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A Mississippi Steamboat
This old time paddle wheel boat ride around the Rivers of America is--like many Magic Kingdom attractions--a replica of a Disneyland attraction. From the earliest planning phases Walt wanted to include a 'Mississippi Steamboat' as one of Disneyland's attractions. WED designers did a lot of research before starting construction on the Disneyland paddlewheeler Mark Twain. The hull of the Mark Twain riverboat was built at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, California, while the superstructure wad built at the Disney Studio in Burbank. The pieces were then shipped to Disneyland for final assembly. Of note, the Mark Twain was the first paddle wheel steamship built in America in 50 years. The Mark Twain sails Disneyland's Rivers of America from a landing in Frontierland, because the steamship is an icon of the American Frontier. It is also interesting that the Magic Kingdom's riverboat attraction was not an opening day attraction, but began sailing the next day, October 2, 1971.
While the Magic Kingdom riverboat is also considered to be a Mississippi Steamboat from the 1800's, its landing is located in Liberty Square. Two plausible reasons for this: Liberty Square contains only two other attractions and this landing location is in the same position on the river as the landing in Disneyland. The riverboat also helps with theme transitioning between Liberty Square and Frontierland, tying the neighboring lands together as much of the steamboat's on-board narration talks about items in Frontierland.
The riverboat is guided through the Rivers of America via an I-beam track, which is hidden under the green and brown dyed river water. The ride operator, who sits on the bridge on the top deck, only blows the whistle, rings the bell and triggers the narration as the boat passes points of interest. The speed is controlled by the engineer on the bottom deck in the rear of the ship by the boiler. Even though the Liberty Bell can't be steered, it is propelled by the paddle wheel which is powered by the onboard steam engine.
There have been two Magic Kingdom riverboats. The first was the Admiral Joe Fowler, after the Retired Navy Admiral whom Walt brought on to oversee the construction of Disneyland, and who also oversaw the first phase of Disney World construction. This ship was built at the Tampa Ship Repairs and Dry Dock Company, the same place where the Magic Kingdom train steam-engines were rebuilt.
When the riverboat attraction was opened the Rivers of America were very different then they are today. The river went around what would become Tom Sawyer's Island, but the island was undeveloped. Also, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad were not yet built. As a result there was very little to look at as the ship traveled around the river. Because of this The Admiral Joe Fowler featured live onboard musical entertainment. Many passengers rode the steamboat not for the view, but for the music.
On May 20, 1973, just under two years after the park opened and due to high demand, a second steamship was added to the Rivers of America. The Richard F. Irvine was built on Walt Disney World property and took 6 months to complete. Richard Irvine, the man, was a Disney set designer who, because of his degree in Architecture, was asked to help with the building of Disneyland as a liaison between the Architectural Firms hired to design Disneyland's buildings and the Imagineers. He later oversaw planning and design for Disney World. Adding the second ship to the river helped alleviate some of the parks overcrowding by creating more attraction capacity. For seven years both ships sailed the Rivers of America, one loading/unloading while the other sailed around Tom Sawyer Island.
The Magic Kingdom's two level landing dock features an improved loading and unloading scheme from the Disneyland dock. Liberty Square's landing dock allowed passengers to load onto the steamboat's second level and exit on the boat's first level. This allows passengers to load and unload at the same time. After a few years, popularity and demand for the riverboats decreased and ships were no longer loaded and unloaded using the two level scheme; instead all passengers unload from the second level, then the next passengers board, also on the second level.
In 1980 the Admiral Joe Fowler was moved back stage to the Disney World drydock for routine maintenance, but never returned to the Magic Kingdom. While Disney never official said what happened to the ship, it is believed that the ships hull was cracked either while being lifted by a crane or because it was not placed properly within the dock when the water was removed. Some parts of the ship were reused. The ship's machinery was sent to Tokyo Disneyland and became part of its Mark Twain riverboat. And the ship's whistle is now part of the Magic Kingdom's #4 Train Engine, the Roy O. Disney. The loss of the Admiral Joe Fowler left the park with just one steamboat.
In 1996 the Richard F. Irvine was removed from the Rivers of America for repairs. While in drydock an all-new superstructure made of aluminum and vinyl was installed. On its return, the ship was re-christened the Liberty Belle. This name change helped the ship fit better into Liberty Square and was easier to remember. The former stramboats' names were not forgotten though. Two of the Ticket and Transportation Center ferries now bare the names Admiral Joe Fowler and Richard F. Irvine.