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Rivers of America (Disney)

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Title: Rivers of America (Disney)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Disneyland, Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Hong Kong Disneyland, Mike Fink Keel Boats
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Rivers of America (Disney)

The Rivers of America is an artificial river found in the Frontierland district of the Magic Kingdom-classed Disney theme parks around the world. The first river was built in Disneyland when the park opened in 1955. It surrounds Tom Sawyer Island, which can be reached by rafts traveling from the Frontierland mainland. Additionally, there are other water-based vehicles which are found on the river. The sights along the Rivers include a Native American tribe, a burning cabin (though the cabin at Disneyland hasn't been burning for years), and various audio-animatronic wildlife.

As other Magic Kingdom parks were built, they included their own similar version.

At Walt Disney World the Rivers of America is similar to its California counterpart.
At Disneyland Paris the Rivers of the Far West is home to Big Thunder Mountain.
At Hong Kong Disneyland, there is no Frontierland, so the Imagineers merged the Rivers of America with the classic Adventureland Jungle Cruise attraction. Jungle river rafts now travel around the Rivers of Adventure, encountering similar situations as in the Jungle Cruise attraction, but on a much more open river and exposed to the elements of Adventureland. In the middle of the Rivers sits Tarzan's Treehouse, which can be reached by River Rafts.

Several steamboat and ship replicas sail the many Rivers.

Rafts to Tom Sawyer's Island

Raft to Tom Sawyer's Island, about 1960

The island that is surrounded by the Rivers of America in Frontierland was left almost completely bare when Disneyland first opened in 1955. Time and money had both run out, forcing Walt Disney to leave it unfinished; but on the shores of this once barren isle, the following summer Disney would unveil what is perhaps the most distinctive outdoor playground ever conceived, the Tom Sawyer's Island. To gain access to the island, explorers board a log raft to carry them across the river. Over time, the railings on the rafts had to be raised for safety reasons, and netting on the railing keeps small children from falling out. There was an instance in the 1970s where a raft was overloaded with guests and previous wear on its hull caused it to start sinking. Another raft was deployed to assist in removing the guests from the sinking raft just as they were sunk knee deep in the river. Contrary to belief, the rafts are not on a track of any kind, they float freely and are navigated by the Cast Member on board.

On Tom Sawyer's Island (now called Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer's Island), guests find a network of caves, rocks, bridges, and secret hideouts, including Tom and Huck’s treehouse, Injun Joe’s Cave (now called Dead Man's Grotto), Harper’s Mill (now called Lafitte's Tavern since its reconstruction for Fantasmic!), and Castle Rock, so named because of its natural resemblance to a fortress tower. For more hearty adventurers, there is a hanging suspension bridge, a pontoon barrel bridge, and a seesaw and spinning merry-go-round fashioned from rocks.

At one time, there was also a fishing pier on the island called Catfish Cove, where fishing poles and live bait were provided for avid and amateur fisherman alike. Guests were invited to cast their lines and take home all the live fish they could catch, and when they made their catch, they could bring their prize to the Aunt Jamima Pancake house where their fish was stored on ice until the guests were ready to take it home. At the northern end of the Island stands Fort Wilderness, once an authentic recreation of the log forts used by the US Cavalry in the 1800s, it has since been reconstructed with lumber. From the lookout towers, young guests could enjoy firing popguns at make-believe targets. Fort Wilderness closed in 2003 and was intended for removal after years of decay made its natural wood construction unstable, however in an effort to save the Disneyland landmark, it was re-purposed as an outdoor performers' dressing room for the characters in the nighttime show, Fantasmic!. Recently in June 2007, the island had undergone a major renovation, incorporating an all-new pirate motif into its already existing elements as Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. This was inspired by the enormous popularity of Disney’s new Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy. During this renovation, Fort Wilderness was finally demolished and a new one was built, however it is currently accessible only to Cast Members and performers. There are similar attractions at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland. The Disneyland Paris version is known as Big Thunder Isle and is unique in that it is the only Disney theme park to have Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on the island. The Hong Kong Disneyland version is known as Adventure Isle and is located not in Frontierland, but Adventureland and has the Jungle Cruise circling it.

