All aboard! It is time to ride down the Rivers of America aboard the steam ship known today as the Liberty Belle. This beautifully wood crafted vessel has four decks that can hold 450 guests per trip. The riverboat is modeled after the Mississippi steamboats made famous in the days of Mark Twain. In fact, this ride traces its roots back to the Disneyland ship named the Mark Twain.
When the Liberty Square Riverboat first opened at Walt Disney World it did so with a different ship named the Admiral Joe Fowler. The name for the ship was a tribute to the man of the same name who had helped bring the riverboats to life in Disneyland. Actually, Joe Fowler helped bring more than just this one ride to life in both the California and Florida parks. This retired real life Navy Admiral was hired by Walt to oversee the construction of Disneyland and later help with Walt Disney World. While the ship bearing his name was not quite ready for opening day October 1, 1971, it did make its debut one day later.
This boat was in service until 1980 when it was retired after being damaged in the back lot. It is still unclear what happened to the ship itself, but its spirit does live on in several ways. Just a quick side note, if you happen to know the mysterious location of the Admiral Joe Fowler, I would love to know. You can fill me in by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I won’t tell anyone, it will be our little secret! What we do know is that some of the ship’s machinery was sent to Tokyo Disney and was used in their steamship, also named the Mark Twain. The bell from the Admiral Joe Fowler was added to the Roy O. Disney engine that is in service on the Walt Disney World Railroad. Finally, one of the two ferries transporting guests from the Ticket & Transportation Center to the Magic Kingdom was renamed the Admiral Joe Fowler in 1999. So, while the original boat for Liberty Square Riverboat is no longer in service, it lives on in some fascinating ways.
Seven years before the Admiral Joe Fowler would make its final voyage, a second ship named the Richard F. Irvine was added to the fleet at Liberty Square. In 1973 this nearly identical steamship entered service. Like the Admiral Joe Fowler, this ship was named for another Disney legend. Richard F. Irvine was an art director for 20th Century Fox before being lured away by Walt to help build Disneyland. He became a prominent figure at Walt Disney Imagineering and headed up the design for all of the early Disneyland rides. The ship bearing his name continued running after the Admiral Joe Fowler was damaged. From 1980 till 1996 the Richard F. Irvine sailed the Rivers of America unchanged.
By 1996 it was time for the vessel to receive a refurbishment. At that time it was also decided that the name of the ship would be changed to better coincide with the land in which it was found. The Richard F. Irvine became the Liberty Belle and the ride itself was now the Liberty Square Riverboat. Before you start feeling bad for Mr. Irvine, his namesake also continues on aboard the second ferry departing from the Ticket & Transportation Center. Irvine and Fowler have been reunited on the waters of the Seven Seas Lagoon.
So, that is the history of the boats. Let’s talk about the ride itself! The Liberty Belle normally runs from 10 am till 8 pm, with departures on the hour and half hour. The boat departs from the heart of Liberty Square and takes a half mile circular trip around Tom Sawyer’s Island. As the boat gets ready to leave dock, the captain comes over the speaker to welcome you aboard. The captain of the Liberty Belle is Horace Bixby, and his young pilot is Samuel Clemens. Of course the literary buffs listening will recognize Sam Clemens as the alias of none other than Mark Twain himself. What you may not know is that Horace Bixby was a real life steamboat captain, who did in fact take a young Sam Clemens on as an apprentice. The journey you will be making with these two at the helm happens to be young Clemens’ 100th journey. Throughout the ride Sam will come over the speaker and be your tour guide. Besides pointing out the local sights, he also shares some, um, sage advice? One of my favorites sayings is, “It seems to me that when I was younger, I could remember everything whether it happened or not. But as I grow older I seem to remember only the things that never happened at all.”
