20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney, Disney History, Features, The 626, Walt Disney World

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Published on February 03, 2013 at 4:03 am with 20 Comments

One of the best attractions ever created for the Disney theme parks, at least in my opinion, was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Debuting slightly after Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom first opened its doors in Oct 1971, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was an E-Ticket attraction in Fantasyland that is sorely missed by Disney fans everywhere today. Based on the film of the same name, guests boarded Captain Nemo’s submarine and traveled under the sea through coral reefs, dark caverns, and right into the clutches of a deadly squid below the ice caps.

The Submarine Voyage, over at Disneyland, was so popular that it was decided to replicate it for the new East Coast theme park. But when WED artists assigned to the project first started hashing it out, they added a new facet: guests would travel inside replicas of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, making the ride a better fit for its home in Fantasyland.

The ride had twelve 38 passenger (or 39 if you count the Cast Member running it) subs, which were distinguished by their Roman numeral markings on the outside. As an interesting aside, the submarine you see being attacked by a giant squid at the end of the ride bore unlucky number 13 on its side.

The subs were built in a shipyard in nearby Tampa, and then brought over on flatbed trucks to Walt Disney World. In fact, when the ride was open, the combined 24 subs that operated at Walt Disney World and at Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage gave the Walt Disney Company the 5th largest naval fleet in the world!

Above the water, the subs were strikingly similar to the Harper Goff-designed Nautilus from the film. At 61 feet in length, they were 1/3 scale replicas of the full-size version. Below the surface, they were significantly less detailed, with both sides of the hull lined by 20 small portholes for guests to see out of during their journey. To the front and rear of those small portholes was a floodlight for illuminating scenery in the ride’s open lagoon at night. The submarines were equipped with drive wheel mechanisms that would ride atop an inverted-V elevated track, as opposed to a recessed trough like the Jungle Cruise uses.

The sets were assembled on site with hundreds of scenic pieces made at Disney’s MAPO division in California and at Florida’s Staff Shop. Nearly everything was produced in duplicate form so riders on both sides of the submarine would see the exact same scenery at the exact same time while inside the massive show building. A series of catwalks and bridges in the show building permitted work crews access to the mechanisms that would animate most of the ride’s effects.

The huge water tank held 11.5 million gallons of water, and it took up 25% of the real estate in Fanastyland. That’s a big chunk of property! The ride also shared some animatronics with its California Submarine counterpart, borrowing some mermaids and sea creatures to make their East Coast Debut.

As mentioned earlier, the attraction didn’t open with the rest of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. There were a lot of problems with the lagoon’s ability to hold water that delayed the ride’s debut. On October 14, however, guests began pouring into Nemo’s subs by the thousands, ready to embark on a trip unlike any they’d experienced before.

Sadly, the ride closed in 1994, exactly 23 years to the DAY after it opened. It was the only E-Ticket to ever be removed from the Park. There were many reasons given for its closure, despite how incredibly popular the ride still was. Constant ride breakdowns, loading difficulties (the subs were not handicapped-accessible), long lines, and the difficulty and high costs of maintenance (including keeping 11.5 million gallons of water clear enough for guests to see through) were among them.

For some time after the attraction had closed, the subs remained “docked” in the lagoon, leaving a glimmer of hope that the ride would be refurbished and reopened. However, the subs were soon removed and the lagoon drained. The subs made off for parts unknown. One used to be located on Disney Hollywood’s Backlot Tour. Two of the subs were brought to Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, for exploration by Disney Cruise Line passengers. Pieces of them were even sold at some of the Art of Disney stores on property as late as 2005.

Though the ride is gone, guests can still experience the Nautilus for themselves over at Disneyland Paris, at The Mysteries of the Nauitilus walk through attraction. There is even a Five Legged Goat of the ride in the queue of the new Under The Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid ride in New Fantasyland.

Despite being gone, the ride itself will live forever in the hearts and minds of Disney fans everywhere.

Do you miss the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea at Walt Disney World?

by Jeff Heimbuch

If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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Comments for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are now closed.

  1. That was a cool Ride! I remember the squid crushing the hull and its electrocution making for some cool drama that could be used in Disneyland’s version today. The rush of just seeing the lagoon filled with subs was lacking on my last WDW trip.

  2. [...] post 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea appeared first on [...]

  3. That last photo represents the three great losses of the Magic Kingdom: the subs, the sky ride, and Mr. Toad.

  4. Jeff, great article. I’ll bite–what’s the Five Legged Goat you mention in the Little Mermaid queue? Being a West Coaster, it’ll be a while for me to get back to WDW, but this’ll gnaw at me if I don’t get at least a clue.

    • Just before you go to the inside part of the queue, there’s a waterfall to your right and a pool of water to your left. In the pool on the left, near the waterline, there’s a “hidden Nautilus” carved into the rocks. It’s tricky to find, but when you see it, it’s really cool. There’s also a “hidden Steamboat Willie” near the exit of the ride.

  5. The loss of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the Magic Kingdom was a massive one to me. As a boy I read many of Jules Verne’s novels, so when I finally got to go to WDW as a teenager, it was the single most anticipated ride in the park for me. Sure, I was looking forward to Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion too, but I lived in So Cal as a kid and had been to the Disneyland versions many times by that point… Taking a voyage in the Nautilus? THAT was going to be an experience! When I finally got to see those subs silently cruising around the lagoon in REAL metal and not some cellulose projection I was totally enthralled. One thing modern park management seems to have forgotten in large part is how important moving things out in the open air are to generating excitement in the park.

