Magic Kingdom’s Short-Lived Plaza Swan Boats

Magic Kingdom’s Short-Lived Plaza Swan Boats

This article was originally written in August 2021 and was updated in January 2022.

Swan Boats Hatch in the 19th Century

Shipbuilder Robert Paget opened a small attraction in 1870 at Boston Public Garden, taking customers around the lagoon on a rowboat. A few years later in 1877, he combined his craft with a love for theater. Based on the swan-drawn boat from the Romantic opera Lohengrin, Paget introduced a new foot-propelled, swan-themed boat to the attraction. Paget died a year later in 1878 at the age of 42, but his family took over managing and operating the swan boats.

The attraction was among the earlier examples of what would become a summertime staple in the amusement industry that would grow rapidly throughout the next century.

Watch on YouTube

This article is available in video form with accompanying visuals. Click HERE to watch it.

Attraction Ideas for Walt Disney World

Construction began May 30, 1967, on what would later become the Walt Disney World Resort. By breaking ground on Walt’s vision to build a second theme park, Disney was just a few years away from bringing its classic stories to Florida.

The park’s hub-and-spoke design would take guests to East Coast versions of Disneyland’s most iconic rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight, Jungle Cruise, and “it’s a small world.” However, not every Disneyland attraction would have a counterpart in Magic Kingdom, for example, Matterhorn Bobsleds or Storybook Land Canal Boats. Likewise, Magic Kingdom would debut with original rides not found anywhere else.

In the park’s hub, Disney had planned for a boat ride taking guests through a moat that circled the plaza in front of the immaculate Cinderella’s Castle. The earliest known concept art for it dates back to 1970 showing a Jungle Cruise type boat passing by the entrance bridge to Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

Leading up to the park’s grand opening, an updated version of the ride with a swan boat was conceptualized on the publicly available “Fun Map” illustrated by Paul Hartley. The hub and its 189-foot icon were projected to be like no other sight in a theme park, complemented with the ongoing activity of a boat ride floating around the area.

Magic Kingdom Opens

With much anticipation, Magic Kingdom opened Oct. 1, 1971, with attractions like The Haunted Mansion and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Missing in its opening-day lineup, however, was the conceptualized boat ride in the main hub. A dock with a yellow and white striped canopy was present in the park’s inaugural season with some construction walls and activity hinting at a possible opening in the near future.

The ride’s entrance even had a swan topiary planted and trimmed for guests to see. The landing sat on the right side of the hub near Main Street, awaiting guests for an eventual opening.

The attraction at this point was still in development at WED enterprises. Animator and Imagineer Marc Davis, known for his quips and storytelling on rides such as Jungle Cruise, had developed sketches in 1972 of topiaries modeled after famous nursery rhymes that would line the canal. They would give riders another vibrant element to look at, but the topiary designs would never make it out of Imagineering, and the yellow-striped dock wouldn’t make it to the ride’s opening. Instead, Disney built the attraction’s permanent landing was near Tomorrowland’s entrance on the opposite side of the path from the previous dock.

The ride, one step closer to opening, would be ready the following summer.

A New Attraction Hatches in Magic Kingdom

On May 20, 1973, Plaza Swan Boats opened as Magic Kingdom’s newest D-ticket attraction. The ride’s 12 boats were each uniquely named after Disney’s animated heroines such as Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, Merryweather, and more.

The elegant, 26-passenger boats put guests on benches facing inward. Their all-while appearance was ornamented with decorations—primarily the distinct crowned swan figurehead at the bow of each ship. One of the boats was converted shortly after opening into a maintenance boat to clean the canal, leaving the attraction with 11 total operating vessels.

Guests queued on a small path and a covered landing to board boats headed by skippers, who at the time were all women outfitted in white sailor costumes with a blue collar, a red neckerchief, and a blue skirt.

The skippers took guests counterclockwise around the main hub and down a pass to Adventureland, circling Swiss Family Treehouse. The skippers throughout the trip would point out interesting facts about nearby attractions such as Cinderella’s Castle and Swiss Family Treehouse. Passing by the sights and sounds of Magic Kingdom, the ride overall was gentle and relaxing, giving guests another vantage point of the park’s atmosphere.