With the Liberty Belle underway you will first pass by Frontierland, where you can catch a great view of both Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on the left. This is one of my favorite parts of the ride as you get to see how expansive Big Thunder really is. Disney doesn’t just throw a false front on a ride, they build the whole thing from the ground up and make it look as though it has existed there forever. After passing Frontierland, the ride enters the wooded shores of the Rivers of America. As you continue to move down the river, you will be able to spot a Native American Village, Harper’s Mill, Fort Langhorn, and Wilson’s Cave Inn. The Cave is a reference to a real river pirate named Jim Wilson. Jim would lure passers by into the cave and then rob them or worse. Hence the name Cutthroat Corner given to this part of the river. The Rivers of America isn’t all pirates though, that is reserved for another boat ride in the Caribbean. In the more pleasant spots of the river you can see some very, very still woodland animals. These deer look almost petrified by the appearance of the riverboat. Let’s just say to them the life of an Audio-Animatronic would be a dream come true.
Near the ride’s end The Haunted Mansion will come into view. Even from the safety of the boat, The Haunted Mansion looks menacing up above. If you happen to ride the Liberty Square Riverboat at dusk this sight may just send a chill down your spine. To return to happy thoughts, just look a little further and you will see Rapunzel’s Tower from the movie Tangled. This tower was added to a spot in between Fantasyland and Liberty Square. This is a great little rest stop with some fun nods to the movie as you enter the restrooms. As the tall tower fades into the distance, the cheery, upbeat warmth of Liberty Square is just around the river bend.
Before we unload back at the dock let’s talk about where to take in all these sights. The Liberty Belle is made up of 4 decks: The Pilothouse, Promenade Deck, Texas Deck, and Main Deck. All 4 decks have some limited seating available. You are free to move about the ship during the ride, so if it isn’t too crowded you can explore all 4 decks. The Pilothouse is the, top deck and home to the Captain’s quarters and the wheelhouse. The Promenade Deck has a collection of vintage photos and maps, along with a salon. The Texas Deck is the sun deck. If you are visiting in the summer and don’t mind melting, this is a good place to work on that tan. Finally, the Main Deck houses the boiler and pistons that power the paddlewheel. If you are cold natured and happen to be visiting in the wintertime, this is the warmest spot on the ship. I know, because my wife was freezing one cold afternoon in October and never left the side of the boiler. Each deck offers a little different view, so it is worth checking them all out.
So, who will enjoy this ride, and should you add it to your touring plan? Well, first off it is a very slow moving boat ride with no height requirement. If you have a family with little ones and the list of potential rides is short, this may be for you. If you have a group of riders that finds Dumbo the Flying Elephant too thrilling, this may be for you. If you really like boats, and want to see a real life steam powered paddleboat in action, this may be for you. If you are tired of walking, loud crowds, and need a relaxing break, this may be for you.
For me, the Liberty Square Riverboat is a relaxing way to pass a little time when needed. Maybe you have a dining reservation at the Liberty Tree Tavern, but have a little time to kill. Not enough time for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without a Fastpass +, but just enough for a peaceful 20 minute boat ride. Or maybe you just let out of The Hall of Presidents and you are feeling patriotic and a little nostalgic.
Now, if none of those things are true, or every time you pass the Liberty Square Riverboat the timing just isn’t right, I say don’t sweat it. This is a ride you can miss. Yes, I said it, you can skip this ride and it will be o.k. Recently I received some feedback saying I made every ride at Disney sound more fun that it is, and some rides are just better than others. Well, I do admit I can get a little excited when talking about Disney rides! However, my ultimate goal is to help you decide what sounds like fun to you. If you are a high adrenaline thrill seeker, then the Liberty Square Riverboat is probably not going to make your list. As I said before, for me this is a ride that I do when it is convenient and the weather is nice. If I don’t get to it on every Disney vacation, I’m o.k. with that.
This is a ride I would love to hear your feedback on. Maybe you have been before, but it has been a long time. Or, maybe this is a ride your family never misses because it has become one of your Disney family traditions. Or, maybe this is your favorite ride and I have severely offended you by saying it is o.k. to miss. Whatever the case, send me an e-mail, come over to our Facebook page, or leave a comment below.
Thank you so much for joining me today! I hope this post has helped you decide if you want to add the Liberty Square Riverboat to your next Disney vacation. Please come back next week as we take the short walk over to the Hall of Presidents. Until then go make each day a ride worth taking!