: Jennie Park, Flickr (license)

You’re packed in like sardines until the raft is brimming with bodies. Such a rickety craft doesn’t appear seaworthy under such capacity, but you trust the still-eerily-smiling driver as they push off from the dock and guide your vessel in a dance across the water with other rafts coming and going. Offhandedly, you observe that one raft bears the rather ominous moniker Injun Joe, but your attention is stolen by the water.

The muddy, churning water. It’s not so much a river as a soup where mysterious shapes appear and vanish like specters. As you stare, the waters become not-so-much Rivers of America as the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings. Every so often, whether it be a piece of trash or a gaping catfish, something drifts up from the bottom then disappears.

Oh… and while this has never happened at Disney World, did we mention that in Disneyland, on two different occasions, guests drowned while trying to swim across the Rivers of America after having hidden on Tom Sawyer Island after park closing?

You pry your eyes from the murky waters to notice something rather odd. Are those nets under the bridge leading to Splash Mountain? Whatever do they need those for?

Captain Hook will be displeased...

Because you’re just so lucky, a different kind of shadow slips by in the water: long, scaly, with a grin far toothier than the suspiciously cheerful boat captain. A sickening crunch causes you to jump, but it’s only the mouse-ear wearing grandmother behind you eating Takis. Still, as the alligator slips back into the water, you realize the warning signs on the dock aren’t just Disney magic.

2. Fear of snakes, spiders, and malevolent wildlife – The entire island

Gator Sign on Tom Sawyer Island

You do your best to ignore the ominous “Welcum” sign on the dock (flanked by another alligator and snakes sign). Overall, the island seems rustic, peaceful, charming even. Following the path, you enter Harper’s Mill. Though all seems normal as the millstone rumbles below, you’ve the most peculiar feeling that you’re being watched.

Creepy owl in Harper's Mill

Photo: Jett Farrell-Vega

A yellow-eyed owl peers into your very soul. You continue on your way just a little faster.

You pass another alligator and snake sign and take some time to observe the local wildlife—ducks, ibis, an enormous spider you nearly walk face first into.

Enormous Argiope Spider

Image: John Flannery, Flickr (license)

Now, I’ll digress to admit not every guest might be so fortunate as to see a Golden Orb Weaver or Black and Yellow Argiope spider, but don’t worry. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they can’t see you!

Near the playground, you pass yet another alligator and snake sign. You’ve faced your fear of being mauled by a gator, but just how many snake signs do they need? While it’s extremely rare for guests to come across snakes on Tom Sawyer Island, it isn’t unheard of. You find yourself stepping just a little more lightly. As you continue your explorations, you realize quickly that Tom Sawyer Island gives a clear vibe that even the animals have it out for you here. Don’t believe me? Just peek into the stable at Fort Langhorn.

Creepy chicken in Fort Langhorn

If that’s not murder in that hen’s eyes, I don’t know what is.

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There are 2 comments.

I'm a born and raised local and have been going to the Magic Kingdom for about 35 years. I've been there countless number of times over the decades. I just now went to Tom Sawyer's island for the very first time with my 4 year old daughter. This description of Tom Sawyer's island is perfect. I always knew it was over there but never took the time to go. I don't know why but we just never went. It was always preferable to ride Thunder Mountain for the 300th time then to take the time to go over there. Little did I know how much fun it really is. To me this is quintessential Disney. An amazing corner of the park where you can safely explore and discover on your own. And that is exactly what my 4 year old did. At first she was incredibly frightened (which might have had something to do with me teasing her that it was going to be REALLY scary). She was really hesitant to go in the caves at first but we just reassured her and told her to press on. After the first cave she insisted that she lead us through them instead of following behind me. By the time we got to the fort she was going through the escape tunnel all by herself. She had a marvelous time at this often overlooked part of one of the busiest places in the world. And so did I.

Thank you for the laugh this article gave me. I never considered TSI a 'thrill ride', but now I can't wait to go back!

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