There are no surprises to be had when riding the Liberty Belle Riverboat. What you see is what you get – a relaxing thirteen minute journey around Tom Sawyer Island as you ply the Rivers of America. Even on the busiest days, this excursion offers a few tranquil moments where you can forget about the rest of the world and actually believe you’ve traveled back in time to the era of frontier America.
Like so many of my other attraction blogs, I must start the story at Disneyland in California. From the very beginning, Walt knew he wanted a boat ride at his theme park. This can be seen in early sketches of the park he hoped to build on the backlot of his Burbank Studios. Although impossible to be seen on this small picture, the readout connected to the vessel in the water reads “Mississippi Steamboat.”
But Walt’s dreams were bigger than this small plot of land could hold and eventually the project moved to Anaheim. Walt knew he needed to hire someone who could oversee this vast undertaking and remembered meeting retired Admiral Joe Fowler through a mutual friend.
“Can do” Fowler spent 35 years in the navy and retired as a Rear Admiral at age sixty. Walt, being the persuasive person that he was, convinced Joe to join the Disney team where he oversaw the construction of Disneyland and later, the building of Walt Disney World. In all, he spent twenty-five years with the company. But besides his overall skill as a project manager, Fowler’s knowledge of ships was extremely useful when it came to the building of Disneyland’s paddle wheeler.
The Mark Twain, as the ship would eventually be named, was the first paddle wheeler to be built in the United States in fifty years. The designers at WED conducted in-depth research on the subject and drew up plans for a vessel that resembled the riverboats that sailed the Mississippi during the heyday of steam powered ships. The 105-foot hull was built at the Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, California and the ship’s decks were built at the Disney Studios in Burbank. The decks and hull were then shipped to Disneyland for final construction. Walt felt so strongly about this craft that when corporate funding fell short, he used his own money to finish building the vessel. He was reimbursed after the park opened and began making money.
When the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World was being planned, many of the attractions at Disneyland were considered for the new park and the riverboat was a given to be included. However, in Florida, the ship’s name would be the Admiral Joe Fowler in honor of the man who helped build two Magic Kingdoms. Much of this ship was built at the Tampa Ship Repairs and Dry Dock Company, the same location where the park’s four steam trains were refurbished.
The Adm. Joe Fowler and the next two Mark Twains to be built and located at Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris are all extremely similar to the original at Disneyland. In Paris, another riverboat also cruises the Rivers of the Far West. This second ship is a side-wheeler and named the Molly Brown after that “unsinkable” American legend. With the exception of the Molly Brown, all are real steamboats and pump water from the river that is then heated to create steam to drive the paddlewheels. The first picture is of Tokyo, the second and third of Paris.
The Adm. Joe Fowler began service on October 2, 1971, one day after the opening of the Magic Kingdom. During the first few years of operation, there was very little to see along the route. Tom Sawyer Island had yet to be built and there were no Thunder or Splash Mountains to enjoy as you sailed by. In an effort to make the voyage more enjoyable, musicians could often be found on deck entertaining guests.
One of the biggest differences between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom is the loading dock. At Disneyland, all loading and unloading of guests takes place on the lower deck. Thus, everyone onboard must disembark before new riders can come aboard. The Imagineers wanted to speed things up for a faster turnaround at the Magic Kingdom and devised a two-level system. Disembarking passengers leave from the lower deck while new arrivals enter the ship on the middle level. However, as the popularity of this attraction waned, this more efficient method of loading and unloading was modified and today, no one boards until the last guest from the previous journey has exited. This multi-level system was not duplicated at Tokyo or Paris.
Soon after opening the Magic Kingdom, attraction demand outweighed capacity. The park needed more rides. One quick and relatively inexpensive solution was to build a second boat for the Rivers of America. This time however, the entire craft would be built at Disney World at the various shops located behind the Magic Kingdom. Construction took about six months and on May 20, 1973, less than two years after opening, the Richard F. Irvine joined the fleet and for the next seven years, two riverboats plied the Rivers of America. While one was unloading and loading passengers, the other was sailing around Tom Sawyer Island.
