Neat facts about Disneyland’s Rivers of America – Orange County Register

Disneyland fans have just a couple more months to enjoy Frontierland’s Rivers of America before Disney closes it, and all its related attractions, for more than a year to make way for the construction of Star Wars Land.

So let’s honor Disneyland’s Rivers of America with some fun facts that you might not know about this section of the park.

On a personal note, the Rivers of America is my “home” attraction. I never worked at Disneyland, but years ago I worked at Disneyland’s East Coast sibling, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and my first attraction was driving the rafts to and from Tom Sawyer Island. Which brings me to our first fact:

1. The Tom Sawyer Island raft drivers really are driving those rafts.

When you see the raft driver back there pushing and pulling the tiller, that’s not just for show. The rafts are free-floating vehicles that the driver steers by moving that tiller, which redirects the engine’s propeller under the raft.

Driving a raft is kind of like parallel parking, but on water. You need to constantly adjust the throttle and the tiller back and forth to ease your raft up to the dock, without knocking anyone over or crushing any ducks.

2. The river represents: the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Potomac and the Rio Grande.

Rivers of America was always meant as a symbol of America’s interior waterways, but during a 2010 refurbishment, Disney’s Imagineers made the references explicit, redesigning landscaping to suggest these four rivers.

“There’s the Mississippi, where we have a lot of willows and taxodiums (conifers) – all very gray/green and droopy,” Disney Imagineer Kim Irvine said in a 2010 interview. “Then the Columbia, which is very much the Pacific Northwest – dark, dark, rich brown soil with lots of firs and pines and redwoods.”

“Then it moves into the Potomac, where our Indians are. That is done in birches and trees that change color, and not just in the fall, they change constantly color throughout the year. And then we go into the Rio Grande, which is the backdrop to Big Thunder Mountain, so it’s all in hot reds and oranges and lots of grasses, Manzanita and high-desert-type of landscape.”

3. Visitors used to be able to fish in the river.

In the late 1950s, you could drop a line into Catfish Cove on Tom Sawyer Island and try to land one of the fish that Disney stocked in the river back then. The idea was that you would bring your catch over to the nearby Aunt Jemima Pancake House (now the River Belle Terrace) to have it stored on ice until you left for the day. But enough fish ended up elsewhere around the park – smelling like, well, dead fish – that Disney finally decided that fishing in the river was a bad idea.

4. The island was taken over by protestors in 1970.

In August 1970, a group of about 300 protestors – reportedly yippies from the Youth International Party – hoisted a Viet Cong flag over Tom Sawyer Island. Disney closed the park early, forcing everyone to leave in an effort to end the protest. Police in riot gear responded and 18 people were arrested in the melee.

5. Disney cast members have canoe races around the river.

In 1963, cast members from Frontierland and Adventureland challenged each other to see which land’s employees could paddle a canoe fastest around the river. The Disneyland Canoe Races became an annual tradition, with teams from all over the resort competing in the early morning hours to race their canoes around the river in pursuit of the fastest time.

6. You can get a pilot’s license on the Mark Twain riverboat.

Now allow us to ruin one of the secrets of Disneyland by blabbing about it. You can ask to “pilot” the Mark Twain. A cast member will escort you up the steps to the wheelhouse on top of the Mark Twain. From there, the captain will show you how to man the wheel, ring the bell and pilot the riverboat around the river. But at the end of your trip, you’ll get an official Disneyland riverboat pilot’s license as a souvenir.

Robert Niles is the founder and editor of

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