The opening of Disneyland, California and the release of Walt Disney Pictures feature film version of Jules Verne’s literary classic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” occurred less than a year apart. Firmly gripping the coattails of the film’s success, Disneyland established a temporary walk through attraction featuring props from the film including Captain Nemo’s pipe organ (now a fixture in the Disneyland Haunted Mansion) and the giant squid! A few years later in 1959 Disneyland opened a permanent attraction called “Submarine Voyages” which allowed patrons to take an eight minute ride “across the globe” including visits to the polar ice caps and the lost city of Atlantis. This ride proved extremely popular with tourists who welcomed the opportunity to ride in a “nuclear” submarine even if it did just circle a man made lagoon!
The popularity of the “Submarine Voyages” ride was not lost on the designers of a new Disney theme park, Walt Disney World in Florida, some ten years later. At this point Disney decided to take the ride one step further and tie it forever to one of their best-loved live action motion pictures, which coincidently saw one of its many theatrical re-releases the same year the park and ride opened. The addition of a large dash of nostalgia into the proven mixture brought out the best the ride had to offer and added an even greater element of fantasy.
While the guts of the new Walt Disney World “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride were almost identical to the “Submarine Voyages” at Disneyland, the design would be completely different. Gone were cold war era military gray submarines in favor of the teal hued sea monster that was the Disney “Nautilus”! The new submarines, designed by George McGinnis, had to be assembled at the Tampa shipyards and hauled into South Orlando on huge flat bed trucks. The submarines were then fitted onto tracks in an 11.5 million gallon lagoon surrounded by jagged rocks that looked like they had been pushed up through the Earth by a volcano just like on Captain Nemo’s beloved isle of Vulcania.
The majority of the interior decorations for the lagoon were carried over from the existing ones at Disney Land. This accounts for the cross-eyed sea serpent that most passengers either loved or hated but no one forgot! The one notable addition to the “undersea” sites was the giant squid attacking another Nautilus (one of the sister ships in the fleet, guests were told)! The other major addition was the voice of Captain Nemo (sounding amazingly like none other than James Mason from the movie but revealed years later to be an actor impersonating him) guiding passengers on their voyage. The final amalgamation of imaginative technology and well-suited fantasy resulted in a unique experience that visitors to the Magic Kingdom were guaranteed not to forget.
When Walt Disney World opened it’s doors to tourist for the first time in October of 1971, the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride was one of it’s flagships and one of only eight original “E” ticket rides (for those too young to remember, guests at Walt Disney World were originally given ticket booklets with their admission. These tickets determined how many times a guest could go on a ride in any one of five lettered categories. For many years, “E” ticket status was the highest honor the Disney theme parks had to offer and other notable “E” attractions included the “Haunted Mansion” and “Space Mountain”.). As guests stood in line at the loading pier for their turn on the ride, they could stare into the almost too blue waters of the lagoon and dream about what mysteries must lie below. Once they boarded one of the fourteen submarines (when Walt Disney World opened in 1971, the combined total of twenty seven submarines between this park and Disneyland gave Uncle Walt the fifth largest submarine fleet in the world) they became a part of both a literary classic and a Walt Disney film masterpiece. Even if these submarines never really submerged, the water was never deeper than twelve feet, and the fish were all plastic (the high chlorine content in the water needed to kill the algae would kill anything else too), it was the illusion that mattered.
Needless to say, the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride was an instant and sustained hit with guests at the Magic Kingdom. As a child during the fledgling years of Walt Disney World, this was my favorite ride to go on and nothing else came close. Sure the “Haunted Mansion” was fun, the “Jungle Cruise” was exciting and “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” was amusing but remember, this was a time when the Mountain rides (Space, Splash, and Big Thunder) and even the “Pirates of the Caribbean” were still just gleams in Uncle Walt’s eye. Even as a young child I realized that I could look up at the top of the water and see the feet of ducks swimming on the surface, but as soon as I stared straight out the porthole again I was thousands of miles below the ocean’s waves about to be attacked at any minute by a giant squid!
The 20K ride was also able to stand the test of time. It started out on the cutting edge of theme park thrills and, even after twenty years, was still in the upper tier. It wasn’t a roller coaster like “Space Mountain” or a motion simulator like “Back to the Future” but it was eight minutes of pure colorful fantasy in a setting that was easy to buy into. The guests never stopped coming and the only complaints the ride ever received was when it was closed for repairs (WDW was never very good about letting guests know which rides were closed for repairs since the only way to find out for sure was to go there, pay to park, and walk to the front ticket office). I remember the Kingdom being a little less magic any time I would visit and the 20K ride was down. Fortunately for me it was usually open and I got to ride it many times during my twenty or so visits to Walt Disney World (living in Florida has it perks folks) growing up.
