Disney is about to revive one of its classic theme park ride systems

May 2, 2017, 9:15 PM · This month, Disney will open a type of theme park ride it hasn't built in the United States in nearly 30 years — an all-ages indoor boat ride.

Hard to believe, isn't it? A popular, dependable ride system that puts through people at an enormous rate and has powered classic attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and It's a Small World... and Disney hasn't built one in its American theme parks since 1988. The Na'vi River Journey in Pandora - The World of Avatar in Disney's Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort will become the first all-new ride of its type from Walt Disney World or Disneyland since Disney World opened Maelstrom at Epcot. (Of course, that's Frozen Ever After now, following Disney's move last year to change the ride's theme.)

The first all-ages indoor boat ride appears to have been Old Mill at Kennywood, which opened in 1901 and — incredibly — remains open to this day, albeit as the heavily modified Garfield's Nightmare. "River cave" and "tunnel of love" rides became staples of early 20th century amusement parks and carnivals, offering visitors a slow moving, secluded journey away from the bright lights and prying eyes of the midway.

But those darkened interiors provided a wonderful stage for theatrical storytelling, too. And in the 1960s, theme parks began using indoor boat rides to create narrative driven experiences that could play to a large and ever-moving stream of visitors.

Walt Disney's It's a Small World debuted at the 1964 New York Fair, utilizing a high-capacity water flume system that today continues to operate at Disneyland, where the ride moved in 1966. Also in 1964, Six Flags Over Texas opened another Arrow Dynamics indoor boat ride, Spee-Lunker's Cave, which today operates as Yosemite Sam and the Gold River Adventure.

But Disneyland established the gold standard for what indoor boat rides — heck, all theme park attractions — could be with the 1967 debut of Pirates of the Caribbean. Wildly popular from the beginning and the eventual inspiration for a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise, Pirates brought together Disney's Audio Animatronics with impressive stagecraft, memorable music, and that ultra-high-capacity indoor boat ride system to show the industry and its fans just how amazing a theme park attraction could be.

In 1969, Bud Hurlbut and Knott's Berry Farm transformed the indoor boat ride into a thrill ride, using the Arrow flume ride first introduced in 1963 at Six Flags Over Texas into a mostly indoor experience as the Timber Mountain Log Ride, which eventually influenced the creation of Disney's Splash Mountain. Combining thrills and narrative proved to be a difficult — and expensive — trick, so most log flumes today remain outdoor attractions, often as relatively simple shoot-the-chutes rides. SeaWorld Orlando tried to revive the trend with a water coaster ride system with Journey to Atlantis in 1998, but that ride stands today more as a warning to parks of what happens to an attraction when you don't maintain its potentially expensive show elements rather than an inspiration for companies other than Disney to develop their own indoor boat rides.

Kings Island opened its Enchanted Voyage in 1972, a Small World-style adventure aimed at children, but tore out the flume in 1991 to transform that show building into an Omnimover-style dark ride, which today is Boo Blasters on Boo Hill. And that illustrates why all-ages indoor boat rides have fallen from favor with most companies — it's simply cheaper to use a tracked ride system to move people through a show building than installing a flume, which must be filled with ever-moving water, a compound that's heavy, powerful, and a potential strain on the environment of a show building.

Yet Disney returned to indoor boat rides with the opening of Epcot in 1982, building two new such rides for Walt Disney World's second theme parks. Listen to the Land (now Living with the Land) was essentially an indoor Jungle Cruise, played straight and floating past greenhouses instead of faux jungle animals. El Río del Tiempo played as a kind-of cut-rate Pirates, loading next to a Blue Bayou-like indoor restaurant but supplementing its somewhat limited practical show scenes with screen-based media, in the style of the Magic Kingdom's If You Had Wings. In 2007, Disney rethemed the ride as Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros. Disney added a third indoor boat ride to Epcot in 1988 with Norway's Maelstrom, which became Frozen Ever After last year.

Outside the United States, Efteling opened its Fata Morgana indoor boat ride in 1986, which today remains one of the world's most beloved attractions among fans who have had the opportunity to ride it. Universal opened its only indoor boat ride to date in 2011 at Universal Studios Singapore — Madagascar: A Crate Adventure, which technically isn't an all-ages indoor boat ride as it has a 32 inch height requirement, but we'll add it here anyway.

Disney showed that it wasn't done building musical-driven indoor boat rides when it opened Sindbad's Seven Voyages, today known as Sindbad's Storybook Voyage, with the debut of Tokyo DisneySea in 2001. Featuring the Alan Menken song, "Compass of Your Heart," Sindbad's Storybook Voyage remains Theme Park Insider readers' favorite all-ages indoor boat ride not named "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Speaking of, Disney reinvented its greatest attraction last year with the introduction of Pirates of the Caribbean Battle of the Sunken Treasure at Shanghai Disneyland. Eschewing the traditional flume ride system in favor of a next-generation hybrid ride system that allowed boats to spin as they float through the ride, Shanghai's Pirates also raised Disney's game for theatrical storytelling, employing screens and projection mapping along with Audio Animatronics to create a new Pirates adventure driven by the now-well-established film franchise.

