SAILING WITH DISNEY, PART 3: The Disneyland Fleet Expands

As if The Rivers of America waterway wasn’t crowded enough in the late 1950s, Walt Disney decided that another large sailing vessel – preferably one of historical significance – should join the fleet. Walt tapped Joe Fowler, Disneyland’s construction supervisor and a retired Navy admiral, to pilot the project.

The Columbia Sailing Ship sails along the murky waters near Frontierland in Disneyland. [The Walt Disney Company]
After extensive research, Fowler suggested a replica of the Columbia Redivia, the first American sailing ship to travel around the world in 1790. After getting the green light, Fowler gathered members of WED Enterprises and architect Ray Wallace, who delved into research materials obtained from the Library of Congress to come up with a design for the new ship, to be named Columbia.

A variety of key components of the ship were built at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, Calif., where the Mark Twain’s hull was constructed. The Columbia is 110 feet long and its three masts tower to a height of 84 feet; it is powered by compressed natural gas and carries up to 300 passengers.

During its 12-minute voyage around Tom Sawyer Island [it glides along the same track as the Mark Twain], guests are treated to a variety of traditional American seafaring songs.

If they choose, guests may make their way below the Columbia’s deck, where they can view a nautical museum and get an idea of what life was like for crewmembers in the 1700s.

In recent years, the Columbia has taken on added responsibilities, serving as a pirate ship during the nightly Fantasmic! fireworks show.

On June 14, 1958, when the Sailing Ship Columbia joined the Disneyland fleet, those vessels consisted entirely of attractions that were enjoyed on water.

A year after the Columbia was christened, the newest addition of Disneyland’s aquatic fleet went where no water-based theme park attraction had ever gone before – under water.


On June 14, 1959, Disneyland introduced three new, cutting edge attractions: the Matterhorn Mountain roller coaster, the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System and the Submarine Voyage.

Although an argument could be made that the Matterhorn was partially water-based [its bobsleds splash down into a small pond at the base of the mountain at the end of the ride], the Submarine Voyage took guests into an authentic journey through what Disney called “liquid space.”

The George Washington was one of the original submarines in the Disneyland fleet. [The Walt Disney Company]
The original eight Disneyland submarines looked like authentic U.S. Navy replicas, right down to the gray paint. They were modeled after the Navy’s newest nuclear subs and bore their names: Nautilus, Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, Triton, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Ethan Allen.

Walt Disney was so proud of his submarines, that he often referred to it as “the eighth largest submarine fleet in the world.”

Submarine Voyage guests were required to enter through a hatch and climb down a staircase into the subs, which were 52 feet long. The subs carried 38 passengers, each of whom could look out of an individual porthole after being seated.

Even though the subs were on a guide rail, those rails were masked by props since the water in the coral lagoon needed to be crystal clear so guests could see the undersea wonders through their portholes. Those wonders included glittering urns and trinkets laden with 24-carat gold, as well as sea serpents and other threatening underwater creatures.

Once the hatch closed, the captain would bark the order to get underway to his “crew” [actually, there was just one cast member on board to control the sub’s speed]. Bubbles rose up outside each porthole, giving the illusion that your vessel was actually submerging, going deeper and deeper into a mysterious and unexplored undersea world.

A few minutes into the voyage, the captain gave the order to DIVE! and the subs would glide into a water-splashed cave, which turned out to be a disguised show building. Atop the building were portions of the Autopia roadway, monorail beams and the track for the PeopleMover.


From inside your sub, you saw a graveyard of sunken ships before the vessel took an even deeper dive beneath the Polar Ice Cap, replicating the USS Nautilus’ actual voyage under the North Pole in 1958.

In addition to a plethora of faux sea life, guests also witnessed an underwater earthquake, the lost continent of Atlantis, a shark-guarded treasure chest, a giant squid and a mermaid lagoon. For several years after the attraction opened, female cast members dressed in mermaid costumes would perch atop rocks on the surface of the lagoon to entertain passing guests.

Like its sister ships, the Mark Twain and the Columbia, the eight Submarine Voyage vessels [each costing $80,000] were built at the Todd Shipyards. They were then transported to what was affectionately known as The Disneyland Naval Yard, where final details were added, all under the watchful eye of Admiral Joe Fowler.

