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