Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Disneyland Musings - Volume 3 - Nights In The Wheelhouse

[Thanks to John Perry for his clear scan above].

The Mark Twain costume consisted of a crisp white shirt, a red string tie, a navy vest, navy pants, and a captain's cap. On cold evenings in the fall, a wool pea coat rounded out the costume. Up in the wheelhouse, I would wave down to the guests on the Frontier Landing. As we got under way, we would let a family come up and join me. I would let their child (or children) have a crack at "steering" the vessel with the large wooden wheel. They would be permitted to tug at the steam whistle as we rounded the New Orleans bend and then they would pull on the bell rope. Such simple events were universally (and deeply) enjoyed by both the kids and their parents. It made my job enjoyable (as if it weren't already). At the end of the trip, I'd pull out a "Pilot's Certificate" from the desk in the wheelhouse and fill it out for my most recent "assistant." This little "plus" made the attraction all the more special for those few guests who had the opportunity to come up and steer for a while. Here is a nice photo essay on the view from the wheelhouse.

On a slow night, we would pick up a small group of passengers and steam gently down the Rivers of America. Our proud sternwheeler was sparkling with lights along its decks. The water was dark and still and reflected our brightness in swirling, sparkling waves that fanned out from our bow. I would listen to the narration and dutifully sound our whistle and bells (one short blast and one long one as we got under way, with a round of bells following). Upon our return I would blast the whistle and ring the bells as we neared Cascade Peak. Then it was down the stairs to the main deck where I would help our guests disembark.

During those magical night trips around the river, there were some wonderful quiet moments, especially as we floated by the Hungry Bear restaurant and into the "wilderness." We would wave at the passengers on the Disneyland Railroad as their train clicked by along the river's edge. Our lighted decks illuminated the trees and fauna along the banks. There was the old Chief raising his hand slowly in solemn greeting atop his fine horse. The warm glow of the flames from the settler's cabin appeared on our starboard side and the wheelhouse filled with orange and yellow. For a few moments out there in the back country, you were immersed in the experience. You really were on some American river, on a sternwheeler, seeing Indians and wildlife on your way to a river port with a load of cotton. You heard the steam churning the pistons that powered our massive propulsion wheel. You heard the water splashing behind us and saw the reeds of the shoreline slipping past. On all decks, no matter where you were, you felt it. It was real. If only for a time.

In the summer, we would stop our vessel out here in the back country. It was dark and wonderful. Above the trees to the port side, the sky would erupt in explosions of color and sound as the Fantasy In The Sky fireworks show began. The Fireworks Cruise was one of those Disneyland "secrets" that even seasoned cast members relished. I always hoped that my place in the rotation would have me piloting the Mark Twain for the Fireworks Cruise during my shift. As I think of it now, there was no better spot in all the world to view the fireworks. We were stopped and we shut off our lights. The trees in that area of the river were tall, established and kept things nice and dark. Consequently, the bursts of fireworks above the tree tops were all the more brilliant. Most of our passengers were in the know, but the few who weren't were instantly amazed and pleasantly surprised when they learned why the ship suddenly stopped and went dark. No, were weren't "101." We were providing a special "plus" to our guests.

After Fantasmic arrived on the scene, the Fireworks Cruise ceased to be. Indeed, nightly cruises were almost completely a thing of the past. This lessened the magic of the river. New Orleans at night without the Mark Twain rolling into view, with its decks ablaze in lights, is missing something. The throngs massed along the river's edge for the nightly Fantasmic showing don't know what they're missing. For those of us fortunate enough to have made one or two Fireworks Cruises on the Mark Twain in our day, the memories are sweet.