Saturday, February 05, 2011

Buena Vista Obscura: The World Cruise

"What is the World Cruise?"

I asked that about two years ago. It would prove to be a fateful question, because answers were not exactly available. I can tell you now what it was with absolute certainty, but at the time the World Cruise was a total mystery and as always... the actual core of the mystery isn't as interesting - or as instructive - as all the other factors working into and through it.

So, for now, with your permission, we are going to defer that question a bit in the service of working towards it from a historical context, because simply telling what the World Cruise was is only half the battle - knowing why it was is the real story, and what took me so long to piece together. And as it always seems with these things, we can't help but to go all the way back to the start - the late 60s, when Disney's publicity and planning machines were moving in lock-step to bring Walt Disney World into being.

I would be very surprised if the experienced Walt Disney World researcher has never come across this image, as it's one of a clutch of late sixties publicity images - the monorail zipping through the Contemporary, Liberty Square, the castle itself - that more or less put over the resort concept to the Florida government and the general public. This particular incarnation is a post card, much like ones sold at the Preview Center and even into the resort's first few years. So in this way we can see that the roots of the World Cruise go back even deeper than may be suspected, all the way back to before there was a preview center or a Walt Disney World, to speak of.

From "A Complete Edition About Walt Disney World", 1969, page 10:
"The principal means of travel from the parking center and main entrance to and from the theme park and hotels will be aboard the Walt Disney World-Alweg Monorail trains. Current plans call for the building of six five-car trains, some to stop at every hotel on the way around the circuit, while others carry passengers non-stop directly to the 'Magic Kingdom.'

Double-deck busses and other land conveyances will back the monorail at peak hours, in the job of moving large number of visitors to the theme park.

On the water, there will be a pair of double-deck side-wheelers to cross the lagoon from the entrance area. They'll be driven by steam and patterned after river boats of a hundred years ago. A steam-driven, open-deck excursion boat is also in the planning for Phase One, and steam will be the motive power for half a dozen launches or water taxis for use in the various activities on the lake and lagoon."
And then later:
"The resort hotels will be showcases in themselves, presenting entertainment consistent with the individual theme of each.

In addition to its theme-slanted activities, plans are for each hotel to present nightly entertainment spectaculars to appeal to every taste, and both family and adult audiences. Top name popular, folk and rock groups will perform. A Dixieland cruise originating from one of the hotels will feature a southern fried chicken dinner and a show."
What ended up happening, more or less, is that all of these different concepts presented in the 1969 text ended up being integrated into the routines of two boats, which were built in drydock on property - the Ports-O-Call and the Southern Seas. These hundred foot long "Osceola-class" (Disney just invented that term, don't worry) steamboats were driven by a central "Gallows A-Frame Walking Beam" engine and roughly modeled on similar famous riverboats like the Mary Powell and Francis Skiddy. They were driven exclusively by side-wheel paddlewheels and authentic in every regard, including temperamental steam engines.

Quoting a "Captain Jeff" speaking on the boats at Walt Disney World: A History in Postcards:
"The Osceola class steamships "Ports O'Call" and "Southern Seas" were steam driven by a replica of an 1858 Gallows A-Frame steam engine. They were oil fired boilers running at 350 lbs of pressure. The steam engine only ran on 15-20 pounds of steam pressure, most of the pressure was used by a steam turbine to generate electricity. It took 3 people to run the steamships; a pilot that steered, an engineer that operated the steam engine and controlled the forward and reverse speeds and a deck hand whose duties were to cast off and secure the vessel at each dock. Each steamship was 100 feet, 5/8 inch long and 30 feet wide, drawing 3.5 feet of water, weighing in at 100 tons and could take on board 250 guests."
Assembling one of the live steam engines in drydock, 1969

One of the most intriguing aspects of the earliest years of Walt Disney World is the sheer abundance of varieties of modes of transit, including some varieties in an intentionally outmoded style. Live steam engines riding rails or rivers or lakes fought for attention with absurd 1970's Bob-a-Round boats (with stereo music!!!) and a converted Chinese junk docked at the Polynesian. Seven Seas Lagoon may have been ringed with futuristic monorails and modern conviences, but in those earliest days old fashioned steam power ran paddlewheelers back and forth from the Magic Kingdom. There was originally but one single dock at the front of the park, extending outwards with symmetrical precision into Bay Lake in a T configuration. Here's a blurry close-up image taken from Time magazine, showing the park just weeks away from an October opening:

