The Plaza Swan Boats
If Main Street USA could be considered the Magic Kingdom's pinnacle of elegant ornamentation, which it is, then the Plaza Swan Boats should be rightfully hailed as the perfect mobile complement to that land's more graceful aspects, which they were.
The vessels that comprised this slow-moving seasonal attraction, which operated during peak seasons from May 1973 to August 1983, plied the main canals of the park as visions of unmatched serenity - when they weren't spinning in circles. 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 - imagine a regular Magic Kingdom guided tour tailored to address the points of interest along the canal ("The 65 foot tall Swiss Family Robinson treehouse is completely manmade, with over 750,00 hand-painted vinyl leaves.") - with brief descriptions of attractions beyond the river's edge. The attraction's guides were young females until the ride's last few years of operation, at which time the duty went co-ed.
The Swan Boat fleet, so named for its exquisitely-crafted figureheads, 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 I can recall are Tiger Lily, Tinker Bell, Katrina, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. Others can be guessed at with relative certainty, and a fair corroboration can be gleaned from the names used at the Swan Boat's "sister" attraction, Disneyland's Storybook Land Canal Boats. The Canal Boats were also staffed exclusively by females (until the late 1990s) and they still take guests on a slow, leisurely journey past miniature recreations of settings from famous Disney films. According to Bruce Gordon and David Mumford in their phenomenal Disneyland - The Nickel Tour, the original Storybook Land boat names included Cinderella, Daisy, Aurora, Alice, Faline, Flora, Fauna, Merryweather, Wendy, Snow White and Tinker Bell. The names of heroines from more recent Disney films were added to that ride in the early '90s, replacing many of the old ones.
The Swan Boats were powered by natural gas engines, and were originally designed to run with an electric guidance system. By all accounts this 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 thought of these delicate-looking craft spinning out of control and crashing into things seems incongruous, but it also seems pretty funny.
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 pavilion on the water's
edge between Cinderella Castle and Tomorrowland, which was built in 1973.
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The boats were stored and serviced in a canal opposite the Jungle Cruise boat maintenance area. This canal fed into the main Hub waterways just south of the Swiss Family Treehouse. You can see the intersection of the two if you stand along the water's edge next to the Oasis snack bar and look southeast.
A cast member who worked this attraction during its last season said 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 - bottomlinitis - that laid 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to rest in 1994. All manner of other reasons have been given for the Swan Boats closing, including (inexplicably) that the ride was "just too popular." This is typical of the misinformation that has been generated during latter-day discussions of this attraction among those who didn't get to enjoy it. Perhaps that's because it was a seasonal operation that folded up over fifteen years ago, thereby making it doubly unfamiliar to many of today's guests, inaccurate speculation was destined to spread.
The best all-out fallacy is that the "swan boats" on Orlando's Lake Eola are the Disney Swan Boats restored. That's completely daft for many reasons, one of which is that Lake Eola's boats are foot-powered. Of course the same people are quick to make the correct, although hardly sagacious, observation that the old Swan Boat dock still resides, useless and forlorn, along the canal just opposite the borders of "New Tomorrowland."
The true destiny of the boats themselves is a bit more sad and mysterious. After the ride closed the boats were moved to the property control yard at the north end of WDW, where they were put up for sale. Beyond that, I don't know what happened to them.
Hopefully in this attempt to preserve some of the Swan Boat's history I have not
added to the sea of half-truths surrounding this charming ex-attraction. Since I only
experienced it as a child, the bulk of this research has come from Disney publications
and the generosity of others with their own memories.