Disneyland artists share story behind Adventureland Treehouse

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Like many a child, no doubt, Kevin Kidney fantasized about living at Disneyland. But he didn’t imagine himself swashbuckling with pirates or cavorting with ghosts. His special place was more serene.

Kidney’s spot was the original Swiss Family Treehouse, built in 1962 and tucked away in Adventureland near the Jungle Cruise. His adoration of the treehouse instilled in him a lifelong love of the attraction and the film it was based upon. Kidney, now an accomplished designer and artist whose creative studio collaborates often with the Walt Disney Co., recollects on why the treehouse — an attraction that can be overlooked among today’s more modern thrills — is unique.

“It’s one of the few attractions that is very hands-on,” Kidney says. “You’re propelling yourself up at your own pace. The things you’re allowed to touch — the tree trunk — gives you more of a sensory, ‘you are there’ experience. You’re not under a lap bar in a moving vehicle.”

In 1999, Disney revamped the Swiss Family Treehouse, updating it to reflect Walt Disney Animation’s take on “Tarzan.” With it came some light interactive and digital touches, but Disneyland and Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of the company responsible for theme park experiences, has given Tarzan the boot.

In once again updating the treehouse, the park has looked to its past. The recently reopened Adventureland Treehouse Inspired by Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson — yes, that’s its full name — shifts its focus to more old-fashioned theme park trickery.

Abstract, environmental storytelling, and some cleverly designed mechanical animals — you’ll want to spend some time watching Jane the Ostrich — has given the Adventureland Treehouse a fresh-yet-retro makeover. Numerous touches, such as a large waterwheel, which provides a jolt of movement and energy to Adventureland pathways, nod to the original story, which was inspired by the 1960 Disney film “Swiss Family Robinson.” But as much as it pulls from the Swiss Family tale, even by keeping family names anonymous, it is not, say Imagineers, the Swiss Family story.

That makes the Adventureland Treehouse the rare theme park attraction not tied to a modern Disney film or series — or intellectual property (IP), in industry speak. Today, Disneyland, and the park’s patriarch, Walt Disney, have become their own sort of IP, as Disneyland has become something akin to a cultural institution built upon multigenerational nostalgia.

“We don’t get many opportunities to do this,” says Imagineer Michele Hobbs, one of the key architects of the Adventureland Treehouse revamp. “I think the treehouse, for most of us, is a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor. Honoring Walt’s legacy and the legacy of the original Swiss Family Treehouse was important to us and the fundamental reason for creating this new IP. While the original IP was fantastic, we wanted to build upon that in today’s day and age and bring a new family in with their own unique qualities.”

Of course, there were other more practical reasons for embarking on the yearlong remodel. Over the decades, current and former Imagineers have spoken of the “Tarzan” update as a way to ensure that a piece of Disneyland history — one that dated to the Walt era — could continue to have a home in the park. But more than 20 years removed from the release of the animated film, the “Tarzan” property was simply becoming a bit stale. With static figures that didn’t move, Tarzan’s Treehouse was also starting to look and feel outdated.

“Through the years, it became a little less popular,” said Kim Irvine, the Walt Disney Imagineer and creative executive who long served as Disneyland’s art director, of the original Swiss Family Treehouse. “‘Tarzan’ the movie came out, so we decided maybe we should put IP in there and change the story to ‘Tarzan.’ That was successful for many years. … But come forward to now, we thought that IP was not really that popular anymore and we really [wanted] to keep that tree.”

A mechanical monkey attempting to control a food timer in the Adventureland Treehouse.

Humorous scenes, such as this monkey trying to manipulate a feeder, dot the Adventureland Treehouse.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

First order of business was removing the suspension bridge of rope and weathered wood planks, as well as the stairwell that led to it, which was added for “Tarzan.” This freed up important Adventureland real estate, and allowed for sightlines to be redirected to the original treehouse and out into New Orleans Square. Imagineering then set out to re-create the original Swiss Family Treehouse waterwheel, calling upon the company’s archives division to dig up the historical structure. Today it was in pieces, but Irvine said the new waterwheel was built on molds from the original.

