April is a time of growth and renewal, where a world full of brown and gray strikes new life in brilliant shades of green and fiery hues. We are in the heart of Earth Month, and Earth Day 2023 is but a few days away. Disney is no stranger to celebrating the health of our Spaceship Earth.
A lesser known fact about Walt Disney himself is that he was a bit of a naturalist. He understood the value of nature in society, and he fought hard to promote appreciation of the environment. Disney’s True-Life Adventures series offered first-hand footage of the great outdoors, while clever editing always managed to tell amusing stories of our friends in the wild.
Throughout the history of the Walt Disney Company, we have found quite a few ways to appreciate our blue planet. Let’s dig a little deeper into one of those facets – the mighty tree – and look at some of the best Disney trees.
Trees in the Disney Parks
When Walt was planning Disneyland, his contemporaries in the carnival and amusement park business thought he was wasting his money planting so much vegetation within his park. Once again, Walt proved to be ahead of his time, as the lush landscape of Disneyland stands out as one of the greatest achievements in artistic theme park design.
We’ll start our list of Disney’s top trees here, admiring several towering timbers found in the Disney Parks.
Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse
As one who loved climbing trees when I was a kid, the idea of a full-fledged treehouse was a dream I never realized. But every trip to Walt Disney World included a walk through the humble (yet remarkable) abode of the Robinson Family. The arborescent star of Disney’s 1960 film made its way to Disneyland in 1962, complete with all the bedrooms, kitchen, library, study, and working water wheel. While scientifically identifying every tree species located in Disneyland, Walt’s Imagineers dubbed the artificial tree “Disneyodendron Eximus.”
The popularity of Disneyland’s treehouse saw the construction of a similar tree in Walt Disney World, which opened with the park in 1971. Versions of the famous tree are also located in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.
Disneyland’s treehouse underwent a change of theme in 1999, when it became Tarzan’s Treehouse, to celebrate the release of the animated film Tarzan in that same year. The winds of change are blowing again, as Tarzan’s Treehouse closed in 2022 and is in the process of being reimagined as Disneyland’s Adventureland Treehouse, planned to open in 2023.
Walt Disney’s Petrified Tree
It is with a wink and a nod that we acknowledge the oldest attraction in all of the Disney Parks, coming in at roughly 55 to 70 million years old. Walt Disney stumbled upon this petrified tree stump while driving through Colorado with his wife Lillian during a 1956 summer trip. A tour of a petrified forest inspired Walt to purchase the petrified tree stump to display in Disneyland.
Of course, like much of Disney history, there is legend behind the actual story. In this case, the legend goes that Walt purchased the tree as a present for Lillian, and when she didn’t want it at their home, he opted to give it a second life in Disneyland. But that tale has proven to be one of Walt’s better gags, as the tree was purchased specifically for Disneyland, and delivered directly there, without stopping at their home in Holmby Hills, CA. That didn’t stop Walt from identifying the tree as “PRESENTED TO DISNEYLAND BY MRS. WALT DISNEY – SEPTEMBER, 1957.”
In addition to being a nature lover, Walt Disney was first and foremost a fierce patriot. He loved America and all things American, as guests will readily see up and down Main Street USA. A beautiful homage to Walt’s red, white, and blue attitude lives and breathes in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
The Liberty Tree – found in Liberty Square – is approximately 100 years old. With Magic Kingdom being barely half that age, construction of the park saw a roughly fifty-year-old oak tree be professionally transplanted into place. The oak was inspired by its namesake tree from Disney’s 1957 film Johnny Tremain, which in turn pays homage to the original Liberty Tree in Boston that was used as a gathering place by the Sons of Liberty as they planned for the Boston Tea Party. The tree proudly suspends a string of lighted lanterns that provide a soft evening glow to the area, in keeping with the land’s colonial time period.
