Tales of the Sailing Ship Columbia

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Ahoy, shipmates! You have just set sail aboard the proud Columbia, an exact replica of the first American vessel to completely circle the globe. Visit below decks where you may see how we sailors of the 1790s live and work on the high seas." For decades that pre-recorded narration welcomed Disneyland guests aboard a Disney attraction that was unique to Disneyland.

For more than sixty years, the Sailing Ship Columbia that has a capacity of roughly three hundred people has offered guests a tranquil twelve minute or so glimpse of Disneyland's Rivers of America following the same hidden underwater track as the Mark Twain steamboat. Guests get to view the north bank of the Columbia Gorge, complete with a beautiful waterfront and sparkling waterfalls.

During the narrated voyage, recorded background music plays a mixture of sea chanteys and lively nautical music. The ship holds ten cannons and two deck mounted swivel guns, and during the journey one of them fires a 12 gauge blank as a warning shot at Pirate's Lair to ward off potential pirate attacks.

Since the ship has no covering for shade, it can be an uncomfortably hot experience on the upper deck during the warm summer months. It only operates on an irregular basis but it creates a majestic silhouette on the famous man-made waterway.

The Mark Twain Steamboat was inspired in part by the Cotton Blossom riverboat on the MGM back lot that had been featured in the 1951 MGM remake of the musical Showboat. That is why Walt Disney invited Irene Dunne, the star of the 1936 version of Showboat, to christen the Mark Twain on July 17, 1955. Also on that back lot was a replica of Fulton's Clermont steamship made for a 1940 movie about the inventor.

In 1956, Walt Disney stood alongside Disney executive Dick Nunis looking at the Rivers of America with the Mark Twain and the keel boats gliding through the waters; rafts going back and forth to Tom Sawyer's Island, and the Indian war canoes paddling furiously near the shore. Walt turned to Nunis who thought Walt was going to comment on how busy the traffic was on the man-made river but said instead, "What we really need is another big boat!"

In fact, Walt wanted to build an entire River Town roughly where the Haunted Mansion attraction is now located. Walt told a reporter, "I've got to find the right kind of a boat. But it's going to be a boat that has to do with our early commerce, you see. It might be Robert Fulton's first steamboat or something like that. I'll make a miniature of it that will carry people. The Clermont."

The Sailing Ship Columbia in 1958.

Admiral Joe Fowler, head of Disneyland construction, after exhaustive research at multiple maritime museums suggested instead the "Gem of the Ocean", Columbia Redivivia ("freedom reborn"), the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe in a three year voyage from 1787-1790. It was a merchant ship and a private vessel so that is why it is not preceded by "U.S.S."

Under the command of Captain Robert Gray in 1787 it circumnavigated the globe. In another voyage in 1790, Gray found the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest (which he named after the ship) and several landmarks along the Oregon and Washington Coast also bear his name or were named by him.

The Disneyland vessel has had many extensive refurbishments over the years, but the only significant major change has been the addition of the crew quarters exhibit in 1964.

In 1991, it was put to use as Captain Hook's pirate ship for the Fantasmic! night time show and then later fitted as Jack Sparrow's Black Pearl for a stunt sequence in that same show.

In 2016-2017, all Rivers of America attractions were closed while the river was re-routed in support of the construction of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. The Sailing Ship Columbia re-opened on July 29, 2017 with a new narration and soundtrack to fit the shorter trip.

At the time of its construction, it was the first three-masted windjammer built in the United States in more than 100 years. The flat-bottomed steel hull was constructed at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, California as well as the masts, rigging, spars and sails. Steel plates were added to the hold below the water line to keep the ship from tipping over because of the tall masts.

Ray Wallace, who had a love of classic ships, was commissioned by Fowler to design and build the ship. Wallace, an architect and yachtsman, had explored the Pacific as a Sea Scout in his teens, served in the Coast Guard during World War II and later was an officer in several yacht clubs and a board member of the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. Wallace was Errol Flynn's first mate on his sailboat that they took to Catalina. Wallace is also the person responsible for the Min and Bill ship at Disney Hollywood Studios.