To the layman’s eye, the ships look identical with one exception. The Adm. Joe Fowler has two smokestacks while the Richard F. Irvine only has one. It’s interesting to note, in some older Disney publications, the Fowler is pictured while the caption reads Irvine (you can tell by the smokestacks).
The ship’s namesake, Richard (Dick) F. Irvine was a set designer with a degree in architecture. He started working at the Disney Studios in 1942 and in 1953, Walt asked him to join the Disneyland team. Dick would act as the liaison between the Imagineers and outside architectural firms that were hired to design the buildings of the Anaheim park. In the years that followed, he helped design the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. He also oversaw the planning and design of Walt Disney World.
It’s interesting to note, Irvine’s daughter-in-law, Imagineer Kim (Thomas) Irvine is the daughter of Leota Toombs, the face in the crystal ball at the Haunted Mansion.
In 1980, the Adm. Joe Fowler needed some routine maintenance. But unlike Disneyland, that has a drydock (named Fowler’s Harbor) connected to the Rivers of America, the Magic Kingdom has no such facility. In Florida, the drydock is located northeast of the Magic Kingdom and the boat needed to be sailed to this location. Have you ever wondered what the iron-truss bridge is for located just beyond Thunder Mountain? The train tracks sits on a turntable and can pivot out of the way so watercraft can gain access to Seven Seas Lagoon, Bay Lake, and eventually the backstage drydock.
What happened next is somewhat of a mystery. Like all big companies, Disney is somewhat reluctant to share the details of its failures – and the Adm. Joe Fowler would become one of Disney’s disappointments.
While entering drydock, the riverboat’s hull was damaged extensively. One account claims that it cracked while being lifted by a crane. Another says the boat was positioned incorrectly on its supports when water was being drained from the drydock and split. However, by this time, two riverboats were no longer necessary. Space and Thunder Mountains had opened in the interim and the extra capacity two boats offered was no longer needed. The decision was made to scuttle the Adm. Joe Fowler. Some accounts claim that the hull was buried somewhere on property. Others say it was sunk in Bay Lake. I could find no definitive proof of either.
But parts of the Adm. Joe Fowler live on to this day. The ship’s machinery was shipped to the then under construction Tokyo Disneyland to become the workings of that park’s Mark Twain. And the boat’s whistle was added to the #4 engine, the Roy O. Disney at the Magic Kingdom.
In 1996, the Richard F. Irvine was in need of an extensive refurbishment and was floated back to drydock. Luckily, it fared better than the Adm. Joe Fowler and when it reemerged, it was rechristened the Liberty Belle. The Imagineers felt that this new name would be easier for guests to remember and it fit better with the riverboat’s home port, Liberty Square. However, the two gentlemen whose names once graced these stately vessels have not been forgotten. In 1999, two of the Staten Island-style ferries that transport guests between the TTC and the Magic Kingdom were renamed in honor of these two men. The third ferry was renamed the General Joe Potter. This gentleman headed many of the early construction projects at Walt Disney World.
I have to admit, I’ve always been a little curious as to why the Imagineers decided to place the Riverboat Landing in Liberty Square and not Frontierland. I realize that in regards to Disneyland, the dock is in the same spot. But riverboats of this nature were found on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers in the early 19th century, not colonial New England of the late 18th century which Liberty Square represents. But further investigation uncovered the following. Without the Liberty Square Riverboat, Liberty Square would only have two attractions, the Haunted Mansion and Hall of Presidents. The ride was placed here to help round out this land. Also, the “draw concept” comes into play here. When standing in The Hub and looking into Liberty Square, the Riverboat Landing entices you to enter. And finally, the riverboat and landing serves as a transitional element linking Liberty Square to Frontierland.
That’s it for Part 1. Check back tomorrow for a trip around Tom Sawyer Island while riding this lovely vessel.
If you plan to be at Walt Disney World on March 9th, join Allears team members Deb Wills, Deb Koma, Mike Bachand and me at the Liberty Belle at 9:45. After some conversation about this attraction, we’re heading over to the Haunted Mansion for a ride. (The Libery Belle doesn’t open until 11am.)