    The queue was wonderfully realized and the patina on everything was spot on. The ride itself was just different enough, and borrowed enough elements that referred to events in the book, that it really brought the story to life. The interior of the subs themselves were suitably rivety and Victorian. I don’t think that SteamPunk had been coined yet as this was about ’79 but just stepping down into the Nautilus was like immersing yourself in another time where things that never happened, really could have.

    The loss of 20K at MK was much more that just the loss of another watery attraction, it was the loss of the understanding of what makes an immersive attraction tick. It took many years of false steps with the various redos of Tomorrowlands until the parks finally got back on track with the recent CarsLand at DCA. Lets hope the lessons have been relearned and no other brilliant experiences need to be lost to the bean counters, because as we’ve seen, spending the right amount of money on the right attraction will bring in more guests than a whole park full of half-hearted money saving attempts.

    • Well written, Atomobile! Yes, this ambitious attraction was a pain in the butt to maintain, but Disney did it anyway and it was one of those attractions (like the Horseshoe Revues and the Haunted Mansions) that made a Disney park worth crossing the country to visit.

  6. How did the Magic Kingdom sub ride differ from the original Disneyland sub ride other than the obvious difference in the sub appearance? From the photos it looks like the giant squid attacks were different as the Disneyland squid was attacking a killer whale.

  7. Thanks for an EXCELLENT article, Jeff!

    I worked on Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage during the summer of ’83 when I was 18. Those fumes may have taken a couple of weeks off of my life, but it was worth it.

  8. Rode 20K Leagues in 1976. Greatest effect of all was seeing those subs slowly cruising in the lagoon at NIGHT, with their green “eyeballs” on each side of the conning tower glowing ominously. Utterly awesome. Does anyone else recall how cool that was?

    As another poster observed, that one photo with the subs, Skyway and Toad (may they rest in peace) demonstrates what WDW once was and what it has become today. Yeah, take out these types of attractions that justified a vacation to Disney World, and replace them with Princesses or some such horse s**t meet and greet. Or replace animatronics with projections. I call foul. . Color me completely disenchanted.

  9. George McGinnis did a GREAT job taking Harper Goff’s Nautilus and turning it into real Captain Nemo ride vehicle for all us kids and young at heart. Tony Baxter also showed his early talents while working on it’s installation in Florida’s new park. I only wish he could have done what he wanted on the Disneyland Submarine ride before Nemo came along.

  10. I had a chance to ride 20K when I was a kid, but I was all, “Nah, the line’s too long, and how good can it really be, anyway?” By the time I got back to WDW, it was gone, and the Internet was around to show me just what I had missed out on. If they ever invent a time machine, it’s one mistake I’ll be sure to go back and correct!

  11. My dad LOVED the 20k ride. He always wanted to go on it when we visited WDW and is sad it’s gone now.

  12. Great Article George

    It is amazing how this ride was detailed, and that there has been nothing similar at the Magic Kingdom today. However, it is very expensive, as the water has to be kep clean and to repair the attraction and have major refurbishmentgs, all of the water has to be drained to allow the work to be undertaken. Then, it had to be filed again before reopening.

    At least this form of attraction is still at Disneyland CA, but it is unsure how long it will last. There are rumours that the ride will close when the major Tomorrowland project gets the green light.

    Thanks Again George


    • Sorry, Thanks Jeff for a great Article, there relly are insightful

  13. I remember this ride always had huge lines when I was a kid. It was extremely popular and didn’t have a very high capacity, so it would have some of the longest waits in the park. I only ever rode it at night when the crowds were lighter and you didn’t have to stand out in the open queue with the sun bearing down on you for close to 2 hours, and until now never gave much thought to how different the exterior portions might have been during the day.

    I remember seeing somewhere that Disney wanted the subs at Disneyland to look like the ones from the movie but the government was paying for part of the ride and they wanted them to look like their subs.

    Another tribute to the ride in the new Little Mermaid attraction is that the 20,000 Leagues queue music “Whale of a Tale” plays as part of the exterior queue music for the new attraction.

    • Oh and there’s also a rumor about a great deal of sabotage going into the closing of this ride. Word on the street is some mid level suit left the thing to rot and didn’t repair issues that he knew about so the ride would be in absolutely horrible condition when the higher level suits did a ride through to see if the attraction was worth keeping. The mid level suit then cried about how he was doing the best he could to keep the ride running but it was just so old, leaky, and expensive to upkeep that this was the best he could do.

      • It was actually more specific than that. The story I remember (maybe it was from JimHillMedia.com) was that Senior Ops Managers at WDW staged this for Michael Ovitz when he was Pres. of the Company after 20k had been closed for a couple of years. Supposedly they took him into the most mildewed sub and played up the low capacity and the high maintenance (of a long-neglected, closed attraction) and it was a “done deal”. Lost in the story was its great popularity and iconic association since opening with the Magic Kingdom.

  14. Makes me miss the really great WDW of Yesteryear. Last time we went 2 years ago I really was feeling like the park is giving up. I know meet and greets are cheaper to maintain, but with Universal building more rides, MK better start rethinking what they have in their future plans.

  15. Last November, WDW Radio covered 20K Leagues as well. In addition to the sad end to this incredible ride, there were some equally incredible abandoned ideas for resuscitating the attraction.