The ride's concept dates back to Walt Disney's plans for a small park across the street from his Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. This modestly scaled, never-built amusement park was to include a gravity flow canal boat ride among its attractions.
When plans for the much grander Disneyland were being made, there was to be a "Lilliputianland", inspired by Madurodam, a miniature city in the Netherlands that Disney once visited. However, the technology did not yet exist for creating the miniature animated figures that were to inhabit the "Lilliputian" village, so the canal ride opened under the name Canal Boats of the World. It was intended to be a journey past miniature recreations of the great landmarks of the world, but time and money prevented its completion. The ride was plagued by other problems. The outboard motors were prone to overheating, often forcing the boats to be pulled by hand, and because the attraction opened with little landscaping, it earned the nickname among park executives as "The Mud Bank Ride".
After only two months of operation, the Canal Boats closed on September 16, 1955 while Storybook Land was constructed and the muddy banks were landscaped with miniature plants, including a bonsai tree planted by Walt Disney himself. The idea of having Monstro the whale consume the canal boats came from a never-implemented concept for a "Monstro the Whale" ride, in which small boats were to be swallowed by Monstro and hurtled down a watery path into a pond below.
The attraction was re-opened on June 16, 1956 under the new name Storybook Land Canal Boats. Over the years there have been many scenes added and removed from the attraction. Most notably, the Sultan’s Palace from Aladdin appeared where the miniature Toad Hall had previously stood for a major refurbishment done in 1994. However, Toad Hall returned the following year in another location.
For the theme park's 50th Anniversary, the Tinkerbell boat was painted gold and the lighthouse given a gold and maroon theme.
Passengers enter the attraction through a chain queue that winds in front of the loading dock past. A lighthouse at the queue's entrance was once a ticket booth from when Disneyland required tickets for riding individual attractions. Storybook Land canal boats originally required a "D" coupon.
The motor-driven boats are scaled-down replicas of Dutch, English, and French boats. All of the boats are named after female Disney characters except for Flower, the male skunk from Bambi. Passengers are seated along the edges of the boat, facing inward, although children are sometimes permitted to ride on the front flat part of the boat. A costumed guide sits just above the passengers on the back of the boat, perched above the engine housing, and narrates the ride.
After departing from the dock, the boat passes through a short cave sculpted to look like Monstro, the whale that swallowed Pinocchio. Monstro is partially animated: his eye opens and closes, and periodically steam comes out of his blow hole.
The canals past the Monstro cave are landscaped with miniature trees and shrubs. Along the banks are small buildings representing the homes of characters from Disney animated films, although not all the locations were actually depicted in film. Many of these settings feature sound recordings of characters singing or working.
The miniature settings include:
The boat then returns the passengers to the loading dock from which they boarded.
Because its entrance is located along the parks' parade route, the attraction closes approximately sixty minutes before any parades and reopens after the parade has passed. During all fireworks displays, the boats stop on the canal until the show ends.
Unlike the original in California, a guide does not accompany the riders. The boats here are guided by an underwater wire rather than being propelled by an on-board motor. Passengers enter their boats via a slowly revolving platform. The Cave of Wonders from Aladdin midway through the voyage replaces the Disneyland version's Monstro cave. The boats also float past these settings, accompanied by music from the respective film and minimal dialogue:
The canal contains 465,000 gallons of water, which flows via underground pipes to the moat around Sleeping Beauty Castle, the Jungle Cruise and to the Rivers of America, where it is pumped back to Storybook Land.
The attraction's 13 boats are powered by outboard motors. When not in use, they are stored in a boathouse hidden behind the waterfall containing Triton's Castle.
The houses in Storybook Land are fitted with six-inch doors and quarter-inch hinges that open and close, so the Disneyland electricians can change the lightbulbs.