Dueling Disney: War of the Watercraft

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney Parks, Disneyland Resort, Dueling Disney, Features, Walt Disney World

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Published on August 14, 2013 at 3:00 am with 30 Comments

It’s no secret that water plays a huge part in the aesthetic of Disney Parks. Whether you’re passing through New Orleans Square and gazing upon the Rivers of America, or admiring the World Showcase Lagoon in Epcot, water has been a big part of Disney since Disneyland’s opening day. In addition to its visual factor, however, it also serves as a platform for conveyances. This time on Dueling Disney, Keith and Jeff endeavor to determine which coast does the watercraft better!

(As usual, Keith is representing Disneyland, while Jeff represents Walt Disney World)

Topic 15: War of the Watercrafts

Jeff: Watercraft, you may be thinking, is a ridiculous topic. I mean, really? Boats? Jet skis? Come on, right?

But you have to remember that boats, of all sizes, have played crucial parts of our nation’s history. Where would we be today without Christopher Columbus, sailing across the Atlantic on the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, finding so much room for activities here in America?

Much like world history, boats play an important part of the Disney Parks. Not only do they serve as a means of transportation for certain areas, but they also help relax those who are weary and tired. And Walt Disney World has QUITE the history of boats.

Keith: So many activities!

I would also like to point out early on that I do intend on talking about watercraft in a ride or two, but we won’t be discussing all of them. For example, there won’t be a debate over whose “logs” are better on Splash Mountain, or which boats are superior on Pirates of the Caribbean (although I must admit if we were doing that, I’d give the nod to WDW, since my butt has never gotten soaked on that version).

It’s making my head spin, Jeff, how many activities Columbus could do.

Jeff: Did we just become best friends with Columbus? I hope he doesn’t touch my drum-set!

Anyway, back when Walt Disney World opened on October 1st, 1971, they had two primary forms of transportation to get guests to the Magic Kingdom: the Monorail and steam ships. Two Osceola-class steamships built especially for Walt Disney World’s Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake watercraft transportation purposes. Though the steamships were a truly unique guest experience, unlike anything seen on the water in almost 40 years, it was fairly obvious that the ships were incredibly slow and required a lot of maintenance.

In order to increase guest capacity and the speed of getting guests to the Magic Kingdom, Imagineering came up with the idea to use doubledecker Ferryboats, modeled after Staton Island Ferryboats seen in New York. The “Magic Kingdom I” and “Magic Kingdom II” were built shortly after that. The normal capacity of each ferryboat is about 600 to 650 passengers, which was a big improvement over the two steamships’ capacity of 250 passengers each. By 1976, another Ferryboat was added to the fleet, named “Kingdom Queen.” All three boats are still in operation today, although under different names: “Magic Kingdom I” became “Admiral Joe Fowler,” “Magic Kingdom II” became “Richard F. Irvine,” and “Kingdom Queen” became “General Joe Potter” in 1999.

Unlike the boats used within the Magic Kingdom itself, these Ferryboats are NOT on a track. They are completely free floating and are actually piloted by a captain who sits above. In the old days, the Ferryboats were not only used for transportation of guests, but also as charter cruises around the Seven Seas Lagoon at night for private parties.

Keith: Sadly, that’s something Disneyland has never featured: watercraft as means of transportation (unless you count the rafts to/from Tom Sawyer Island). It would have been cool if they put some sort of World Showcase-like lagoon in between Disneyland and California Adventure, but then again that wouldn’t have been terribly practical, I suppose. That said, there is a remnant of the Disneyland Resort’s watercraft history I hold fond memories of. And no, I’m not talking about the Motor Boat Cruise, or even the Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen (now with cardboard cutouts!).

In the spring of 1970, the Disneyland Hotel welcomed a new addition: a 3.5-acre World of Water marina, west of the Sierra Tower and south of the Marina Tower. Jack Wrather, owner of the hotel, said, “We wanted something completely unique for the hotel, something unique for an inland hotel. We came up with a water area. Not a lake–other hotels have lakes–but a marina. Everything else then fit into the water theme.” The marina initially served as a showcase for the latest design in various watercraft, such as powerboats and sailboats. It wasn’t long before they added guest-powered pedal boats.

The two-passenger pedal boats were actually free when they premiered, but eventually began to carry a small rental fee. In 1973, the rate was 75 cents for fifteen minutes. A publication from the hotel enticed guests to ride it by stating: “After you’ve seen the beautiful new marina and Wharf from land, take a ride in a pedal boat and see just how the ducks view it.”

I have great memories of those pedal boats. Back in those days, the Disneyland Hotel was its own destination. I remember pedaling near the Atari Adventure, the video game arcade that was at the marina’s north dock, and below water level! The charm and intimacy of pedaling around the marina in those little boats is something I’ll always remember.


