Ship boat

The real star of Disneyland’s Fantasmic is its glorious pirate ship, the Columbia

As you stroll through Disneyland’s Frontierland from the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to New Orleans Square, it would be hard to miss the giant body of water that is the Rivers of America, let alone the two enormous ships that adorn it. . While most know the Mark Twain River Boat and its history – it’s an original 1955 attraction that dates back to the day the park opened – the 110-foot-long Columbia sailing ship was a totally different kind of addition to the Park. And it has quite a story.

This majestic, fully-rigged 18th-century vessel operates almost daily as an attraction carrying 275 passengers around the rivers of America, but the real magic of this magnificent work of craftsmanship occurs in its transformation into stardom in the nightly spectacle. Fantasmic, which returned to the park at the end of May after a long hiatus.

It’s not really a pirate ship, but the Sailing Ship Columbia was used in the nighttime show as not one, but two of them. When the show began in 1992, the Columbia appeared as the Jolly Roger as Peter Pan and Captain Hook dueled for a performance inspired by the classic Disney film.

In 2017, the Columbia became Captain Jack Sparrow’s ship, the Black Pearl, adding a jaw-dropping stunt sequence that married the classic Pirates of the Caribbean with its hit film franchise. With incredible lighting, projection mapping, costumes and exceptional stunt choreography, this segment of Fantasmic takes the audience into one of the franchise’s iconic scenes, one that could only happen on the boat.

But there is a much longer and more interesting story for this ship. Early Disneyland crowds loved the Mark Twain Riverboat. It was regularly overflowing with passengers, so much so that Walt Disney told one of its cast members, current Disney Legend Dick Nunis, “What we really need is another big boat. !”

That simple thought turned into a daunting task for Disneyland’s construction manager, who was – believe it or not – a veritable retired rear admiral. Joe Fowler, now another Disney legend, set out to find a ship that met Walt’s request for a substantial nod to early American commerce. After extensive research, Fowler landed on the very first American sailboat to circumnavigate the globe, the Columbia Rediviva. But because the ship was built in the 1780s, only one rendering of the ship existed.

Fowler commissioned Ray Wallace to research, design and build the ship. Wallace, a yachtsman and architect, was Errol Flynn’s first mate, but he had never designed a theme park attraction before. He tapped into the resources of the Library of Congress for research, and construction began in the spring of 1957 at Walt Disney Enterprises (what is now called Imagineering). The final cost of the Columbia was $300,000, or about $3.1 million today.

A full-size replica of the original vessel, the Columbia features an exterior hull and deck of teak, oak and maple wood and masts reaching 84 feet into the sky. After almost a year of construction, the sailing ship Columbia made her maiden voyage on the rivers of America on June 14, 1958. Although the current Columbia took three years to circumnavigate the globe, the voyage around the pirates’ lair on Tom Sawyer’s Island takes guests 12 minutes.

The Columbia has occasionally been featured in Disneyland promotional media over the years, including magazine advertisements and television shows. In 1974, the Jackson Five even used the ship as a stage to record an NBC special while wearing historic maritime-inspired costumes.

General maintenance aside, the ship has remained virtually the same since it opened, except for a major update on February 22, 1964. That day, Disney opened an additional tour feature, “ Under the decks of the sailing ship Columbia”. This attraction, still in operation today, allows guests to experience the crew quarters in a historic 1787 depiction of what the Columbia would have been like during her historic voyage.


There are 10 guns and two guns mounted on the Columbia, and halfway through the river cruise a crew member will clear guests on the forward starboard side while they carefully calibrate and ready one of the guns. working to fire blanks as you spin around the back of Tom Sawyer Island.

Back on dry land, the Columbia Docks feature another maritime feature, the Harbor Galley. A quick-service window that serves dishes like lobster mac and cheese or clam chowder in a bread bowl, the restaurant has a painted saloon facade that reads “Fowlers Inn,” a nod to the Admiral Joe Fowler. It’s generally quiet there and it’s a great place to sit by the water and take a break with a snack.

Fantastic ! at Disneyland is back just in time for its 30th anniversary.

Courtesy of Disneyland

I was there for the first Fantasmic shows when it made its triumphant return after over 800 days. The crowd cheered at every segment, but the loudest and longest roar came when the massive Black Pearl set sail, with Jack Sparrow swinging from the Columbia’s stern forward, using this which appears to be just a rope attached to the mast. . Laser lighting and pyrotechnics flashed across the set to reveal the dazzled faces of children and adults, as the loudspeakers roared, “This is the day you will always remember as the day you almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow.

The ship’s incredible craftsmanship, with its impressive mast heights and working platforms, allows the spectacular stunt to wow crowds twice a night. The working cannon provides authentic pirate battle sounds alongside the show’s soundtrack and water effects. The sword fight between pirates aboard high on the rigging is the most intricate experience in the park yet inspired by a Disney live-action movie. Without knowing it, you would never guess that the dark and stormy Black Pearl, cursed by pirates during nighttime entertainment, is the same ship that glides peacefully along the rivers of America, sharing its 18th century history with guests during the day.