In the early days of Walt Disney World, watercraft were a fundamental element of new parks. When the Magic Kingdom opened alongside the rest of the resort in 1971, any number of rafts, launches, steamships, and ferries took to the waters of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon for shakedown cruises. The Rivers of America weren’t filled until soon before opening day, so the ships which plied its backwoods route had to be tested outside the park. Even after opening, the massive influx of guests, along with the delayed arrival of the large ferries, forced Disney to press into service anything that would float to bring guests over from the Transportation and Ticket Center. Years later, when Epcot Center was nearing completion, the FriendShip launches debuted miles away on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.
While perusing old photos on Flikr, I came across a number of wonderful photos by user Gary G. Gary was an early Walt Disney World cast member, hired before opening in the summer of 1971, and he has several pictures posted from a cast member preview of the new park which took place in September of 1971. Needless to say, the park was hardly ready, but it did give cast members an idea of what they were creating, and allowed Disney to work out some early operational kinks.
Of the pictures Gary posted, these stood out:
This is the Bertha Mae, one of Mike Fink’s Keelboats. Veteran Walt Disney World visitors will remember the Keelboats, which provided scenic tours of the Rivers of America in Frontierland until they joined a wave of closures in 2001. Here we see the ship outside the berm, however, ferrying guests from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom. Unfortunately, it had become stranded on a sandbar and cast members with long poles were trying to dislodge it – ironically, much like how the old keel boats operated on the Mississippi River! The picture was taken from Bertha Mae‘s sister ship, the Gullywhumper.
For more information, and for more great vintage pictures, head on over to Flickr. Here’s one more – a shot of the still-unfinished 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lagoon only a month before opening day!