Only one known picture was known to exist of the ship, "Columbia in a Squall," but Wallace used research from the Library of Congress, as well as the blueprints for the H.M.S. Bounty (the ship from the famous Mutiny on the Bounty films) built two years earlier by the same shipbuilders. Authentic teak, oak, and maple wood were used in the construction of the outer hull, decks, masts and other areas.

Blaine Gibson sculpted the figurehead known as "Columbia, the Spirit of America". In the 16th-19th centuries, it became commonplace to have a figurehead on the galleons of the times. One reason was to have a visual way to identify the ship in a not so literate kind of society. Another theory is the belief that having a beautiful woman as the figurehead would entice the ocean gods and spirits and allow the vessel to proceed without harm.

The ship was launched at a ceremony on June 14, 1958 at 5 p.m. The crew for the maiden voyage consisted of Sea Scouts who were based out of Redondo Beach, California attired in striped shirts and white pants. Walt Disney and his friend Art Linkletter were both on board the ship.

Following nautical tradition told to him by Admiral Fowler, Walt had placed a new silver dollar under each of the masts for good luck, but they disappeared when the masts were replaced in the 1990s.

For the debut of the Sailing Ship Columbia, U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Alfred Carroll Richmond presented a Bible to the Columbia's acting skipper (Fowler attired in an authentic costume), in accordance with maritime tradition. And the Admiral's wife, Gretchen Richmond, christened the Columbia with a bottle of champagne as Walt looked on proudly.

Even though Richmond retired in 1962, he returned in full uniform to inaugurate the below deck maritime museum in 1964. The museum gave guests a glimpse of how the ship's crew would have lived when the original ship sailed in the 18th century.

Taller guests need to mind their head as they head down the stairs into the quarters where the captain, first mate, bosun and bosun's mate, surgeon and the rest of the crew slept and ate.

The captain's cabin is aft and is much bigger then any other sleeping quarters. He could sleep in a more comfortable bed, had a desk to write in his log, and had a small dining table. The desk includes the ship's log, and letters between the captain and the ships owners. The captain also had his own windows to open and look out on the sea. The ship's mess was in the middle forward with a pantry, and there's even a foundry to do any ironwork on. Some of the equipment used by the crew on a regular basis is stored on this deck as well along the sidewalls. There is a big hatch leading to the lower storage space, where cargo for the long haul could be stowed.

The park displayed an attractive 54"x36" attraction poster designed by Bjorn Aronson to alert park guests about the new ride that started as a "D" Ticket but later got upgraded to an "E" Ticket,

A classic attraction poster for the Sailing Ship Columbia.

The main mast is 84 feet tall and the ship flies the same U.S. flag that would have been used in 1787 with thirteen stars and thirteen stripes at the stern of the ship. Disneyland claimed that the cost to build the ship was $100,000, although some estimates put the final cost at much more. The ship rarely unfurls its sails and is powered by a compressed natural gas engine.

The ship used the same loading area built for the Mark Twain Riverboat, but required modification to handle the loading stairs needed by Columbia. A new dock and landing was built for the ship to be in drydock, dubbed Fowler's Harbor after Admiral Joe Fowler. Walt jokingly referred to it as "Joe's Ditch" because he felt it was a waste of money but later realized its value in maintaining both the Columbia and the Mark Twain.

The area was expanded in 1988 by constructing Harbour Galley to be a quick serve location, capturing the atmosphere of a Southern fishing village of the early 19th century. It was originally assigned to Walt Disney Imagineering, but unusually Disneyland itself assumed control of building the area in 1988 and rushed to have it completed for the 1989 opening of Splash Mountain.

At one point the Harbour Galley promoted a nonexistent restaurant serving "Maurie's Lobster Dinners" named after Fowler's wife. Mill View Lane on the sign right next to the service windows refers to the street where Fowler lived in Florida when he was working on Walt Disney World. A nearby façade among the shanties is for Fowler's Inn. Also at the Harbour Galley (with Jonathan Winship listed on the sign as the proprietor) is a colorful sign for Ezekiel Talbot, a ship chandler who sells stores and goods to ships. That's the reason for the anchor, line, and block on the sign.

