May 1956 – July 2003
Frontierland – Fort Wilderness was the headline attraction on Tom Sawyer Island, located in the middle of the Rivers of America. To reach the island, guests boarded rafts on the Frontierland shoreline. Once on the island, the fort could be found on the western side of the island. Today, this space is part of Pirate’s Lair.
Tom Sawyer Island was not an area originally accessible to guests. When Disneyland opened, there were no rafts to the island and no attractions to see even if guests could have reached the shoreline. But before long, observant guests spotted construction crews on the island, building a brand new Frontierland attraction.
The island opened to the public in 1956, almost a year later. Guests could now take rafts across the Rivers of America, and then walk the scenic trails of the island or explore the 19th century Fort towering above the treetops. For almost 40 years, Fort Wilderness was a central part of Disneyland’s waterfront, and it became a fan favorite attraction, especially for adventurous children.
Fort Wilderness was a large walkthrough attraction, with many different activities, viewpoints, and grounds to explore. Around the fort, guests could walk nature trails, view distant teepees, and catch a glimpse of a burning cabin in the distance. Within the fort walls, guests found cabins to visit and stairs to climb, each leading to a unique activity or section of the fort. The various areas inside Fort Wilderness included:
- The Canteen & Trading Post – Fort Wilderness’ gift shop, stocked with toy guns, animal pelts, and even specialty knives.
- Parapets & Block Houses – The fort’s safety towers gave guests the chance to scope out the wild frontier, and keep the fort safe from any impending danger.
- Rifle Roost – Particularly brave wilderness explorers could guard the fort from the rifle roost, a tall section of the wall with a series of toy rifles.
- Regimental Headquarters – The most important space in Fort Wilderness was the Headquarters cabin, home to Major General Andrew Jackson. Guests could find General Jackson at his desk, always busy with a pile of papers and messages from fort commanders.
- Secret Escape Tunnel – When their time in the fort was done, guests could leave in style…through the secret escape tunnel back onto the lower island!
The Fort was not an attraction that closed suddenly or unexpectedly; it slowly deteriorated over time until it became a safety issue. In the 1990s, maintenance cuts throughout the park meant the Fort was no longer kept in pristine condition, and several of its special effects were shut off. But the final nail in the coffin for Fort Wilderness was an incident in 2001, when a 6-year-old visitor lost most of her finger from an accident in the Rifle Roost. Tom Sawyer Island briefly closed for an investigation, and when the island reopened, the Roost was no longer accessible to the public.
Over the next year or so, more and more pieces of the Fort closed. First, the Escape Tunnel was blocked off, then the canteen closed, and finally, the gates to the Fort shut completely in 2003. After the fort closed, Tom Sawyer Island went through an extensive refurbishment and overhaul, to address safety concerns with the existing infrastructure, and to install Pirate’s Lair. When the island reopened, the gates to the fort remained sealed. Disney finally confirmed that the Fort would never reopen four years later, in 2007.
Observant visitors might notice there is still a fort on Tom Sawyer Island bearing the name “Fort Wilderness”. This is not the original fort, but a replica built in 2007. The original fort was torn down, to be replaced by a much smaller shell. The inside of the new fort is a staging and costume area for Fantasmic!, and is not an attraction. The new fort façade sits farther back on the island than the original Fort Wilderness.
The various bridges and rock areas the island is known for weren’t added until 1957, so Fort Wilderness was the only attraction in this area for its first year of operation.
The rafts to the island departed from the same location they do now, but they docked on the other side of the island, next to the mill. The raft route changed when the island went through its extensive overhaul in 2003.