The loop took a little under 20 minutes to complete, taking riders back to the attraction’s sole dock.

The boats had natural-gas-powered engines and were designed to utilize an electric guidance system, which turned out to be unreliable and impractical. Soon after opening, that system was replaced. The boats were modified to be powered by two jets underneath—one in the front, and one in the back. This system allowed the boats to move in any direction, even swiveling 360 degrees. Skippers controlled the boats by operating two separate steering wheels. Navigating these boats was unconventional and difficult. Because of the clumsy controls, Skippers would more often than expected bump the boats into the shoreline and other obstacles.

Though its entrance was located in Magic Kingdom’s main hub, the Swan Boats’ service and storage area was located in a canal opposite of the Jungle Cruise’s maintenance space. A dam between the two bodies of water prevented the two from mixing, being only three feet from each other.

Plaza Swan Boats operated mainly during the park’s summer peak season, and when open, it was an incredibly popular ride. The attraction’s entrance was in a convenient spot in the main hub, being passed by countless guests per day; because of the high traffic in that area, the line for Plaza Swan Boats would consistently be about 45 minutes up to an hour.

It was a picturesque ride that was featured prominently at times on Magic Kingdom’s postcards and advertising, encapsulating the beauty of what to expect at Walt Disney World.

From Wading to Waning

Into the ‘80s, the ride, albeit simple, underwent a few notable changes. Plaza Swan Boats now had male skippers, who wore a red sweater vest and blue pants. Nearly a decade into operation, the attraction had thinned out its fleet of ride vehicles—debuting with 12, primarily running with 11, and then having only five active boats.

Its capacity was significantly reduced as a result to approximately 600 guests per hour, which was about a third of what the ride opened with. Still, crowds flocked to the attraction, and wait times were high.

Due to an inefficient throughput, mechanical upkeep, and maintenance costs, Plaza Swan Boats closed in August 1983, about 10 years after opening. An attraction with promise, a memorable view of Magic Kingdom, and charm that brought even more magic to the hub—gone without a replacement.

Swan Song and Legacy

After the attraction’s closure, the boats and swan figureheads were sold separately to private parties—no longer a part of Walt Disney World. Seasons passed, and remnants of Plaza Swan Boats could still be found in the park.

The former path that led to the landing was used for years as a rose garden in Magic Kingdom’s hub. The area even repurposed the Swan Boats’ sign, then reading "Plaza Rose Garden." This pathway winded to the retired boat landing, which for years remained as a relaxing sitting area. A piece of Disney history sat right next to the park's icon.

Even the original, unused dock was reutilized as an outdoor dining area. However, that and more would change.

The south section of the hub’s canal was filled in, and the pathway and the two docks—once a memento of a defunct ride—were removed in 2014 to increase the hub’s standing capacity to accommodate larger crowds for the park’s nighttime fireworks display.

The canal around the hub and through Adventureland lingers today as the final remains of an early Magic Kingdom attraction.

Easter Eggs

The ride is still honored and remembered in a few ways in Magic Kingdom’s Skipper Canteen restaurant. A book on a shelf in the restaurant is titled Grace of Swan by an author named Plaza. Also, a classifieds listing posted on a bulletin board advertises a Swan Boat for sale, reading, “Gently Used, All White, Carved Swan on Bow.” Finally, a map hanging in the restaurant has an emblem with two prominent crowned white swans, resembling the figureheads on the former boats.

Over in Tomorrowland, along Space Mountain’s exit ramp, is a monitor listing open and closed sectors. The codes featured each represent a current or defunct Magic Kingdom attraction. The acronym "MSU-SB" under the closed sector column stands for Main Street, U.S.A., Swan Boats.

A few collectors have worked on restoring one of the remaining boats and reuniting it with a swan figurehead. Projects like this have kept the enthusiasm for Plaza Swan Boats afloat as its legacy in Magic Kingdom’s history floats on.

Thanks for joining on this passage and revisiting Plaza Swan Boats.

Back to blog

Support Storybook Amusement

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting Storybook Amusement in these ways:

Storybook Amusement Shop