Compared to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the watercraft options available at Disney’s other three theme parks are limited at best. Disney Springs, however, is blessed with a boatload of aquatic options.
At EPCOT, there are three water-based attractions, two in World Showcase and one in Future World: The boat rides inside the Mexico and Norway pavilions and the educational excursion in The Land.
Mexico’s slow-moving, flat-bottom boat ride was known as El Rio del Tiempo when the South of the Border pavilion opened with the rest of the World Showcase in 1982. It had a very “it’s a small world” vibe to it, right down to the colorfully dressed dolls featured throughout the attraction.
El Rio del Tiempo was updated in 2007 and became the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros. The new storyline and film features Donald Duck, José Carioca (as the parrot), and Panchito (as the Mexican charro rooster) from the 1944 Disney film The Three Caballeros.
Norway opened its World Showcase pavilion in 1988, with the log flume-inspired Maelstrom boat ride being the main draw. Guests boarded miniature Viking longboats for a journey that was a part history lesson, part geography tour, all under the watchful eyes of often menacing trolls.
At one point, the boats reversed course and floated backward [a Disney attraction first] toward an opening in the front of the building.
Following the overwhelming success of the movie Frozenthe Maelstrom sailed off into Disney lore and was replaced by Frozen Ever After in 2016. The new version uses the same sometimes bumpy water track but now features your favorite characters from the hit movie in all their Audio-Animatronics glory.
The Land pavilion in Future World takes guests on an educational tour through the world of agriculture. The main portion of the attraction shows how fruits, vegetables, and fish can be grown in non-traditional ways, including hydroponics and aquaculture.
There’s plenty of water in The Seas With Nemo and Friends (formerly The Living Seas) pavilion, which houses a variety of sea life in its massive aquarium, but nary a sea-faring vessel to be found.
The most recognizable outdoor water attraction in EPCOT is the FriendShips, which have plied the waters of the World Showcase lagoon since the park opened in 1982.
“The FriendShips were in our planning from the beginning,” said Marty Sklar, the former head of Walt Disney Imagineering who played such a pivotal role in the creation of EPCOT.
“At one point, we considered having them circle the lagoon, with multiple stops. But that turned out to be operationally inefficient… and besides, it meant building multiple docks. I like the way they look now – plying back and forth across the lagoon.”
The lagoon has been home to other show-inspired watercraft, most associated with the nighttime laser/fireworks shows. There also have been daytime shows (most notably a presentation called Skyleidoscope) that took place on the lagoon.
The FriendShips, meanwhile, took on added responsibility when the five EPCOT Resorts Area hotels opened in the late 1980s/early 1990s and a back entrance to EPCOT, known as the International Gateway, was introduced.
From the International Gateway dock, guests can board a FriendShip bound for the entrance of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The long, sleek boats make stops at The Boardwalk Inn, the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, and the Swan and Dolphin resorts before traversing along Crescent Lake to a dock near Hollywood Studios.
Speaking of which, water-based attractions are almost non-existent at Hollywood Studios. There’s Echo Lake, which is home to a nautical-themed eatery known as the Dockside Diner.
And then there’s Fantasmic! (which is coming back to the park sometime in 2022!), that takes place nightly in the Hollywood Hills Amphitheater at the end of the Sunset Boulevard section of the park. Guests, seated on aluminum benches, watch a classic story of good vs. evil play out in front of them, all embellished by lasers and fireworks.
The finale of the show features a life-sized Steamboat Willie– inspired boat – piloted by Mickey Mouse – carrying many classic Disney characters along a moat that separates the amphitheater from the rock-like stage.
Discovery River dominates the landscape at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, so much so, that there are six bridges that allow guests to cross from Discovery Island to various sections of the park.
When Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, Discovery River was an integral part of The Show.
On opening day, guests could ride the Discovery River Boats, whose intent was to offer guests a “grand circle tour” of the park’s many different lands, much like the Disneyland or Walt Disney World railroads.
Prior to the park’s opening, the attraction consisted of a boat ride through a lush landscape. Michael Eisner took a trip on the boat pre-opening and asked for changes. “It’s a pretty sight,” he said after getting off the boat, “but what is the intellectual content? What could we do to make it exciting?”
What was done was to create a Jungle Cruise-type boat ride that featured humorous anecdotes about life on the river as told by explorers/guides.
Guests boarded the canopied launches from Safari Village (now Discovery Island) or from the Upcountry Landing at Harambe off the shores of the Africa section of the park. The boats sailed around Discovery River, under stone bridges linking Safari Village to the rest of the park.