And later this month, Na'vi River Journey will get its opportunity to join the pantheon of great all-ages indoor boat rides. How will it rate among the attractions before it? We will find out when it opens to the public on May 27.

Theme Park Insider's Top Five All-Ages Indoor Boat Rides:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean Battle of the Sunken Treasure
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean
  3. Sindbad's Storybook Voyage
  4. Fata Morgana
  5. it's a small world

Replies (19)

May 2, 2017 at 9:34 PM · Great history. I actually remember King's Island ride transformed into a Smurf attraction but not a bad ride. It's a classic idea and nice to see it making a comeback as it's just a fun ride system overall.
May 2, 2017 at 11:56 PM · I'm looking forward to River Journey more than Flight of the Banshee. Like you mentioned, there are few indoor water rides.
May 3, 2017 at 2:43 AM · my fav type of attraction. for hokey fun, there are a few boat rides at Europa Park with Pirates in Battavia and the Picollo ride. and Phantasialand has the Hollywood Tour. of course Blackpool has Valhalla and the River Caves. Alton Towers has Charlie and thr Chocolate Factory (a repurposing of Toyland Tours that started as Around the World in 80 Days) and Chessington has the Gruffalo Ride (What used to be the Bubbleworks, and before that, Professor Burps bubbleworks). but PotC and Fata Morgana are my favs, followed by Valhalla.
May 3, 2017 at 3:35 AM · Always nice to have an experience like this to give you a break from being flipped, tossed and 3D motion-simulated
May 3, 2017 at 3:43 AM · It seems indoor boat rides are more difficult to evacuate. We've all seen CMs in their waders pushing boats to the nearest escape point. It takes a lot more time than evacuating a track ride you can easily step out of. Plus all the underwater piping, pumps, tracks, gadgets etc that they must be cautious of while moving around...because lord knows you cannot see what's down there. Which does make me wonder about the new hybrid boat systems in both Na'vi and Pirates Shanghai. If they are attached to an underwater track system, how do they manually move them to the nearest exit in the event of a failure?
May 3, 2017 at 4:53 AM · One of the more interesting facts I have learned on this website is the wonders of the boat ride technology. As far as I can tell, it seems to be the most reliable ride technology.
May 3, 2017 at 5:14 AM · If you want to experience a proper classic river caves/old mill ride, The River Caves at Blackpool Pleasure Beach has been there faithfully serving customers since 1905. Do be warned that this is a ride that shows its era... as international travel back then was expensive much of the ride is about showing off different parts of the world... however many of the elements would be characterised as "racist" if they were built today, so if you're overly PC sensitive you might want to skip it.
May 3, 2017 at 7:26 AM · Europa Park in Germany also has a Pirates derivative in its Pirates in Batavia ride, as does Gardaland in Italy with I Corsari. There are several rides at Mack's Europa Park that are very Disney-like.
May 3, 2017 at 7:47 AM · Just curious about guest response to Avatar Land... Does anyone really have an emotional connection to this land? Lighting up the Tree of Life was a good idea, but Disney could have done something similar without licensing the rights to Avatar.

Disney already had Zootopia and Moana in the pipeline. Why didn't Disney create attractions around these megahits, instead of the gimmicky Avatar franchise that Disney doesn't even own? Weren't licensing fees the excuse for Disney to kill California's Twilight Zone? Why license a sci-fi action movie and turn it into a boring boat ride?

Disney's marketing and finance guys seem to have shoved the Imagineers completely out of the decision making process. Has Disney's marketing team finally jumped the shark? Will Avatar Land and Star Wars Land disappoint fans and flame out fast?

May 3, 2017 at 8:23 AM · Another ride system that made a comeback was the omnimover system for the Mermaid attraction. I was hoping the Avatar boat ride was actually using the newer Shanghai Pirates boat system. What happened? Anyways, Disney World could return some classic dark rides especially with the closing of their own Mr. Toads ride. I'm hoping the People Mover can return. The tracks are still there. If they can't return the classic People Mover, just demolish the tracks and the Rocket Jets platform that holds another decaying ride system.
May 3, 2017 at 11:46 AM · @104: Avatar had DOUBLE the box office at overseas markets. Disney World is designed to appeal to the tourist market from foreign countries. It will have a huge impact from many foreign tourists who want to experience Pandora.

In contrast, there is little interest in Star Wars in Asia. In fact, Rogue One did poor box office in China since there is little awareness of the Star Wars trilogy. However, they will be pulled into the attraction regardless.

