Home » Turning Point: An Iconic Piece of Disneyland is Lost Forever to a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

Turning Point: An Iconic Piece of Disneyland is Lost Forever to a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” – Walt Disney

The problem with progress is that it oftentimes comes at the expense of something that was historically great, something whose moment in the sun has passed. In the case of Disneyland, a child who visited the park in its first year in 1955 is in their 70s or 80s now. What they remember from their youth is oddly accurate in some instances.

Part of the prescience of Walt Disney was that many of the attractions he helmed during the early 1950s remain popular to this day. On the other hand, some of those mid-20th century ideas felt dated after a time, so Disney eliminated them.  Lately, the biggest story at the Happiest Place on Earth involves a blending of the two premises. Disney is trying to plus the world’s oldest theme park by introducing something new. In the process, they’re ditching a part of something that hearkens all the way back to Disneyland’s opening day. It’s a delicate balance that underscores the challenges of modernizing a park with such a lingering legacy.

In this edition of Turning Point, I’ll discuss the history of Rivers of America at Disneyland, focusing on its iconic status and importance in Disney history. Then, I’ll evaluate the significance of draining the water and changing the boat path in order to make room for Star Wars Land.

Frontier living

Image: Disney

This story begins in Marceline, Missouri. The city wasn’t Walt Disney’s first home – that was Chicago, Illinois – nor was it a place he lived throughout his childhood. After only five years of residence, the Disney family packed up and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. From the time that he was four to nine, however, the early formative years of his life, Disney’s life intersected with the stories of Mark Twain. He was raised in the days of glorious riverboats sailing on the Missouri River.

Those childhood memories lingered ever after the illustrator became one of the world’s most famous celebrities. When Walt Disney prepared to build his theme park in Anaheim, California, he had only three definite attractions on his shortlist: a haunted house, a train, and riverboat. While the haunted house would take more time, the train and the steamboat were ready when Disneyland opened its gates for the first time.

To Walt Disney, the steamboat and the train were relics of a past that he loved, ones that he could recreate for his guests. They could enjoy a visit to a themed land from a simpler time before Tomorrowland revealed the marvels of the future. Legend has it that Uncle Walt was so passionate about building the Mark Twain riverboat that he sold his dream home to finance it. He felt the need to display a part of his upbringing to guests visiting Disneyland from faraway lands.

Image: Disney

A financial aspect also crystallized his thinking. As I’ve mentioned before, the Davy Crockett mini-series that Disney released in December of 1954 quickly became a cultural phenomenon. This serendipitous ascendance occurred during the construction of Disneyland. Ever the businessman, Disney recognized the mass appeal for the frontier life that he planned to recreate. That led to a doubling (well, quadrupling) down of the plans for Rivers of America. After the riverboat attraction began on opening day in 1955, they’d quickly add the Mike Fink Keel Boats later that year, the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes (with a decidedly less PC name) in 1956 and then the Sailing Ship Columbia in 1958. Disney wound up getting four attractions out of an artificial waterway.

The recreation of steamboat living is a key visual of the Frontierland area. Disney explicitly uses the plural Rivers of America to show that this waterway embodies an entire way of life. It’s not any one river but rather a meshing of The Columbia, the Mississippi, the Potomac, and the Rio Grande. They represent distinct geographical regions of America (southwest, northwest, etc.), and the themed design included markers so that the ride would know which of the four legs they were currently sailing through on their journey.

Alas, nature got in the way of those original plans over time. The water basin and surrounding vegetation caused some of the signifiers to disappear gradually, an issue Disney addressed multiple times over the decades. Their attempts to provide definition to the various points along the Rivers of America were always a lost battle since nature would take its course. As much as Disney has tried to stay true to Uncle Walt’s vision for the Rivers of America, it’s a fight they just can’t win. And their metaphorical battle with time now exists on two fronts…

A Galaxy no longer far, far away

Image: Disney

Look, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you what Star Wars is. As much as anything over the past 100 years, it’s the seminal movie most celebrated in pop culture. Odds are that even if you’re not a fan, you can do all the quotes and have held a lightsaber at some point in your life. It’s fun to swing a giant glowstick in a threatening manner.

Just before Halloween in 2012, Disney acquired the ultimate treat. They purchased Lucasfilm and the included Star Wars franchise for a little over $4 billion. Founder and previous owner George Lucas was 68 at the time and ready to retire. Since he’d worked with Disney previously with two iterations of Star Tours, he trusted them to carry on the legacy of the story he’d created in 1977.

