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Walt Disney World Abandoned One of its Most Popular Rides. This is Why.

“This is Captain Nemo speaking. Welcome aboard the Nautilus. We are proceeding on a course that will take us on a voyage 20,000 leagues under the sea.  En route, we will pass beneath the Polar Ice Cap and then probe depths seldom seen by man.”

This year, we’ve spent quite a bit of time in our Lost Legends series, journeying through the revered history of long-gone, fan-favorite attractions – to the cold depths of space in the terrifying Alien Encounter, the whimsical realms of Journey into Imagination, the sleek aerial highways of the PeopleMover, the "inside" story of Epcot's queasy Body Wars, the frigid north of Maelstrom, the distant cities of tomorrow on Horizons, and so many more. All along, we’ve asked for you to record your memories and thoughts, and to tell us which of the forgotten attractions you’d like to read about next.

You spoke loud and clear, and today, we’ll finally explore the cloudless waters of a Magic Kingdom classic: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage. We'll dive into the history of this stunning underwater dark ride, walk through the ride experience, then discuss what happened to the ride and what you'll find in its place today. So, as Captain Nemo would say at each Nautilus launch: “Make yourselves comfortable, but please, remain seated at all times. Prepare to dive!”

The story begins

As always, we have to begin our in-depth look well before 20,000 Leagues carried its first passenger. And in this case, the story begins more than a decade earlier than Magic Kingdom’s opening day, across the continent, and in Tomorrowland.

The Tomorrowland guests encountered when they first stepped into Walt Disney’s park in 1955 left much to be desired… especially to Walt himself. A short construction timeline (Disneyland opened one year after its groundbreaking) and modest financial backing meant that resources were allocated unevenly. Adventureland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland were given priority while the east side of the park – what would be Tomorrowland – was handed a leaner budget. 

Allegedly, the east side of the park fell so far behind that Walt halted construction on Tomorrowland entirely with the intent of opening the rest of Disneyland first, returning to Tomorrowland later as a sort of "phase II." But just a few months before opening, he reversed and the land was hurriedly cobbled together as a land of corporate exhibits and shows of sponsorship. From the start, Walt was unhappy with the land and often spoke of how it was not yet complete. He had ambitious plans for the future, but in the meantime, he had a coup.

First visit to the Nautilus

In 1954 – just a year earlier – Disney had released one of its most ambitious and visually stunning films ever: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Originally an 1870 novel by Jules Verne (author of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, From the Earth to the Moon, and other famous adventure stories), the tale recounts a New York based expedition sent to verify accounts of a mysterious sea monster. What they find instead is the reclusive Captain Nemo (played in the 1954 film by James Mason) aboard an unthinkably advanced submarine called the Nautilus. On board, the adventurers encounter coral reefs, polar ice caps, and – most memorably – an attack by a giant squid.

The film was a massive hit and earned two Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects. Much of the film’s praise was thanks to Harper Goff, one of Walt’s most involved artists who designed the iconic fantasy-future Victorian styling of 20,000 Leagues' Nautilus submarine. His unforgettable submarine design helped credit 20,000 Leagues as an early example of the “steampunk” genre, juxtaposing industrial technology with Victorian style.

So with the opening of Disneyland nearing and Tomorrowland failing to meet Walt’s expectations, Imagineers decided to bring the sets and props from the film to Disneyland and display them as a walkthrough exhibit in Tomorrowland. From the park's very first day of operation, it was home to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Housed in the circular center of the showbuilding currently home to Star Tours, the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit was an A-ticket, costing 10 cents for entry. The exhibit invited guests to see "the final resting place" of the Nautilus and step through its Grand Salon gallery, diving chamber, chart room, wheelhouse, and more. A living, breathing advertisement for the brand new feature film, the exhibit was certainly one of the most detailed and delightful elements of Disneyland when the park opened.

Perhaps the most memorable element of the walkthrough was the chance to see the "open water" through the sub's iconic central 'eye' porthole. But beware: lurking just beyond was a menacing animatronic squid, eager to envelope the sub in its thrashing tentacles.

The exhibit lasted for 11 years. In 1966, it was closed to make way for New Tomorrowland, where the spot would become home to another of our Lost Legends: Adventures Thru Inner Space. The organ prop from the movie was salvaged and moved across the park where it would act as a permanent installation in The Haunted Mansion's ballroom scene when that ride opened in 1969. When Magic Kingdom's Haunted Mansion opened in 1971, the organ would be duplicated, so the Haunted Mansion in Florida also has a small piece of 20,000 Leagues history!

What all of that means, interestingly enough, is that 20,000 Leagues was one of the very few intellectual properties present in the park from Disneyland’s opening day, alongside Peter Pan, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Mickey Mouse himself.

