Most guests hurry by it on their way to the Haunted Mansion, or perhaps in quest of a Big Thunder Mountain fastpass. A massive oak, its shade stretches across Liberty Square, the thirteen lanterns suspended from its branches swaying in the Florida breeze. The Liberty Tree rises at the heart of Liberty Square, the symbolic embodiment of America herself, growing, deeply rooted and strong. Walt Disney World’s Liberty Tree is one of the park’s most powerful symbols, tied into both Disney and American history, and representing not only the origins of America rooted in Liberty Square, but the continuing story of the American nation.
The original liberty tree was a mighty elm in Boston. Like many trees in cities around the globe, it served as a gathering place for locals to share news, opinions, and gossip. When the British imposed the Stamp Tax, a tax on paper goods in the British colonies, the elm became a center for discussion. In eighteenth-century America, a tax on paper goods was seen as an attack on freedom of information and the right to be educated. The colonists expressed their anger by hanging a pair of tax collectors from the branches of the elm, and then began using the branches of the tree as a way of secretly signaling meetings of the revolutionaries. The tree became such a powerful symbol that other cities and colonies designated their own Liberty Trees, and a group of British Loyalists cut down the Boston tree for firewood because they understood the potency of what it represented.
That Boston Liberty Tree and the Sons of Liberty movement it inspired were immortalized in Esther Forbes’ 1944 novel Johnny Tremain, a patriotic tale made into a Walt Disney Pictures film in 1957. The Liberty Tree in the story captured Walt Disney’s patriotic imagination and was the seed that ultimately grew into Liberty Square, a land of the Magic Kingdom dedicated to celebrating the founding of America.
But the Liberty Tree at Walt Disney World is different from its Boston namesake in a number of notable ways, ways that make it more symbolic of an America still growing and still great. The original Liberty Tree was a mighty elm – a tree that was viewed as a “historic marker, native son…and served as prideful evidence of American antiquity.”* But the Walt Disney World tree is an oak, a symbol of strength and endurance which was voted as America’s national tree in 2004. With roots deeply in history, the Disney liberty tree celebrates America’s continuing strength.
But the tree is more than that. Found near the site for the Magic Kingdom by imaginer and landscaper Bill Evans, the mighty oak had to be relocated, and although the distance was not great, moving such a massive tree had never been attempted before and required innovation. That originality, like the American experiment itself, did not change the object being moved, it just forced those relocating to find new ways of keeping something special and living intact in a new place.
To move that tree, Evans drilled plugs out of the strongest part of the trunk, and a massive crane used those spaces to lift the Liberty Tree to its new location. When it arrived, those plugs were replaced, but they had become diseased, and the tree itself became infected. Rather than abandoning it, however, Disney landscapers lovingly cleared out the damaged portions and grafted a brand new oak tree onto the original to encourage its healthy growth.
That struggle and growth is familiar to Americans. The original Liberty Tree didn’t survive to see the founding of the new nation, but what a nation it was. It was a grand experiment, a new idea with roots in Greece and Rome and branches growing into new spaces. But it was far from perfect. Many of the ideas that the Continental Congress had fought over in drafting the Declaration and Constitution remained divisive. The freedom of all men and questions of central government control gnawed away at the new country, and more than once the grand experiment of America looked as though it would fall apart from the inside, but those who believed in it looked for a solution. And when new strength was needed, America found it in new blood, immigrants, who, while hailing from countries around the globe, shared the same spirit and passion as the settlers who had first gathered around the Liberty Tree.
Walt Disney World’s Liberty Tree is more than just a nod to the founding of America. It is a symbol of the country itself. Moved to a new location, surviving internal attacks, strengthened by grafting on another of its own kind, it stands strong in Liberty Square, offering shade to those who pass by it. Its branches still hold 13 lanterns, each completely unique, reminding those who look up at them that America is a place of diversity and difference, but that the support for that diversity rises above us in the branches of a tree that has roots in the past and its head in the air and sunshine of hope.
Next time you walk through Liberty Square, pause on your way to the Haunted Mansion or Frontierland to look at the Liberty Tree and think for just a moment, about the America it represents. It isn’t perfect, but it is beautiful and strong. Don’t let it be so much a part of the landscape that you forget its importance and the struggles it holds beneath its branches.
Happy Independence Day from Your Highway in the Sky!
This post owes a great debt to the Liberty Square Audio Guide by Lou Mongello. Lou’s passion for Disney history provided the history of the Walt Disney World Liberty Tree which made this post possible. Thanks Lou!