Former Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter and stands on one of the submarines at Disneyland. [Courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering]
Retired Imagineer  and Disney Legend Tony Baxter has a special place in his heart for the Disneyland subs.

“The submarine ride takes people into a world they can’t normally access without the Walt Disney Company helping them,” explained Baxter, whose first job at Disneyland was as a Submarine Voyage ride operator.

He also was on hand when the submarines were unceremoniously closed down in 1998 after a nearly 40-year run.

“I was really upset when they closed the submarines,” he said, “and I remember on decommissioning day, I right then and there committed mentally to myself that ‘I will be here long enough to see that this gets reopened.’”

The attraction sat dormant for years, with Baxter waiting for the right inspiration … namely a family friendly storyline that could be tied to a submarine voyage.

Baxter and his team were finally able to marry the success of the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo, released in 2003, into a rebirth of the subs at Disneyland in 2007.

“What was really unique about it is you had my generation and older visitors who grew up with the subs … and you had little kids who were growing up with Nemo and Dori who would love to see them in their undersea environment,” Baxter said. In addition, the Nemo submarine ride “cemented our relationship with Pixar as an adjunct to Walt Disney Imagineering.”


Speaking of Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative wing of the company [then known as WED Enterprises] had its hands full in May of 1963. They were working overtime on three new attractions for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, which was to begin its two-year run in just 11 months.

The exterior of the it’s a small world attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

That’s when Walt Disney decided to add a fourth show to the mix: A now-classic boat ride called it’s a small world.

“Committing the company to build an attraction in 11 months was kind of nuts,” Imagineering leader Marty Sklar famously said on several occasions. With so little time, Disney’s creative team had no choice but to keep design elements as simple as possible: They opted for a boat-ride attraction where guests would see colorful dolls representing the children of the world, all dressed in their native costumes and all singing the splendidly redundant theme song composed by brothers Richard and Robert Sherman.

The attraction was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, with proceeds going to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF.

The flat-bottom boats, with a maximum capacity of 15 people, traveled slowly along a winding trough course, gently pushed along by a series of water jets.

Bob Gurr, the self-professed car guy, played a key role in the development of the attraction. “I designed the overall boat size, seating, bottom wheeled guides, and the cross section of the water trough with the recessed channel to accommodate Arrow Development’s water pump propulsion system.” He also designed bird cages for a segment of the attraction, accentuating Disney’s all-hands-on-deck philosophy during the months leading up to the Fair’s opening.

The it’s a small world attraction in Disneyland. [The Walt Disney Company]
The stylized dolls seen during the attraction were designed by famed Disney Studios artist Mary Blair, an alumna of the traveling El Groupo. Each doll’s clothing was the handiwork of Alice Davis, who began her career designing lingerie in Beverly Hills.

Working in concert with Blair, Davis researched, designed and supervised costumes for more than 150 Audio-Animatronics figures representing the children of the world. Of course, the Sherman-composed theme song put an exclamation point on one of the most beloved attractions ever conceived by the Walt Disney Studios.

After it’s a small world concluded its World’s Fair run in October of 1965, the entire attraction – boats, troughs, water jets, dolls and props – were trucked back to California, where they would take up permanent residence in a new show building in the Fantasyland section of Disneyland. The new show, which debuted on May 28, 1966, was expanded to include nearly 300 dolls, representing more than 100 regions of the world.

To accommodate the bigger show, the boat track was lengthened. Guests boarded and disembarked “the happiest cruise that ever sailed” from outside the building, where an elaborately designed front was in full view of the boats’ passengers. The colorful exterior features a giant ticking clock and, every 15 minutes, a parade of characters marches around it.

During the design phase of the it’s a small world attraction for the New York World’s Fair, the vessels were dubbed FantaSea boats. But that name had to be scuttled when Disney realized that Fanta was a product of the Coca-Cola Company, Pepsi-Cola’s chief rival.

Over the years, it’s a small world has seen its share of tweaks, some accepted, some met with controversy. For the 1997 Christmas season, Disney decided to add a touch of the holiday spirit to the attraction: Christmas-themed lights and decorations were placed throughout the course of the ride, while the holiday classics “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” were blended seamlessly into the soundtrack. The holiday motif has been an extremely mainstay ever since.

