Columbia Harbour Houseby Brian Bennett, contributing writer
Columbia Harbor House is well known as one of the Magic Kingdom's fast food eateries. It's a shame that most people think only of fish baskets and chicken strips when they visit this place. It truly is a treasure trove if you don't mind taking a few minutes to look around. Since you might not take the time when you're in the Magic Kingdom on vacation, how about we take a little look around now while you're just thinking about your next visit? Maybe, just maybe, I can convince you to take a few extra minutes to take in the atmosphere in this remarkable fast food joint.
Columbia Harbor House takes its name both from a historical sailing vessel and a Disney icon. The historic sailing vessel is the Columbia, of course, which was the first United States vessel to circumnavigate the globe. The Disney icon is the reproduction of the Columbia that can be visited at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Unfortunately for Disney fans on the East Coast, the Rivers of America have never been as busy as the original Disney Frontierland waterfront out west. Not only did the Magic Kingdom not get a Columbia to sail the river's waters, the Magic Kingdom has also been stripped of its keel boats and Davy Crockett canoes over the years.
So although Columbia Harbor House is not an attraction in terms of being a ride and unless you spill your beverage into your lap you're not likely to get wet, it certainly is an interesting place to visit.
An exterior view of the Columbia Harbor House. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The restaurant honors maritimers from years gone by. The U.S. had a very large ocean-going fleet for a country of our small stature (in terms of political clout and population) in the earliest years of our republic's history. Prior to the construction of the Great White Fleet in the years between the Spanish American War (in 1898) and World War I (which began in 1914, although the U.S. didn't enter the war until 1917) the U.S. had a very small navy, but boasted a relatively large merchant marine and an extremely large fishing and whaling industry.
Columbia Harbor House's marquee depicts the whaling industry of the 1800s. Photo by Brian Bennett.
In Mystic, Connecticut, there is a place called Mystic Seaport, a living museum that captures the same time in our history that Columbia Harbor House honors. Cursed with a harbor that was too shallow to allow Mystic (the real Connecticut town) to be a major trading port, it nonetheless had the raw materials and skilled workers (and a perfect work area with a connection to the sea) that permitted it to become the nation's leading ship-building town in the early- and mid-1800s. At Mystic Seaport, you can explore real wind-borne fishing and whaling vessels, see a working rope walk, visit a shipwright's shop, a sail loft, a chandlery (general store for outfitting sailing vessels), and more. A museum displays beautifully carved figureheads that once adorned the prow of proud ships, and intricately detailed scrimshaw (hand-carved whale bone that sailors created to pass the time during long voyages).
The model ship is located in Columbia Harbor House's entryway. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The bark Charles P. Morgan, smaller than the model ship shown above, is the last wooden whaler to survive to this day and is the crown jewel of Mystic's collection. Measuring 111 feet from stem to stern and capable of carrying some 320 or so tons of whale products fully loaded, the Morgan was the veteran of 37 long voyages. Built in 1841, the Morgan sailed from New Bedford, Connecticut, for 45 years before making San Francisco its home base for the next 18. In late fall 1941, the Morgan was towed up the Mystic River to join the collection at Mystic Seaport. An ongoing program of restoration and rebuilding then began. Today, visitors can walk throughout the ship and get a real feel for the lifestyle of the men that sailed on the Morgan. If you ever get the opportunity to visit Mystic Seaport, you will not regret it!
Columbia Harbor House has many displays, models, posters, and diagrams that invoke the same feel as a day trip to Mystic Seaport.
Before looking at some of those details, we must remember that Columbia Harbor House is first and foremost a restaurant. The counter-service venue serves up fish and chips, chicken strips, sandwiches, soup, salad, chowder (now served in a bowl the old bread bowl is a thing of the past), side dishes, and beverages.
You can view the restaurant's serving area from upstairs. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The serving area is dominated by a gorgeous figurehead. Columbia Harbor House's lady in blue surely represents the wooden carvings that uniquely identified ships during the age of sail.
A recreation of the Sailing Ship Columbia's figurehead graces the serving area. Photo by Brian Bennett.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this figurehead is a duplicate of Columbia's actual figurehead, but that is conjecture on my part.
Another view of the Sailing Ship Columbia's figurehead. Photo by Brian Bennett.
In the times that preceded the iron ship (and the huge North Atlantic passenger runs made by Cunard, White Star, Red Star, Hamburg America, North German Lloyd, the French Line, and other major lines) wooden vessels plied the waters of the Atlantic and carried statesmen and the wealthy back and forth between North America and Europe.
