The Swiss Family Treehouse recently returned from refurbishment. Just the usual. Replace some leaves. Paint some props. Fix that water wheel. Again.
Oh, and somebody — a beautiful, wonderful somebody — added an entirely new scene.
To understand what this means, you have to consider what we’re up against.
Blockbusters in Adventureland
By the time the treehouse arrived in Florida, the movie was already a decade old.
The Swiss Family Treehouse was the only theme park attraction ever built around the highest grossing film of 1960 — Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson. The Swiss Family Treehouse debuted first in Disneyland before graduating to the Magic Kingdom Class of ’71. It would later spread to Tokyo and Paris.
In the 1980s, a kid named Shane discovered Swiss Family Robinson through the magic of home video — pirated home video, actually, since dad was one of the few in town who owned two VCRs.
In the movie, the Robinsons defeated the pirates. In my household, the pirates won. We kept that bootleg tape for years.
My siblings and I know every scene by heart. When our friends the Kirkpatricks would come over, we would play Swiss Family Robinson. Everybody got to be a member of the Robinson clan — except we had an extra girl, so my poor younger sister had to be the monkey.
We convinced our parents to let us go swimming in our jeans because the Robinsons wore pants while sliding down waterfalls. This is also where I learned that swimming in jeans is not at all comfortable.
At some point, budding filmmaker Shane wrote the script to Swiss Family Robinson 2: The Robinsons’ Cruise. It remains the great lost film of that generation.
By 1999, the kids who first watched Swiss Family Robinson in movie theaters were now approaching retirement age. Disneyland had a decision to make. It took them half a minute.
The Robinsons moved out. Tarzan moved in.
Unlike when Winnie-the-Pooh evicted Mr. Toad, park fans received the news with a sigh of ambivalence. The only one who seemed bothered by it was a young adult named Shane, who by now had a framed movie poster in his office and still counted Swiss Family Robinson among his all-time favorite movies, right up there with Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, it became the first Magic Kingdom-style park not to include the Swiss Family Treehouse. They got the Tarzan version instead.
A few years later, Shane began writing about his love of the Swiss Family Treehouse on a little blog called Parkeology. He discussed throwaway movie references on the Jungle Cruise, declared the Swiss Family Treehouse the definitive Magic Kingdom attraction, and demonstrated why Disneyland’s version was inferior. He even discovered other forgotten scenes from the Treehouse.
In 2015, Disney legend Kevin Corcoran — who played little Francis in the film — passed away, leaving Tommy Kirk as the last surviving cast member.
The clock has been ticking for decades now. It’s no surprise that corporate Disney is much more interested in red-hot IP like Marvel and Star Wars than a Technicolor classic from the vault that is now almost 60 years old.
With each scheduled refurbishment, the panic intensifies. The walls go up, the Treehouse goes to sleep, and we wonder if it will ever awaken again.
One day, those tarps will come down and in its place will be Anna and Elsa’s Summer Treehouse. Let’s face it. Even Tarzan is 20 years old by now.
The Swiss Family Treehouse Gets a New Scene
Last October, the Treehouse came out from under refurbishment. The Robinsons had survived.
But something was different.
It’s a newly cleared area, just to the right of the Robinsons’ kitchen as you’re leaving the attraction. The new scene incorporates a little waterfall that has always been part of the Treehouse landscape. It appears to be a waiting area for wheelchair guests, while the rest of the party traverses the narrow stairs.
The props must be confusing to the average guest. Just a series of festive flags strung between brightly-striped poles. And right next to it, a bamboo chair adorned with some palm fronds.
Who knows what people think when they see this little set-up? I heard more than one person refer to it as Jack Sparrow’s throne. The flags are just as puzzling.
It takes a true fan to recognize it.
The Movie Time Forgot
There’s a scene that takes place in the movie where the Robinsons declare the first national holiday in the history of their island. As part of the festivities, they stage a race, with each of the children riding on various exotic animals like elephants, ostriches, and zebras. The monkey (as played by my sister) rode the dog.
The family never gets to finish the race because the pirates show up, leading to an exciting third act battle.
Somebody at Imagineering must still love the movie because the new Swiss Family Treehouse scene is straight from the animal race. The chair is the starter’s chair, from which Mother (Dorothy McGuire) presides over the race, and which eldest son Fritz is responsible for decorating the night before.
The striped poles and flags form the starting line. Father and Ernst can be seen stringing them together just before first-grader Francis catches a tiger (I told you the movie was awesome).
After decades of assuming the treehouse was on the chopping black, it is incredible that Disney has actually gone and added more details to it.
And not only have they plussed the attraction, they’ve added something that doesn’t even make sense to the average guest.
It’s not another ingenious water feature like that paddlewheel, which is interesting for its own sake. It’s not a placemaking vignette to reinforce the “adventurous” or “shipwreck” mood of Adventureland.
Instead, it’s a direct nod to the movie, only recognizable in that context. And even then, it is a painstaking recreation of props that are not even central to the plot. Though they are clearly seen in the movie, the camera is more focused on the animal hijinks than anything to do with an elaborate bamboo chair.
I can hardly believe they’ve done it.
Give it a look next time you’re in the Magic Kingdom. The Swiss Family Treehouse could use some more turnstile clicks. And check out Swiss Family Robinson on video. I promise you’ll love it.
Let me know if you need a copy.
l love this movie and like you my imagination extended to the pool but instead of swimming in jeans I pretended to battling with a snake as splashed up and down in the water yelling “get the knife!” I was sad when the three house was turned into Tarzan’s Tree House at Disneyland happy to discover (weather on purpose or from oversight) a phonograph playing to the tune the boys danced to as they fought over the girl survived the renovation. It is good to learn they are adding items back – I’m excited but nervous about rumors of a Disney + TV show being in the works. If the show is good, maybe Tarzan’s tree house won’t become Elsa and Anna’s summer home but reclaim the proper title “Swiss Family Tree House.”
