LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – While Cinderella Castle is an undisputed gem of design, art and engineering, if you make a left from the hub, just past the Crystal Palace restaurant and across the bridge to Adventureland — you’ll immediately see one of my favorite gems of the kingdom; that is, if you see it at all.
Many people overlook the Swiss Family Treehouse as just part of the foliage in a lush part of the Magic Kingdom, but it is an attraction with a storied history.
Disney’s horticulture team often highlights notable plants throughout the parks with plaques listing their Latin names, but this one is almost one of a kind. Imagineers dubbed it a “Disneyodendron eximius”, which literally translates to “out-of-the-ordinary Disney tree,” and I know of only four variants in the world.
The first appeared in Disneyland in California back in 1962, with others appearing in 1992 on Adventure Isle in Disneyland Paris, and in 1993 as a 10th birthday present for Tokyo Disneyland. All of them can trace their roots to a real-life tree in Tobago, featured in the 1960 movie “Swiss Family Robinson.
While Disney Studios set designers were challenged with building a functioning treehouse to survive the rigors of a multi-month film shoot, Imagineers faced a more daunting job: create one that can withstand Florida hurricanes. They had practice in constructing realistic-looking trees before Walt Disney World, first with one built for The Tahitian Terrace restaurant and with the original Swiss Family Treehouse in Disneyland.
Design for Florida’s version started very early in planning for The Magic Kingdom and — like most of The Florida Project — was meant to be on a grander scale. While it was never meant to draw people from across the globe, it was prominently featured in early marketing — even long before the park opened.
So what did it take to “build” what nature creates with just seeds, earth, water and sunshine? Start with 200 tons of steel, plaster and stucco, with concrete roots penetrating 42 feet into the ground.
After that was finished, and as painting got underway, construction teams had to hand-attach some 800,000 vinyl leaves and synthetic flowers — often one at a time while dangling from one of 600 branches that spread over 90 feet wide and up to a height of 60 feet above the ground.
A 1970 report in “The Orlando Evening Star” newspaper says a California company called Steelcon Detailing Service opened an office called Wardco in Winter Garden to help build Disney World and the Treehouse was one of their most intricate projects.
The steel basis for each trunk, limb and branch, along with the below-ground supports, had to be hand-cut and shaped at their fabrication facility in Ocoee, then trucked to the construction site and bolted into place. The skeleton alone was made up of 50 pre-assembled pieces.
While Imagineers created a wheel and pulley system to haul water to the top for the family’s living quarters, that wasn’t the only water they had to plan for. The director of building safety told The Orlando Sentinel early on that it was the only treehouse in the world with its own fire sprinkler system.
So what did guests discover in 1971, after handing over their B-ticket to enter the attraction?
It’s actually, almost identical to what you can see right now: stairs. Lots of Stairs. 116 of them from the bottom to the top.
They wind their way through the Robinson Family’s living quarters, showing off the clever re-use of nearly all of the parts of their wrecked ship. Fortunately, they saved the organ they were carrying with them, which plays a tune called “Swisskapolka.”
After moving through the bedrooms, you are treated with some beautiful views of the park in all directions — even if it is a little jarring seeing Space Mountain from your perch on a tropical Island.
While the tree itself features imagineered leaves and flowers, Disney’s horticulture team has done a remarkable job over 50 years showcasing real tropical foliage that fits the theme, yet can cope with the extreme heat, rain and sometimes frost and freezes.
Even if the average guest somehow doesn’t notice the attraction, they would definitely notice if it was not there — adding shade and atmosphere to one of the Magic Kingdom’s most immersive lands. Travel to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, however, and there is no missing the grandson of Swiss Family Treehouse.
The Tree of Life serves as that park’s icon, standing 145 feet tall, 50 feet wide, with more than 8,000 branches, and 102,000 leaves. While that’s a smaller number of leaves than the Swiss Family Treehouse. each one on The Tree of Life is over a foot long. You could call it the world’s largest bonsai tree.