“Got a whale of a tale to tell you, lads, a whale of a tale or two
’bout the flappin’ fish and the girls I’ve loved,
On nights like this with the moon above,
A whale of a tale, and it’s so true, I swear by my tattoo” – Kirk Douglas (as Ned Land)
Calling all seafarers! We’ve got an undersea adventure worthy of many a galleon! In today’s installment of Dearly Departed Disney, let’s look beneath the water’s surface, to look at a legendary former attraction created from a literary fiction classic. Join us here as we dive 20,000 leagues deep into the ocean blue, to uncover the curiosities of Captain Nemo and his undersea world.
A Smashing Film Success
Walt Disney was always pushing boundaries when it came to animation and live action filmmaking. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, released on December 23, 1954, was Walt’s most ambitious live-action film to date, adapted from Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.The science fiction adventure film was one of the first features shot in CinemaScope, and was personally produced by Walt Disney himself, through Walt Disney Productions. The film was directed by Richard Fleischer, and starred Kirk Douglas as the happily mischievous Ned Land, James Mason as the mysterious anti-hero Captain Nemo, Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax, and Peter Lorre as Professor Aronnax’s assistant Conseil.
In the film, Professor Aronnax and Conseil board a ship sent to investigate a wave of mysterious sinkings. In the process, they encounter an advanced submarine – the Nautilus – commanded by Captain Nemo. Throughout the film, we learn of Nemo’s peculiar plan for self-sustenance in the deep blue sea, with some assistance from his small colony of supporters. Nemo and his guests encounter a gigantic squid, and ultimately have to fight to survive an attack from warships around a volcanic island.
The film was a critical and commercial success, being famously remembered for the fight with the giant squid, and James Mason’s outstanding performance as the charismatic anti-hero Captain Nemo. It won two Academy Awards, for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects.
Tomorrowland’s 1959 Expansion
In 1959 – just a few years after the release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Disneyland completed an ambitious expansion of Tomorrowland. This included the addition of the three new attractions – Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Disneyland Monorail, and Submarine Voyage. Vice President Richard Nixon and his family were on hand on June 6, 1959 to officially witness the opening of the new attractions, which included “commissioning” eight new submarines.
A Curious Choice
Walt Disney was always a genius when it came to cross promotion and the synchronized use of his intellectual properties. In fact, many opening day attractions in Disneyland were themed to Disney films and characters.
Yet despite the seemingly perfect timing of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea being released five years prior to the opening of the Tomorrowland expansion, the Submarine Voyage attraction was not themed to the film. Instead, the 1959 attraction was more generic in its theming, incorporating elements of traditional underwater themes such as shipwrecks, ice caps, and the lost continent of Atlantis.
Walt Disney may not have themed his Submarine Voyage attraction after 20,000 Leagues, but he did pay homage to the film with a display exhibit staged in Tomorrowland from August 1955 to August 1966. The display included sets from the film, accompanied by music and narration. What was meant to be a stopgap attraction proved to be so popular with guests, it lasted eleven years, providing sufficient representation of the film in the park during the height of its popularity.
Fun Fact: The pipe organ used by Captain Nemo in the film, which was displayed in this walkthrough attraction, was later moved over to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction, where it still resides to this day!
Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage
The original concept for the attraction was for a glass-bottom boat ride over the Tomorrowland lagoon. The concept was designed by Disney Legend Richard “Dick” Irvine. Walt felt that giving guests a fully immersive submarine ride would be a much better experience.
As for the actual Submarine Voyage attraction, the eight submarines in Disneyland’s fleet were modeled after the USS Nautilus (a completely different vessel from the fictional one designed by Disney Legend Harper Goff for the film). They were painted in the classic Navy gray. The “underwater” boats floated guests through a lagoon located in Tomorrowland (as well as a large show building hidden behind two waterfalls). The beginning of the tour brought guests through a mysterious cave, where they had a chance to see many undersea creatures.
After a bit of peaceful cruising, the submarine crew received word of a surface storm ahead. This caused the submarine to dive deeper below the surface, through the wreckage of other ships that had not successfully navigated the dangerous waters. The submarine’s dive was simulated through the use of directionally-aimed bubbles and variable lighting, to give guests the illusion that they were in fact descending deeper in the water. The submarine’s sonar detected a polar ice cap ahead, causing the sub to dive even deeper in order to clear the ice. In fact, the submarine traveled directly beneath the North Pole.
After leaving the polar region, the submarine journeyed to even deeper waters, where not even the sunlight could reach. Guests witnessed the strangest of undersea creatures, including a giant squid. Once out of the deep, the submarine encountered mermaids inhabiting the lost continent of Atlantis. After passing through the city, some impressive navigation on the part of the crew was needed to lead the submarine through some volcanic activity…right into the home of a sea serpent! The crew prepared to battle the serpent, when they realized the comical cross-eyed laughing serpent meant no harm whatsoever. After this 20-minute tour, the submarine reached the surface, entered the port for docking, and guests safely and happily disembarked the submarine.
When all three of Disneyland’s new Tomorrowland attractions instantly became legendary in the eyes of Disney theme park fans, it only made good sense to consider putting versions of them in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, which was in conceptual development during the last years of Walt Disney’s life, circa 1966.