How great was this deal? At various points, Star Wars has stood as the most popular film franchise in history, a title that bounces around between Harry Potter, James Bond, and it. More important, licensed Star Wars merchandise is oftentimes the hottest seller in the world in a given year.

Disney’s first Star Wars release, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, quickly became the most popular domestic performer of all-time with more than $936 million, absolutely shattering the previous record held by Avatar, which was $760 million. The James Cameron film did maintain its status as the top global box office earner ever, with The Force Awakens claiming third. Disney fans understand why this is important. Upcoming park expansions are in the works for two of the three most popular movies ever made.

In the three months that followed the release of The Force Awakens, Disney sold $3 billion worth of merchandise, 50 percent more than the actual box office of the movie. Those two numbers in combination are a billion more than Disney paid for the rights to Star Wars. Not coincidentally, Wired recently proclaimed that Disney’s Star Wars purchase is the “deal of the century.” While competitors still have eight decades to prove Wired wrong, the early results are clear. Disney could have paid twice as much for Star Wars in 2012 and still feel great about the acquisition right now.


Image: Disney

While the merchandising and movie revenue are a big part of the puzzle for The Walt Disney Company, the third consideration in buying Star Wars was that they could add an entirely new facet to theme parks across the world. Disney knew from experience just how popular the intellectual property was with their fans.

After originally starting with Star Tours, they gradually added to the scale of their Star Wars presence in parks over the years. Hollywood Studios became the home for Star Wars Weekends, which led to some of the largest crowds that park has ever enjoyed. I’ve witnessed firsthand the passion and energy in the building during a Jedi Mickey’s meal at Hollywood & Vine. The only way the place could have been more raucous was if Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had walked in.

I don’t know the precise details of a Disney/Star Wars fan Venn Diagram, but I suspect a great deal of overlap. Disney park planners clearly agree. First, they took the risk of having non-Disney characters enjoy an attraction and then a month of weekends at one of Disney’s parks. Then, they bought the license. At that point, it was a foregone conclusion that Star Wars would become a daily part of Disney. The only remaining question was how.

On August 15, 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed the obvious to a captive audience at the D23 Expo. He announced that Star Wars Land was coming to both American Disney theme parks. The presence at Hollywood Studios was expected since the link already existed. Disney had proof of concept there that a Star Wars expansion was a slam dunk. Disneyland wasn’t a shock per se, but it came with more questions.

Acreage issues

Image: Disney

The dirty secret of Disneyland is that Disney doesn’t own enough space there. Whereas Walt Disney World is 27,000 acres in size, the company owns only 85 acres in Anaheim. Yes, the Orlando property is 318 times as large as the Anaheim one. For Star Wars Land to become a part of the Happiest Place on Earth, something had to give. To build a dazzling new 21st century attraction, Disney had to alter a ride beloved by Walt Disney himself.

Rey’s gain is Mark Twain’s loss.

The plan Disney Imagineers developed for Disneyland is that they would drain Rivers of America, their man-made body of water. Then, they would alter the landscape, thereby creating the space needed to add Star Wars attractions at the park. With such crippling space limitations, Disney has reached a point where they have to take something away to build something else.

The hot new thing at Disneyland is a turn behind the wheels of the Millennium Falcon, a hot meal at the galaxy’s most diverse cantina, and then a Star Wars adventure on an E Ticket attraction. Bringing these new attractions to life sadly requires sacrifice.

To their credit, Disney did show reverence to one of the most beloved rides of the company’s founder. Yes, the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes were shut down for a time since they couldn’t very well set sail on dry land. Disney has trumpeted their return in 2017. The paths won’t be the same, but Imagineers are constructing a new riverbank that will save the majority of the sailing path that you’ve known since you were a child. It’ll just be…different.

Image: Disney

That’s the brutal part of advancing the park into a new (and hopefully better) tomorrow. Disney has to make hard choices between the attractions that bring comfort to guests through familiarity and new ideas that could foster similar feelings in the children of today. A riverboat ride through waters similar to those of Walt Disney’s youth will always appeal to some. Sadly, that group of theme park tourists dwindles each year, as represented by the shrinking usage rates for the Mark Twain Riverboat. It’s now more of a way to get off your feet for a while than a ride appreciated for its sublime theming.

I suspect the knowledge of this would cause a tear to roll down Uncle Walt’s cheek, but he was a savvy, forward-thinking entrepreneur who understood that the times would always be changing. After a time, he’d appreciate that modernizing Disneyland more than 60 years after its arrival is a point of pride rather than a depressing change.