This dockside dining counter service location opened in July 1989, serving a seafood menu including shrimp cocktail, popcorn shrimp, and a halibut sandwich. From 2001 to 2008 McDonald's sponsored the facility and sold its own branded French fries and beverages. When the sponsorship ended, Harbour Galley reopened in 2009 emphasizing soups, chowders, loaded baked potatoes, seafood salads, and sandwiches.

"There were advantages to doing this job ourselves," stated Dick Butler who was Disneyland Project Manager. "We not only thought about the show aspects of the area, but also took into consideration the storage of materials, the needs of the Operations personnel, and maintenance of the facility.

"We added quite a few things that will be helpful for the facility's operation. We even have an emergency exit from Splash Mountain that connects with our basement in the event that the attraction goes down. Some of the interesting things we've done for the façade include treating the sheet metal portion of the roof to give it a rusty appearance, utilizing simulated rock, and cutting out knots in the shingles to create a structure that looks about 150 years old. We kept the roof as low as possible to minimize the impact of the facility on the surrounding area. Everyone kept telling us that there wasn't enough room but we made room by building a basement."

All utilties on the roof had to be hidden by faux chimneys and other ornamentation or eliminated altogether and installed elsewhere so they wouldn't be seen by guests cruising by on the Mark Twain steamboat and the Columbia Sailing Ship. Because of its nearness to the Rivers of America and because the location of the new buildings were actually below the water level, the basement could not be built until the area was first drained and a seawall reconstructed. The basement area, essential for housing utilities and storing supplies for the kitchen, also supplies room for the tools and materials of a working dry dock which was the original intent of the location. A basement-level walkway allows repairs to be done on any docked vessels while the Harbour Galley remains open to guests. The walkway also permits Operations personnel to get onto or around the docks without crossing through an on stage guest area.

A recent photo of the Sailing Ship Columbia.

On December 24, 1998, a heavy metal cleat fastened to the hull tore loose, killing a park guest and disfiguring his wife while they waited in the queue to board the ship. An untrained supervisor taking over for an attraction operator tried to stop the ship by tying down a mooring rope. The regular hemp rope had been improperly replaced for financial reasons by an elastic nylon rope which stretched and tore the cleat from the ship's hull. This was the first guest death in Disneyland's history that was not due to negligence on the part of the guest and the first death at the park since January 1984.

After the incident, Disney was fined by OSHA and put in place numerous safety measures to prevent a recurrence as well as settling a lawsuit from the family for approximately twenty-five million dollars. Additionally, this matter brought about several theme park regulations into California law including independent inspection. Disneyland later made several changes in the way it operates rides, adopting bell signals, changing docking procedures on the Columbia, and reviewing/updating all its ride procedures. Due to the incident, Disney also brought back lead operators on most rides, an experienced position that had been phased out on many attractions including the Columbia, as well as implementing a full time employee from the Anaheim Police Department at Disneyland for faster response.

Disneyland tourist Luan Phi Dawson, 33, suffered two major injuries to his brain and to a major blood vessel in his head in the accident and died after he was taken off life support. Dawson was brain-dead for nearly eleven hours before he was removed from life support and pronounced dead two days after the incident. His body was kept functioning to allow a relative to arrive and see him. Dawson was a Microsoft Computer Programmer.

Dawson and his wife, Lieu Vuong, were struck in the head when a mooring rope tore a foot-long metal cleat from the hull of the park's sailing ship and whipped it into a crowd on Christmas Eve. Disneyland cast member Christine Carpenter suffered major foot and leg injuries. Ms. Vuong, 43, was upgraded from critical to fair condition and had plastic surgery for cuts to the right side of her face.

For Imagineer Tony Baxter's proposed Discovery Bay project, the classic Columbia would be berthed at its own dock that was full of crates and nets (a cleverly disguised children's play area) with a gang plank leading up to the ship's deck for exploration of the exhibits on its different levels.

The sailing ship was also meant to be included at Walt Disney World but when the budget for the vacation kingdom soared, several things were eliminated. The ship is still the reason for the name of Liberty Square's restaurant. The Columbia Harbour House is themed as a New England tavern of the Colonial time period. During the American Revolutionary War, the proprietor of the Harbour House was Harold Stalmaster while the innkeeper was a woman named Priscilla "Cilla" Lapham.

