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The Columbia Story (continued)

Before the Columbia was designed, wind studies were made of Disneyland, and maps of the Park showed Imagineers the predominate wind direction. Walt Disney was so interested in giving his guests an authentic 18th century sailing experience, that "simulating the sailing experience was planned to be part of the show. The designer of the ship, Ray Wallace, even proposed a mechanical system for tacking and unfurling the sails as to give the Ship a more realistic journey," according to Imagineer Eddie Sotto.

Marine architect Jeff Maillian, whose company handled one of the Columbia's rehabs in late 2004, concurs. "The original set-up had self-tacking 'show sails'. They were removed largely due to Fantasmic! rigging conflicts. 'Self tacking' means self-tending, and that means that they take care of themselves." In other words, the ship was originally designed to have unfurled and self-tending sails, and in several early views of the ship, many of the ship's sails are unfurled.

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Fears that high winds could topple the ship are completely unfounded by mathematical calculations that showed a minimal effect, and indeed, for many years, the ship sailed with sails partially unfurled.

The ship is actually powered by two 30" diameter, 18" pitch standard ship's propellers (known as screws) housed in fairings called "Kort Nozzles," which increase the screws' efficiency. They were originally driven by two 15 horsepower electric motors that were supplied with electricity from a Westinghouse 30 kilowatt electric generator. Today, the horsepower of each AC motor has been increased to 25 hp. That generator was originally powered by a Detroit diesel engine, but today a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) engine generates the electricity. Power for the lights comes from a 2,500-watt alternator, also powered by the CNG engine.

The Columbia has a draft of 45" and the ship itself weighs 195,000 pounds. She travels at a speed of 1.3 knots along the 2,410 foot guide rail. When originally built, she had a crew of four, but today, two can handle the ship quite efficiently.


Here is a rare shot of one of Columbia's electrically-driven propellers, taken while the ship was undergoing repairs in the Fowler's Harbor dry-dock. Photo courtesy Jeff Maillian.

While many people realize that a rail guides the ship, she still floats freely in the water. Jeff Maillian details how the boat sails on its path through the Rivers of America: "The big boats (Mark Twain, Columbia), ride on a set of wheels in a sliding steel cage that extends through the bottom near the bow and stern. One wheel rides the top of the track and supports the cage; other wheels ride the sides of the track and direct the boats."

An excerpt from "Adventureland/Frontierland Facts and Figures" provides more detail: 

The guide mechanism consists of two semi-buoyant caissons set into the guide trunk, located in the hull of the ship. One is located forward, and the other is aft. The caissons are equipped with a series of wheels that roll on a steel rail which is supported on concrete piers beneath the water. Other wheels roll vertically on tracks in the trunk to transmit rail reactions to the hull of the ship. The semi-buoyant action of the guide assembly permits this mechanism to continually exert a moderate downward thrust that keeps the guide mechanism in close contact with the guide rail. At the same time, the assembly compensates for the varying displacement and list of the ship. This reference system creates a natural effect, which simulates a "rudder action."

So, while the Columbia is indeed free-floating, she is guided in her cruise through the Rivers.

Over the course of several months, craftsmen added authentic wooden planking to the hull sides, and completed "fitting out" the ship. Ray Wallace commented in 1964, "To the ship-lover and to the eternal purists, the actual timbering of the Columbia can be a study in itself."

Authentic wooden masts and spars were installed and accurate, functional rigging steadied those masts. In accordance with maritime tradition, silver dollars were affixed at the bases of the masts where they attached to the keel, for luck (sadly, when Disney replaced the wooden masts with steel ones in the 1990s, the coins were pilfered). By the middle of June 1958, the ship was completed.


Disneyland is the only Disney theme park that features the Columbia. This 1960 publicity photo provides a good look at the original sails and rigging.

According to Jeff Maillian, in legal terms Disneyland's Columbia (and the Mark Twain, as well), are "water-borne amusement park rides." To dispel some frequent message board rumors, the Coast Guard has no jurisdiction over the ship--nor do they want any. There is an informal agreement regarding this between Disney and the USCG. The Columbia does not meet certain federal requirements for rail height and fire suppression equipment. Besides, the Coast Guard only has jurisdiction over "navigable waterways," and the Rivers of America--really a small private-property lake--certainly does not qualify as such.

The Columbia was dedicated at Disneyland with the pomp and flair that only Disney could provide. The ceremonies took place on a balmy Saturday afternoon, promptly beginning at 5pm on June 14, 1958. The cost to re-create the Columbia? Depends. Most sources list the amount at $300,000 dollars--six times what it cost to build the real ship in 1787. However, the "Facts and Figures" sheet for CMs published in 1995 lists the amount at $100,000.

U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Alfred Carroll Richmond presented a Bible to the Columbia's acting skipper, in accordance with maritime tradition. And the Admiral's wife, Gretchen Richmond, christened the Columbia with a bottle of champagne as Walt looked on proudly.


Mrs. Richmond christens the new ship before excited passengers are allowed to board.

The ship, with a capacity of 275 able-bodied "crew," sailed Disneyland's Rivers of America for several years, a wonderful reminder of America's grand colonial past. But there was something lacking about the ship; details that Walt wanted to portray. For five years, the ship had merely been a set; a showpiece.

Walt wanted something more. He wanted the ship to be "real."

Next: Walt gets what he wants.

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Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve's latest book, the history of Disneyland's newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

2008 Steve DeGaetano


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