Pic courtesy of http://magicalhotel.blogspot.com

Jeff: 75 cents for fifteen minutes? Man, what a bargain! Do you know what you can get for 75 cents these days, Keith?

Keith: Hmmm. You can get two bananas (at the grocery store, not at Disney), 45 minutes of parking for the WDFM, and um… that’s about it.

Jeff: In your defense…bananas ARE delicious.

Anyway, in addition to the Ferryboats at Walt Disney World, you can also take one of the smaller resort launches to get to the Magic Kingdom. To me, these offer a more intimate journey across the Seven Seas Lagoon, as the boat is much smaller and carries way less people. Plus, being closer to the captain of the ship may wield you a tip or two!

There are also the Friendship boats, which are still running today. These boats take you on a leisurely (read that as “slow”) voyage between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and some of the various resorts in that area. The downside to these boats is that the wait can be somewhat daunting, with lines moving slower than Space Mountain on Christmas Day, so use them wisely. You can also find them within EPCOT itself, as they move between Morocco and Germany inside the Park.

Keith: Leisurely is right! I timed it, and from Hollywood Studios to Epcot, it’s faster when I walk. Note: I said walk, not jog. But taking the boat can be nice.

On June 14, 1959, the Submarine Voyage opened in Disneyland. In its earliest stages, the plan was for the submarines to be pulled around via cable, just like the famous Cable Cars in San Francisco. That idea was scrapped however when the engineers questioned how they would return passengers to shore if something were to happen to the cable. Roger Broggie Sr. suggested to Walt that diesel engines be used instead.

Eight subs premiered, all painted a military grey to resemble U.S. Navy subs of the time. Amongst other things, the attraction’s dedication ceremony featured real live mermaids. They proved to be so popular, Disney brought them back in 1965 for Disneyland’s Tencennial. A special audition was set up at the Disneyland Hotel, and requirements included: being between 5’4” and 5’7” in height, having long hair, and strong swimming ability. After two years of having male guests swimming out to them, and the chlorine turning blonde hair to bright green, the mermaids were no longer “a part of our world” following the summer of 1967.

In 1986, the subs were painted yellow to resemble oceanographic research vessels. They would continue to cruise along at 1.4 miles per hour until 1998, when they stopped cruising completely, and the ride was closed. But then, they came back! The submarines made a highly-anticipated return in 2007, rethemed as Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The subs traded diesel power for electricity, and while the attraction has a completely new story, keen-eared guests can catch references to the old Submarine Voyage in the ride narration.

Now tell us about your submarines, Jeff!

Jeff: Well, Mr. Keith, we no longer have any submarines. In fact, it is very unfortunate that we do not. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, opened October 14, 1971 at Walt Disney World, and lasted until September of 1994. It is STILL fondly remembered as one of the greatest attractions at the Magic Kingdom. I miss it. A lot.

While we are on the topic of “things we miss,” how about those Swan Boats? It was in operation seasonally between May 20, 1974 till August 1983, and cost you a shiny D ticket. Guests could travel around the hub and the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Originally there were 12 boats when the ride opened, but this was reduced to 11 when one of the boats was converted to clean the canals. By the end of the life of the ride, there were only 5 boats operating.

But if you want some water craft while in the park these days, you will have to turn to the Liberty Belle. The Richard F. Irvine came into service on May 20, 1973 but was later renamed The Liberty Belle in 1996 after a massive overhaul. Much like the Mark Twain at Disneyland, it travels around the rivers of America, viewing the sights and sounds of the Magic Kingdom.

Keith: No subs? I smell a victory for Disneyland this round!

Over in Fantasyland, we have these charming little boats that take you through a miniature Storybook Land. Each of the 15 boats is named after a female Disney character (Alice, Daisy, Wendy, to name just a few), and each boat is battery-powered. These particular watercraft are modeled after a low-slung style of boat called batteaux, and as far as I know, were the only Disney vessels christened by milk being poured over their hulls.

Now for some real watercraft action, we shall take our leave of Fantasyland, and head on over to the peaceful Rivers of America. The Mark Twain Riverboat has been carrying guests in Disneyland since before the park even opened. Four days before Opening Day, the Mark Twain acted as the first stop during a party for Walt and Lillian’s 30th wedding anniversary. The Mark Twain has been a Disneyland staple ever since.

As Jeff mentioned earlier, Walt Disney World has their own steam-powered paddler, which at first glance appears to be just as impressive as ours. That is not the case, however. I am going to have to claim Riverboat superiority, Jeffrey, for a few reasons: our way cooler-looking twin smokestacks, the ability (for lucky guests) to visit the ship’s wheelhouse, and of course, ours taking part in the finale of Fantasmic!

