The History of Disney World’s Vintage Amphicars

by
Joan Feder

Feature Article
This article appeared in the April 13, 2021 (#1132) edition of ALL EARS®

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.

Amphicar

Disney Springs has many fun activities to choose from on a non-park day. Want to experience something unique? Head over to The Boathouse where you can ride in an Amphicar — a hybrid between an auto and a boat. As its original advertising declared, it is “The sportscar that swims.”

The story of the Amphicar goes all the way back to World War II. The Germans designed a military vehicle that could run on both land and water. They were manufactured by Volkswagen but were not durable or reliable. As a result, only around 200 of these Schwimmwagens were built.

After the war, the quest to design an amphibious car resumed. The man behind the dream was a former race car driver and engineer named Hans Trippel. He spent more than 15 years researching and developing the project.

By 1961, the Amphicar 770 was finally ready for mass production. The name was right on point. The vehicle was a car, and it was amphibious. Further, it could hit speeds of up to 770—7 miles per hour in the water and 70 miles per hour on land.

The Amphicar made its official debut on April Fool’s Day, 1961 at the New York Auto Show. The hybrid vehicle made quite a splash!

The cars are small but heavy, especially for convertibles. The body is made of steel and weighs in at almost 2,300 pounds. Yet, the gas mileage isn’t bad. It gets 32 miles per gallon on the street and 1.5 gallons per hour as a boat.

A Triumph Herald engine supplies 43 horse power and is mounted in the back. In the water, it moves forward using twin propellers. The props are mounted under the rear bumper.

On land, the auto uses a standard four-speed transmission, in the water it has two gears, forward and reverse. In either mode, it is steered with the front wheels.

The doors are double sealed to prevent leakage. They are solid enough to leave the Amphicar in the water for days.

Original options included life jackets, flares, and an anchor. They also came with a pair of oars stashed under the front seat in case of an emergency.

Not to worry though, the Amphicar is quite seaworthy. In 1965, a pair of them crossed the English Channel, enduring 20-foot waves and force six gale winds.

That same year, another two Amphicars successfully navigated Alaska’s Yukon River. They have also voyaged from San Diego to Catalina Island and from Africa to Spain.

Unfortunately, the Amphicar never caught on with the public. The first issue was price. The initial cost ranged from $2,800 to $3,300 dollars. At the time, a much faster or more luxurious car could be purchased for the same or less.

The Amphicar also cost a lot to maintain, much more so than either a regular boat or car. The engine needed to be greased after 5 hours in the water. This required a lift and removal of the rear seats.

If it ran in salt water, the Amphicar needed to be cleaned thoroughly to avoid rust. More importantly, the maintenance was usually a do-it-yourself job since very few mechanics knew how to deal with them.

It was also difficult to find a place to enjoy the Amphicar. In order to launch it, there had to be plenty of space to accommodate a large enough ramp.

Further, by 1968, the Amphicars did not meet the United States’ safety and emissions regulations. If imported, they would need to be modified at great expense. Since 90% of all Amphicars were sold in the United States, this was the death knell for the novelty vehicle.

As a result, Amphicars had a limited production life. They were only sold new for about 6 years. A total run of 3,878 cars were manufactured during that time.

Yet, despite their real-world scarcity, plenty of Amphicars can be found in pop culture.

Many movies from the sixties featured Amphicars, including Rotten to the Core, The Sandwich Man, The President’s Analyst, Inspector Clouseau, andThe Laughing Woman. Later big screen appearances include Savannah Smiles and Pontiac Moon.

On television, John Steed and Emma Peel drove into the water in an episode of the 60’s British cult classic, The Avengers. Interested in the mechanics of the Amphicar? Check out the one that was restored in a 2014 episode of Wheeler Dealers.

The Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield used to have an “aqua-car” factory. There, they rolled the Amphicars right off the assembly line and into the water. This Season 5 episode entitled “$pringfield” is currently streaming on Disney+.

Madonna drove an Amphicar in her 1983 music video “Burning Up”. Word has it that she liked it so much that she bought it after the filming!

Country-western star Alan Jackson featured his Amphicar in the music video “That’d Be Alright.” It was a gift from his record company.

Amphicars have also been owned by other celebrities, including Beatle John Lennon and comedian Dan Akroyd. Former President Jimmy Carter was a proud owner as well.

Another former President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was also an Amphicar aficionado. This practical joker used his Amphicar to shake up some of the guests that visited his Texas ranch.

Johnson would take certain visitors for a nice “quiet” ride around his homestead. Then he would turn suddenly, veering downhill headlong into a lake. Speed increasing he would scream frantically about his faulty brakes.

The vehicle plunged into the water, and of course started to float. Johnson would have a good laugh as his guests recovered.

Johnson played this trick many times, including on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson was so well known for pulling this prank that it was immortalized in All The Way, the 2016 HBO film about his presidency.

Not many people have had the pleasure (or terror) of riding in an Amphicar. There weren’t that many to begin with, and due to rust and the passage of time, less than 400 of the original Amphicars still exist today. Eight of those have found a new home in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Bringing the Amphicars to Disney World was the idea of restauranteur and Amphicar buff, Steven Schussler. He specializes in places that provide food and fun, or as he calls it “eatertainment”. Some of his restaurants include the Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex. His company also runs The Boathouse at Disney Springs.

Schussler wanted to make The Boathouse unique. The novelty of the Amphicar made it the perfect fit for this waterfront entertainment and dining experience.

Amphicars were rounded up from all over. Then the real work began. Each vehicle was upgraded and modified to the tune of $65,000 to $70,000 dollars over the purchase price. Changes included adding an extra three inches of leg room in the back seat.

Aesthetically, the cars retain their sweet 60’s vibe. They still have the highest rear fins of any production car, beating out the 1959 Cadillac by almost an inch.

Colors include Regatta Red, Lagoon Blue, Beach White and a nifty aqua named Fjord Green. The Boathouse has two of each hue.

Guests cannot drive the Amphicars (darn!) but can book them for guided tours. And it is quite an adventure!

Climb aboard and buckle up. The Captain puts her in first and steers the Amphicar down a long ramp. SPLASH! Right into the water! The vehicle floats off the bottom and the props kick in. The car has become a boat, which the Captain steers using the front tires as rudders.

The Captain shares the history of the Amphicar while pointing out the scenery. It is a peaceful and different way to enjoy the beauty of Disney Springs.

After about 20 minutes, the boat returns to the dock. The Captain revs the engine, builds some momentum and the rear wheels dig into the ramp. Up and out…it is a car again!

The Captain parks her on a turntable. After you disembark, the car is spun around to face the water, and is ready for its next voyage.

If you want to experience it for yourself, just head over to The Boathouse at Disney Springs. It is the only place you can ride in an Amphicar, unless you know someone who owns one.

Currently, Amphicar tours are running from 10 am to 10 pm daily—if the weather permits. You can book in advance or make walk-up reservations at The Boathouse Boatique. Tours run $125 per vehicle.

You don’t have to eat at The Boathouse to take a ride, but if you do, keep your receipt. Guests get a $25 discount on the Amphicar tour if they spend $50 or more at either The Boathouse or The Boatique.

Right now, each Amphicar holds 2 to 3 passengers. Only the back seat is available, in order to allow for social distancing from the Captain.

Have we piqued your interest in an Amphicar tour? Let us know if you decide to take the plunge!