And another, depicting an opening year post card, again from the superlative Walt Disney World: A History in Postcards:

An October 1971 issue of Walt Disney World News includes these opening year operating notes, including a hint that the Ports-O-Call was not ready for the October opening:
"OSCEOLA - Southern Seas: 9:30 am to 7:00 pm. (The Southern Seas will stop at the Magic Kingdom one half-hour prior to opening. Last stop will be made one hour after the Park closes.)"
During the resort's first few months of Operation, the Ports-O-Call and the Southern Seas served a dual purpose, because in those early years the Magic Kingdom was rarely open past 6:00 in the evening. Once those final Magic Kingdom guests had made their way back to the Main Entrance Complex or their Walt Disney World Resort, the two paddlewheelers would begin the Moonlight Cruise. What was the Moonlight Cruise? From an April 1972 Walt Disney World News:
"CRUISE ON A LUXURY YACHT OR STEAMER... Moonlight Cruises on steampowered paddlewheelers leave from both resort-hotel marinas Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday evening. Departures: Polynesian 9 pm (Saturday 9:45 pm) and Contemporary 9:30 pm (Saturday 10:15 pm). One and a half hours of leisurely cruising, live entertainment, cocktails... Adults - $3, Children under 12 - $1."
And from a 1973 Walt Disney World Vacationland:
"Guests who wish to cruise the waters of Walt Disney World after dark will have a lark on authentic, paddlewheel steamboats which depart twice nightly from both resort hotel marinas and from the Fort Wilderness dock. The "Showboat" cruises last approximately 90 minutes and, while costumed hostesses serve refreshments, a Dixieland Band entertains passengers with Ragtime favorites."
Generally two to three costumed hostesses, attending from the Contemporary Hotel, would be on hand to mix and serve drinks. Besides live entertainment, both the Ports-O-Call and the Southern Seas were provided with background music. Former Watercraft Operator Greg Chin recalled to me via e-mail:
"One of the great memories I have of the Watercraft charters that we did on the "Kingdom Queen" ferryboat (now the "General Joe Potter"), and the "Ports-O-Call" steamship is having the ragtime soundtrack tape.

Some of the ragtime songs on the soundtrack tape were Scott Joplin's "Peacherine Rag", "Pineapple Rag", and of course, "The Easy Winners", which was made famous earlier, by the movie "The Sting" (1973). There's also the famous ragtime song called "Dusty", which is also part of the Magic Kingdom - Main Street USA background music. There were other songs, too.

(Photobucket user Icegator-fan)

I remember how sometimes we would play the ragtime soundtrack tape for our own listening pleasure, while we were washing, cleaning and prepping the "Ports-O-Call" and the "Kingdom Queen". Ragtime music seemed to fit the "Ports-O-Call" and the "Southern Seas" steamships real good.

The tape cartridges were specially made to fit the tapedeck cabinets, in order to play them, over the ships' P.A. system. The looping 8-track tapes played at 1-1/2 times the speed of a normal 8-track tape that you would have at home. But these were show-quality 8-track tapedecks, and that was their playing standard. "
It was these demands and dual schedules of the Seven Seas Lagoon steamships that would soon bring The World Cruise into existence in 1972.

The problem is that 1971 and early 1972 saw some unexpected infrastructure stresses on the fledgling resort, and Disney's noble plans to have " conveyances [back] the monorail at peak hours, in the job of moving large number of visitors to the theme park" eventually proved somewhat unrealistic. In David Koenig's Realityland, Bob Gurr recounts having to engineer trams that could easily ascend the hills under the famous Water Bridge without overheating, and six more monorails were quickly ordered. The entire transit system was overtaxed. It's hard to imagine the sense of growing panic over concerns about the number of guests visiting the new resort, but these transportation concerns apparently even led to Mike Fink Keelboats being pressed into service on the Seven Seas Lagoon during Preview days:

(Taken from one boat looking at another. From Flickr user UFG8R)

In 1972, two new Ferryboats arrived at the Seven Seas Lagoon to alleviate the traffic concerns, the creatively named Magic Kingdom 1 and Magic Kingdom 2. Modeled on New York's Staten Island ferries, these two flat-bottomed, 120 foot long boats ran on diesel engines, not finicky and difficult to maintain steam engines, and had propellers on each end, allowing the boats to travel north and south laterally - without having to turn around - instead of side-docking at the Magic Kingdom's T dock like the Osceola steam boats.