Around 2011, crates were added to Liberty Square addressed to different residents of the locale. Harold Stalmaster is a reference to actor Hal Stalmaster who portrayed the title role in the 1957 Disney live action film Johnny Tremain based on the novel of Revolutionary War characters. Another crate is addressed to innkeeper Priscilla Lapham, who was Johnny's love interest in the story.

Located between Fantasyland and Liberty Square, the counter service restaurant has two entrances. The Fantasyland side represents a dock in England (since it is just below the Peter Pan's Flight attraction) set at a time when most people were illiterate, so the sign just features a chicken and fish to indicate what was served inside the restaurant, much like English pubs of the time would have images on signage to identify them.

The floor plan of the Columbia Harbour House.

The Liberty Square side represents a port in New England and the sign spells out the name with the British "u" included in the word "Harbour". Instead of images of a chicken and fish, since this is a later time period in the New World when many people could read, it features the American bald eagle first designed in 1776. Looking closely at the eagle, the thirteen arrows representing the original colonies are in its right claw signifying "war". The back of today's dollar bill has the arrows in its left claw, and an olive branch in the right one signifying "peace".

Based on concept sketches by Imagineer Dorothea Redmond, The Harbour House didn't open until Summer 1972, along with Olde World Antiques, the Perfume shop, and the Heritage House. In early planning and maps it was designated as the Nantucket Harbor House and even sometimes as New Bedford and Montauk Point. By the time it opened, it was officially the Columbia Harbour House because there were plans for the Sailing Ship Columbia to ply the waters of the Rivers of America, like at Disneyland.

In 1787, when the Constitution was ratified as is referenced in the number of the building that houses the Hall of Presidents, the Columbia became the first American sailing ship to circumnavigate the globe.

Columbia Harbour House is one of the largest restaurants at the Magic Kingdom, but seems more intimate with its low ceilings and small dining areas named after port towns: Charleston, Cape Hatteras, Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis, Long Island, Cape Cod, Portsmouth, New London, Newport, Marblehead, Salem and Plymouth. One of the second floor rooms, by a window overlooking the Haunted Mansion, is themed to the paintings of ghost ships like The Flying Dutchman. There is also a map from the National Geographic magazine that is framed and marks the locations of 500 ships that were lost on the U.S. coastline between Virginia and North Carolina.

The Harbour House is decorated with nautical artwork and paraphernalia such as an antique scuba helmet, scrimshaw, mermaid figureheads from ships, model ships, nautical paintings, chandeliers made from helms, maps of the ocean, helms mounted on the walls, and charts, among other clever details. One of the paintings in the restaurant is a recreation of a painting from the Disney live action film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

For the first two decades that the restaurant was open there was a second separate serving area upstairs with its own kitchen. In the 1990s this was closed and walled up.

Sailing Ship Columbia recreates the pioneering experiences of the famous vessel and allowed Walt to include in his park a little bit of history from the early years of the United States that he loved so well.



  1. By Dave1313

    In 1991, it was put to use as Captain Hook's pirate ship for the Fantasmic! night time show and then later fitted as Jack Sparrow's Black Pearl for a stunt sequence in that same show.
    That (along with the use of the Mark Twain of course) is one of my top reasons I am more of a fan of the DL version of Fantasmic! than the DHS version. Even with the lack of formal seating, the integration of these massive regular attractions into the show around the RoA makes it much more impressive to me than the stage and stadium at DHS.

    The sailing ship was also meant to be included at Walt Disney World but when the budget for the vacation kingdom soared, several things were eliminated. The ship is still the reason for the name of Liberty Square's restaurant. The Columbia Harbour House is themed as a New England tavern of the Colonial time period. ......

    That's interesting. I did not know the original intent to include a Columbia at WDW. And somehow the connection of the name for the CHH restaurant just never "clicked" with me to realize it was named for that ship.

    And now I need to look at the different signage on the Fantasyland side vs the Liberty Square side the next time I visit.

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