Over the next five years, Disney employees worked tirelessly to design and build Magic Kingdom, under the leadership of Walt’s brother Roy O. Disney. Disneyland’s Monorail was improved and expanded as a legitimate mode of transportation around Walt Disney World. The Matterhorn Bobsleds did not directly carry over to Magic Kingdom, though the coaster track layout provided the basis for what would become Space Mountain in 1975. Submarine Voyage was reimagined for Magic Kingdom, as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage, making its debut on October 14, 1971 – about two weeks after the park opened.
A Grand Adventure
The submarines for Magic Kingdom’s attraction got the full thematic treatment. Instead of the basic Navy gray, each of the twelve submarines in the fleet was modeled after the Nautilus from the 1954 film. The style developed by Disney Legend Harper Goff was a fusion of steampunk and futuristic design, evoking a strong sense of excitement from guests’ imaginations.
The lagoon track for Magic Kingdom’s attraction was similar to that of Disneyland, with the attraction beginning in shallow water, then “diving” deeper once the submarines entered the show building behind the waterfall.
To board the vessel, guests descended down a narrow stairway and sat on Victorian-style stools that folded down. Each stool was paired with a porthole through which guests could view the underwater elements.
Captain Nemo narrated the tour (though his voice for the attraction was provided by Peter Renaday, not James Mason, as was the case for the film). Nemo’s words were accompanied by his signature organ music.
Throughout the journey, Nemo described the sights as guests peered out their portholes. Excited guests were able to catch a glimpse of fish, turtles, coral, and even undersea divers. Once the Nautilus passed through the waterfall, they saw shipwrecks and sharks, explored beneath the polar ice cap, and even discovered Atlantis. As you can see, the storyline was still very similar to Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage.
As the tour approached its climax, guests met mermaids and a sea serpent, before finally coming face to face with the anticipated giant squid. The Nautilus barely escaped the clutches of the squid before pulling fell and fleeing to the surface for safety.
The Last Voyage
20,000 Leagues operated in Magic Kingdom for almost 23 years, closing on September 5, 1994. The attraction was expensive to operate, and the underwater nature of the equipment necessitated a constant need for maintenance and repairs. It was also a low-capacity attraction. The full submarine loading process was unable to shuttle guests in and out at the same frequency as other popular attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean or Haunted Mansion.
Where’s the Lagoon?
For a while, the lagoon remained in place after 20,000 Leagues closed. A portion of the lagoon was rethemed to The Little Mermaid, and served as a meet-and-greet with Ariel the mermaid. Ariel’s father, King Triton, resided in the water nearby.
In 2004, after ten years without swimming submarines, the lagoon was filled in. Ariel still met guests in her grotto, but King Triton and his watery neighborhood were now high and dry. Pooh’s Playful Spot, a playground for small children, opened in a portion of the former lagoon space, nearby to where The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction had opened in 1999. Pooh’s Playful Spot closed in 2010, in preparation for Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland expansion. But Pooh’s tree survived, moved just outside his attraction.
Ariel got the boot in 2010, when her grotto was removed in preparation for the New Fantasyland expansion. Ariel returned for meet-and-greets adjacent to her attraction, Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid, when it opened in 2012.
The space that the lagoon once occupied is now filled by a combination of New Fantasyland attractions, including Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid, Be Our Guest restaurant, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Where to Ride a Submarine Now?
You may no longer be able to ride a submarine in Magic Kingdom, but the subs are still swimming in Disneyland. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage replaced the original Submarine Voyage attraction in 2007, and it still operates today.
Overseas, guests can ride a version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Tokyo DisneySea. Disneyland Paris harkens back to the Disneyland display of the film, offering a walk-through of the Nautilus submarine – complete with a giant squid encounter!
Nods to a Legend
For fans of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, there are many places where you can find references to the attraction.
Small guests who can squeeze into Pooh’s tree will find a carving of the Nautilus notched above a doorway inside the tree.
The Little Mermaid section of New Fantasyland hosts a couple tributes to Nemo’s attraction. A sign mounted above the Disney Vacation Club kiosk next to Prince Eric’s Village Market states H. Goff Cartography. This is a reference to Harper Goff, who designed the Nautilus submarine for the film. The steampunk design of the Mickey head above the sign evokes the style of the Nautilus.
Keep looking up. Atop the Prince Eric’s Village Market roof rests a weathervane…in the shape of the famous giant squid!
If you are riding Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid, look across the small pool lagoon while in the outdoor portion of the queue line. A hidden Nautilus submarine is carved into the rock work.
Where are the actual submarines? Well, a slim few of them actually survived the closure. Two of the subs were transported to Castaway Cay – Disney’s private island available to Disney Cruise Line guests. The subs were sunk in the waters around the island for snorkelers to explore. One has since been removed after sustaining damage.
The other remains in the tropical waters. A third submarine was on display in the Hollywood Studios Backlot Tour, until it closed in 2014 to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The current location of this submarine is unknown.
A Whale of a Tale
The film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was arguably Walt Disney’s second greatest creation of the 1950s, with the first clearly being Disneyland. The film persisted in Disney parks for decades – first in Disneyland, then in Walt Disney World, and even now in the international Disney parks. A well done classic stands the test of time well, and 20,000 Leagues had an admirable run in the Disney parks.
Thanks for riding, and please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
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