A steamboat and ferryboat pass.

A second dock was built to accommodate the new ferries, and with a 600 passenger capacity per boat departing every five minutes, the leisurely steam boats were free of their peoplemoving obligations.

A 1975 view showing the steamboat dock and ferryboat dock.

And so this is where our story really begins. In the summer of 1972, Walt Disney World premiered two new attractions:

From a GAF guide to the Magic Kingdom, helpfully directing new riders:

A July 1972 Walt Disney World News fills in the details:
"World Cruise - Our Latest Attraction... See all that Walt Disney World is...and will entirely NEW way, with a paddlewheel steamboat World Cruise around the Vacation Kingdom!

Osceola-class sidewheelers make 50-minute cruises daily around both the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake, giving guests an unprecendented opportunity to view all of Walt Disney World from the water.

Along the way, guides explain future expansion programs planned for the Vacation Kingdom, including construction of new Walt Disney World hotels and other attractions along the lakefront. Guests can also learn how Walt Disney World was created and how thousands of tons of earth were moved to form the completely man-made 200-acre Seven Seas Lagoon!

Cruises depart at noon, 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5pm, from the Magic Kingdom dock, directly in front of the Main Street railroad station. 90 cents or "E" coupon at boarding gate."
Both the Ports-O-Call and the Southern Seas had been planned as charter cruiseships and so were equipped with snack bars and facilities. Available were cold sandwiches, Frito-Lay chips, and a basic soda fountain. Additionally, taped spiels describing the sights around Walt Disney World probably replaced the steamboat's arriving and departing narration at this time, even if some World Cruise pilots have told me they were not exactly always reliable about turning it on! Also, the issue of how often the spiels were updated is questionable - for how long after the projects had been abandoned, for example, did World Cruise guests hear about the Asian and Venetian Resorts? Or did the taped narration stick to only certain "official" events around the lagoon? Greg Chin relates:
"All of the large Disney Watercraft vessels had tapedeck cabinets in the "Trunk Rooms" where the electronic equipment was, aboard the ships. The tape cartridges resembled an 8-track tape cartridge... these Disney "Show Soundtracks", or "Spiel-Tracks" tape cartridges were usually gray on one side of the casing, and the other side was transparent polycarbonate plastic, so we could see the tape looping around inside.

All the Ferryboats, Cruise ships, Monorails, and even the Frontierland Riverboats have these Tapedeck cabinets aboard. At the beginning of the trip, or cruise, the Pilot will press a button on the P.A. box, in the Pilothouse. The spiel will start. The tape itself is equipped with a series of high-pitch signals on the tape, as it reaches certain positions in the "spiel". The tape and spiel will stop at those points. As the Pilot feels it's the right time, they will press the button again, and the spiel advances, and so on.

The ferryboat Pilots would press the spiel button on the black P.A. box on the port side of the Pilothouse, and the spiel would start. "Welcome aboard the Walt Disney World ferryboat, we're heading for the Magic Kingdom, across the Seven Seas Lagoon" and so on.

I don't remember all of the "World Cruise" spiel, but it was the same sort of thing. For instance, as we passed the Polynesian Village Resort, I would press the spiel button, and the spiel would say something about what the guests aboard would see. Back then we didn't have the Grand Floridian beach resort, and we were pre-occupied by guests in small rental boats (Aqua Larks) streaking by us, (hell-bent on suicidal runs), in front of my ship."
This is the pattern that the World Cruise followed for the first two years, but in April 1974 with the opening of the brand new Treasure Island attraction, Disney saw a new way to use their World Cruise attraction. From a 1974 promotional flier:
"EXPLORE TREASURE ISLAND! Sail the Seven Seas to Treasure Island... a remote tropical paradise inhabited by colorful tropical flowers, plants and birds of the South Seas. Treasure Island... where Ben Gunn's buried treasure lies amidst the memories of Long John Silver, Cap'n Flint and the Black Dog! Now... there are two exciting ways to visit the Island!

