BACKSTORY (1956—Present): Originally called the Indian War Canoes, this attraction has been a guest favorite for years. It's also a great way to get a good work out after snacking in the park! Part of the Indian Village, each canoe included an Indian guide. When the Indian Village closed in 1971, this attraction was re-themed as the Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes.
From the Disneyland website:
Paddle around the Rivers of America on a grand sightseeing adventure aboard Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes. Named after the legendary frontiersman, Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes transport you back to a time before highways, when water was the fastest mode of transportation and an exciting new discovery was around every river bend.
The Rivers of America
The canoe voyage will take you in a full circle around Pirate's Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. Along the banks of the Rivers of America, you'll see sights and sounds from 3 different lands — including the backwoods of Frontierland, the wrought-iron railings of New Orleans Square and the peak of Chick-A-Pin Hill towering over Critter Country.
Also along the river's edge, sharp-eyed explorers can observe:
• The rustic cabin of a frontier settler
• An idyllic Native American village
• Busy beavers at work on a dam
• A moose enjoying a leisurely lunch
• An ominous mansion lurking in the shadows
• A skunk staring down raccoons
• Mountain lions relaxing in the sun
• An osprey guarding it's nest
• The Disneyland Railroad steaming into the wilderness
While you'll get a very unique perspective of the Rivers of America from the Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, the attraction follows the same path as two larger ships: the Mark Twain Riverboat and the Sailing Ship Columbia.
The 20-passager vessels are real, old-fashioned canoes — there is no motor and no track. Modeled after the boats that early Native American and European explorers used to traverse the real rivers of America, these 35-foot-long canoes are powered entirely by the strong arms and paddles of the people inside.
Don't worry about the workload! The boats are lightweight and most of the paddling is more for fun than propulsion. While your help is appreciated, the river guides who sit in the fore and aft of the canoe are capable enough of navigating the waters by themselves.
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It was the Summer of 1974, my fourth season in Operations. After spending a summer working the Big Game Shooting Gallery and 2 years on the Jungle Cruise under my belt, I asked to join another attraction of ‘guys-only’, that of Davey Crockett’s Explorer Canoes. As the JC was well known for its hi-jinx, the Canoes were similar but different. First, you didn’t have to spiel 30 times a day, which could get a bit tiring, and second, the Canoes closed at night so there were no late night shifts.
Canoes had migrated from an American Indian only staff to a mix of cast members reflective of the general population. Except the CMs that worked the Canoes, well, we knew we were special. This was (and remains no doubt), an exclusive club of ‘jocks’ or those ‘wannabees’ that could pull off a 40 hour work week paddling guests along the Rivers of America. A great way to either stay in shape, or get in shape. Oddly, Canoe CMs rarely won the employee Canoe races. We’d seem to always lose to the Lifeguards. This probably because Canoes always had some college football players. Great muscle power, but more weight to pull. One of my co-workers that year was Jim Zorn, who ended up a well known NFL quarterback (and recent coach).
In the summer, the Canoe staff put on the famed ‘Custer’s Last Stand’. A huge evening-early morning party for Disney CM’s. In my day it was held at a union hall in Santa Ana. It became so notorious that supervision warned staff not to call in sick the following day. The number of hung-over CMs wearing sunglasses to mitigate headaches was very notable afterwards.
It’s quite obvious that the Canoes are not on a rail, nor do they have any mechanical power. So that meant that either the guests paddled for us or we’d have to paddle them. Either way, the boats are free-floating, human powered and steered vessels. Steering was always fun, though the first few days you ached every night until your strength improved and one developed the proper use of leverage. And of course, you always looked out for the Mark Twain. Exciting as it is, the guests really got motivated when it appeared the MT was rapidly closing-in on them (just an illusion most of the time). Or if the canoe caught up with the stern and wake of the MT paddlewheel. In short, a lot of fun and yes, if the guests quit, it was up to the 2 CMs to make it around.
I’ve seen some comments about whether a Disney canoe can “sink”. Well, yes it can…up to a point.
It was a normal weekend summer day in ’74, busy and warm. Coming into the dock with a load of guests ending a trip, I noticed a large number of beefy guys in line. After my team member and I unloaded the canoe and walked it forward for loading, I ‘rotated’ to the steering position and watched 16, 200 lb young men get in. The total weight into the canoe drove it down almost to the gunnels. This was pretty unusual as the canoes normally carried a mix of weights. But knowing that the canoe had built-in air ballast tanks so that it will always float, it wasn’t an issue to me.
Prior to getting into the boat, one fellow came up and handed me a small plaque suitable for attaching to one’s car dashboard which was common back then. It had an engraving of the date, a canoe and contained the words:
Channel Island Vans vs. San Diego Vans
The guest told me that if we “won the race”, I could join them for a party and a beer in San Diego.
I put the item in my pocket and mumbled the normal ‘thanks, please watch your step’ without much thought, and started pulling the fully loaded canoe out of the dock and into the river. Then looking up before entering the canoe I noticed another fully loaded canoe sitting there on the River….waiting for us to come. Those CMs in the other canoe had smiles on their faces knowing what was to come. Then it registered, this was the other club we were going to race. And race we did, my group starting off without warning, pretty much promptly putting me onto my seat.
These guys meant business. And between the two teams, everyone was up for the challenge, including the CMs. Unfortunately our team had a handicap. My CM team member up front had returned from sick leave…and had laryngitis. While on the other boat, the CM up front was standing, exhorting the guys in paddling together. Our team was ragged. The canoe rocked back and forth, and was slipping behind.
Past the Indian Village we caught up to the other team which had to stop behind the MT, as it rounded Cascade Peak. Once it cleared the area, turning toward the dock, we were off again, like a NASCAR re-start. But the rocking retuned and we fell behind, rounding the MT dock, starting to take on water left and right, more and more. As we paralleled the dock, the water being maybe 6-8 inches inside the canoe floor, the group seemed to stop and realize that we were now taking on water, giving the appearance of sinking.
I recall steering the canoe towards TSI, yelling that the canoe will not sink. But at that moment the boat instantly went straight down and then almost instantly back up, the interior water level now flush with the River. What happened? My partner had stood up to turn around and instruct the guys to stay with the boat. Unfortunately he couldn’t be heard (remember…laryngitis) and as he stood up, they ALL stood up, momentarily forcing the canoe down into the water. Everyone bailed out (including my partner)except me. I felt like an ice cream cone momentarily dipped in chocolate. There I was, wet up to my shoulders standing in a water-filled canoe with 17 others around me in the River swimming towards TSI.
Now picture this on a very busy weekend with all the River traffic in operation, TSI filled with guests and others along the River on the New Orleans Square and Haunted Mansion side filling the rails gawking at us! I was told management above Aunt Jemima’s looked out of their office windows to see what all the commotion was. Needless to say, I could have been on the hot seat but fortunately, the van clubs took the blame.
In the end, the River was closed for over 2 hours as things wound down. My partner and I were summarily hauled up to the offices in our soaking clothes for interrogation and, happily, exoneration. I later was told the clubs were billed for the lost revenue and clean-up. How much…my memory says it was in the neighborhood of $20,000, but who knows? That was the rumor.
And as for my plaque, well, it probably is stored along with a number of my mementoes at my parent’s home. I’ll find it someday and this time frame it and place it in a prominent location.