Saturday, May 5, 2018

An Ode to the Tunnel, Mine, and Cave at Walt Disney World's Tom Sawyer Island

Now proceed at your own risk.... these be the last friendly words you'll hear... you may not survive to pass this way again...

Would you dare to venture inside? (Original photo from Theme Park Tourist on Flickr)

Pirates may never have invaded Tom Sawyer Island at Walt Disney World like they did its kin at Disneyland, but this haunting warning from a ghostly voice that once was heard in Pirates of the Caribbean could be the perfect summary of most guest's thoughts as they stare into the murky entrance of any of the three dark and unsettling underground environs to be found on Tom's island. Whether it be a flight from Fort Langhorn in the narrow, claustrophobic Escape Tunnel, a hallucinatory, unbalanced walk through a mine unfettered by the laws of physics in Old Scratch's Mystery Mine, or an unnerving, dreadfully eerie cave where unseen specters pursue you through Injun Joe's Cave, the subterranean passages on Tom Sawyer Island require just a grain of courage to explore and thrives on people who let strange and scary figments of their imagination lurk within the dark recesses underneath Mark Twain's rustic childhood escape. In this ode to the tunnel, mine, and cave on Tom Sawyer Island, I cast each of them in turn into their own stories, weaving my personal experiences into narrative trips into these unique, rich, masterful environments isolated from the rest of the Magic Kingdom.

Escape Tunnel

(Sam Howzit on Flickr)
 As with everything else on Tom Sawyer Island, playing pretend transforms Fort Langhorn and the Escape Tunnel into an experience far simpler and more brilliant than many of the attractions to be found on the "mainland". A war party of marauding Indians seeks to siege the fort. Taking position within the gun roost, you fire upon them, hoping to repel the hostiles. Your attack fails to stop them, and they soon begin their assault on the stockade, getting closer every second to breaking in. Without any weapons to defend yourself, much less the fort, you resort to a desperate measure; once you leave the roost and get back to the ground, you begin your retreat from the fort by descending the flight of stairs that marks the beginning of the Escape Tunnel. Winding your way through the tight paths between the stone and dirt tunnel walls, you hope the enemy does not discover your means of escape and give pursuit. The further away you get from the fort, the harder it becomes to negotiate your way through the ever-narrowing tunnel. You become almost certain that at some point you won't be able to squeeze through a crevice and you'll be doomed. Then suddenly, a brilliant splash of sunlight shines around you as you find your way out of the darkness and complete your escape from Fort Langhorn.

Old Scratch's Mystery Mine

(Sam Howzit on Flickr)
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'!

Stop for nuthin, indeed. That seems easy enough when you first walk into this mine, the lights of lanterns being your only guides through the nebulous black. As you work your way further down the shaft, this mine by all appearances seems normal enough. But then a strange humming noise far off in the distance reaches your ears. And then without warning, the previously level ground beneath your feet dramatically pitches to the right, instantly forcing you to tilt in that direction and even lean against the earthen wall, while the wooden beams above and to the sides of you remain perfectly straight.The humming grows louder, and the tilt and pitch of your path becomes even greater as you enter a large hollowed out room in the mine. The sound of running water intriguing you, you trudge up to the other end of the room, and then turn right and slowly make your way down to the far side. A chamber boarded off from the rest of the space incites your curiosity as to what is behind the wooden slats. Peering through the gaps, you see water trickling from a cavern wall into a sluice. Already disoriented by the skewed room, your mind is ill prepared for more confusion as you see the water in the sluice rise upwards to the other end and fall into a barrel below. Incredulous at what you've seen, you turn, wobbling on the slanted ground, to admire the wonderful waterfall that cascades onto the cavern floor. Mild perplexion becomes absolute bewilderment when you realize that the stream underneath the waterfall is flowing upwards towards the source of the mysterious humming: a magnificent formation of glowing crystals and gems, a multicolored geode oddly resembling the profile of a man.The vibrating noises emanate from the gems, and the entire room seems to tilt towards this strange mass of jewels, suggesting that this formation is the cause for the utter detachment of natural physics from this place, almost like it is a giant magnet attracting the whole mine (and the upwards flowing water) towards its strange glowing crystals. Leaving the heart of this weird mine after a long stop, you breathe a sigh of relief as the ground returns to normal, no longer threatening to send you falling over from dizziness. A sharp left turn reveals a mine tunnel, with massive, tall wooden beams stretching far into the distance, the lanterns hanging above the tunnel and placed within the wall at the far end dimming every so often as the humming continues. Pausing briefly to contemplate this inexplicably captivating sight, you begin to walk down the lonely shaft. In a few moments, you sense something is not quite right. Then you realize that the beams above and next to you are slowly becoming shorter and closer together the farther you travel down this strange tunnel. Down, down down comes the top beam, your head barely clearing the last one as you arrive at the end of the tunnel. A few short turns and twists later, you reunite with the bright outdoors, but the mystery of Old Scratch's mine will always be one a perpetually boggled part of your mind will dwell on.