Patrick Begorra’s Tree
While we are on the subject of Disney’s legendary stories, let’s explore one of the lesser-known residents of Walt’s park. Patrick Begorra – the “Little Man of Disneyland” – makes his home in the roots of a tree in Adventureland – somewhere in the vicinity of Jungle Cruise.
As the story goes, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy were planning the creation of Disneyland, when they stumbled across Patrick at his home in the California orange groves. Patrick was none too impressed with the idea of being removed from his peaceful home, but when Mickey and friends shared their magical Disneyland plans with Patrick, he softened a wee bit and agreed to let them create the “Happiest Place on Earth” – so long as they let him build a tiny home of his own somewhere within the park.
Nowadays, Patrick’s homestead is discreetly located in Adventureland, at the base of a tree near our favorite archaeologist Indiana Jones.
Tree of Life
The largest tree in all of Disney parks is actually the most un-tree-like things you might imagine. The Tree of Life is, quite surprisingly, constructed using a refitted oil rig platform. Talk about promoting nature through recycling. The retired rig proved to be just the right size and shape with which to construct Animal Kingdom’s icon. Within the rig resides the fun-yet-also-terrifying attraction “It’s Tough To Be a Bug.”
But outside the rig is where this creation really shines. The Tree of Life may be artificial, but it is based on the baobab tree, native to mainland Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. The tree is adorned with some 325 carvings, 8,000 branches, and over 100,000 thermoplastic kynar leaves. This masterpiece took a team of ten artists and three Imagineers about eighteen months to complete. The tree stands at 145 feet tall – just missing the list of the top ten tallest structures in Walt Disney World.
Home Sweet Home
Disney animated films have entertained us over the years with several spectacular sanctuaries. What kid (or kid at heart) wouldn’t want to chill in one of these wooden pads? Let’s check them out.
An old unassuming tree tucked in a clearing in the woods of Neverland is the cozy home of the Lost Boys in Disney’s 1953 film Peter Pan. The old tree has several hidden entrances in it that Peter Pan and the Lost Boys use to enter and exit the tree. While it is not explicitly shown, there is likely a subterranean component to the hideaway as well. Alas, the scurvy ne’er do well Captain Hook destroyed the tree with a bomb meant for his green-clad adversary. Curse you Hook!
Winnie the Pooh’s House
Like others in the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh lives in a tree. His cozy cabin is embedded at the base of a large tree. Curiously, the sign over the front door reads “Mr. Sanders”, implying that someone with that name once lived there before he did.
So who exactly is Mr. Sanders? Author and creator A.A. Milne’s 1926 children’s book Winnie the Pooh explains this in classic Pooh fashion:
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday, Winnie-the-Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders.
What does “under the name” mean? asked Christopher Robin.
‘It means he had the name over the door in gold letters and lived under it.’
Clear as mud?
The inside of Pooh’s house is a bit on the sparing side, with nary a bit of furniture, a few honey cabinets, a clock, his famous mirror, and his bedroom. Nonetheless, it would be a perfect place to take a late morning snooze.
Mama Odie’s House
In the “deepest, darkest part of the bayou” lives the mystical (and should we say whimsical?) Mama Odie. The self-proclaimed “197-year-old blind lady” is actually a voodoo priestess with a heart of gold, who helps Tiana realize her potential in Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog.
Mama Odie doesn’t exactly live inside a tree. She lives inside a shipwrecked boat embedded into the top of an old cypress tree. A series of steps leads up to the boat-house from the swampy waters below. And outside the house, colored bottles hang from the tree’s extensive branches.
With Mama Odie recently confirmed to be joining the cast of the Tiana’s Bayou Adventure attraction planned for Disneyland and Walt Disney World, there is a good possibility that we will see a live version of her wacky home in these two Disney parks.
It Takes a Village (or Maybe a Forest)
Sometimes one single tree isn’t enough. Here we can appreciate the forest through the trees!
