Disneyland artists share the story behind Adventureland Treehouse

Like many children, Kevin Kidney undoubtedly fantasized about life at Disneyland. But he couldn't imagine hanging out with pirates or jumping around with ghosts. His special place was more serene.

Kidney's place was the original Swiss Family Treehouse, built in 1962 and tucked away in Adventureland near the Jungle Cruise. His adoration for the treehouse instilled in him a lifelong love for the attraction and the film on which it was based. Kidney, now an accomplished designer and artist whose creative studio often collaborates with Walt Disney Co. and recalls 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,” says Kidney. “You push yourself up at your own pace. The things you can touch – the tree trunk – give you more of a sensory 'you are there' experience. You don't sit under a lap bar in a moving vehicle.”

In 1999, Disney updated the Swiss Family Treehouse, revamping it to reflect Walt Disney Animation's take on “Tarzan.” There were some light interactive and digital touches, but Disneyland and Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of the company responsible for theme park experiences, gave Tarzan a chance.

When renewing the tree house, the park looked to the past. The recently reopened Adventureland Treehouse, inspired by Walt Disney's Swiss Robinson family – yes, that's its full name – shifts the focus to more old-fashioned theme park trickery.

Summary, environmental stories, and some cleverly designed mechanical animals (you'll want to spend some time watching Jane the Ostrich) have given the Adventureland Treehouse a fresh, yet retro makeover. Numerous accents, such as a large water wheel that provides a jolt of motion and energy on the paths of Adventureland, hark back to the original story, which was inspired by the 1960 Disney film “Swiss Family Robinson.” But as much as it draws from the story of the Swiss family, even if the family names remain anonymous, it is, say Imagineers, not the story of the Swiss family.

That makes Adventureland Treehouse the rare theme park attraction that isn't tied to a modern Disney film or series – or intellectual property (IP), in industry terms. Today, Disneyland and the park's patriarch, Walt Disney, have become their own kind of IP, as Disneyland has become something akin to a cultural institution built on multi-generational nostalgia.

“We don't get many opportunities to do this,” says Imagineer Michele Hobbs, one of the key architects of the Adventureland Treehouse renewal. “I think the treehouse is a one-time endeavor for most of us. 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 on that today and bring in a new family with their own unique qualities.”

Of course, there were even more practical reasons to start the years-long renovation. Over the decades, current and former Imagineers have talked about the “Tarzan” update as a way to ensure that a piece of Disneyland history — one that dates back to the Walt era — could continue to have a home in the park to have. But more than two decades removed from the animated film's release, the ownership of “Tarzan” was just starting to get a little stale. With static figures that didn't move, Tarzan's Treehouse also started to look and feel old-fashioned.

“Over the years it became a little less popular,” says Kim Irvine, the Walt Disney Imagineer and creative director who was Disneyland's longtime art director of the original Swiss Family Treehouse. “The movie 'Tarzan' came out, so we decided maybe we should put IP in it and change the story to 'Tarzan.' That was successful for many years. …But come on now, we thought IP wasn't really that popular anymore and it really was [wanted] to save that tree.”

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

Humorous scenes, such as this monkey trying to manipulate a food bowl, can be found in the Adventureland Treehouse.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

The first order of business was to remove the suspension bridge made of rope and weathered wooden planks, as well as the stairwell leading to it, which had been added for 'Tarzan'. This freed up key real estate in Adventureland and allowed sight lines to be rerouted to the original treehouse and to New Orleans Square. Imagineering then set out to recreate the original Swiss Family Treehouse water wheel, calling on the company's archives department to unearth the historic structure. Today it was in pieces, but Irvine said the new waterwheel was built on molds of the original.

The water wheel, says Kidney, who is working with Jody Daily on a book inspired by Disney's “Swiss Family Robinson” film, was an important part of Disneyland's lore. “It's so fun to watch the little bamboo heads scoop up the water in the river and carry it all the way to the top,” he says. “It was so cool. A large spinning water wheel was kinetic. Without the water wheel it was just a tree house with steps to go up and down. It was really spectacular with that water system. That's what made you want to run and jump in 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 every room, many of which are connected to some sort of moving device. See, for example, the music room, where a copper-colored, gargoyle elephant's trunk fuels the instruments, including an ornate orchestra trio. In other rooms, the water powers a pet food timer for all the critters and mammals that live in the treehouse. Here, guests will spy a hanging monkey, who is trying to manipulate the clock to give him more food.

Animals are plentiful in the treehouse. We're told to keep an eye out for fire ants, spy small hopping frogs, and many tree branches harbor some sort of colorful pet. The new Adventureland Treehouse is a place built for patience. Expect guests to linger at the entrance, home to an ostrich named Jane, which is a reference to both “Tarzan” and a pivotal scene from the movie “Swiss Family Robinson.” Jane strolls back and forth, bobs up and down, and looks at the guests questioningly and skeptically.

A wide shot of the musical instruments in one of the rooms at 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)

“The idea from the beginning was to make things fundamentally visually charming and not complicated and complex, to give people the opportunity to look at a scene, see some of the kinetics and hear the audio,” says Hobbs. “This is a walk-through experience, so guests can spend as much or as little time as they want. We wanted to tick all the boxes for those who wanted to walk through and those who wanted to linger. It is not prescriptive. It can be whatever you want.”

It is of course worth noting that the treehouse has many steps and therefore will not be accessible to all guests. Irvine said Disney did an elevator study in 1999 when it added “Tarzan,” but found it wasn't feasible for the 1962 building. This time, Imagineers created a ground-floor space with 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 there is of course Jane. Additionally, visually impaired people have the option to use audio description while exploring the treehouse.

A cheerful song associated with the “Swiss Family” plays throughout the tree house.Swisskapolka.” Walt Disney Imagineering gave the song a new arrangement, one that is customized for each room in the space as different figures or objects move in time to the melody. It makes the song less repetitive than it could be, as it becomes more of a curiosity, with each corner of the treehouse putting its own spin on the song.

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

Jane the Ostrich at Adventureland Treehouse at Disneyland.

(Christian Thompson / Disneyland Resort)

The only room without the tune is the daughter's, as her astronomy-obsessed corner is equipped with a large telescope and dim planet mobiles. “The daughter is an astronomer,” Hobbs says. “She says, 'Hey, you guys have your thing. I'm going to play my tunes here and read the charts.'” The space is quieter, with a more ethereal soundtrack.

But after the short break halfway through the climb it's back to the 'Swisskapolka', a song with a certain bounce. Nier is happy to have him back because it gave the treehouse a feeling of life.

“It's so fun and lively,” he says. “It works. There's a great beat to it, and a rhythm that's like running up and down stairs. It becomes the soundtrack to your activity: climbing the treehouse.”

Hobbs says a thematic goal of the revamp was to create something ambitious. That's a big reason, she says, that the characters remain somewhat anonymous.

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

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

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

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