"Interactivity" seems to have been a buzzword in the theme park design business for as long as I can remember. Parks want to engage generations raised playing video games with attractions that give them the opportunity to shape the narrative and direction of their experience.
But interactive attractions do not have to play like video games come to life. They don't need expensive media and complicated software. Sometimes, all a rewarding interactive attraction needs is a stick of wood. Just send theme park fans up the creek... and give 'em a paddle.
This week we honor Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes at Disneyland. This DIY trip around the Rivers of America opened the summer after the park's debut, on July 4, 1956. One cast member steers the canoe from the stern, while a second spiels and directs guests from the bow. But it's up to the passengers to muscle their canoe around the river. That makes Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes one of the original "interactive" attractions in the theme park biz.
While the canoes have been entertaining (and exhausting) guests at Disneyland for nearly 65 years, the attraction closed in 1994 at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The canoes ran for just a couple of years at Disneyland Paris before closing the same year as Disney World's, but the canoes paddle on at Tokyo Disneyland, where they are called the Beaver Brothers Explorer Canoes. When Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016, Disney added an Explorer Canoes attraction to Treasure Cove, where they are run by a "pirate-turned-almost-legitimate-businessman, 'Bilge Rat' Bill."
The Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes also provided the venue for the annual Disney cast canoe races, in which cast members who actually ran the Rivers of America attractions routinely got obliterated back when I rowed in the event. For several years just before the canoes closed in Orlando, I worked next door to them as a raft driver on Tom Sawyer Island. Canoes cast members served as our "river traffic control," directing the rafts, canoes, riverboat, and keelboats to take their turns around the crowded corner of the river where the rafts crossed to and from the island. (The riverboat always got top priority. Gotta look out for the big dog.)
I have no idea if the canoes will survive the Covid-influenced job cuts and operational changes when Disneyland reopens. But I hope that they eventually return in Anaheim... as well as in Orlando, some day. While the canoes loom large on operational labor budgets due to the need for two cast members on each canoes, not to mention dock positions, the ride can put through hundreds of guests per hour for next to nothing in capital spending. And it provides a unique experience that many fans welcome on their trips to Disney.
Unfortunately, not all guests behave responsibly on the canoes, which no doubt contributed to their elimination in Orlando. The one-ton canoes are pretty much impossible to capsize, but just one tour group of teenagers who decide to use their paddles to splash each other - and everyone else on the river - can ruin the experience for all. Given the choice, I would choose to get rid of under-controlled tour groups rather than the canoes, but that's a lot harder to do than to cut a labor-intensive attraction from the budget if you're trying to make the bottom line look better.
If you've only toured Disney's Rivers of America on the riverboat, I would encourage you to give the canoes a try - should you ever get the chance again. Seeing the river's sights from water level gives you a fresh perspective on the amazing work that Disney's Imagineers have done in creating this environment. And working your arms hard to paddle your way around the river gives you a very convenient excuse to refuel with your choice of churros or other Disney theme park snacks.
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