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The Storybook Land Canal Boat Diaries

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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.

Cinderella's Castle

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
460 East New England Avenue
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May 6 @ 2:00 p.m.
Italy Pavilion at EPCOT

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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."

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  1. Concieved@DL's Avatar
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    Thanks Sam, I agree that the Storybook land canal boats are a great treasure. When I was younger, I never really liked to go to it. Spacemountain and The Matterhorn where the attractions that I loved. But, as I got older, I learned that thrills came in many different forms. Thank you for you very unique perspective of this wonderful attraction.
  2. Dustysage's Avatar
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    I'm also a fan of Storybook, though I rarely ride it due to long lines (it is a very slow loading attraction). I've also wondered for years why they don't alter the boats (or the dock) so the boats don't rock when you step in and out of them.

    The attraction is also a prime example of what makes Disneyland different than other Disney theme parks. Storybook Land is intertwined with Casey Jr. much in the same way the Autopia, Subs, Monorail (and at one time People Mover) are. This sort of layering of attractions one on top of the other creates action, excitement and a sense that the space is much larger than it really is.
  3. jpg391's Avatar
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    I am also a fan of the Storybook Land Canal Boats. I suprised to read that Walt Disney originally wanted this as a "temporary" attraction.
  4. daveinfontana's Avatar
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    This is one attraction I wish would break down at Gepetto's Village. Just to take the whole thing in would be fantastic.
  5. xalesa's Avatar
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    Wonderful article! I am also a fan of Storybook. I'd love to ride it like 3-4 times in a row w/o getting off the boats!
  6. TodAZ1's Avatar
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    I hope they give it a few more years. What do you think?
    Wait, what?? Are they planning on closing Storybook Land? What an odd way to end a practically perfect article.
  7. serviceelevator's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dustysage
    I'm also a fan of Storybook, though I rarely ride it due to long lines (it is a very slow loading attraction).
    But Dusty our line never exceeds the 20 min wait time mark! Usually about 20 mins is the average. But some castmembers can get it down to at least 10-15 mins! Check it out again sometime!
  8. SAMLAND's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by TodAZ1
    Wait, what?? Are they planning on closing Storybook Land? What an odd way to end a practically perfect article.
    If you think about it, as far as Walt was concerned, they were going to change out the attraction. That is why the Rock Candy Mountain connection. Just another one of those ideas, like going over the berm in Frontierland or building a shopping mall in the parking lot, that slipped away over time.

    Would they close it today? Who would be so brave? I give the Park a lot of credit for really doing a good job of maintaining the attraction. I tend to view it from Casey Jr. (middle aged guy in the Park solo on the kid's boat ride, if you know what I mean) but when I am with others, I will always use them as an excuse to ride it again.

    Thanks for the comments folks.

    SamLand's Disney Adventures
  9. Sparky's Avatar
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    Thanks for spotlighting one of my very favorite attractions! I just love its charm. I hope it never goes away!
  10. Sparky's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by daveinfontana
    This is one attraction I wish would break down at Gepetto's Village. Just to take the whole thing in would be fantastic.
    I'm with you on that one! I always wish that there could be times when they could run the attraction at a much slower speed so that I could really get a good look at the marvelous details. It's also a bit hard to get good pictures or video when the boats are running at "full speed".
  11. chesirecat's Avatar
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    Nice article . . . except the part about keeping the attraction open a few more years?!? The attraction is one of my favorites, along with Jungle Cruise, probably because it is one of the few attractions where there is some host/guest interaction (like Jungle Cruise), which is somehow more special and magical than a preprogramed light show in some respects.

    I love riding SBCB at night, and at Christmas time, they put up some neat little lights. The ride really brings together all of the Disney characters in one place and gives Fantasyland a heart and a magical feeling.

    Fans would have a heart attack as SBCB is torn out, this would mean that Casey Jr. would get the axe, if this happens, then the SBCB in DLP would be the only one.

    While Walt may have intended SBCB to be temporary (at one point anyway), he put money into building real copper locks and stainglass, and the attraction is a nice distraction/experience for people of any age. Superstar Limo, which was supposed to be permanent, became the real temporary attraction.

    Little kids love SBCB, and parents taking their kids on the ride is a tradition. Too bad Magic Kingdom doesn't have a SBLCB or a Casey Jr. train ride . . . at least not yet, the fact that that new part of MK is called the "Storybook Circus Land" is certainly a hint about what might be coming. Just another reason why FLE won't have a 'heart' without the inclusion of a SBCB.
  12. DisWedWay's Avatar
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    Sam what a great story. You may be surprised to know WED's Disney Legend John Hench in the mid 70's, actually wanted to complete the giants quilt, by adding Willie's head sleeping at the base of the Castles rock work. The only animation would be his moving tonsil to miss the train stack, sleeping Monstro like eyes, and load snoring as your train entered and ran through his mouth also like the canal boats going through Monstro the whale. His stationary hands would be pulling the quilt up over his sleeping body with his feet sticking out the other end. Maybe someday it will finally get finished as John had completed it in his mind on a model. Walt would have loved the updated John Hench version.
    Updated 03-30-2012 at 08:37 PM by DisWedWay
  13. 4Apples4Disney's Avatar
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    Great article. This attraction is so "simple", but I really enjoy it. I did not know that Walt was so much a part of this, what a great surprise. Thanks again for this great piece.