Liberty Square and Frontierland — Then and Now Part I
by Brian Martsolf, ALL EARS® Columnist
This article appeared in the February 20, 2007 Issue #387 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
The Magic Kingdom's Liberty Square and Frontierland share much in common — each currently hosts not one, but two of the audio-animatronics extravaganzas that are a hallmark of the Disney entertainment experience (Splash Mountain and the Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland; The Hall of Presidents and Haunted Mansion in Liberty Square). Both lands also have a counter service dining location (Columbia Harbor House in Liberty Square and Pecos Bill's in Frontierland). Both lands also have some great spots to watch the Magic Kingdom parades that seem to have good spaces left for viewing the parade a bit later than most of Main Street U.S.A.
And yet these two neighboring lands are different in many ways.
Though both are original lands of the Magic Kingdom, there is one obvious difference between them. Frontierland is the only original land in the Magic Kingdom that cannot be accessed directly from the "hub" at the Plaza end of Main Street (though it does have a smaller "gateway" sign near the Frontierland Shootin' Arcade).
Despite that, each land is situated along the Rivers of America, and each has had, and lost, river-based attractions over the years.
The Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes of Frontierland and the Mike Fink Keelboats of Liberty Square both opened with the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. The Mike Fink Keelboats used to dock quite near to the Haunted Mansion, judging by park guidemaps I have. Sometime between September and December 1998, the Mike Fink Keelboats moved from that Liberty Square dock to one in Frontierland near Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. That dock had at one time been the station from which Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes (which closed in 1994) launched. This move made some sense in that the space where the Keelboats formerly launched was, at certain times of day, quite congested due to the crowds entering and exiting the Haunted Mansion. A small store that was also located in that same area closed in 1996 (perhaps also due to the crowding and cross-traffic). That store had several names over the years — the Keelboat Hat Shop, Keelboat Shop, and Ichabod's Landing. Sadly, in 2001, the Keelboats also ceased operation.
The Walt Disney World Railroad's trip through Frontierland has changed much from opening day as well. For the first year that the park was open there was no train station in Frontierland — in fact there was only one station in the park! The only trip available on the railroad in those days was the Grand Circle Tour. You got on at Main Street, and you disembarked at Main Street as well, though the train did occasionally stop in Frontierland — it had to, as that's where the water tower was!
About one year after the park opened a Frontierland Station did open, but it wasn't the one we have today, and the area around the station was still rather bare. In those early days there was no Splash Mountain, no Big Thunder Mountain, not even a connection to Adventureland out at that end, as the Pirates of the Caribbean and Caribbean Square hadn't opened yet.
What Frontierland did have then was a bit of country that wasn't just bare, but BEAR — a bear Country Jamboree. The Country Bear Jamboree was a huge hit in the early days of the Magic Kingdom, often having waits of hours. Part of that was due to the low initial capacity of the park — there was very little open in Tomorrowland, no Pirates of the Caribbean in Adventureland, and no "Mountains" open anywhere in the park. It's easy to see that compared to today these bears had a bit of a captive audience.
The brutal summer heat and those long lines for the Country Bears led to one of the earliest closures in the Magic Kingdom. The folks in charge of the Magic Kingdom felt strongly that some additional cooling was needed for all those folks corralled in line, so they closed a store known as "Westward Ho." This allowed the queue for the Country Bears (which often stretched into the street in those early days) to go through a covered, air-conditioned area. Since this wasn't in the original design of the structure, however, the line then snaked back outside before actually getting to the lobby of Grizzly Hall. In 1985 a store returned to this location, Bearly Country. It was redone and renamed Prairie Outpost & Supply in 1991.
Another "E" ticket attraction that had longer lines in those early years was the Haunted Mansion, and in the earliest views of it you can see that they didn't even have the awning structure that protects guests from the sun today. A visit to Walt Disney World those first few summers may have been a tough lesson in how to deal with heat indeed!
Just as the Mike Fink Keelboats moved from Liberty Square to Frontierland, Frontierland has seen an attraction switch to Liberty Square — in a change that wasn't quite so obvious.
The Diamond Horseshoe Revue was listed as being in Frontierland at one time and in Liberty Square at another. The book "Disney A to Z" lists the Revue as a Frontierland attraction, but most of the guide maps I have list it as being in Liberty Square. Two exceptions are a 1979 guide map and a 1996 guide map, which both list the Revue as being in Frontierland. (Since I don't have any Magic Kingdom guide maps for the years in between, I'm not sure if it changed back and forth in between those years.) As someone whose first trip to Walt Disney World wasn't until 1996 I don't know this for certain, but I seem to remember hearing that the Diamond Horseshoe Revue originally featured a show almost exactly the same as the one that played at Disneyland from 1955 to 1986 (growing up in California I DID see that version). In 1986 the show was changed, and the name was changed to the Diamond Horseshoe Jamboree. I have seen several videos on the Internet of various versions of the show, and it appears from those that perhaps the acts changed a bit from time to time. In 1995 the show changed again, including a return to the Diamond Horseshoe Revue name. From my own viewing of the show in the years after that it appears that perhaps the acts rotated (probably just to give the performers days off) with at least three of the acts appearing in any show. The acts I am referring to are: a musician MC character, a large fellow in a red jacket who went by the name of Dr. Bill; a singing cowboy; a magician; and a group of dancing girls led by Slue Foot Sue.