The ride was not without its difficulties but few things worth having ever are. It was one of, if not the most, difficult rides in the entire park to keep maintained. At least two of the fourteen submarines were perpetually being worked on at any given time. Over its twenty-three year run, the ride had to be shut down every three years and completely overhauled. The lagoon was drained and cleaned, the animatronics repaired, and the scenery repainted to mask the damage of the highly chlorinated water and harsh Florida sun. The diesel-powered submarines were then dry docked and repaired in a process that took six weeks to complete.
The real reason for the ride’s closure had more to do with apathy than safety, access, or even finance. For years the operations staff and maintenance crews had hated the 20K ride because of its continual need for repairs and upkeep. In 1994, when Disney CEO Michael Eisner issued a memo calling for budget cuts and improved profits in the theme parks, they saw their chance. By closing down the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride once and for all, they could not only make the company happier with the bottom line but also save themselves some labor in the bargain.
When the 20K ride was “closed for repair” in 1994, rumors weren’t the only thing that started to fly. Walt Disney World and the Disney parent corporation in California were literally swamped with letters, phone calls, and E-mails wanting to know why the ride was closed and, better yet, when it would be back. Some were just pleasant inquires of curiosity while others were threats of lost revenue and canceled vacations if the ride was not reopened. The longer the ride was closed the greater and less tolerant the number of complaints became, so much so that in the early part of 1995, then Disney President Michael Ovitz decided it was time for a “routine inspection” of Walt Disney World including a status check on the “20,000 Leagues” ride.
During the course of his inspection, Ovitz inquired about the 20K ride and was given the, by now, familiar spiel of excuses concerning its safety hazards and physical condition by the same staff that had just gone out of their way to shut it down. Nevertheless, he insisted on personally touring the ride before passing judgment on the viability of its continuation in the park. The ride that was arranged for Mr. Ovitz the following morning has become such a legend among the Walt Disney World staff that it is still to this day referred to as “The Day We Slipped Michael Ovitz a Mickey”.
The final voyage of the Walt Disney World Nautilus was a calculated plot of theatrics designed to give Michael Ovitz the impression that not only was the “20,000 Leagues” ride unsafe but that it was fortunate no one had been killed on it up to this point! He was taken for an orchestrated voyage of bumps, grinds, misfires, and malfunctions on the worst operating sub the operations staff could find. Just to be on the safe side they “decorated” the sub immediately prior to the ride by throwing buckets of water inside until the interior was sufficiently dampened and an inch or so stood on the floor. By the time Michael Ovitz had completed his ride, he had been thoroughly convinced that the attraction was not only dangerous but beyond salvation.
So there you have it, one of the most popular rides in Walt Disney World history was ruined by one small group of people tired of doing their jobs and a corporate office that didn’t care enough to look any further than the perceived obvious. Perhaps the ride really was uneconomical to keep repaired (the “Submarine Voyage” at Disneyland would meet a similar fate four years later in the Fall of 1998) but after a successful run of over twenty years couldn’t it have been renovated or updated? My major complaint with Disney is not that they saw fit to close the 20K ride, but the manner in which they did it. It was clear all along that the public loved this ride and wanted it open badly enough to call, write, and E-mail. The very least the fans deserved was a straight story about what was going on, an explanation for why this was being done, and maybe, just maybe, a final voyage to call their own. Obviously the real estate the ride utilized was not in demand because it sat unused for almost ten years following the closure. The Disney company may have been worried about the bottom line but one more round of repairs would most likely have bought them twelve months of record attendances had they marketed it as the final year of the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride.
The real problem here lies in the fact that the money machine that is Disney cares nothing about nostalgia, no matter how much they would like you to believe otherwise. The ride subs could have easily been put on display in areas like the MGM studios “bone yard” or sold off to collectors. Even child proofing them and donating them to orphanage playgrounds seems a far better use than burying them in a landfill. Unfortunately, once an attraction is marked for closure, Disney would much rather the public just forget that it ever existed than remember it fondly or, Heaven forbid, call for its return. Nowhere is this more evident than with the “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” ride. When Disney released an excellent two DVD set of the feature film in March 2004, it included commentaries, rare footage, and documentaries on everything from the memorabilia surrounding the movie to the study of the real Humboldt squid. Conspicuously absent from these exhaustive extras was any mention that the film had inspired a theme ride in Florida that had lasted over twenty years and entertained millions of visitors.
"Ladies and gentlemen, in just a few moments we will be docking at Vulcania, our home port. It has been a pleasure having you aboard the Nautilus, on this memorable voyage that has taken us 20,000 leagues under the sea. Captain to bridge. Reduce speed and proceed to number four berth. Stand by to dock."
- Captain Nemo’s final words from the Walt Disney World “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” Ride. 1971-1994.
Other special features by ED Tucker: Interviews by ED Tucker:
• False Memories of G.I. Joe (2003)
• Monster Memories (2002)
• Velveeta Las Vegas: The Ted Mikels Interview (2004)
• The Lost Interview of Dr. Paul Bearer (2002)
"20,000 Leagues Into The Toilet" is ©2004 by ED Tucker. All photographs appear courtesy of the author. All contents of Crazed Fanboy dotcom and Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova
Interviews by ED Tucker: