The Sunken Boat Rides of Disneyland
Walt Disney once said “Disneyland will never be completed.” However, one thing has remained consistent, Disneyland’s pronounced proclivity for boat rides. Read on to lean the rocky origin stories and eventual demise of all four(!) defunct boat rides of Disneyland — including one that literally sunk to the bottom of Walt’s beloved Rivers of America.
The So-Called Phantom Boats
Many hard-core Disney fans will recall that Tomorrowland was far from finished when Disneyland opened it’s gates for the first time in 1955.
They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. However, Disneyland was built in a year and a day — which is still an incredibly short timeframe.
Tomorrowland bore the brunt of this advanced construction timeline and the related budgetary constraints. There was simply not a lot of money to go around and Walt Disney, having lost faith in the Tomorrowland concept during construction, directed the money to other ventures — intending Tomorrowland to open in a Phase 2. However, he allegedly changed his mind late into construction. So Tomorrowland did open with the rest of Disneyland’s themed lands on Opening Day in 1955. However, this early Tomorrowland was really just a hodgepodge of corporate walk through attractions sponsored by American Motors, Dutch Boy Paint, and Kaiser Aluminum.
Perhaps the only real original attraction in the Opening Day Tomorrowland was the adeptly named Tomorrowland Boats — located in roughly the same place as present day’s Finding Nemo Submarine Lagoon.
This nearly-forgotten opening day attraction only served four-hundred and fifty guests on the first day. It simply failed to delight guests, which was not altogether unusual as it was just driving a small three-to-four-person boat around what is essentially an expanded natural lagoon. Think an aquatic version of the popular children’s ride Autopia.
Fun Fact: Disneyland draws water from a natural water table located beneath the park. That’s how the Storybook Land Canal boats, Jungle Cruise, and Rivers of America all share the same murky water today. Well… that an an incredible complex piece of engineering.
After a month — yes, only a month — of operation, the Tomorrowland Boats were put under refurbishment to try and solve the fiberglass boat’s mechanical problems and their lack of popularity. Thus, they became the shortest operating attraction in Disneyland’s history.
You have to understand that at this point, the Tomorrowland Boats were one out of the only three decent attractions in Opening Day Tomorrowland. The others being a walkthrough of movie props from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and a theatre-presentation called Rocket to the Moon. The Imagineers simply had to fix this ride.
When the ride reopened, it was renamed the “Tomorrowland Phantom Boats.” These boats featured bold colors and futuristic exaggerated wings. However, although they looked the part and had costly new redeveloped motors, the enclosed motors still quickly overheated as young boaters tried for speed; the boats then had to be towed back to the dock to be repaired. To fix this, Disney added a cast member to pilot each boat to insure the boats didn’t overheat.
This was the idea that sunk the boats — not literally (that would be another attraction later in this article), but certainly figuratively. The early Walt Disney Company was now spending money to staff all fourteen boats that could only hold 2–3 guests at a time.
I’m sure it comes at no surprise that The Phantom Boats turned their final lap around their little lagoon in August 1956, a little more than a year after the park first opened. This B-Ticket attraction was the first permanent attraction to be removed from Disneyland (and I don’t think anyone missed them too much.)
The Motor Boat Cruise
Leaving Tomorrowland and entering present day Fantasyland, you can still see the remnants of this attraction over by it’s a small world. In fact, a number of the canals and the original loading area have remained pretty untouched since this nostalgic ride shuttered in 1993. Nowadays, most people sit there to have a chimichanga or duck away from the crowds (or just feed the ducks); they may even be surprised to learn they are are standing on the loading zone to one of Disneyland’s attractions that has been lost to history.
The Motor Boat Cruise was another B-Ticket boat attraction — possibly built to fill that tiny hole left by The Phantom Boats attraction. It opened in 1957 and fulfilled every little kit’s dream of driving a motor boat (you’ve had that dream right?).
However, this time, the boat ride was on a track and the wheel didn’t really do anything — similar to the still-operating Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The not-incredibly exciting boat ride took the guests on a short journey though several canals underneath the Viewliner Train and Junior Autopia —two other attractions that no longer grace the theme park’s map.
However, in 1959, the entire landscape of this section of the park changed. The Viewliner Train was gone and the Disneyland Alweg Monarail was built overhead The Motor Boat’s tracks. Junior Autopia was also on it’s way out; with the track being incorporated into the new Fantasyland and Tomorrowland Autopias.
All of these changes could have spelled the end for The Motor Boat Cruise as well. However, this ride managed to stick around… for a long long time. Despite never being particularly popular or exciting, the original Motor Boat Cruise stuck around until 1991, when it was re-theamed into a strange attraction named Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen.
This hasty re-theme was done as part of the Disney Afternoon Avenue Event — a precursor to Mickey’s Toontown that took place in the current it’s a small world walkway. Guests could meet the Gummi bears along with other characters like Scrooge McDuck. To tie-in, the Motor Boat Cruise was awarded plywood Gumni bear characters throughout the ride.
However, The Motor Boat Cruise survived this as well! In fact, it wasn’t shut down until over two years later when its operating budget was given to the much more deserving Mickey’s Toon Town, which went substantially over budget. The Motor Boat Cruise closed permanently in January of 1993 and was missed by, again, very few.
The Mike Fink Keel Boats
Although the boats we’ve discussed above met their untimely end due to budgetary concerns, let’s now discuss the only Disneyland boat attraction that actually ended up at the bottom of the Rivers of America.
As a Christmas present to Davy Crocket fans, The Mike Fink Keel Boats premiered in Disneyland’s Rivers of America during the park’s first Christmas! At first, these two boats were the actual boats used in the filming of the Davy Crockett ABC TV programs — hastily converted to have seats and two windows on each side. The boats’ namesake was “King of the River” Mike Fink, Davy Crockett’s rival in his television boat race to New Orleans. Davy Crocket may have won the race in the ABC series, but Mike Fink got his name immortalized in this early Disneyland attraction.
There were two boats — Mike Fink’s The Gullywhumper with a more rustic scheme and Crockett’s Bertha Mae with painted shutters. The two boats operated on a seasonal basis, much like the Columbia ship today; they only operated only on busy weekends and during peak times.
The original set pieces, while lovely, didn’t hold up in the brackish water of Disneyland’s Rivers of America. They were replaced fairly quickly by high-capacity boats with two-level seating that offered panoramic views of Frontierland and the waterfront. The boats took a complete trip around the Rivers of America before returning to the Frontierland dock — still visible today as the “smoking area” by the loading zone for the rafts to the island.
Unlike other Disneyland boat rides, including the Columbia vessel and the Mark Twin, these ships were not on a track — which obviously lead to their relative popularity. It also helped that they were a C-Ticket ride, while all of the other boats on the river commanded a valuable D-Ticket.
For over 40 years, the Keel Boats were a well known and well-loved ride in Frontierland. In 1994, at the end of the summer, the Mike Fink Keel Boats closed for the season. In a surprising move, Disneyland management kept them shuttered throughout the 1995 peak season. Many thought that they were gone for good. However, just as suddenly as they disappeared, they were back cruising the river in March of 1996 as if nothing was amiss.
Then came the infamous accident.
At around 5:30 p.m. on May 17, 1997, the Gullywhumper began rocking from side to side while on a routine trip around the island. The Gullywhumper tipped over, dunking a boatload of guests into the Rivers of America. Several guests even had to be treated for minor injuries at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. Following the accident, the Gullywhumper was removed from the water for inspection.
Neither the Gullywhumper nor Bertha Mae operated for the rest of the 1997 season — or ever again.
However, the Gullywhumper did eventually make its return to The Rivers of America in Spring of 2003 as a prop on the rear of Tom Sawyer Island. As the years passed in the water, the condition of the once-proud boat deteriorated and the Gullywhumper sank to rest at the bottom of the lake.
In 2010, the boat was taken out and replaced with a new Gullywhumper look-a-like that never served as a ride vehicle.
Now, I know you must be wondering what happened to the still intact Bertha Mae?! The boat was sold on Ebay in either 1998 or 2001; it was sold to Hollywood Producer, Richard Kraft, for $15,000. However, as of June 2014, the Bertha Mae is still in deep storage at Dunkel Bros. off the 5 Freeway in La Mirada, California.
Certainly a testament to their popularity, Walt Disney World had its own pair of Keel Boats on their Opening Day in 1971. Just like Disneyland’s, they were named the Gullywhumper and the Bertha Mae; they too were free-floating motorized boats with no track. This actually came in handy for management when only three monorails were operating during the park’s preview days to shuttle guests from the Transportation and Ticket Center to Magic Kingdom. Can you imagine gliding across the large Seven Seas Lagoon in one of the Keel Boats?! Talk about a once in a lifetime experience.
The boats operated sporadically on Magic Kingdom’s Rivers of America until April 2001, although many believe the Disneyland capsize was to blame for their eventual demise. What remains is their dock, which is still viable near the Liberty Square smoking area and the former Haunted Mansion Fast Pass distribution area.
Dying to ride a Keel Boat? Disneyland Paris is the only Disney theme park left that still operates a Keel boats attraction. In fact, Disneyland Paris has two still in operation — the Raccoon and the Coyote. The River Rogue Keelboats opened in 1992, had a seven year absence in the 2000's, and is still cruising the rivers seasonly today. So if you want to experience a Disney keel boat ride, you’ll have to go to Disneyland Paris during a peak day for a chance to experience this blast from the past.
Canal Boats of the World
It’s worth noting an honorable mention, Fantasyland’s Canal Boats of the World. This attraction is defunct in name only as its original track is currently that of the still-operating Storybook Land Canal Boats. Originally designed by Walt Disney as a ride through miniature animatronic cities, the ride was saddled with mechanical and technical issues from the start.
It probably comes at no surprise that the “worldly” attraction was not even close to being finished when it opened on Opening Day. The 5 min ride was basically a boat ride through muddy banks (sorry “Fantasyland Hills”) with little to no landscaping and certainly no tiny animatronic cities or models.
After just two months, the attraction underwent extensive refurbishment and construction for the better part of a year. In June of 1956, it reopened as The Storybook Land Canal Boats.
Learn more about Theme Park History by listening to Fastpass to the Past: The Theme Park History Podcast.