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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: The Discovery River Boats at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

Things at Walt Disney World sometimes disappear quickly like Here Come the Muppets at Disney’s MGM Studios, the Astuter Computer Revue at Epcot and The Journey Into the Jungle Book live action show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, all of which lasted just a year.

Also at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the infamous Discovery River Boats that was an opening day attraction in April 1998 were gone by August 1999 making it officially the first DAK attraction to close.

The Discovery River Boats was originally intended to be a much more ambitious experience, with previews of the planned-to-be-upcoming Beastly Kingdom along its watery journey, including encounters with a unicorn, a kraken that would attack the boat (only one boat was fitted with the necessary mechanics for that experience), and the head of a fire-breathing dragon inspired by the one at Disneyland Paris.

Remnants from that concept that were seen on the final version included a statue of a twelve foot tall white unicorn rearing up on its two rear legs, and the infamous Dragon Rocks, a structure of rocks that looked vaguely like a dragon streaming water out of its mouth. Located a little further north of the old Camp Minnie-Mickey bridge was a large area of volcanic rocks on the left bank of the river that looked like a cave entrance.

As the boat approached, smoke billowed from the cave, thunderous roars were heard, and massive flames shot out from inside the cave suggesting it was the lair of a dragon. Sensors along the bank triggered by the boat enabled those show effects.

Budget cuts resulted in the ride becoming more of just a one-way transportation system between the dock at Safari Village near Dinoland U.S.A. and the Upcountry Landings dock in Asia. The trip took approximately seven to ten minutes and was similar to the Friendships at the World Showcase Lagoon, a leisurely cruise that was an alternative to, but took longer than just walking.

Since there was a skipper telling bad jokes and sharing information about the park, guests expected it would be something more like the Jungle Cruise, especially since the boats looked similar in design. Guests were very disappointed that it wasn’t such an experience, especially when long boarding lines originally resulted because of the misunderstanding.

There were seven boats that were named Manatee Maiden, Leaping Lizard, Scarlet Flamingo, Otter Nonsense, Hasty Hippo, Crocodile Belle, and Darting Dragonfly.

Jack Plettinck was in charge of taking the shiny new boats from a manufacturer in Seattle and making them seem well-worn. It had to seem that they had survived dings and dents from moorings, docks, submerged logs and angry animals. He even applied acrylic rust to add to the illusion.

Guests did see a few things on the voyage around the Tree of Life, including a series of hot springs geysers along the shores of Africa, animal water sculptures at the Discovery Lagoon, and a large audio-animatronics Iguanodon playing in the water near DinoLand U.S.A. that foreshadowed the Countodwn to Extinction attraction where that dinosaur plays a key role in the story.

The Iguanodon animatronic was later stripped of its skin and sent to Walt Disney Studios Park at Disneyland Paris as a prop in the boneyard of the Studio Tram Tour. The unicorn statue was sold to a private collector.

The attraction was renamed in November 1998 to the Discovery River Taxi to emphasize it was just transportation. Animal handlers with small animals who answered questions were added on the boat as part of the park’s animal education initiative but it did not prove to be a guest satisfier.

In March 1999, the attraction was once again renamed and was called Radio Disney River Cruise playing commentary from Radio Disney disc jockeys Just Plain Mark and Zippy with music that the guests were told was being broadcast from the top of the Tree of Life. It wasn’t.

When the attraction finally closed, the boats were stored in a backstage marina and the docks used occasionally for character meet-and-greet opportunities or additional seating. Two of the boats were later relocated to Magic Kingdom’s Contemporary Resort where they were re-purposed for a Pirates & Pals fireworks voyage on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest, Disney Never Lands, and about planned but unbuilt concepts, and Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, all published by Theme Park Press.


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