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!
You can read past columns of The 626 by clicking here!
Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.
Jeff also writes another column called From The Mouth Of The Mouse. We invite you to check it out.
Jeff co-hosts the weekly VidCast Communicore Weekly as well!
Also, we are trying to raise $2500 for the American Red Cross to help with their Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief. Please consider helping out! Read more about our goal at: