Attraction of the Week: Disneyland's Explorer Canoes

January 27, 2021, 2:02 PM · "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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Replies (9)

January 27, 2021 at 2:09 PM

I worked in New Orleans/Critter Country attractions in college and the ""canoe people"" were definitely an ... interesting breed. I never participated in the canoe races, but my sense was that they did not lose very often.

January 27, 2021 at 2:47 PM

Great article. In a time where most new rides feel like teched-up versions of things we've seen many times before, love the idea of getting back to basics.

January 27, 2021 at 3:10 PM

One of these year's we'll get on the canoes. Every time we've been to Disneyland they've either been closed for renovation or we've passed by the entrance before they start running (and then forget to circle back to ride them later in the day).

January 27, 2021 at 3:31 PM

I absolutely love this attraction! It's a must-do when I'm visiting Disneyland, which is every few years as I live on the East Coast. It's fun, low-tech in the best way, as you must be actively engaged in it--from rowing to taking in the views. It gives live to the river for those not in the canoe, and it feels unique. It even brings you back to Walt's time, even if I wasn't born then and the rivers have changed. It will be one of the things I want to do when Disneyland reopens!

January 27, 2021 at 11:26 PM

My lone experience with the Davy Crockett Canoes was at WDW in the mid-70's.

It was hot muggy Florida day and about halfway around the island, most in our canoe started getting tired. The canoe slowed. More tired. It slowed some more... And finally it stopped. The Guide exclaimed: "Folks, this isn't a ride. If you don't paddle, we don't get back." Groans. So some of us started paddling slowly while battling the humid heat. Others refused. The Guide kept exhorting us to paddle. Finally one angry guy decided to question the ethics of it all by yelling at the Guide: "Hey, why do WE have to paddle YOUR damn canoe?"

Needless to say, it was a long hot awkward journey back to the dock. That was the last time I ever went on the Davy Crockett Canoes.

January 28, 2021 at 3:28 AM

Honestly never wanted to go on this, doesn't appeal in anyway.
But I agree that interactive doesn't mean a video game. I love video games, but I can play them at home, don't need to play them at a theme park.

Sadly screens seem to be the future for Disney attractions, and it is a real shame

January 28, 2021 at 10:57 AM

There are many places in the country where one can go canoeing (or on a "float trip" as they are called in my area). When I go to a Disney park, I want to do something unique for the amount of money I am spending there.

January 28, 2021 at 2:43 PM

I really like the canoes!! I usually the only one in my party who wants to do it, but I always have a great time!

Such an underrated experience!!

January 30, 2021 at 3:36 AM

Beacher, Disney doesn’t have any rides, just attractions. Well besides Big Thunder, and formally the Great Movie Ride. Although I’m not sure the canoes should really be considered an attraction either. Not that they’re bad or shouldn’t be at Disneyland, but its something fun to do when the lines are long on everything else, not a can’t miss experience.

I hope it’s not permanently gone, but it might be a little bit too interactive to reopen until the pandemic is truly over. Because unless they replace the paddles or clean them every time, Disney or the state of California might think there’s too much of a risk involved with spreading Covid and other germs.

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