On the very day that Disneyland closed down the Rivers of America to begin installation of the new Star Wars-themed land, the Disney Parks Blog posted a beautiful piece of poster-worthy concept art showing what the new northern reaches of the far frontier are going to look like.
Since the concept art left too much to the imagination as to what the new shape of the river will take, I took the liberty of transposing it onto a Google map of Disneyland. Here is a speculative map of Frontierland's future...
Plausibly, the river could even be truncated more than that, but I think this gives a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect. The new Disneyland Railroad route will come out of Splash Mountain, cross over Critter Country, then swing back behind the Hungry Bear to a new route directly along the Rivers of America. It will then carry over between Star Wars Land and Frontierland, adjacent to Big Thunder Trail. Another trestle bridge appears to carry the train over guests who are veering off to A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Given the situation, I think this is about as good as it gets. It looks as though the two major features that were at risk of being lost altogether - the Native American village and Mike Fink's cabin (the former burning settler's cabin) - are just going to be shifted south along with the new waterfront. The new alignment appears to provide some much-needed visual interest to both the railway and the river. For guests aboard the train, they will now receive a much more rewarding view of the river and a dynamic stretch of crags and waterfalls to cross. For guests on the river and Tom Sawyer Island, the old time, frontier-looking steam trains will actually be clearly visible from Frontierland for the first time in decades. The new waterfront does lose a certain aspect of the far-flung wilderness, since there will be virtually no time along the Mark Twain Riverboat's trip where you will be completely immersed in forest, but under the circumstances it's a relatively small price to pay.
Though having made my pitch for respecting Disneyland as a museum, and kvetched over the mounting losses of Disneyland's quiet spaces, I haven't been overly concerned or pessimistic about this project. I don't think I've ever met anyone who is dead set against any changes ever happening to Disneyland, which is part of what can make the blanket rebuttal of "Walt said Disneyland would never be complete, so any changes Disneyland does are automatically pre-approved and you can't be critical of them!" so frustrating. That is usually followed with crude dismissals about critics being emotional, nostalgia-driven haters of everything new, which unnecessarily muddies the discussion. Please, please just end that tiresome cliché. The question is always how necessary the changes are and how well they were done. Does the change actually improve the experience? Or does it diminish the experience? Is the change coherent? Does it respect the integrity, themeing, and pacing of the park, land, or the attraction? Does it respect the historicity of the park, which is important for a park only really set apart by its historicity? Is it merely a change for the sake of marketing or cost-cutting? Is the change any good?
I like the addition of Constance and the Hatbox Ghost to the Haunted Mansion, because they are coherent with the characters, technology, humour, and themeing of the ride. I dislike the addition of Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones to Pirates of the Caribbean, because they are incoherent with the characters, technology, and storyline of the ride, introducing far too many problems into the ride's narrative and mood than the changes are worth. I don't mind the addition of Disney characters to It's A Small World because they are relatively innocuous, but I don't like the addition of an America section because it literally looks like it is from a different ride (which it is, having been imported from the Paris version). The new animatronics and effects in the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Peter Pan's Flight are great, except that you can now see the edges of Neverland floating out in space. The Finding Nemo overlay to the Submarine Voyage is lame, for the same reason that any ride built around watching somebody else having an adventure is lame. It would be impossible for any person to argue that New Orleans Square was not an improvement on the Swift Chicken Plantation, or that taking the Court of Angels away from the average guest does not in turn diminish New Orleans Square. Given Disney's uneven track record in actually improving something that they "plus" or alter, receiving news of another renovation is justifiably met with apprehension. I'll never forget the announcement of Disneyland's Fantasy Faire at the D23 Expo in 2011, where the only applause was reserved for the news that they weren't completely tearing out the bandstand. Fantasy Faire did turn out to be a charming little extension of Fantasyland, but it says a lot when "exciting news" is met with anything less than excitement.
Anyways, that this project has involved a mere truncation of the river rather than an outright loss of Tom Sawyer Island, the Rivers of America, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, and Fantasmic means that I'm not particularly offended by it. I was more offended by the addition of the Pirate's Lair to Tom Sawyer Island than by this decimation of its inaccessible north end. Tom Sawyer Island lost more of its historical and thematic integrity in that renovation and the various closures and demolitions that went with it, leaving the Tom Sawyer Island in Walt Disney World as the far more authentic version (which is a sad growing trend... Magic Kingdom is becoming the repository of what Disneyland used to be, both in what it has and in what it blessedly lacks). For what they have to work with, the changes look like they will actually add some interest to the far end of the Rivers of America.
For most people, the ultimate question is whether the addition of Star Wars Land will be worth this truncating of the Rivers of America, and the loss of Big Thunder Ranch. I'm sure that any Star Wars fan would automatically answer with an emphatic yes. As someone who is not a Star Wars fan, I actually prefer the idea of building a separate land for the franchise than the alternative, which was the rumoured evisceration of Tomorrowland. Hope springs eternal that Tomorrowland might yet be rehabilitated. Some people have raised concerns about where Star Wars Land is placed, but I don't think that is any more off-putting than having Mermaid Lagoon right as you leave Mysterious Island and across the river from the Arabian Coast at Tokyo Disneysea. As long as Star Wars Land is sufficiently hidden behind rockwork and train trestles, then I don't have to see or go into it. Star Wars Land lets me ignore Star Wars, which is a benefit for someone like me who goes to Disneyland because they like Disney.
I'm still holding out hope, and concern, that this new rockwork will be able to hide the sightlines into Star Wars Land. We'll see exactly how tall those rocky spires and red mesas tower when the thing is built. It probably would have been better to have set Star Wars Land on Tatooine or Jakku than whatever forest planet it is supposed to be. I'm assuming that this concept art is also showing us the back walls of the Star Wars show buildings. Time will tell, and then we can start heaping the real praise, or scorn.