I have a confession to make – Stars Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi is my favorite Star Wars film. The episode that saw the end of Vader tends to linger in the middle of most fans’ lists of ranked Star Wars films. But when you combine the party that is Jabba the Hutt’s palace with the cuteness and whimsy of those furry Ewoks, it was a recipe for a galactic masterpiece to my nine-year-old former self.
The Ewoks live on the “forest moon of Endor” (otherwise known as the California redwoods). When you live in the middle of a giant forest full of tall, sturdy trees, of course you’ll end up living in those trees. The suspended log bridges, rope swings, and booby traps – it all adds up to a tree climber’s dream.
The Holiday Doors
Disney films are celebrated for their magic, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is boiling over with special touches. The stop-motion masterpiece isn’t everybody’s favorite brew, but it’s hard to argue with the enchantment Burton brought to the “holiday worlds of old.”
Speaking of those worlds, Burton devised an ingenious way to travel between those magical realms – The Holiday Doors. This colorful little grove hidden in an otherwise doom-and-gloomy skeletal forest tempts the child in all of us, offering hints of some of the most beloved holidays, simply by stepping through the door. Sure, Jack traveled through the obvious Christmas and Halloween trees, but this grove also boasts an Easter egg hiding a certain furry friend, a turkey promising a feast fit for a king, a shamrock leading to the treasure within, and a heart hinting of love. Even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it firecracker explodes with potential.
As cool as this magical grove is in the Town of Halloween, imagine the corresponding grove in Christmastown or any of the other holiday worlds! The holiday doors, and the potential they have, make me salivate over the possibilities of other holiday “collision” films.
So far, we’ve been celebrating the trees that help set the stage or offer us comfort and refuge. But how about trees that are characters in themselves? We have a few sentient saplings, and we’ll say hello to them here.
“All around you are spirits, child. They live in the earth, the water, the sky. If you listen, they will guide you.” – Grandmother Willow
Pocahontas’ spirit guide is a 400-year-old sentient weeping willow tree. While she is indeed elder and wise, she still has “snap in her old vines.” Grandmother Willow changes with the seasons. She helps Pocahontas to understand the world around her through nature, and guides her through the confusing times of youth, into a wise adult herself. And bonus – her bountiful branches offer home and shelter to many smaller woodland creatures.
Trivia Tidbit: During film development, Grandmother Willow was originally conceived as a male character named Old Man River. However, Disney decided a maternal figure would be more appropriate for this film.
Flowers and Trees
The 1932 Silly Symphonies short film Flowers and Trees was groundbreaking for the Disney Studios. It was the first film to use the full-color three-strip Technicolor process, and as a result it won an Academy Award for “Short Subjects, Cartoons.” It also gave a boost to the cartoon series, which was starting to fade in popularity.
But that’s not what puts the animated short on this list. In the film, several trees (among flowers, mushrooms, and fauna) set about coming to fully sentient life. A plot develops around a love triangle of three threes – two of which are males vying for the “hand” of the third tree – a female.
The film nearly ends in disaster, and claims the life of one tree along the way.
But the trees made a second appearance in another Disney film – 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Nostalgic fans will spy them dancing in the background right after Eddie Valiant enters Toontown.
These three words quickly became fan favorites when Guardians of the Galaxy hit the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014. This Flora Colossus (giant tree) first appeared as an accomplice to petty thief Rocket Raccoon, and quickly grew a family as the Guardians formed a fellowship. Groot paid the ultimate sacrifice when he formed a protective cocoon around his family, shielding them from the enormous explosion of a crashing ship.
Of course, every end brings about a new beginning. Groot resprouted from a salvaged twig, into a baby sapling (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2), then to a moody teenager (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame), and finally back to a fully grown tree (Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 3). Groot’s allegiance to his friends never wavers (and neither does his popularity – especially the Baby Groot version of this super-sidekick).
Happy Earth Day friends. Celebrate by sidling up next to your favorite shade-producing sidekick. Join the Earth Day conversation with a comment to this article, either here or on social at: