Sliver of a Rivers of America

by David Koenig, contributing writer

Walt Disney was a "whole ticket book" kind of guy. He didn't think everything should be an E-ticket. Walt believed Disneyland should offer a wide range of "flavors"—some attractions would be big, others small; some loud and action-packed, others quiet and beautiful. For him, the park bench was as important as the bobsled.

So in Walt's Disneyland, for every big showpiece, there was a tranquil corner, something to happen upon or someplace to catch your breath at.

Today's Disneyland doesn't have that luxury. It's become so popular, you even see crowds around wishing wells. More guests means fewer corners get lightly traveled. It also creates pressure on management to convert resting spaces into active areas (both to get more bodies moving through every square inch of the place and to create something splashier and more marketable that will lure in even more guests they don't have room for).

Most of the quiet spots are gone. The Court of Angels (in New Orleans Square) is now a restaurant lobby. Quirky little shops on Main Street are now T-shirt halls in the Emporium. CircleVision and the Pack Mules have noisier replacements. After 28 years, the PeopleMover gave way to the flashier Rocket Rods (which "ran" for 23 months before being replaced by an empty track). The Skyway and the Motor Boat Cruise just disappeared altogether.

By my count, we're down to the Main Street attractions (vehicles, cinema, steam trains) and the Frontierland river attractions (Mark Twain, Columbia, canoes, Tom Sawyer Island).

In six short weeks, that all could change.

On January 10, the Disneyland Railroad, the Rivers of America, all Frontierland watercraft, and Tom Sawyer Island will be shut down until 2017, to facilitate construction of Star Wars land behind them. The designers, naturally, want their new land to be as large as possible. Besides consuming the entire Big Thunder Ranch, the backstage Circle D Corral, and other service areas, they also want to push into the acreage currently occupied by the Disneyland Railroad tracks and the back shores of the Rivers of America. They also want there to be multiple access points to the new land—from Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Critter Country.

A guest path would be added along the Rivers of America linking Critter County with Star Wars land; the path would be open only during the day and close at dusk. The train tracks would then be rerouted through the current site of the riverbed and the Fantasyland Theater, before rejoining the old route near the Toontown Station. A longer tunnel would be built leading to the station, hiding the train from the main entrance to Star Wars land—a low-grade underpass, similiar to Toontown's. The north end of Tom Sawyer Island—all the uninhabited area past the Burning Cabin—would then need to be excavated to reroute the river.

"We could lose nearly a third of the river," one insider bemoaned. "The boats will travel past the Hungry Bear, take a right, then another hard right, and that's it—they'll start heading back straight to the dock."

Those involved with the project promise the Rivers of America and Tom Sawyer Island won't be reduced by any more than 25 percent. Mathematics aside, riding the river will become a significantly shorter, very different feeling experience. Currently, you begin your relaxing 15-minute trip with people-watching in New Orleans Square, before slipping behind the back of the island and into unexplored remoteness, enjoying a series of quiet show vignettes before there's any sign of civilization.

That leisurely pace is doomed. The shorter trips will also make it more difficult to run both the Mark and the Columbia at the same time. Whatever Disney might remove—whether the rapids, the animatronic animals, or Indians—they'll undoubtedly replace with something higher tech. But what will be more difficult to upgrade (or even preserve) is that feeling of tranquility and escape.

Certainly, there has been some pushback by in-park management. The Circle D folks are not happy with having to relocate all stable operations off-site and having to truck in the trolley horses every morning. As well, the plans for Star Wars land cover the current site of Environmental Affairs—the park's garbage/hazardous waste dumping point. "The fear is that when the land is cleared, we might find that some of the toxic stuff might have leaked into the ground, which would delay construction for the cleanup," said another insider.

Operations folks are dreading 15-plus months of shuttered Frontierland attractions (not to mention extended rehabs next year for Autopia, the Jungle Cruise, and the Matterhorn, among others). The closures will also mean that, for the first time since their founding 53 years ago, there will be no annual cast member canoe races.

Moreso, many are concerned about upsetting the balance of the park that Walt tried so hard to perfect.

"A lot of cast members are asking themselves, 'Is all of this worth it?' Many oldtimers—and a lot of newcomers—are unhappy with all the disruption of the park for this Star Wars land. Getting rid of Circle D, altering the Rivers of America, steam trains, and Tom Sawyer Island—all part of Walt's Disneyland—has to make you wonder. There is a firm belief that TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) and Corporate are hell bent on eliminating what is left of the original Disney in Disneyland."



  1. By sourdough

    This has to be one of the all time, head scratching, what on earth are they thinking, projects of all time. When I first heard that they had to spend a billion dollars and build Star Wars Land, I thought, okay, that could be a great addition. My first hope was that it be located in Tomorrowland, where there is plenty of room and a more or less underutilized unifying theme including Buzz Lightyear, submarines, diesel powered cars and Star Wars. The only reason for me to set foot in the area is Space Mountain. I remember when the new Tomorrowland opened in 1967 and how vibrant the whole area was. The Peoplemover and Skyway were in constant motion. The entrance to Adventure Thru Innerspace had those futuristic fountains out front, which were especially welcoming and attractive on a hot summer day. Now the whole land feels like a concrete backlot that time has forgotten.

    My second hope was for the new land to be over in California Adventure which still trails Disneyland in paying guests. Would it fit in thematically ? Probably not, but not any less than Cars Land.

    Hope number three : a new third gate. Again, this would help to relieve some of the crowd pressure at Disneyland. Maybe management won't be happy until everyday at Disneyland is so packed with people, that it will be physically impossible for anyone to actually fall down.

    David Koenig makes a great point about the quiet places slowing disappearing. When every square foot is monetized, the magic will have disappeared completely.

  2. By Jimbo996

    What if they abandon the Mark Twain and went with the smaller keel boats. The trip will seem longer with the smaller boats. Alternatively, they can slow down the trip so it isn't nearly as fast. It can still be a leisurely trip around the river, only with less things to see. With all these changes, it does seem like Tomorrowland or a Third Park will be a better choice, but this is a quicker and easier solution for them. I imagine it will cost millions more to completely reconfigure Tomorrowland with the monorail or develop the infrastructure of the Third Park.

  3. By indyjones

    I grew up in Burbank and have been a HUGE Disney fan since I could walk (as far as I know). I remember the days of ticket books fondly. Still, with all the commotion, I think people may be making a much bigger deal about these changes than are warranted. The train will still run along the back of the Rivers with a similar amount of river-front track(remember, a good chunk of the river that is disappearing is part that the train doesn't run along currently). The boat ride will drop from about 15 minutes to about 11 (and some change). And I'm sure whatever divider they put up along the back to separate the 2 lands (and that the train and boats will run along) will be appropriately themed and if it has to be really huge, it will be spectacular. Imagine the train running along the base of a high canyon wall (a la Carsland) that is speckled with Native American cave dwellings, etc.

    I remember the Disney community freaking out when it was announced they were adding Capt. Jack Sparrow to the beloved Pirates of the Caribbean (my favorite ride), but I think they did a very good job of it, maintaining the integrity of the original ride and actually adding a little more depth to the story of the plundering going on.

    I've learned over the past 40 years that you need to take a "wait and see" approach with Disney and not fly off the deep end when you don't have the entire picture. Has Disney made blunders in the past (original DCA), sure they have. Will they blunder with these changes and a new Star Wars land? I don't think so. My biggest concern is that one of the 2 new rides "appears" to be a simulator of some sort (aren't we done with those yet?). In any case, let's wait and see.

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