The Storybook Land Canal Boat Diaries
by, 03-28-2012 at 09:15 PM
It is the Fall of 1955 and Disneyland had just opened to great fanfare. You have decided it is time to check out what all the fuss is about so you pack your family into the station wagon and head off to Anaheim for your very first visit.
Once you arrive through the front gates you are amazed at how much there is to take in. Over in Adventureland is the Jungle Cruise, which is unlike anything you have ever seen before with its man-made alligators, giraffes, and elephants. In Frontierland, you have many options when it comes to touring the backwoods. You can choose from the Pack Mules, Conestoga Wagons, or a Stagecoach. On the Rivers of America is the Mark Twain paddle-wheeler, the first of its kind to be built in decades. Over in Tomorrowland you can choose to go on the thrilling Flight To The Moon or hover above Earth in Space Station X-1.
Of course, the heart of Disneyland is Fantasyland, which is filled with family favorites such as Peter Pan’s Flight, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Snow White’s Adventures. As you go north in Fantasyland you come across an attraction where the Cast Members drafted a hand written sign that said, “This ride is not complete.” They were trying really hard to lower the public’s expectations. But why?
The Canal Boats of the World promised a ride on the “Boats of Holland, France, England, and America travel through canals which pass the fabulous sights of Fantasyland.” The reality, as former Cast Member Bob Penfield noted, was boats with unreliable outboard engines loudly moving slowly through canals that featured bare banks filled with weeds labeled with scientific names. That is when the boats were not broken down, which was frequent. Penfield said, “They still wanted to ride it. So, the boat would go around land you’d tell them what you knew the ride was going to be…it was kind of a preview of the Storybook Land Canal Boats.” Less than a year later on June 16, 1956, the Canal Boats are no more and they are replaced with another “temporary” attraction - the Storybook Land Canal Boats.
In 1952, Walt was one of the first visitors to Madurodam in Holland. The park was made up of miniature architectural landmarks and landscapes. When he was developing the idea of an amusement park across the street of the Burbank studio, one of the very first plans included a “Gravity Flow Canal Boat.”
In some ways, the Storybook Land Canal Boats is a direct descendent of Walt Disney's Disneylandia project that predates Disneyland. At the time, Walt was working on building 24 "Norman Rockwell-type" miniature stage sets that would travel from city to city by train. Working on the project were some of the very first Imagineers including Ken Anderson, Fred Joerger, Harriet Burns, Roger Broggie, Wathel Rogers, and Harper Goff.
Walt would come up with an idea, get a few people to work the problem, and then be very flexible when it came to change until he was made up his mind. Then that was it. One earliest ideas for the attraction was Gulliver's Travels through Lilliputian Land with animated figures but that proved to be impractical. Another idea was to integrate the new Chicken Of The Sea pirate ship lagoon with the canal boats circling the ship and then returning to the canals. In the area where there is a quilt made of plants, the original proposal also included a giant’s head and shoulders as if he were resting under a blanket. He would have limited animation including moving eyes and his head gently rocking side to side. Walt killed the idea because it would spoil the tranquil feeling of the ride.
In the end, Walt called on “all the genius available at the Studio to recreate, in miniature, three-dimensional scenes from the world’s great folk tales” and enter “new worlds of enchantment.” Imagineer and model builder Harriet Burns said, "Walt came in and he said he had seen miniature cities, both in Canada and in England, and he was most impressed with the one in England. He recalled how charming it was, and how kids and families could walk along the roads and between the buildings. It really intrigued him.” Burns added, "Walt considered this a temporary attraction." Walt said, "“We can do this little ride, and it will be filler for the moment. Later on we can take it out and put something else there.”
The remodel of the Canal Boats was part of a $2 million expansion of Disneyland that included the Skyway, the Astro-Jets, the Rainbow Mine Train, and Tom Sawyer Island. The models were scaled one-inch to one-foot and were made primarily of plywood covered in fiberglass. Walt wanted the sets to be design as if the characters were just out of sight. He was influenced by the Thorne Collection of miniatures that were on display at the 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition and now reside in at the Chicago Art Institute.