In 2008, a variety of new dolls based on Disney/Pixar characters were added to the it’s a small world menagerie, delighting some guests while being decried by others, who felt the additions weren’t true to the attraction’s original concept.


The success of it’s a small world in New York was felt more 2,500 miles away in southern California. In the planning stages during the World’s Fair was a pirate-themed attraction for a new section of Disneyland that would have a New Orleans-inspired theme.

A distinctive scene from Disneyland’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean. [The Walt Disney Company]
At the outset, the pirate attraction was envisioned as a walk-through, with guests strolling along at their leisure. It was quickly surmised that a walk-through would no doubt lead to massive backups.

After seeing the boat system used for it’s a small world efficiently carry thousands of guests per hour through the attraction, the walk-through pirate attraction concept was ditched in favor of a more-realistic boat ride through the Louisiana bayous and buccaneer-infested Caribbean.

Instead of adorable three-foot-tall dolls dressed in native costumes singing a catchy roundelay, the new Pirates of the Caribbean attraction would feature life-size, grungy-looking miscreants in all their lily-livered glory.

Much as she had done for it’s a small world, Alice Davis designed the colorful, if tattered costumes worn by the cast, translating her husband’s Marc’s original concept drawings of the scurvy cast of Audio-Animatronics.

Disney Legend X. Atencio played a key role in the development of Pirates of the Caribbean, writing both the script for the attraction, as well as its now-legendary theme song: “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me!”

Pirates of the Caribbean was planned to open in 1966, in conjunction with the New Orleans Square land it anchored. But those plans needed to be scuttled.

“The problem was that the Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t ready,” said Disney publicist Charlie Ridgway. “They ran into a problem with the boat going down the slide and when it hit bottom, the splashed water into the boat would have drowned everyone present.”

When New Orleans Square opened, “we had a press event, with all the local press covering. But it wasn’t that big of a deal,” Ridgway added.

The Pirates of the Caribbean features a boatload of scurvy pirates. [The Walt Disney Company]
Pirates of the Caribbean would open on March 18, 1967. Ridgway and his team put together a truly swashbuckling event to mark the occasion.

“We had an opening for the Pirates of the Caribbean the same time as we were opening the sailing ship Columbia, which was an additional ship on the Rivers of America.

“So we sailed all the press people around on the ship and then came in and fired the cannons and had a sword fight on the deck.”

In addition, there were buccaneers boarding the ship from smaller craft and pirates falling from the ship into the river during their saber-rattling sword fights. Once they disembarked the ship, the press crew was led to the entrance of the Pirates attraction, where they “stormed” the door to gain entrance.

What those first riders discovered was an intriguing grotto-inspired world filled with scenes of pirate treasure, ghost ships, and a Caribbean town being plundered by an inept bunch of brigands, all to the sounds of the attraction’s catchy theme song.

The attraction was so popular that similar versions opened in the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World on Dec. 15, 1973; at Tokyo Disneyland, on April 15, 1983; and at Disneyland Paris, on April 12, 1992. Revisions were made to the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom attractions in 2006, and to Tokyo Disneyland in 2007, adding the Captain Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise to several scenes.

An entirely reimagined version of the attraction – Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure – opened with the rest of Shanghai Disneyland Park on June 16, 2016. Disney Legend Marty Sklar called the Shanghai version of Pirates “the best park attraction ever – great big sets, action, seamless blend of sets and film, boat that can spin 360 degrees …”

In 1993, when Disneyland opened Mickey’s Toontown, Donald’s Boat was part of the cartoon-inspired area.

Donald’s Boat, appropriately named the Miss Daisy, debuted as a walk-through attraction for younger guests, who could check out Donald’s favorite photos, his seaworthy rain gear and see where he sleeps below deck. Then, guests climb a spiral staircase to a higher landing and spin the Captain’s Wheel, ring the boat bell and pull the ship’s whistle to trigger water jets.

THIRD IN A SIX-PART SERIES. Next: From park attractions to modes of transportation for guests in Florida.

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 Disney’s Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.

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Chuck Schmidt, bitten by the Disney bug at an early age, remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for The Staten Island Advance. Chuck has written or co-authored seven books for Theme Park Press, including Disney's Dream Weavers, On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, Disney's Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History and The Beat Goes On. Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Still Goofy About Disney blog on AllEars.Net since 2015. He resides in Beachwood, N.J., with his wife Janet. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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