A Mississippi steamboat was included in the plans for the first Disney theme park that was to be built across the street from his Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Although this park was abandoned in favor of the much larger Disneyland, the plan for having a riverboat attraction was retained.
Because Mark Twain was the first functional paddlewheeler built in the United States for fifty years, the WED designers conducted extensive research to build it like riverboats were built in the heyday of steam powered ships. The decks were assembled at the Disney Studios in Burbank, California, while the 105-foot hull was constructed at Todd Shipyards in San Pedro, California (where the Sailing Ship Columbia'shull was built years later). Fortunately, when the hull and decks were put together for the first time at Disneyland, they fit perfectly.
Joe Fowler, Disneyland's construction supervisor and a former navy admiral, insisted on creating a drydock for the ship along what was to be the Rivers of America. Walt Disney, dismayed at how much land was taken up by the massive excavation, referred to the drydock first as "Joe's Ditch" and then later "Fowler's Harbor", the name by which it goes by today. However, Disney remained a supporter of the riverboat itself, funding its construction out of his own pocket when corporate funds fell short.
On the first "fill-the-river" day, the water that was pumped in to the Rivers of America soaked through the riverbed. Fowler quickly found a supply of clay to replace the soil stabilizer used to line the river, and the second "fill-the-river" day was successful.
The Mark Twain had its maiden voyage on July 13, 1955, four days before the park officially opened to public, for a private party celebrating Walt and Lillian Disney's 30th wedding anniversary. Before the party, as Fowler was checking to make sure everything would be ready for the 300 invited guests, he found Lillian Disney sweeping the decks of debris and joined in to help her.
Disneyland's opening day brought further problems for the "Mark Twain". Actress Irene Dunne, star of the movie Showboat, had trouble breaking a bottle of water (from many major American rivers) across the vessel's bow for its christening on Dateline Disney, and also noticed it was listing. During the riverboat's first official voyage, when the crowd moved to one side of the boat to view a passing scene of an Indian encampment or other sight, the boat would list from the side and water poured over the deck, as no one determined the Mark Twain's maximum safe passenger capacity.
This oversite caused the Mark Twain to almost capsize on a voyage a few days later when ride operators continued to wave more than 500 guests on board until the deck neared the water line. As the ship traversed the sparsely vegetated river route, it came loose from its track and got stuck in the muddy banks. Immediately, the park established a maximum capacity of 300 passengers, which still remains in effect today.
After a rough start, the Mark Twain has had a successful 50-year-career as a theme park attraction. During its first few years of operation, passengers could buy a non-alcoholic mint julep aboard (abandoned after guests started tossing empty cups into the river, not to mention several instances of guests urinating over the sides of the ship due to the lack of onboard bathrooms) or listen to card and checker players re-enact dialogue of that era. Occasionally the Disneyland band would play the music on the lower deck bow to entertain both the passengers and the theme park visitors on the river banks.
The Mark Twain underwent a major refurbishment during the spring of 1995, during which all the decks and the boiler were replaced. September 24, 1995 saw the first and only Disney Fantasyland Wedding, to this day, to be held on an attraction, in theme clothing. A local Orange County couple, Kevin and Patricia Sullivan exchanged vows on the bow of the boat as they circled the Rivers of America. The groom's father Ed Sullivan, a 50 year Disney veteran, donned the classic Mark Twain costume for the once in a lifetime ceremony. The couple sealed their vows by pulling the ships steam whistle together. From atop the upper most deck, the couple let loose ropes, unfurling a ship sized "JUST MARRIED" banner across the stern.
When the Rivers of America were drained in 2002, the boat was noted to have considerable hull damage. It underwent a refurbishment in 2004 to repair the hull, which included replacing the keel. For the park's 50th anniversary celebration in 2005, a new, more colorful paint job was applied to the durable riverboat. To celebrate the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, the riverboat has been used as a stage for a show that will be based on the movie.
The Mark Twain riverboat burns diesel fuel, which continuously heats water into steam, which is then routed to two pistons that turn the paddlewheel. Spent exhaust is then routed back to the boiler.
The riverboat is guided through the Rivers of America via an I-beam track, which is hidden under the green and brown dyed river water.
The boat drafts only 18 inches of water, for the river is relatively shallow. At its deepest point it is no more than 8 feet near the switch at Fowler's Harbor, where it resides when not in operation.
The boat uses clean, fresh water from a tank on board to prevent contaminants from the water in Rivers of America from fouling the boiler.
The previous name for the Liberty Belle Riverboat in the Magic Kingdom was Richard F. Irvine, until it was renamed in 1996. Mr. Irvine was the former vice president and director of design for Walter Elias Disney Company, later called WDI. Disney felt the new name would better represent the boat's ties to Liberty Square.
If you ask a cast member as you board the boat, they will let you ride in the wheelhouse. Here, there is a log book where you can sign your name and where you are from, and you are in charge of the boat's whistle and bell.