Jeff: All valid points, my friend Keith. Except ours is way cooler. Because I said so.

What would a duel on watercraft be if I didn’t mention my favorite of the extinct attractions at the Magic Kingdom, the one that holds a special place in my heart (and in the Communicore Weekly theme song!), and the one we know very little about. I’m talking, of course, about the fabled Bob-A-Round boats! These failed recreational craft were only used for a very short amount of time at the Walt Disney World resort due to their extreme lack of being practical. The round tubs were used in 1971 for a bit before being deemed deficient in operations and withdrawn from service. In 1973, they tried to improve on the design of the original, creating the Bob-A-Long boat, but it eventually turned out to be just that. The engines would fail more often than not, leaving guests bobbing along the Seven Seas Lagoon.

Despite their impracticality, they still hold a very special place in the hearts of Disney nerds everywhere. And one day, I will own one, and it will be in my living room. MARK MY WORDS!

Keith: Well, Bob Gurr does have a Mr. Toad car in his dining room. So why not a Bob-A-Round boat next to your recliner? While we’re at it, I’d like my house to be a Carousel of Progress. Only instead of jumping from decade to decade, the theater will rotate and take me from the kitchen to the living room.

Saving the best for last was a hard call this time, Mr. Heimbuch. I mean one could argue that it should be the Mark Twain, given its prominence, current role, and rich history. But for the purposes of this specific duel, I decided to opt for something you guys don’t have an inferior knock-off of!

“I’ll never let go, Jack…err…Jeff.”


The Sailing Ship Columbia first set sail in Disneyland on June 14, 1958. Most of the ship was built in Todd Shipyards of San Pedro, CA (based off of authentically recreated blueprints created by maritime expert Ray Wallace), and was assembled right on the Rivers of America. Wallace joined Walt Disney, Admiral Joe Fowler and several representatives of the U.S. Navy for the ship’s opening ceremony. While the fully rigged, 110-foot-long replica of the first American ship to ever circumnavigate the globe may appear to be powered by wind, it’s actually propelled by an engine, and runs along the same submerged track as the Mark Twain.

In 1964 the Columbia added a below-deck exhibit, showcasing its wonderfully detailed albeit slightly cramped interior. The ship carries park guests during the day, but at night joins the cast of Fantasmic! and portrays Captain Hook’s pirate ship in arguably one of the nighttime spectacular’s coolest sequences. The Sailing Ship Columbia has even been dressed up as a “ghost ship” during the occasional Halloween event.

Walt Disney World definitely has the “watercraft as transportation” edge in this round. But when it comes to cool factor, I’m afraid I am going to have to declare Disneyland the victor!

What do you guys say? Does the mighty Columbia and the majestic twin-smoke-stacked Mark Twain take the prize? Or is the Liberty Belle and Walt Disney World’s multiple transportation vessels have enough to claim the title of watercraft superiority? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


Dueling Disney is written by Jeff Heimbuch & Keith Gluck

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email us at [email protected] or [email protected]

You can follow us on Twitter: @DisneyProject and @JeffHeimbuch

About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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Comments for Dueling Disney: War of the Watercraft are now closed.

  1. As much as I hate to ever vote for WDW I’m voting for them for the Osceola-class steamboats and their ferries from the exotic Isle of Staten.

  2. When discussing WDW we all reminisce on the watercraft that was.
    - The Osceola & Seminole class Steamships
    - The Swan Boats
    - The 20K Subs
    - The Bob around Boats

    You forgot to mention the:
    - The Eastern Winds Chinese Junk (1971-1978)
    - The Admiral Joe Fowler Riverboat (1971-1980)
    - The Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes (1971-1993)
    - The Mike Fink Keelboats (1971-1997)
    - Discovery River Boats (1998-1999)

  3. I had to give my vote to WDW on this one (it might be the first or perhaps second time only) due to all the transportation boats but really all things considered this might be a tie. Love all the history of stuff I didn’t know. Really a good showdown.

  4. I like WDW’s use of water craft for transportation, but the Columbia and Mark Twain are better than anything at the Magic Kingdom. And they have the Davy Crockett canoes!

  5. I don’t even think this should be close. WDW uses water transportation as a part of the show even before you enter the parks. There are marinas at many of the resort hotels and water is a key part of the WDW experience. At DL, the boats are just attractions in the parks.

  6. Hey, didn’t the MK used to have _two_ paddlewheelers in its Rivers of America?
    Would that be an extra point for having more, or a deducted point for having lost one?

  7. The fact that the someone would give this win to Disneyland is pure bias. Walt Disney World is like Earth. It’s 75% water. Hence, it has a watercraft superiority. The Illuminations Cruise alone beats the Sailing Ship Columbia (and I own an original Columbia attraction poster)!