Among the highlights of the scenic excursion (in addition to the Jungle Cruise-type game given by the boats’ skippers) was coming across a 30-foot-tall audio-animatronics iguanodon, which paused from grazing on reeds at the river’s edge to rear up on its hind legs to greet the boats.
There also was an encounter with Dragon Rocks, where a fire-breathing dragon was said to be waiting. Indeed, sang knights’ armor, as well as menacing sounds and bursts of fire came from the rocks, heightening the experience.
During the boat ride, skippers showed guests a variety of creepy-looking bugs (leaches and tarantulas among them) to help broaden their knowledge. “It’s expensive,” Eisner conceded of the modest upgrades. “You’re adding an extra person on the boat, and there are a lot of boats. But it’s worth it.”
Despite those last-minute changes, however, the Discovery River Boats was a short-lived attraction; they closed about a year after the park opened.
“We had the same thing in the Magic Kingdom, with the Swan Boats,” Marty Sklar said. “They didn’t really get a big play because people didn’t want to sit on a long boat ride with not a lot to see, except for vegetation.
“And it wasn’t appropriate to do the same kind of game you have on the Jungle Cruise because this park is filled with serious stuff. We wanted it to be fun, but we also had to be serious, as we should be with real animals.”
The river boats’ colorful – and covered – boat docks have been used as character photo spots since the attraction closed.
In recent years, a 5,000-seat amphitheater was built near the Asia section of Discovery River as Animal Kingdom attempted to offer new nighttime entertainment options. A show called Rivers of Light was an on-again, off-again attraction from 2017 to early 2020. Disney KiteTails is the most recent attempt to present entertainment on Discovery River.
And ever since the parks reopened after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney character-laden boats now can be seen plying the waters of Discovery River on occasion.
A year after Animal Kingdom opened, Kali River Rapids debuted in the Asia section of the park. The attraction is a high-speed raft ride with an environmental message. On warm days, the message takes a back seat to guests getting soaked during the final splashdown.
More recently, Na’vi River Journey was added to Animal Kingdom’s water-based lineup when it opened with the rest of Pandora: The World of Avatar in 2017.
Na’vi River Journey is a gentle boat ride through a wonderfully detailed bioluminescent forest. There are projections of native wolf-like creatures, Pandoran Ewya, and large bugs crawling on top of leaves dangling from above.
The ride culminates with the appearance of the spiritual Shaman of Songs. The river journey is meant to replicate the Na’vi way of life…with a sense of being at one with nature.
THE UNIQUE WATER OPTIONS AT DISNEY SPRINGS
Lake Buena Vista, the body of water that separates the shopping/dining entertainment district known as Disney Springs from Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa, has its own eclectic mix of watercraft.
On any given day, you might see several flat-bottom water taxis, a 40-foot-long Italian pleasure craft, a riverboat-style paddlewheeler, and a few floating craft that looks curiously like automobiles.
The Boathouse, a nautical-themed restaurant that borders Lake Buena Vista, is home to a variety of pleasure boats, speed boats, and the aforementioned Amphicars, all available for rental. The Amphicars have the ability to travel on land and cruise through the water.
Perhaps the most popular watercraft plying Lake Buena Vista’s waters are the water taxis.
Guests staying at Old Key West Resort, Saratoga Springs, and Port Orleans board the taxis at their resorts. The boats then travel along a scenic canal for a leisurely 15-minute trip to Disney Springs.
There are three docks along Lake Buena Vista at Disney Springs: Marketplace, The Landing, and West Side. Water taxis are available to take guests to all three docks.
Perhaps the most unique watercraft on all of Disney property isn’t a boat at all. It’s called Paddlefish. It’s a restaurant that looks like a boat and actually appears to be docked in the Lake Buena Vista waters.
Paddlefish has a long history, dating back to the opening of what was then known as the Disney Village Marketplace. Back then, the faux boat was known as the Empress Lilly, named after Walt’s wife Lillian.
It became Fulton’s Crab House in 1995 and then was completely overhauled and became Paddlefish to coincide with the expansion of the complex two decades later.
Also during the Marketplace’s early days, guests could rent two-person water sprites and take them for a spin around the lake.
FIFTH IN A SIX PART SERIES. Next: The evolution of the Disney Cruise Line.
Chuck Schmidt is an award-winning journalist who has covered all things Disney since 1984 in both print and online. He has authored or co-authored seven books on Disney, including his Disney’s Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History, for Theme Park Press. He also has written a regular blog for AllEars.Net, called Still Goofy About Disney, since 2015.