Injun Joe's Cave

(Sam Howzit on Flickr)
 Do not wurry... Injun Joe aint been seen in thess parts for along time. His cave is deeserted! P.S. If n you want to maybe you could wurry just a little bit.

Leaving the warm, reassuring sunlight behind as you begin your descent into the cold, foreboding darkness of the former home of Injun Joe, you get the feeling that you won't help but wurry quite more than a little bit. The first thing that unnerves you is the perpetual din of howling wind blowing and shrieking its way through the cavern. This passage of stone and rock proves to be a sarcophagus, the last resting place of strange and eccentric creatures from ages past, their fossils entombed in this cave's walls. Further ahead, a slat of wooden planks bars physical but not imaginative access to a small space illuminated by a ghastly red light. You begin to worry, uncertain as to what may be lurking inside this cave. Turning this way and that, you come across an unsettling sight: two gruesome, horrendous faces of stone on the cave walls stare at you with cavernous eyes and gaping mouths, both of which you could walk right into if you dared. Like an ice cold poison, fear and dread begin to seep into you, your subconscious sensing grave danger. All feelings of security or comfort dissipate as you walk past quickly to get away from those piercing eyes and stalactite and stalagmite teeth within their terrible maws. As the path once more becomes a narrow walk between cold, immovable walls of stone, you shudder as you hear the quiet chirping of roosting bats, dreading what should happen if you disturb them. But as the calls of the bats fade away, a truly unsettling noise reaches you: the sound of rattles, some distance ahead of you, daring you to keep going through this awful cave. Not wanting to turn back, but dreading going further, you have a slight moment of apprehension. Like a nightmare, the darkness provides no solace for you as you continue walking through the cavern. The rattling grows louder, and finally, to your absolute despair, you come onto the chamber that is the source of the unbearable din. Dim torches flank both walls, as you stare helplessly at the short, crooked wooden bridge in front of you. Beginning to cross, you look down from the railed edge. An ominous glow emanates from the seemingly bottomless pit that you are walking over. All the while, the infernal rattling tortures your senses, and within the clamor, you hear something that terrifies you beyond description: an angry, unseen spectral ghoul yells in a whisper carried through the air; "Get out! Get out! Get out of here!" The rattling intensifies as the voice grows louder. You do not wait to contemplate the meaning of this spirit's warning. It is clear to you that you must get out of this cave, or the unseen things lurking within the dark that have pursued you ever since you stepped foot in their domain will catch you. Reaching the other side, you leave that cursed chamber, only to moan with dread as you see the utter labyrinth of stone pillars and interconnected paths that lays ahead of you. You swear that a moan responds to you in the distance. Is it merely an echo, or is something sinister toying with you? Feebly attempting to arouse your courage, you reluctantly begin negotiating what seems to be an endless maze of stone, wrong turns, and dead ends. You reach the other side of the room, but to your horror, you cannot see an exit. You're trapped! You stand still, your heart pulsing with dread and fear. Then suddenly, with all the shock of a lightning strike and thundercrack, a horrible creature jumps out in front of you and SCREAMS! You flail and scream back, electrocuted by absolute panic and terror. Your heart threatens to either explode out of your chest or stop altogether. It is only after you recover from your momentary surrender to base human nature that you realize it is no monster that has confronted you. Your devious friend who told you they'd stay at the fort while you went exploring the caves laughs wholeheartedly at your fright-filled expense. Wisely calculating your reaction and subsequent action, he quickly flees to the exit of the cavern from whence he came. His retreat reveals the way out for you, and as you return to the bright world above and see your friend making his getaway across the barrel bridge, you give chase, vowing to get him back for his perfectly timed capstone of your unsettling and frightening exploration of old Injun Joe's cave.

Hurry Back.... Hurry Back....

(Sam Howzit on Flickr)
 No, the cave, mine, and tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island are not like the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean. They are an entirely different experience, one found virtually nowhere else in Walt Disney World, yet rivaling nearly all other WDW attractions in quality, storytelling, and in their possibilities for igniting the imagination. With nothing more advanced or complex than lighting, sound, powerful atmosphere and sights, and masterful low-tech physics illusions in the case of the Mystery Mine, the underground spaces of Tom's island are incredible masterpieces in their own right, harkening back to the simple pleasures of exploration and fears of the unknown that were a staple of Mark Twain's childhood fantasies and some of today's childhoods as well. Combined with the rest of the island, where the whole is greater then the sum of its parts, the caves are but an outstanding part of the intricate magnum opus that is Tom Sawyer Island. Yet, they genuinely deserve a special recognition as isolated experiences of their own, for whom who has ever dared to explore the subterranean worlds of Tom Sawyer Island could deny the true magic of the narrow escape from Fort Langhorn, the disorienting departure from natural laws in a strange mine with a pulsating, magnetic geode of gems, or the ominous and dreadful walk inside a cave where unseen specters and ghouls blur the line between reality and the supernatural?

My own personal tribute to the cave, mine, and tunnel on Tom Sawyer Island in the form of a hand-drawn concept of a fantasy poster featuring the underground realms of Tom's island.