STEAMBOAT VOYAGES... a visit to Treasure Island and the Walt Disney World Cruise, the story of the Vacation Kingdom past, present and future departs from the World Cruise dock at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom daily. Adults $2.50 Children (3-11) $1.25. Last cruise departs at 4:00.

TREASURE ISLAND EXCURSIONS... direct sailings to and from Treasure Island only. Departs Magic Kingdom entrance daily. Adults $1.50 Children (3-11) $.75. Last launch departs at 4:30 pm.

Tickets are on sale at the World Cruise dock at the Magic Kingdom entrance. Island closes at 5:30 pm"
Climbing aboard the Ports-O-Call or the Southern Seas, we surrender our tickets and receive our "World Cruise Passport to Treasure Island":

Inside, information about the boat and the voyage, including some atmospheric nonsense about safe passage, mysterious waterways, and landfalls. Note the "entry stamps" on the first page, all dated 1973 despite the fact that Treasure Island would not open until the following year. Also, a beautiful fold-out map of the entire complex:

Each World Cruise left the Magic Kingdom on the hour, Treasure Island on the half hour, and lasted an aggregate total of one hour, meaning thirty minutes out and thirty minutes back. For $2.50, about the equivalent monetary value of two trips on the Haunted Mansion and one spin through Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the World Cruise to Treasure Island was a good value, providing a full half day of relaxation and entertainment at one's own pace.

For the duration of the rest of the seventies, the World Cruise and Moonlight Cruise provided hours of restful relaxation to Walt Disney World guests. These two attractions, besides providing some recreation and night-life to a still limited Vacation Kingdom, can best be understood as manifestations of Walt Disney World's early emphasis on relaxing activities to do outside of the Magic Kingdom, things such as River Country and the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village. These are the sorts of activities Disney had in mind when they termed the Seven Seas Lagoon/Bay Lake complex the "Vacation Kingdom of the World", a vacation that would include a theme park but also water recreation, horseback riding, continental dining and tennis.

Some great vintage Walt Disney World ad-pub from 1976:

Paddle-wheel steamboats were as essential to early Florida settlers as the Prairie Schooners were to western pioneers. Throughout the mid 1800's, the Sunshine State's lakes, rivers, canals and bays echoed the rhythms of chugging steam engines.

Now, that most romantic means of travel has been given new life at Walt Disney World with two authentic side-wheeler replicas, the Southern Seas and the Ports O' Call. Mood music, cocktails, and twinkling nighttime scenery beckons guests aboard the steamboats for Moonlight Cruises around the Waters of the World, Bay Lake, and the Seven Seas Lagoon."
Ironically, by the time that article was being published in Walt Disney World News the information in it could hardly have said to be accurate. In 1975, the Southern Seas had suffered serious water damage to her hull and had been out of service for about a year, placed in the Walt Disney World drydock behind the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. In 1977, the original 1969 Southern Seas was destroyed and a new ship was built - the Southern Seas II, although it's numerical status was never indicated anywhere on the boat herself - this one one hundred twenty feet instead of just one hundred. Designed by a naval architect by the name of Ben Ostlund, this new boat included many elements of the original Southern Seas, including the Gallows Walking Beam engine, but unlike on the original boat, the engine was just decorative - this new boat ran on diesel, just like the ferryboats. Each of the two propulsion sidepaddles could operate independently and in different directions, which allowed for greater maneuverability in the water and also made it the only other boat on Disney property which could spin in circles like the Plaza Swan Boats. Due to the increased capacity and longer hull, the Southern Seas II was termed a "Seminole" class steamship.

And of course, in 1977 all efforts to theme Treasure Island to the classic Robert Louis Stevenson book were scrapped, including elaborate recreations of Spyglass Hill and Ben Gunn's cave. The Island closed and re-opened as Discovery Island, with an emphasis firmly placed on tropical bird and wildlife displays. As such the daytime attraction became the "World Cruise to Discovery Island".

Despite this significant investment in time and money, by the time EPCOT Center opened in 1982, it becomes difficult to find references to the World Cruise in Walt Disney World promotional materials. Greg Chin explains:
"As soon as EPCOT opened in 1982, suddenly the resort guest-population that was centralized at the WDW Magic Kingdom area resorts, was decentralized and suddenly shifted down towards EPCOT area... all of a sudden, the long-running "World Cruise to Discovery Island" and "Moonlight Cruise" was rendered unnecessary. Attendance dropped off sharply to 50% for both cruises, right after EPCOT opened in October of 1982....