No, they won't flame out.

May 3, 2017 at 11:50 AM · The ride looks good, but it's the capacity that concerns me. With only 8 people per boat, that's a sharp departure from 20 for Pirates of the Caribbean. Heck, I think Frozen puts more people on each boat.
May 3, 2017 at 12:19 PM · @ - Disney had no idea Zootopia or Moana would be as popular as they have become. Lin Manuel Miranda was a relative nobody on Broadway (had won Tony's for "In The Heights", but was far away from Hamilton fame and signing on for Moana) when Disney bought the rights to Avatar, and Zootopia was barely a storyboard concept in 2011 when Cameron signed the deal. However, I strongly believe that if the Lucasfilm deal had already been done in September 2011, we wouldn't be talking about PTWOA today, and would instead be drooling over previews of the Star Wars land. Instead we're still 2 years away from seeing a full blown Star Wars land in a theme park. Disney is not in the business of building theme park attractions to mediocre IPs, so they're not going to waste money developing a ride for a film when they have no idea how successful it's going to be. Frozen took Disney by surprise, so much so that they were forced to reskin attractions to capitalize on the movie's popularity.

I actually think what we've seen so far from PTWOA is that Joe Rhode and his team of Imagineers had a lot to do with the look of the land and how it has been executed. You can see how they've adapted Cameron's vision into a real theme park world that blends in with the rest of DAK. Right down to the queue for Flight of Passage, you can see the similarities to what Rhode's team did with attractions like Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris. You also see some similarities in PTWOA to the concept art from the Beastly Kingdom idea, so it's clear Imagineers dusted off a lot of those plans when approaching Cameron about licensing Avatar for use in a theme park (let's be clear that not only did Disney need to pay for the license, but Cameron had to agree to let Disney do it). No one knows how much Disney is paying Cameron and Fox to license Avatar, but it's been reported that they get a cut of the merchandising and obviously had a strong say in the way the land is being presented. My guess that the deal is similar to the WWoHP deal with Rowling, but likely a significantly smaller sum.

The Twilight Zone license was not as valuable as using an internal one (Marvel), so the change was made to an attraction that was far less popular than its Florida sibling.

I think PTWOA will slowly diminish in popularity when Star Wars land opens in 2019, but will get a renewed jolt in 2020 when the sequels start dropping. Hopefully, WDI will have another Avatar attraction ready to open to renew interest in the land to compliment the sequels (more Avatar attractions have always been part of the plans for PTWOA).

May 3, 2017 at 11:03 PM · I would love to take bets against anyone delusional enough to think that Pandora, or the Avatar sequels, will fail. Try telling that to the mobs who will descend on Animal Kingdom on May 27 (just stay out of their way so they don't trample you to death).
May 4, 2017 at 10:48 AM · I thought the best way to get a Zootopia attraction would be to rework the train ride at Animal Kingdom to show scenes of the movie's land and the final stop a recreation of the main city.
May 4, 2017 at 12:17 PM · Pandora won't fail. It's the first major investment to Animal Kingdom in over a decade. The lines will be stretching to Everest the day it opens.

Avatar 2 also won't flop. It has too much goodwill from the first film that everyone's going to at least give it a shot, even if it is the dud of the century. However, a critically panned Avatar 2 could definitely spell trouble for the following 3 movies.

May 5, 2017 at 6:57 AM · Thanks for all the responses. It's funny that nobody answered my actual question: Does anyone really feel an emotional connection to Avatar Land? People responded by citing box office figures and box office projections. Nobody actually came out and said "I love Avatar and here's why."

If Joe Rohde can sneak Beastly Kingdom into Avatar Land, maybe that's enough to redeem this hare brained scheme. But with budgets of $150 million apiece, Disney must have had some idea that Zootopia and Moana were going to be huge hits. If Disney can "risk" the money to build an attraction like Mystic Manor from scratch, they could have done the same for a Moana attraction. I have to agree with everyone who responded that it really doesn't matter what garbage attractions Disney builds in Orlando, the crowds will keep coming.

As for Chinese tourists, how many of them visit Disney world in Orlando? Seems absurd to build an attraction in Orlando based on its appeal to the Asian tourist market.

May 5, 2017 at 10:25 PM · Does Monster Plantation still exist at Six Flags Over Georgia? Isn't that another family boat ride (if it still exists).
May 8, 2017 at 10:37 AM · I don't feel any emotional connection to Avatar, but I don't feel any with Moana or Zootopia either, although they were cute. Disney imagineers are so good at what they do, I bet people will feel an emotional connection once they visit the land if they didn't during the movie. Also, Avatar is basically a Pocahontas story, which was a great, emotion-evoking Disney movie, so there's that potential as well.

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