Admiral Joe Fowler, a formal Naval officer was asked to help in the construction of Disneyland and when Walt Disney said he wanted waterways built in the park, Fowler insisted that they be all interconnected so they may go through a natural process of filtration and de-stagnation much like a lake or pond can do. By connecting the waterways, the rivers and moats could act as a single body of water and prevent fouling like an abandoned swimming pool. To this day all the dark green waters of Disneyland are connected via underground connecting tubes, also allowing for aquatic life to pass through. Upon opening of the Rivers of America, the water was a brown color due to the soil and mostly natural clay that kept the water from sinking (the first fill-the-river day failed as the water was absorbed by the sandy Anaheim substrate). When the rivers and moats were eventually embanked by concrete, they didn't want the water to be clear or it would reveal pipes, guidance tracks, and other hidden functions, so today the rivers are dyed green with chalk, since the chalk doesn't settle and it doesn't bother the wildlife. Also included since opening day, Admiral Joe Fowler informed Walt Disney that the Mark Twain riverboat would need a dry dock area for refurbishments. Walt felt it was a waste of money but took Fowler's advice and allowed for the construction of a dry dock which he humorously nicknamed, "Joe's ditch". Today the dry dock is used to park either one of the ships in the river and is called "Fowler's Harbor".

The Rivers of America is home to many natural wildlife not intentionally put by Disney. Ducks flying in from local parks, nature reserves and wetlands have brought many freshwater living creatures via their eggs getting stuck on the bottom of their feet and dislodging during landing in the river. Currently the river has many aquatic inhabitants some of them being freshwater carp, Koi fish, occasionally freshwater salmon, catfish, and Red-Eared Slider turtles. Since the Rivers of America is not filtered or chlorinated in any way, Disney has placed mosquitofish in the waterways -which also connect to the Jungle Cruise, the Adventurland-Frontierland-Castle moat, Big Thunder Pond, Storybookland Canal, and the Fantasyland pond which formerly hosted the Fantasyland motorboat cruise- all to battle mosquito larvae from growing. A wildlife food chain had set itself up in the rivers, the mosquito fish eat algae and insect larvae, they are then preyed upon by other river fish and turtles, deceased fish are eaten by catfish, and the food chain continues.

The Rivers of America and the waterways of Disneyland remain at level even during the hot summer when the water evaporates, because most remaining original park gutters drain into the waterways. On rainy days, the gutters of the parks that are still connected to the Rivers of America allow for the river to rise to its normal level. Over-topping of concrete embankments happens frequently but has never posed a major issue.

Originally, the Rivers of America required draining every 5 years in order to clean up sunken debris, scrub algae forests away, and maintain upkeep of the Mark Twain and Columbia Sailing ship guidance track. In January 2010 when the river was drained after 7 years of continual operation, items found in the river were numbered in hundreds of cellphones, pagers, walk-e talkies, a computer tower, a prosthetic leg and mysteriously, half of a Davy Crockett Explorer canoe. To prevent the Jungle Cruise and other waters from draining as well, the underground tubes were plugged with air bladders. Any fish and wildlife found in the river were placed (alive) back into the remaining waters of the park. Any Koi fish found, were donated along with the Koi once kept at the Disneyland Hotel, to the Huntington Library. When the Rivers of America were refilled, the wildlife migrated back into the river. With its most recent refurbishment and the addition of a specialized pumping and cleaning system that would not disrupt the aquatic life, the Rivers of America would not need to be drained for another 20 years.

Other uses of the rivers

Fantasmic!,opened on May 13, 1992, takes place on the River, as well as Tom Sawyer Island.

In 2003, the motion picture Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl had its world premiere on the Rivers at Disneyland, with hundreds of celebrities and movie stars viewing the film on a purpose-built 90-foot-tall (27 m) projection screen.

In 2006, the film's sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, premiered on June 24 on the Rivers as well, two days before the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction re-opened opposite the Rivers in New Orleans Square after a lengthy refurbishment. For the 2007 premiere of the third installment of the trilogy, the Rivers of America was once again home to the gala for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.

The world premiere of On Stranger Tides was on May 7, 2011, at a premium ticket screening at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, home of the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride that inspired the film series. Many of the film's stars were in attendance. The screening took place on the river with a temporary outdoor theater constructed along with a massive movie screen and sound system installed on the stage on Tom Sawyer's Island. The Sailing Ship Columbia was decorated like 'The Black Pearl' from the movie franchise and moved forward at a close proximity to the theater seating.

Since the opening of the Davy Crockett Explorer canoes, Disneyland Cast Members have hosted an annual event called "The Canoe Races" which takes place before park opening. Cast Members enter the race with a team they form and race in a canoe. The race is watched from the Fronteirland/New Orleans Square area by many Cast Members who cheer on their friends and teammates. (Contrary to popular belief, the canoes are free floating and have no form of propulsion other than the man-power of paddling oars. Cast Members often joke about the difficulties of operating a canoe full of lazy guests who think the boat is motorized).


Over time instances have happened where on two separate occasions, people have drowned while trying to swim to shore.

  • In June 1973, an 18-year-old man drowned while
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