Widen Your World – The Plaza Swan Boats

The Plaza Swan Boats
1973 – 1983

Enjoy the passing panorama as a graceful Swan Boat carries you on a
leisurely cruise along the Magic Kingdom’s inland waterways.

Walt Disney World Information Gude, Summer/Fall 1973

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Plaza Swan Boats

Extinct WDW Attraction

Main Street USA,
Magic Kingdom

Opened: May 20, 1973
Closed: August 1983

Ticket Required: D

Descendant of:
Storybook Land
Canal Boats

Dock pavilion in east garden area of hub.
Converted vacuum boat
still in use.

All photos copyright
The Walt Disney Company.
Text 2011 by Mike Lee

I would like to acknowledge
the thoughtful assistance of
Pat Connor,
Dave Ensign,
Mike Hiscano,
Dave Hooper,
Frank Nora,
Greg Scott,
Dave Smith
Martin Smith
with my
Plaza Swan Boats

A prominent
thank you
to Debbie Wills for her

Last Update to this page: February 21, 2011 (additional text, images and video embeds)

If Main Street USA is the Magic Kingdom’s base station for all forms of elegant ornamentation, then the Plaza Swan Boats were the perfect mobile complement to that land’s more graceful aspects.

The vessels that comprised this slow-moving seasonal attraction (operating 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 females only until the ride’s last few years of operation, at which time the duty went co-ed.

The Swan Boat fleet, likely inspired by the Boston Public Gardens’ historic (1877) Swan Boats, 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 lazy 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 1990s, 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.  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 thought of these delicate-looking craft spinning out of control and crashing into things seems incongruous, but it also seems pretty funny.  When not being mishandled, the boats were stored and serviced in a canal opposite the Jungle Cruise boat maintenance area.  This canal feeds 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.

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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.

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 (top of this page) 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 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 that laid 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to rest in 1994.  All manner of other reasons have been given for the Swan Boats’ closure, including that the ride was “just too popular.”  When I first heard that, I presumed it was entirely untrue.  According to Greg Scott, however, the ride’s popularity was actually a problem.  Scott (pictured above and below with co-worker Kerry) staffed the ride as a Lead during its last few summers and in 2003 recounted that even with six boats running the queue could easily reach 45-60 minutes.

One fun rumor surrounding the ride is that the “swan boats” on Orlando’s Lake Eola are the Disney Swan Boats restored.  Anyone paying attention could tell you that’s nonsense for many reasons, including the facts that Lake Eola’s boats a) are foot-powered and b) hold no more than four people each.  Of course some of the same people who have suggested that also made 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 Tomorrowland.  The true destiny of the boats themselves is a bit more sad.  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.  They were all sold and in all accounts that I’ve heard, the swan figureheads and boats went their separate ways.

In 2009 and 2010, the exact whereabouts of several boat pieces came to light via e-mails sent to me and a few other websites, some linked to ebay auctions.  In South Florida the boat portion of the “Snow White” vessel was found sitting behind a restaurant by David McFee, while in Orlando a gaggle of swan figureheads were in storage by Bobby Lory, whose father … here’s the thing, my most recent e-mail crash (2010) wiped out all of the great messages that helped tell this particular story.  BUT, if you follow this link  to Walt Dated World you’ll not only get the details but great photos.  None of this recent information puts us closer to seeing Swan Boats back in the Magic Kingdom (that isn’t going to happen – today’s WDW management hates cool stuff), but somebody’s going to see a 90% restored swan boat floating around one Florida lake or another in the future.

Hopefully this attempt to preserve some of the Swan Boat’s history does not add to the sea of misperceptions 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.

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Plaza Swan Boats Images & Video

ADDITIONAL IMAGES – click on any of the thumbnails below for larger images

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VIDEO – the selections below can also be found on WYW’s YouTube Channel (click here to visit)

Both of these videos featuring the Swan Boats were provided to WYW by Mr. Pat Connor.  Thanks Pat!!!

Page created July 1996.
Updated September 2, 2006 (additional images) and February 21, 2011 (additional text, images & video embeds).

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