22 July 2020

King of the River

Disneyland, the television show where Walt Disney provided viewers with a wide variety of stories, films, and behind the scenes looks. It would also be the playground that would spark ideas for the theme park. One of the icons to make the jump from small screen to the Frontierland canvas was Davy Crockett. In the show’s first season, in 1954 and 1955, Davy appeared in three episodes, culminating in his death at the Alamo. His legendary tales were so popular that he was resurrected for a pair of episodes in the second season, and introduced another larger than life legend, Mike Fink. Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race aired on November 16, 1955, and Jeff York’s gruff, tough, and sometimes less than honorable Mike Fink paddled his way into the imaginations of viewers young and old and to the title of King of the River. His bewildering friendship with the King of the Wild Frontier, Davy, would carry over to the last of Crockett’s tales on Disneyland in 1956.

Mike Fink’s keel boat, Gullywhumper, would find its way to the Rivers of America less than a month later on December 25, 1955. It was accompanied by Cap’n Cobb’s Bertha Mae, both the original watercraft that had been used to film the race months earlier. The boats were popular enough to be replicated as an opening day attraction when Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom welcomed its first guests in October of 1971. After Disneyland’s Gullywhumper capsized in 1997, both boats were shuttered at the park, with the Magic Kingdom’s pair of keelboats continuing to ply the waterways until 2001.

Of of the two ships to make up the Mike Fink Keel Boats, the Bertha Mae was, shall we say, the lovelier of the two ships. The Mike Fink Keel Boats attraction originally boarded in Liberty Square, down beneath the carriage house that is now associated with the Haunted Mansion. The attraction would later receive a dock in Frontierland as well. This second dock is still standing, though not in use, and you can still see Mike’s name on the boards if you’re looking from the side of the Liberty Belle, or from Tom Sawyer’s Island, back towards Big Thunder Mountain. The free-floating keel boats were an opening day B-Ticket attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

Photographs of extinct attractions are wonderful time capsules into the past of Walt Disney World. They remind us of beloved attractions and the stories they themselves harkened back to. We are given a sense of what the lay of the land was like in days when we were younger or, perhaps, not even alive to visit the parks and resorts. These pictures also remind us that Walt Disney World is ever-changing, even when exploring the world of yesterday. The Bertha Mae and Gullywhumper keel boats where a wonderful part of my child, as they were for many of you who also adored Davy Crockett. From this photograph, it is easy to see that they had a wonderful perspective on the Magic Kingdom as well.

Often times, we see the keel boats as a part of Liberty Square. I would argue that they feel more at home with a backdrop of Frontierland or Tom Sawyer’s Island, like this photograph of the Bertha Mae, but that’s just my opinion. In this photo we are clearly in Liberty Square, and you can see a line of people queued up in front of The Yankee Trader, now Momento Mori. Could they be waiting to get into the Haunted Mansion or a chance to take their turn aboard the Gullywhumper or Bertha Mae? Either is possible given the location of the crowd, but the Haunted Mansion is more likely. The romantic in me hopes it was for a cruise aboard the double-decker keel boats.

Further beyond The Yankee Trader, the foliage that divides Liberty Square and Fantasyland hasn’t yet created a natural barrier between the two lands. The happy coincidence from this lack of greenery is that we can see the side of the Swiss chalet that was home to the Skyway to Tomorrowland. In fact, as the trees and shrubs would grow up, much of the detail that can be seen here (and it is limited to do the distance the photograph was taken from) would have been swallowed up and very rarely seen, except by those in line for a ride aboard the Skyway. A section of the Skyway can even be glimpsed rising above and behind The Yankee Trader and Columbia Harbour House.

The photograph of the Gullywhumper, featured further up in the article, is almost obscured by the stately manor overlooking the river from the hill. In later years, The Haunted Mansion would have landscaping that intentionally highlighted the decay and disrepair of the grounds. At this point in time, however, you can see well-manicured green spaces and lovely, if overgrown, shrubs lining the riverbank. The dilapidation is left to the Gullywhumper, though it looks far better than its namesake vessel that set sail on the Disneyland program decades before.

Maybe it is my fondness for Frontierland that came from spending my formative years at Fort Wilderness, or the Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland that spurred me into dressing as the King of the Wild Frontier for several Halloweens, but the keel boats were always something I loved to see on the Rivers of America. Tom Sawyer’s rafts and the Liberty Belle keep that spirit alive even today, but whenever I’m admiring the watery boundary of Frontierland and Liberty Square I always let my imagination play and remember what it looked like when Mike Fink and his boats worked the river.

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