Treehouses have been loved by children (and adults) all over the world for centuries, but few were able to capture the imagination of the public like the multi-cabin shelter with running water, a primitive refrigerator, and even a pipe organ from the 1960 film Swiss Family Robinson.
The film is based on a German book from 1812 about a shipwrecked family that has to survive the savage wilderness of an uninhabited island. The family is indeed Swiss, moving across the world to escape the Napoleonic Wars, but the ‘Robinson’ in the title is not the family name, instead it refers to Robinson Crusoe and the ‘Robinsonade’ genre the book inspired.
When Disney decided to make a version of the story, they knew it would be expensive. After considering filming locations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands, they eventually settled on the small Caribbean island of Tobago as the primary filming location. Unfortunately, the huge variety of animals in the book had to be brought to the island by production, since it has no native animals of its own. Even more unfortunately, Disney demanded that only live animals be used in the film’s many action shots, which reportedly lead to the deaths of several animals.
The tree however, was native. The enormous tree was spotted by scouts from Disney from a nearby road and they immediately knew it was perfect. The 60 meter (200 ft) tall albizia saman had thick branches not too far off the ground, lending themselves perfectly to the magnificent structure they had planned.
Saman trees, also known as rain trees or monkey pod trees, are extremely common in Central and South America, and have been introduced widely throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands. They are tropical trees, and Tobago’s apparent similarities to the script’s setting in New Guinea are likely what made the site so attractive.
Once finished, the treehouse was truly a thing to behold. The sturdy limbs could hold as many as 20 crew members during filming, as well as the equipment itself weighing in at over 1 ton. The tree didn’t appear to be damaged by the construction, and its thick foliage limited the production’s filming time to just 3 hours a day. Outside of that window, it was just too dark beneath its canopy.
Although the movie feels extremely dated to modern viewers (it came out before concepts like environmentalism, animal rights, and women’s rights really took hold), it was a smashing success upon its release in 1960. The popularity of its iconic treehouse lead to new attractions being built in several of Disney’s theme parks.
The first opened two years after the film’s release in Disneyland in California. It was a massive steel structure that gave visitors a chance to interact with many of the props from the film. The attraction was later rebranded as Tarzan’s treehouse after the 1999 animated film Tarzan, with just a few superficial changes to the decoration. The original Swiss Robinson Treehouse attraction can still be visited at Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland.
The treehouse from the film was slated to be destroyed at the end of production, but locals managed to convince the crew to leave it standing. It became somewhat of a local tourist site, even attracting curious fans from abroad. The tree was eventually sold for a reported $9000.
Much like the film itself, the treehouse did not age well. Storms delayed filming several times during production, and a few years later the entire structure was destroyed by a hurricane. Without the main attraction, the tree quickly fell back into obscurity. Nearly 60 years later few locals remember the film itself, let alone that it was filmed in Tobago.
“The tree has fallen into obscurity; only a few of the older people knew of its significance. As a matter of fact, not many people know of the film Swiss Family Robinson much less that it was filmed here in Tobago.”
-Tobago resident Lennox Straker Jr.
But the tree is still alive. It’s tucked away on the property of an auto repair shop. The tree that captured the imaginations of millions of children is now indistinguishable from other nearby trees. In the movie, the family might have been able to conquer the savage wilderness, but in real life only the tree itself could survive mother nature.
In 2004 Disney began considering a remake of the classic film, but to date nothing has been set in stone. It’s unlikely that any remake can replicate the magic of the original treehouse built in Tobago. CGI has really pushed the boundaries of film making since Swiss Family Robinson was released more than 50 years ago, but knowing that the tree is not only real but still alive gives it a special significance that can inspire nature lovers of all ages.
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