Looking up from the serving area, you can see more of the items displayed in the serving area. Capping it all off is a skylight that is similar to ones found on larger passenger vessels.
The skylight over the the serving area provides light and atmosphere. Photo by Brian Bennett.
One feature of Columbia Harbor House's design is visible from both outside the building and inside. outside, you can see a portion of the second story seating area that actually bridges across the walkway between Liberty Square and Fantasyland.
A view of Columbia Harbor House's bridge. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The view outside from the right window of the shingle covered bridge looks over the currently landing of Liberty Belle and the dock of the former keel boats.
A view outside from the bridge upstairs looks out over Liberty Square. Photo by Brian Bennett.
Inside and standing at the far end (toward the yellow brick portion of the building over the Yankee Trader shop) and looking back toward Columbia Harbor House's main building, it looks very much like the cabin inside a ship. Note the thick, broad beams, the slightly curved ceiling, the post which looks like a mast piercing through the upper deck above, and the partial bulkhead that separates this portion of the seating area from the room beyond.
The bridge upstairs looks very much like the lower deck of a sailing ship. Photo by Brian Bennett.
Other seagoing memorabilia adorns the walls like this old-time poster advertising passenger bookings on a vessel named Hornet.
A poster advertising passage on the Hornet graces the walls of the restaurant. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The clipper Empress of the Sea of the Empire line also sails to San Francisco from New York City.
Empress of the Sea provides passage to San Francisco . Photo by Brian Bennett.
A gorgeous model of a rigged ship sans sails sits just above the stairs near the serving area
You can see this ship in the stairway leading up to the upstairs seating area. Photo by Brian Bennett.
and a display of sailors knots adorns the back wall upstairs.
You can see this display of sailor's knots upstairs at the Columbia Harbor House. Photo by Brian Bennett.
Maps of the old country
A map of the United Kingdom shows harbors on the coast as well as towns in the interior. Photo by Brian Bennett.
and the new world are also on display showing the major ports of call and sea routes during the era.
You can see a map of the New World on the wall of the restaurant. Photo by Brian Bennett.
The only reference to the U.S. Navy that I could find in Columbia Harbor House is a series of illustrations of regulation naval uniforms for enlisted men and officers from the time of the Revolution through the late 1800s.
Columbia Harbor House has a series of U.S. Navy uniform illustrations. Photo by Brian Bennett.
But of course, Columbia was not a navel vessel, so it's not really all that odd that the restaurant memorializes the peaceful oceangoing wooden ships.
Oh, here's where I have an additional tidbit for you before I close. When I visited the restaurant to take these pictures, I also decided to enjoy lunch and had fish and chips while I was there. The battered white fish and thick french fries are really very good, especially when you drizzle some vinegar (provided at the condiment bar) on top.
Anyway, I was listening to the music played in the restaurant and noticed that one song was Shenandoah. I was quite surprised because I generally associate that tune with the Shenandoah River, not an oceangoing journey. I figured I had to be wrong, so I stopped by City Hall on the way out of the park and asked for a list of the songs that are played in Columbia Harbor House.
Sure enough, down there near the bottom of the list is the culprit song. I thought it was interesting. Perhaps this list might be something you'd enjoy reading through.
Whale of a Tale, of course, is from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean is one I've heard my own grandmother (who was born and raised in Wigan, Lancashire, England not far from the port of Liverpool) sang to me many times as a young boy. Blow the Man Down and What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor, believe it or not, were ditties I learned in kindergarten. Strike The Bell, of course, is played over and over and over and over before the Seamore and Clyde (sea lion and seal) show at Sea World. Sailing, Sailing is one I remember from childhood, too. Shenandoah is the only other one I know by name, although some of the others might be ones that I remember the tune for. I suppose Leaving of Liverpool is one that I should know, but I must admit I don't.
Blow Ye Winds
Asleep In The Deep
A Long Time Ago
Maid Of Amsterdam
The Sailor Likes His Bottle
Staten Island Hornpipe
Whale Of A Tale
Round The Corner Sally
My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean
Blow The Man Down
Strike The Bell
What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor
Bound For South Australia
Rollin' Down to Old Maui
We Saw The Sea
Off To Sea Once More
Heave Away Me Johnnys
Ripples of Music
Spanish Ladies/Admiral Benbow
O Johnny, Come To Hilo
Leaving of Liverpool
Over The Waves
Under The Bridge
How many do you know?