Friday, June 5, 2015

The History of the Walt Disney World Swan Boats

By Keith Mahne
If I had the opportunity to travel back in Walt Disney World time one of my top choices to revisit would have to be a ride on the swan boats. As you find yourself crossing from Main Street into Tomorrowland, you might notice the remnants of one of the Magic Kingdom’s most beautiful, serene and relaxing attractions. Open during peak seasons from early 1972 to late 1983, the Swan Boats traveled the waters around Cinderella Castle in style. Let's take an in depth look at the history of Walt Disney World's Plaza Swan Boats in today's new article...

The vessels that comprised this slow-moving seasonal attraction, operating officially during peak seasons from May 1973 to August 1983, plied the main canals of the park as visions of unmatched serenity. The boats departed south from a docking pavilion facing Tomorrowland and navigated a clockwise path on the Hub's waters with a dogleg into Adventureland that wrapped around the Swiss Family Treehouse. The ride lasted seventeen minutes and was accompanied by a live spiel with brief descriptions of attractions beyond the river's edge. The attraction's guides were females only until the ride's last few years of operation, at which time the duty went co-ed.

The Swan Boat fleet numbered 12 originally. This count was later reduced by one, when a unit was converted into a "vacuum boat" for cleaning the canals. The total boat count was ostensibly reduced by half toward the end of the attraction's eleven-summer run; one former pilot contended that engine problems kept many of the boats perpetually grounded. Each boat sat 26 guests on benches on the outer walls of the craft that faced inward - like a Jungle Cruise steamer without the center cushion.

The boats were named for some of Disney's animated heroines. Among the names were Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell, Katrina, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. The Swan Boats were powered by natural gas engines, and were originally designed to run with an electric guidance system.  That system failed early in the attraction's life span and gave way to a new steering mechanism: two jets of water below the hull (one in front, one in back) that could swivel 360 degrees and thereby propel the boat in any direction, even in circles.  Each jet was controlled by a separate steering wheel on a console at the rear of the boat.  Accounts of the boats running into the concrete shoreline, pylons and other obstacles are common. The boats were stored and serviced in a canal opposite the Jungle Cruise boat maintenance area. 

The early electric guidance system.
The original electric guidance system tracks can be seen in this early shot of WDW. 
Although the official opening date was May 20, 1973, there is at least one photograph of guests riding a boat down the canal that was published in 1972.  At first, the boats loaded at what is now the outdoor dining patio just north of the Plaza Restaurant.  The better-known dock, which is the green-roofed structure on the water's edge between Cinderella Castle and Tomorrowland, which was built in 1973.
Swan Boat dock

Images of the Swan Boats were widespread in the 1970s. Photographs of the boats appeared on postcards, slides, in pictorial souvenirs and other Disney publications of the era. A Swan Boat photo even made the front cover of the Summer/Fall 1974 MK guide book. The Swan Boats were listed in the park's guides up until 1975 only, even though the attraction lasted eight more years.  The ride required a "D" Ticket up until 1980, when the A-E ticket system was disbanded.

The female cast members staffing this attraction wore a stylized white and blue sailor's uniform. An early photo of one boat shows a hostess wearing a different uniform, with a broad-rimmed hat and Fantasyland type dress - something closer to what hostesses at Disneyland's Storybook Land ride once wore. This photo also showed the boat traveling in the "wrong" direction, sailing west to east past the front of the Crystal Palace restaurant.  The male cast members who showed up for the ride's last several seasons of operation wore blue and white as well, often with a white cap.  Male Leads wore red and white.

A cast member who worked this attraction during its last season reported that the ride was closed due to operating costs, which stemmed largely from the maintenance of the boats.  This would make the Swan Boats the first ride to contract the disease that laid 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to rest in 1994.  Another report indicated that the ride's popularity was actually a problem and that even with six boats running the queue could easily reach 45-60 minutes.

Here we see Disney Characters arriving by Swan Boat.
Let's end this article of the Walt Disney World Swan Boats by taking a ride on one back in 1982...

Source: Widen Your World

Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four.

Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.
You can find all of Keith's articles here.

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