The level of detail was beyond anything anybody could expect. Harriet Burns recalled a time when she was working on “very elaborate stained glass windows for the church.” The window was designed by Frank Armitage. Burns said, “I was doing all the leading, and working out all the window designs and color. I got to work with the metal shop. I worked the machinery with my foot, and cut the lead pieces, and then beveled them. I really enjoyed that. We really didn’t need to do that – we could have just put celluloid behind Plexiglas. But at that time Walt loved model making, and he loved detail, we did it that way.”
Burns “had cut out 360 pieces of lead for this one great big church window, and Walt came in and picked it up – and I hadn’t soldered it together! It just scattered everywhere! But that is how hands on he was! I picked it up and said, ‘Oh, no problem Walt, no problem.’” What the model builders learned was “if Walt was coming in – have everything glued down because he wanted to play with it so badly!”
Walt was obsessed with the details. Miniatures were his passion. “I hand-hammered all the locks and pulls, and the mailboxes for Moley’s House,” Burns said “I made them out of copper and soldered them all. All of the gutters were soldered copper – every realistic detail that you could think of.” She added that “nobody could really see it, but Walt knew it was there – that was the good part.” When Walt would visit Burns said, “It was so marvelous to see his eyes twinkle, and to see how delighted he was with our toys – well, his toys! He did think of our place as a toyshop.”
The little structures are supported by an amazing feat of landscape architecture magic. Artists used stunted trees, bushes, and fine grasses to create the miniature flora. In an article about the attraction in “E” Ticket magazine, they discovered that Disney’s landscape designer Bill Evans was able to hunt down “a type of evergreen tree found in Van Damme Beach State Park in Northern California for the Black Forest [behind the Seven Dwarfs house]. They are more then 100 years old and are naturally dwarfed. Since they were protected Disney had to buy some from an adjacent landowner who was happy to sell the trees.”
Along with the model buildings and richly detailed landscape were new Dutch Canal boats built by Robert Dorris Boat Works. “E” Ticket noted that “they were converted from gas outboard motors to electric and are individually powered by direct chain drive from the propeller shaft to a GE motor.” There were five different styles of boats, some with teapots on the roof, another with two tillers, while another had miniature stairs. They were sixteen feet long and were guided on a rail like the Jungle Cruise. The initial Fleet was twelve boats but that grew to fourteen.
The attraction opened on June 18, 1956.
The current loading dock is located where the Midget Autopia used to be. Before that, the queue was in front of Monstro the Whale. Guest would be startled when he would occasionally blink his eye and blow his whistle. The little lighthouse was the ticket booth. You leave Fantasyland by entering through the whales mouth, which is not consistent with the film. Walt decided that he was spending a lot of money to build the whale and he wanted to make sure that guests got a good look.
One of the standout landscapes is Gepetto's Village. Gepetto's shop has tiny toys hanging from the windows. Pinocchio even has his own mailbox. The backdrop is the Swiss Alps, which helps to hide the Casey Jr. Train. In later years, the mountain backdrop would blend seamlessly with the Matterhorn.
The home of the Big Bad Wolf.
From Gepetto's Village is a bridge that leads to Pig Island with miniature oak trees and the Big Bad Wolf nearby. Dividing the canal is Peter Pan’s London Park. The park has fully mature miniature trees and a gold statue of Peter.
Along one bank is a collection of structures from Alice in Wonderland including Alice’s Cottage, the Old Mill, the Church with the stained glass window, and, of course, the Rabbit Hole.
Along another bank is Toad Manor, home of Mr. Toad. The model was so inspirational that the facade was copied and applied in full scale in front of the revamped version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride in the remodeled Fantasyland of 1983. Further along the canal is the home to the Seven Dwarfs with their diamond mine nearby and 150 year old plus dwarf trees.
