Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Day at the Columbia Harbour House

When you think about it, visitors to theme parks really never stop moving. We walk from place to place in order to board attractions that whirl us through scenery. Trams, monorails, boats  and buses whisk us where we want to go. Even the theme park parade is whisked past us, efficiently entertaining tens of thousands at once without having to stop. One of the few places this restless forward motion finally ceases is the food court.

Most theme park guests probably spend longer staring at the walls of a food court than they do riding that multi-million dollar roller coaster or zipping through that highly profitable gift shop. And if you have an audience that's going to need to stop and stare for a while at something you built, then you have a choice. You can either present them with something that's totally perfunctory like the Captain America Diner at Islands of Adventure, or you can drop them off in something like Disneyland's Plaza Inn.

Disneyland seems to have created the idea of the fully themed food court. Much of what Disneyland opened with in 1955 could today best be described as a "snack stand", with the noteworthy exception of the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship in Fantasyland. But, starting with the plans for New Orleans Square and New Tomorrowland, Disneyland food courts would become increasingly elaborate, a progression which climaxed with Magic Kingdom's 1971 slate of indoor food courts. As has been shown on this site before, I have a special interest in the Adventureland Veranda, but really it's hard to top the Columbia Harbour House.

Indeed, among a certain subset of the historically oriented, the Harbour House is almost one of the secret handshakes. It's the dark retreat from the Florida sun where sea shanties echo through mahogany chambers. What makes the Harbour House so special?

Based on atmospheric sketches by Dorothea Redmond, The Harbour House didn't open until Summer 1972, alongside most of the rest of the facilities in Liberty Square - Olde World Antiques, the Perfume shop, the Heritage House, etc. On early Magic Kingdom guide maps, it's called the Nantucket Harbour House, but by the time it opened, it's location had switched to "Columbia Harbour". Why?

To be clear, there is no such place as Columbia Harbour. I'm fairly certain that it was named in anticipation of the arrival of a new vessel to ply the Rivers of America - a copy of the Columbia at Disneyland.

Years back, Mike Lee identified a three-masted sailing vessel on a 1969 model of the Magic Kingdom, just above Thunder Mesa. What's most interesting about this is that everything on the north side of Liberty Square is designed to suggest a seaside atmosphere - the sailing ship weathervane, widow's walks, and turning beacon atop the Riverboat Landing, the harbour House itself, the Cape Cod-style shingles around the Yankee Trader, and then the seaside horror mansion of the long-dead captain nearby. The rock wall that bounds the river along Liberty Square is referred to in old park manuals as the "Sea Wall".

The Columbia had been canceled and replaced by a second riverboat in 1973, due to the two major concerns facing park operations in this first years - shade and capacity. A Columbia vessel, with an exposed single deck holding around 300 persons, didn't make sense compared to a three-deck Riverboat holding 450 persons. It's a shame, because the Columbia would have complemented Liberty Square and made sense of a lot of the theming on the north side of the land.

That secret history is just one of the fascinations of the Harbour House. Did you know that all of the rooms inside are named? I've had the diagram posted on this site for about eight years, but it's always worth re-posting:

Did you know there used to be a separate serving area upstairs at the Harbour House? It's true. There's still a kitchen back there, and food items and whisked between floors for service downstairs. By the 90s, the upstairs counter was dispensing entirely deserts and soup, and by the mid-90s, the menu has shrunk to only offering clam chowder in those huge bread bowls you can still get at Disneyland. By the late 90s it was walled up, although you can still see the spot where it was - with the telltale tile floor - at the top of the main stairs.

In the years since moving to Central Florida, Harbour House has become my personal respite, favorite food court, and a place I take time to rest in every time I'm at Magic Kingdom. And so after nearly decades of faithful service and reliable atmosphere, I decided it was time to give the Columbia Harbour House her due as one of those things that makes The Magic Kingdom what it is.

Step through those familiar cream double doors and let's spend A Day at the Columbia Harbour House.


I've posted a few of these elaborate edited videos before, and I try to regularly update my YouTube account with new theme park "viewpoints", static views of the park from a fixed perspective. It occurred to me that I've never made clear exactly why I continue this project, or how the "viewpoints" fit into the larger notion of the more elaborate edited sequences.

I got the basic idea from Mike Lee, who spent part of the early 90s plopping down his camcorder in various places around Walt Disney World and just letting it roll. So part of it, yes, is documentation. but there's something else here too.

When you work at Walt Disney World, it re-orients your way of thinking about the place. Visitors rush about constantly; Cast Members stand in one spot, day in and day out. After a while, if you're willing to look to see it, a secret, alternate Walt Disney World opens up to you: one where shifting light, weather, and crowds become as beautiful and memorable as the place they're in. Eventually, you learn to take pleasure more in the way the afternoon summer light bounces off the river onto the riverboat as much as you do the river itself.

This is why Mike Lee's vintage viewpoint videos struck me as worthy of emulation; they seemed to capture what it's really actually like to be there. My "Theme Park Viewpoints" are as much an effort to explain why I like these parks as they are an effort to document. That's why they go on, and on, and on; they're designed to encourage you to start admiring the way light plays off a structure, or the way the crowd ebbs and flows through a space, or the cyclical rhythm inherent to all theme parks.

This video, A Day at the Columbia Harbour House, is so far my fullest attempt to express this aspect of theme parks. I went back, again and again, at all times of day, to record life in the Harbour House for a five month span. I knew if I kept showing up and being willing to stop and look, I could just maybe be there to film that elusive magic the parks sometimes have when the light is just right. Out of about two hours of raw footage, I pulled out this 17 minute meditation of one of Magic Kingdom's holy places.

Stop, look, and listen inside theme parks, as often as possible, for as long as it takes. The secret life of the park is there for you if you're willing to see it.