Remember the Mike Fink keel boats? You know, those top-heavy, low-capacity vessels that used to navigate the waters around Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Frontierland in Disneyland Paris?
The keel boats were an attraction on Disneyland’s Rivers of America from late in 1955 until 1997. They were an opening-day offering at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, sailing from Oct. 1, 1971, until 2001. And the French version of the keel boats enjoyed an 18-year run at Disneyland Paris before they, too, sailed off into the sunset.
The keel boats were part of a small flotilla of watercraft that cruised along the jam-packed river at Disneyland. Those craft included the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Columbia Sailing Ship, guest-powered canoes and the rafts that transported guests to and from Tom Sawyer Island.
There were just two keel boats at Disneyland and WDW – both named the Gullywhumper and the Bertha Mae [in Disneyland Paris, they were named the Raccoon and the Coyote]. When they were first introduced, each keel boat was 38 feet long and carried 12 passengers, who were seated either on outside benches or inside the small cabin.
The keel boats made their seafaring debuts as props used during two Davy Crockett series episodes which were broadcast as segments of the Disneyland TV series in 1955: “Davy Crockett’s Keel Boat Race” aired on Nov. 16, while “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” was shown on Dec. 14.
From the outset, the park keel boats were problematic. The fact that they handled only 12 guests per trip was a big issue. So, too, was the fact that they were free-floating vessels, meaning they required skilled pilots to navigate the crowded waterway [the much-larger Mark Twain and the Columbia travel along guide rails underneath the murky-on-purpose-to-hide-the-tracks water].
And then there was the fact that the keel boats looked so darn top-heavy … and never more so than when they introduced newer, bigger boats.
Ted Kellogg, who would go on to supervise all the watercraft when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, worked as a boat skipper at Disneyland in the 1960s.
“I worked part-time in Frontierland, driving the keel boats, the Mark Twain and the rafts to and from Tom Sawyer Island. I was the first driver of the keel boat after they went to a bigger boat, carrying 24 people instead of 12,” Kellogg remembers the experience, which turned out to be quite harrowing.
“It was at night, about 10 o’clock, when they brought the new keel boat around. They said, ‘Ted, we want you to take this keel boat and try her out. It’s a new keel boat … we’re going to double the capacity. It had an upper deck where people could climb up a ladder and sit, five on each side.”
A total of 10 guests showed up for the inaugural voyage, with some of them making their way to the upper deck. “I backed up the keel boat, pulled away from the dock and we were cruising along. Then we got to the first turn, near where the fort was [on Tom Sawyer Island], and I knew something was dreadfully wrong.
“All of a sudden, the deck just starts coming awash. I had to let go of the tiller and hang onto the ladder or I would have fallen in the water. I thought we were going to roll over!
“Finally, I pulled myself up and it turns out I may have been the difference between us sinking or staying afloat. The boat started bobbing back and forth, and finally it righted itself.” The passengers were visibly shaken by the experience, Kellogg recalled.
Kellogg tried his best to make light of the situation. “I told the passengers that this was a real E-ticket attraction and I hope you all enjoyed yourself. But the people were pretty shook up … their eyes looked like doorknobs!
“After that, for the rest of the trip, I took it nice and easy and didn’t take any corners too quickly.”
When the boat got back to the dock, Kellogg was asked: “How was it?”
To which Kellogg responded: “You idiots!”
Then he got right to the point.
“There’s no ballast in the bottom of the boat to off-set the added weight on the upper deck. To keep the boat upright, those boats need ballast!”
It took several years, but on May 17, 1997, Disneyland’s Gullywhumper did roll over and ended up in the drink.
The boat began to rock side to side before capsizing, dumping a full boatload of passengers into the Rivers of America, leaving several with minor injuries.
The incident marked the beginning of the end for the keel boats.
They were eventually phased out as an attraction, although a keel boat in Disneyland and one in WDW were used as props along the Rivers of America before the ravages of time reduced them to scrap wood.
Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and on-line. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his most recent, The Beat Goes On, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a twice-monthly blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.