A Different look at Disney...

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Co-author: Preston Nirattisai

It was no doubt a beautiful spring morning at Disneyland in 1957. One can imagine the scene as Dick Nunis, manager of Frontierland, sat enjoying his coffee at the Chicken Plantation restaurant, making out the weekly cast member schedule. Walt Disney, leisurely strolling through the Park, pulled up a chair and joined him.

As they sipped their coffee, they discussed the Park, and enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine that filled the bright, clear-blue Anaheim sky. It was another busy day at the Magic Kingdom. The Mark Twain steamed majestically past, sounding her deep three-chime Powell steam whistle in salute. Soon following in her wake, a pair of Mike Fink Keel Boats, the Bertha Mae and the Gullywhumper, raced along the shore, happy guests--some wearing coonskin caps--laughing and thoroughly enjoying themselves. In the distance, the motors of the two Tom Sawyer Island rafts rumbled, while further up the river, guests wearied themselves paddling the three Indian War Canoes. All told, there were eight craft plying the river that day.


"Look at that! Now THAT is a busy river!" Walt exclaimed, in his typical exuberant, childlike fashion. Nunis nodded in agreement as he took another sip of coffee, expecting the distinctive raised eyebrow and Walt to complain about how crowded and congested the river was. Walt continued: "What we need is another BIG boat!"

"But not another stern-wheeler," Walt continued, his excitement bubbling through. "I think we should have a replica of the Columbia. Did you know that was the first American vessel to sail around the world?" Nunis put down his pencil, realizing that his scheduling would have to wait. Walt, excitement building, acted out the adventure as he proceeded to regale Nunis with the story of the Columbia and her exploits in the Pacific Northwest. Nunis sat slack-jawed as his boss reeled off facts and details of what was a nearly forgotten footnote in American history. The River, Nunis must have thought, is about to get busier.

And so, with that, Disneyland's Columbia was born.

The Sailing Ship Columbia

Disneyland's Sailing Ship Columbia was the first "windjammer" built in more than a century in America, but the ship had deep, deep roots. Later in this article, Preston Nirattisai, an experienced sailor on the Lady Washington--itself with ironic connections to Disneyland's Columbia--will compare and contrast a real working sailing vessel with Disneyland's counterpart. But now, we're going to look a little closer at the real ship's history, and why Walt Disney thought it a significant enough ship to grace his new theme park.

While today's youth (and many adults) mistakenly view the Columbia as a "pirate ship," (owing, in part, to Disneyland's many misrepresentations of the ship and her history) the truth is the inspiration for Disneyland's Columbia was a typical merchant ship of her day. And while today's environmentally-conscience crowd may bristle at the notion, the ship was built to trade otter pelts. (Yep--fur. Want to ride her now??)

Those pelts came from the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. It was discovered by Captain James Cook, during earlier voyages to the region in the late 1770s, that the Indians would gladly trade the pelts for mundane items such as nails, saws, or hatchets. The ship would then head to China, where the Chinese would pay $50 to $70 dollars per pelt, netting the ship and its owners a small fortune. The Chinese would pay with silver Spanish "Pillar Dollars," also known as Pieces of Eight. The ships would then return to the United States with a cargo of tea, chests, silks and spices.

This Piece of Eight in the author's collection, dated 1789, was minted two years after Columbia began her voyage to China. It's been suggested that the "S" shaped banners wrapping around the pillars were the inspiration for the U.S. Dollar sign ($).

This was an appealing business model to the wealthier citizens of the new nation, and a group of investors got together to mount a voyage. The first order of business was to procure a suitable flagship.

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2008 Steve DeGaetano

A Different look at Disney...
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