Unfortunately this version of the show closed February 1, 2003. It was replaced briefly by Goofy's Country Dancin' Jamboree, which despite some good reviews, closed on July 1 of that same year. Although the name of the show changed I'm not sure if the Diamond Horseshoe name has been removed from the outside of the building or not. (EDITOR'S NOTE: It hasn't been.) After Goofy's show closed, the Saloon was used sporadically for character "meet and greets" with the characters Woody, Jessie, and Bullseye from Toy Story II. In 2006 Jessie, Woody and company moved outdoors, bringing Woody's Cowboy Camp to the section of the parade route in the center of Frontierland. Since the Horseshoe is not currently being used I hope that they bring something new to this space soon — I would really like to see it return as some sort of Wild West show!
Another thing I'd like to see in Frontierland is a busy river. At one point you could have seen rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island (these opened in 1973 with the opening of Tom Sawyer's Island), Keelboats, sternwheel river boats, and Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, all on the river at the same time. Having seen how nice a busy river like this looks as recently as July 2005 at Disneyland, I have to say this really does add a nice atmosphere to the park, as well as more experiences for the guests. Still, some of these attractions aren't likely to be added back in the Magic Kingdom. It seems unlikely to me that the keelboats or canoes will return to the Rivers of America (though I'd love for the Walt Disney Company to prove me wrong on this one!). Of course, we do have some boats on our Rivers of America — the rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island continue to ferry guests back and forth, and, even though through much of 2005 the river was strangely silent, you can now see the other ship that plies these waters.
The Liberty Belle underwent a thorough refurbishment recently and returned in 2006. It was nice to see it on the river again on my most recent visit. There was a time when even if one of the big steam ships was under refurbishment the rivers still had another ship — yes, there were two steam ships that docked in Liberty Square. The first ship, Admiral Joe Fowler, had a very similar appearance to the Mark Twain Riverboat at Disneyland. That riverboat (the Fowler) was built at the Morgan Yacht Company in Florida and was put together in the WDW dry dock.
The Fowler's sister ship, Richard F. Irvine, didn't go into service until May 20, 1973. A 1973 issue of the Disney publication "Eyes and Ears" said: "The 42 men in the Metal Shop in the Facilities Division are familiar with three different types of vessels because, since opening, they have become tradesman in the art of building boats…. When the Rivers of America needed another boat, the next question was, 'Who will build it?' After much investigation, pencils, paper, and figuring… everything pointed to the building right here on property. Thus, the Richard Irvine became the first attempt at boat building for the metal shop… The Irvine is a 400-passenger sternwheel paddle boat, which is a replica of those river boats that paddled up and down the Mississippi River in the 1800s. Construction took about six months… Of course, the Metal Shop can't take all the credit. The Planning Department begins months ahead of time to prepare production schedules and lists of materials. The Mill Shop, Paint Shop, Staff Shop and Electric Shop all contribute their part to the finished product." In 1996 the Irvine received an extensive refurbishment and was renamed the Liberty Belle.
The Irvine/Belle has only one smokestack, as compared to the Fowler's two smokestack configuration. That said, you may be wondering what happened to the Fowler. It served from October 2,1971 (one day after park opening) until Fall 1980, when it was retired from the waterways. This was an early retirement — it was less than 10 years old at that point. The Admiral Joe Fowler was taken to dry dock for routine refurbishment, but when the boat was set on the resting carriage it wasn't centered properly and slipped when they drained the water — it was badly damaged. After the Richard F. Irvine was renamed the Liberty Belle, the three ferry boats that carry guests across the Seven Seas Lagoon were renamed in honor of those gentlemen who had so much to do with the building of the Disney parks: Admiral Joe Fowler, General Joe Potter, and Richard F. Irvine. Still, at least one remnant of the original Fowler remains within the Magic Kingdom. The whistle from the Admiral Joe Fowler ended up on The Walt Disney World Railroad steam engine #4, the Roy O. Disney. Perhaps, with so many ships removed from the Rivers of America, a second steamship would be in order. I know it's not likely to happen, but I'd love to see it — perhaps a sidewheeler like the Molly Brown that cruises the Rivers of America at Disneyland Paris. Although if that design was pursued here I'd like to see them to christen her by one of these names: Osceola, Southern Seas, or Ports O' Call. You see, there used to be a pair of sidewheel steamers that sailed the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake named the Southern Seas and the Ports O' Call, and they were both referred to as Osceola class steamships (that name coming from a piece of pre-opening artwork that showed a ship of their design bearing that name).
In Part Two of Liberty Square and Frontierland: Then and Now, I'll look at the Mountain range attractions, both built and unbuilt in Frontierland, as well as The Hall of Presidents, live entertainment in Frontierland and Liberty Square, The Liberty Bell and the Liberty Tree.
Step Back in Time (Liberty Square): http://www.allears.net/ae/issue154.htm
The Admiral Joe Fowler and Richard F. Irvine of Frontierland: http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/wdw-pc05.htm
A Busy Rivers of America (at Disneyland): http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/dl05/13lg/dl05%20088.jpg
That picture, above, is part of this page below: http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/dl05/tr05p5.htm
Photos of some of the Horseshoe performers in 2002: http://www.bigbrian-nc.com/moon/b7.htm
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brian Martsolf is a lifelong Disney theme park fan whose first visit to Walt Disney World was in 1996. He lives in Charlotte, NC, with his wife, Carlene, and works at a Tyco Plastics manufacturing facility. He also has his own Disney website, http://www.bigbrian-nc.com, which features trip reports (with lots of photos), a section on the history of Walt Disney World illustrated with its postcards, and articles on the Disney Internet community and Disney theme park souvenirs.
Other articles by Brian Martsolf: http://allears.net/btp/brianm.htm
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.