Revisited the SFTH for the first time in over a decade this last April. My wife of 40 years and I remember visiting Magic Kingdom in 1977 and going through the Treehouse. I noticed it was recently reopened after “refurbishment”. As we were now ‘on our own’ with no kids in tow seeking the wiz-bang-wow, we decided to take a stroll down memory lane, late in the day. It was a nice respite. We noticed the new scene, but neither of us could remember where we had seen it in the movie. Thanks for the refresher/reminder. Great blog.
Thanks Mark! I agree, the slower-paced attractions at Disney are often the most rewarding, but it takes a certain mindset and dedication to spend time in them when so much of the marketing is about the big thrill rides.
This is great! I have loved the treehouse since I first saw it as a kid, and have always loved seeing the details they put in. I promise my family will give it some turnstile clicks next time we go. I haven’t seen it much in recent years because an arthritic hip makes it hard to climb stairs, but I’ll make the sacrifice.
We’re introducing a new generation to the Robinsons! It is one of our 6 year old’s favorite movies. We even own a non-bootleg DVD!
Introducing new fans tot he movie is the only way to keep this thing alive. Thanks for doing your part!
Shane, like you said, I feel like we might have passed the “Tarzan window” at this point and can breathe a sigh of relief with the SFTH hanging around for a while. Adventureland in particular is my favorite area in all of WDW and this treehouse is a big part of that. I also really really love the bridge from Adventureland to Liberty Squre. I love how the lanterns on it work so well when comparing the theming of Adventureland to Liberty Square. One of my favorite “small theming” details.
Adventureland is probably my favorite MK area as well. I wish it were also not the most crowded. For some reason, the intimate corridors that exude “Adventure” also equate to traffic clogs. I confess to not paying attention to the AL/LS bridge lanterns. I’ll give that one a look next time I’m in the park!
Truly surprising there are no skulls fixed atop the post. But really, I’m very happy with this detail. Says a lot about the value of the Tree House.
Nothing like the remains of human heads to really class up the joint!
I’m afraid I haven’t seen the movie but I love the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse at Magic Kingdom and I’m glad they’ve kept the theme, not to mention how it is that they would actually add a new detail.
I think Disney might have the attitude of keeping Florida’s Magic Kingdom more “classic” whereas California’s Disneyland is more “anything goes” despite the fact that Disneyland is actually older.
Oh how I loved this movie as a kid in the 80’s. We did not quite have a bootleg copy…but we did record the Disney Sunday Movie Version, and as my Dad preferred we edited out the commercials. My Dad was a child of the 50’s so he made sure to subject me to the favorites of his childhood (20k, Swiss Family, etc.). Dad still calls movies put out by the studio as “Walt Disney” films. I’ll ask him how a particular film was(One of the Pirates movies for example) and he’ll respond ” Oh it was good…typical Walt Disney”. I must confess to have be slightly annoyed(but otherwise glad it bought the original tree some time) by the Tarzan conversion(I’m a so Cal native in exile on the east coast). When I walked the WDW version for the first time in 2015 it was so much fun to be “back”…always have loved the Swisskapolka!
It is the quintessential Disney live action movie. Swiss Family Robinson defined the word “adventure” for me. Jungle paradise, wild animals, thrilling pirate battles. It is everything a kid could hope for.
This is a little off topic, but I wonder why they didn’t put a “Last Flight of Noah’s Ark” raft walkthrough in one of the lagoons nearby the Treehouse? It would have been a great early 80’s IP and a great way to commemorate an Elliot Gould classic!
I think that scene in the movie is where Frank Costanza got his inspiration for Festivus.
I remember walking through the tree house when I was a kid and thinking that I wanted to have one built in my back yard when I grew up.
A Seinfeld reference beats out the Black Hole? You have jumped 20 years into the future!
But I do agree. It was (and still is) my dream to have my own Swiss Family Treehouse.
Wonderful and, as everyone’s said, really unexpected to see a great and obscure detail like this added to a true classic.
Now if they could just replace one of the Tomorrowland Speedway cars with a Nova Sterling “Condormobile” I’ll be in Disney-obscurity heaven!
Condorman is tragically under-exploited.
The Swiss Family Treehouse provides one of my favorite Magic Kingdom memories from me teen years. We were leaving the park after closing one evening and almost everyone was out of Adventureland. (I think we had ridden Splash Mountain right at closing, this was back in 1995). As were walking by the Treehouse it was quiet enough where you could hear the organ faintly playing Swisskapolka high above. My uncle looked up and started moving slightly with the lower tones as exclaimed, “Those crazy Robinsons, they NEVER sleep!” I know it is probably a “you had to be there” moments, but it still brings a big smile to my face to think about when I walk by.
It’s a never ending Polka Party. Those wacky Robinsons!
This is actually a super cool find!
Loved reading about this.
It’s nice to see there are still people at the mouse who care about the small details
Thanks, very happy about this one, obviously. So strange to see corporate Disney allowing background prop recreations from a 60 year old movie!
I’m guessing the fact it probably cost them less then 500 dollars to make and put up was a big part of that. But I will take what I can get these days!!
Wow- it’s wonderful to see that Disney has still got some Disney
Yep, this was completely unexpected. I mean, this is a super obscure reference. I still can’t believe it.
I thought I was dreaming when I saw it. I did not expect this from the Disney of today.