[Editor's note: given the popularity and adult appeal of the World Showcase area of EPCOT, the first area of any Disney theme park to sell alcohol, this makes sense.] increased competition from Church Street Station in Orlando. Being in Watercraft during the late 1970's and mid-1980's, I would see plenty of daily skywriting over WDW, advertising for "ROSIE", which was a pain in the butt for Disney Co. Pleasure Island was the Michael Eisner/Disney nighttime entertainment plan in 1987, to get the guest-business back, that Church Street Station - Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium, Phineas Fogg's Balloon Works, and Apple Annie's Courtyard (all in Downtown Orlando) was siphoning off Disney property."
And so the World Cruise and Moonlight Cruise simply faded away. Discovery Island became part of a ticket package with River Country, and this is the way most people my age or slightly older remember it. The Southern Seas II, then a recent investment, became a boat exclusively for charter cruises in 1984. These corporate programs were a huge source of income for Disney, who could charge $250 an hour to rent the boat out to meetings and conventions - not including food, drink, and staffing, of course. In this way, it could be said that the Moonlight Cruises continued to exist for some time.

So the World Cruise goes off to a quiet and unglamorous end. But what about the boats, you say?

The 1969 Ports-O-Call had by then fallen to the same water leakage in the hull of the boat which led to the destruction of the original Southern Seas. In 1984 the boat was hauled out of the water. Problems with the steam engine system compounded the problems, making reparations costly and unlikely to return any significant investment. Despite Watercraft Cast Members' efforts to have the boat purchased by the Smithsonian Institution as a display on steam power, Disney destroyed the boat with a bulldozer.

A proposed "Orlando-class" steamboat, again designed by Ben Ostlund with a length of 140 feet and featuring a dance floor on the first deck and observation level on the roof, was never built, although blueprints of it may be seen on the back wall of the Boatwright's restaurant at the Port Orleans Riverside resort. The days of live steam on the Seven Seas Lagoon were over, the blue canopied Motor Launches which still service the resorts today having long ago been converted to diesel engines.

The Ports-O-Call being dismantled in drydock. Photo by Greg Chin, 1984.

In 1996, the Southern Seas II, now overdue for a refurbishment, was put in drydock. With Watercraft Operations no longer using the boats on a daily basis and Convention Booking unwilling to finance the task, the steamboat was without a home. It was eventually destroyed in 1997.

Stories like this rarely have a happy ending in Walt Disney World history. Times have changed. In 1996 when the last of these boats was decommissioned, the entire property was in the midst of her 25th anniversary promotion, Cinderella Castle was painted bright pink, a new era in Disney fine dining was coming of age high above the Contemporary Resort in the California Grill, New Tomorrowland was still new, and the Pirates of the Caribbean had not yet been made politically correct nor into action-movie advertisements. EPCOT Center was in the midst of a massive identity crisis, The Disney-MGM Studios was the new park, and Animal Kingdom was still on the horizon.

It was, in short, the last moment of the last gasp of breath of old Walt Disney World before everything began to radically change, and the destruction of these boats, once such an emblematic image for Walt Disney World - not just as a marketing image on a postcard, but of an entire way of thinking about a vacation - is a moment where we can see the final connections to the reality of the first ten years, of the Vacation Kingdom of the World, snuffing out.

The Southern Seas II in port at Discovery Island, 1980.
From Walt Disney World: The First Ten Years


Further Reading:
The Walt Disney World Watercraft Home Page
WDW: A History in Postcards: Sailing the Seven Seas (Lagoon)
Widen Your World: Treasure Island/Discovery Island
Imaginerding: Discovery Island, the Early Years
Progress City, USA: The Great Discovery Island Logo Contest

Special Thanks:
Michael Crawford, Mike Lee, Scott Otis, and Watercraft Captains Greg, Jeff and Robert.

Buena Vista Obscura:
The World Cruise
Captain Cook's Hideaway (plus followup)
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part One
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Two
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Three
The Lake Buena Vista Story: Part Four
The Golf Resort

History and Esoterica:
Snapshot: Mysteries of the Second Floor
Snapshot: Olde World Antiques
Snapshot: The Great Southern Craft Company