The highest visual element within the attraction is Cinderella Castle. The castle is over 15 feet tall and uses forced perspective to appear even taller. The obsession with detail was so extreme that the roof of the castle is covered in gold-leaf.
Just beyond the Giant's quilt are three old windmills. Once again the attention to detail was so important that Walt suggested that tulips be planted in front of the windmills. So the Imagineers hired a horticulturist from the San Francisco Bay to locate miniature tulip plants that would fit the scale of the windmills. They found what they were looking for in New Zealand. The only problem was that the plants had 18 inch stems. This meant they had to be buried and hidden. In the end, they could not keep the plants alive so they were removed.
The final scene leads to the boat storage area and has been dubbed Never Never Land because "we never never go there." In 1994, additional scenes were added from The Little Mermaid and the town of Agrabah from Aladdin.
I mentioned earlier that Walt originally envisioned the Storybook Land Canal Boats as a temporary attraction, a placeholder for something grander. In early 1957, a replacement was already in the works. The attraction would be called Rock Candy Mountain and it would incorporate the Casey Jr. train.
Harriet Burns said, "Rock Candy Mountain was Walt's idea.” As was the practice at WED Enterprises, a model was commissioned. Burns said, “We created a huge clay mountain, and Walt ordered every kind of candy that he remembered from childhood. Claude Coats went to Toluca Mart, a grocery store near the studio. He got every kind of candy they had: mints, fudge, bridge mix, peanut brittle, and many other things. We used all of it on ‘Candy Mountain.’ Fred [Joerger ] had a sweet tooth and he’d say, ‘One for you, one for me’ [speaking to the mountain]!” According to D23, when the project was put aside “the model was wheeled out to the parking lot and became a giant candy-covered bird feeder!”
Disney historian Jeff Kurtti said, frequently visiting the park “is revelatory in the drastic change you will see – and the almost complete lack of change you will see.” Walt Disney said, “Disneyland is a thing that I can keep molding and shaping. It’s a three-dimensional thing to play with.” Some have said that the Storybook Land Canal Boats was one of Walt’s favorite attractions. I cannot verify that but I do know that it is something that is very special. I hope they give it a few more years. What do you think?
One of the benefits of writing a book like Walt and the Promise of Progress City is the opportunity to speak to groups about Walt Disney and urban planning. Below are some upcoming events. Sign up to my Facebook or Twitter pages to get updates. If you are a local blogger or podcaster, please contact me and let’s get together.
May 3 @ 10:30 a.m to Noon
WINTER PARK LIBRARY
460 East New England Avenue
Winter Park FL
May 3 @ 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.pm
ORLANDO COUNTY LIBRARY
101 East Central Boulevard
May 5 @ 6:00 p.m.
WORLD CHAPTER DISNEYANA FAN CLUB
May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
KEVIN YEE’S 30 X 30 CELEBRATION
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT
May 6 @ 7:00 p.m.
CONGRESS FOR THE NEW URBANISM
Was Walt Disney a New Urbanist?
With Chad Emerson Project Future
May 7 and 8 Walt Disney World
Meeting with various Cast Member teams.
May 20 @ 11:00 a.m.
Griffith Park in Los Angeles
Home to the birthplace of Imagineering
There's more to come in June and July. Thanks for your support.
If you enjoyed today's article, then you will LOVE the new book written By Sam Gennawey, Walt and the Promise of Progress City.
Disney Legend Marty Sklar said, "[Sam has] captured much of the attitude and events of the times, and hit on much of Walt's drive and inspiration. [His] research into materials and people who were important in one way or another is exemplary. The notes from Buzz Price, John Hench and Marvin Davis, for example... the apparent influence of Victor Gruen's theories...a relationship that developed with James Rouse - all insightful. It is clear, well researched and useful and thoughtful to anyone studying urban planning."