The waterwheel, says Kidney, who along with Jody Daily is working on a book inspired by Disney’s “Swiss Family Robinson” film, was a key piece of Disneyland lore. “It’s just so much fun to watch the little cups of bamboo scoop up the water down in the river and carry them all the way to the top,” he says. “It was so cool. A big turning waterwheel was kinetic. Without the waterwheel, it was just a treehouse with steps that you went up and came down. It really was spectacular with that water system. That’s what made you want to run and jump in there and find out how it all worked.”

In the updated story, the water has mystical powers, essentially providing power to the treehouse and each of the rooms for the family of five. There are water pipes in each room, many of them connected to some sort of moving contraption. See, for instance, the music room, where a brass-looking, water-spewing elephant trunk fuels the instruments, including an ornate orchestrion. In other rooms, the water is propelling an animal food timer for all of the critters and mammals that live in the treehouse. Here, guests will spy a hanging monkey, trying to manipulate the clock to give him more food.

Animals abound throughout the treehouse. We’re told to watch for fire ants, will spy tiny hopping frogs and many tree branches contain some sort of colorful pet. The new Adventureland Treehouse is a place built for patience. Expect guests to linger near the entrance, home to an ostrich named Jane, which is a callback to both “Tarzan” and a pivotal scene from the “Swiss Family Robinson” film. Jane saunters back and forth, bobbing up and down, and gives guests a quizzical, skeptical look.

A wide shot of the musical instruments in one of the rooms of the Adventureland Treehouse.

The mother’s room in the Adventureland Treehouse, which is filled with musical instruments including a harp, lute, guitar and organ.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

“A direction from the beginning was to fundamentally make things visually charming and not complicated and complex, to give folks the opportunity to view a scene, see certain kinetics and hear the audio,” Hobbs says. “This is a walk-through experience, so guests can spend as much time or as little time as they like. We wanted to check all the boxes for those who wanted to walk through and those who wanted to linger. It’s not prescriptive. It can be as you want it to be.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the treehouse does have many steps, and will therefore not be accessible all guests. Irvine said Disney did an elevator study in 1999 when it added “Tarzan,” but found it wasn’t feasible for the 1962 structure. This time, Imagineers created a ground floor room of artwork featuring interpretations of each major space in the treehouse, which is designed to give guests who can’t make the climb a taste of what’s inside. Also on the lower level, of course, is Jane. Additionally, those with visual disabilities have the option to use audio-description as they explore the treehouse.

Playing throughout the treehouse is a jaunty song, the “Swiss Family”-associated “Swisskapolka.” Walt Disney Imagineering gave the song a new arrangement, one that is tweaked for each room in the space, as different figures or objects will move in time to the tune. It ensures the song is less repetitive than it could be, as it becomes more of a work of curiosity with each corner of the treehouse having its own twist on the number.

A close up of Jane's neck, an audio-animatronic at Disneyland's Adventureland Treehouse.

Jane the ostrich at Disneyland’s Adventureland Treehouse.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

The only room without the tune is the daughter’s, as her astronomy-obsessed nook is outfitted with a large telescope and twilight-hued planet mobiles. “The daughter is an astronomer,” says Hobbs. “She’s like, ‘Hey, you guys have your thing. I’m gonna play my tunes over here and read the charts.’” The space is quieter, with a more ethereal soundtrack.

But after the brief, mid-climb break, it’s back to the “Swisskapolka,” a song that has a certain bouncy quality it. Kidney is glad that it’s back, for it gave the treehouse a sense of life.

“It’s so fun and sprightly,” he says. “It works. It’s got a great beat to it, and a rhythm that kind of mimics running up and down stairs. It becomes the soundtrack of your activity of climbing up the treehouse.”

Hobbs says a thematic goal of the revamp was to create something aspirational. That’s a key reason, she says, characters are kept somewhat anonymous.

“It was creating a new story with characters that you or I could see ourselves being,” Hobbs says. “I could take my family in there, and we could play those roles and aspire to be in that room without having to associate it with anything else. As I go up to the daughter’s room, my son or daughter could aspire to love astronomy, or go to the boys’ room and see their love of animals and nature.”

The goal, Hobbs says, is to create an extension of the guest, to hint at “something they want to aspire to be.”

Sadly, however, for all the kids who dream of living in the treehouse, just as Kevin Kidney once did, none of the rooms are available for rent.

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