Friday, July 30, 2010

Class of '55: The Jungle Cruise

Disneyland opened fifty-five years ago on July 17th, 1955.  In the ensuing decades a cavalcade of rides that once flourished have vanished, all replaced by newer, shinier experiences.  All told there are only thirteen attractions that debuted on opening day that remain operational.  Among these veterans are the Main Street Cinema, which originally ran vintage shorts and newsreels and currently plays host to a continuous black-and-white Mickey Mouse festival, and my favorite ride in the park, the crazy world of Mr Toad's Wild Ride.  But the only mega-attraction that managed to weather the storms of fickle guests and misguided managers is the Jungle Cruise, a boat ride inspired in part by the African Queen.

When the park opened the Jungle Cruise was the only ride in the area known as Adventureland.  Taking up approximately three acres of Disneyland's eighty-five, the attraction was one of the park's largest and most hyped entertainments.  Guests board a gas-powered boat that winds through a murky river along a hidden track.  Dense foliage surround the banks where many exotic (and animatronic) animals and natives play out scenes before the voyagers.  The boat's skipper guides the guests through the treacherous waters, punctuating their continuous narration with many a pun.  Head-hunters, hippos and pistol-wielding monkeys all approach you but as the skipper always states, the scariest part of the Jungle Cruise is the return to civilization.

In many the Jungle Cruise is a Disneyland anomaly.  Its massive outdoor setting puts it apart from both the giant multi-million dollar indoor spectacles like Space Mountain and the adjacent Indiana Jones ride, it also contrasts with the often smaller outdoor attractions like Dumbo the Flying Elephant.  The skipper's groan-inducing puns, which are as much a part of the attraction as the spectacles one sees, are often ad-libbed, a rare sign of Disney encouraging spontaneous creativity within the park's constantly controlled environment.  Pixar's John Lasseter, whose first job was working at Disneyland, always stated that his favorite shift was manning the Jungle Cruise boat.

Although today we are seasonally blitzed with promotions touting such new attractions as Harry Potter Land and the Simpsons Ride, the Jungle Cruise may indeed be the first theme park ride inspired by a movie.  Much of the attraction was designed by Harper Goff, the man who also designed the majority of Main Street USA, using his hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado, not Walt's Marceline, Missouri, as the template.  He famously walked the length of the Jungle Cruise's as-yet-unbuilt river in one loop sketching the ride's layout by marking off the boundaries and riverbanks.  This initial improvised sketch is the track that still remains today.  There were originally six 27-foot long boats used to escort guests along the river.  They were painted white with red-and-white striped roofs while today they have been transformed into dingy brown versions in an effort to be more evocative of the African Queen.  Seven more boats have been added including the aptly named Kissimee Kate which references both one of stars of the African Queen and the town adjacent to Walt Disney World in Florida (bonus point for referencing a former Metro Classic as well!)

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