Submarines surface

Submarines had first been widely used in World War I (1914 – 1918) but the growing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had amplified their presence in popular culture in the 1950s as technology leapt forward.

In 1954 – the same year that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was electrifying theaters – the United States launched (ready for this?) the USS Nautilus, a very real submarine running on nuclear power – the first to do so. The real Nautilus could remain submerged for an unprecedented four months at a time. All the while, the Soviet Union retaliated by building its own arsenal of nuclear subs as part of the ongoing arms race between the two world powers.

In a 1958 show of power, the USS Nautilus successfully (and secretly) sailed below the polar ice caps becoming the first ship to ever cross the geographic North Pole.

Views of tomorrow from sea and sky 

To the people of the 1950s, the technology behind submarines was practically the stuff of science fiction, no more accessible or understood than space travel. If Tomorrowland offered flights to the stars, it would need to send guests to the other distant and unknown world: the depths of the ocean. Walt had just the material he needed to bring Tomorrowland up to the quality he had originally intended.

Disneyland’s first – and certainly largest – expansion occurred in 1959. So grand was the scale of this expansion that it was televised as a reopening of Disneyland. In the unprecedented move, three new attractions were introduced simultaneously, each earning the newly invented “E-Ticket” designation (meaning that they required the most limited and expensive ticket to see).

On June 14, 1959, Tomorrowland became home to the thrilling Matterhorn Bobsleds (the first tubular steel tracked roller coaster ever), the sleek Disneyland ALWEG Monorail (the first monorail in the United States), and, in a bubbling lagoon of waterfalls and glassy water, the Cold War gray submersibles of the Submarine Voyage. What does a generic submarine ride in Tomorrowland have to do with Magic Kingdom's fantastic, Jules Verne dark ride? The story continues on the next page. 

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There are 23 comments.

I got some of the seaweed from the ride and still have it around here somewhere. A lot of my Disney friends try to steal it from me from time to time.

Awesome piece, thanks. This is the Disney I loved. Some with some adventure and balls. That Disney no longer exists and I miss it. But I think I am a rare breed. I hate what they did to Disneyland's subs (though still better than what happened in Florida), and I love the walk through in Paris, never missing it (even though most visitors skip it or find it a waste of space). My how I long for a more testosterone fuelled Disney experience of my youth. It is why Tokyo Disney Sea is very much on my bucket list, not for the Little Mermaid or soon to open Frozen areas, but the adventure of Vulcania

As for 20K in WDW, there was more value than the ride. There was the kinetic aesthetic value. Something that the Rivers of America and Florida's Tomorrowland give. HK Disneyland misses much of that and by trimming back the vehicles on the RoA, so does WDW (and DL to a lesser extent - at least the park has the sailing ships Colombia and the canoes)

All very true! I, for one, am a HUGE proponent of Jules Verne style adventure fitting perfectly into Disney Parks, even the fiercely-protected castle parks. That's why Discovery Bay would've fit perfectly in Disneyland, even amid classic Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, etc. It's a natural compliment to those stories. And, most importantly, if Disneyland HAD built Discovery Bay back in the 1970s, it would still feel relevant today, which speaks volumes.

Hopefully the inclusion of so much Jules Verne in DisneySea (and to fantastic effect and overwhelmingly positive feedback) means that Disney "gets it" and recognizes that these are valuable stories that translate well to the theme park environment. Maybe one day we'll see movement on that front. I wish it could be Discovery Bay or 20,000 Leagues, but oh well.

David's on to something here in that there was an aesthetic value that's sorely missing now. The 20K ride DID take up alot of space for the tiny amount of people who could ride it, but it was a beautiful, peaceful spot by which to rest and take a breather. As I mentioned in my previous comment, sitting by the ride at dusk, watching the subs as they cruised around, the lights of the sub illuminating the water, it was really breath-taking in it's tranquility.

you can still see this ride in Disneyland Paris! Half of discoveryland there is Jules Verne themed (including space mountain), and this is still one of the attraction

Yeah! We wrote about that on page 5 under "Discoveryland." However, the attraction there is a large walkthrough of the interior of the submarine, similar to the walkthrough that was at Disneyland during its first decade. But the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Magic Kingdom was a real ride, with 38-passenger subs sailing underwater through dark ride scenes! So, quite a bit different from the walkthrough in Paris!

I went to WDW on my honeymoon in 1975, and again a few years later. The 20K ride was the most beautiful and peaceful spot in the park in MHO. At dusk, the sight of Nemo's subs gliding around the huge lagoon and emerging from the waterfalls was stunning. The first time I rode the lagoon was having a problem with alge and visibility was limited, but the second ride a few years later was perfect and a very different experience! I understand the problems that plagued the ride, but do wish a modern version, similar to DisenySea would again be available. Disney continues to give one of it's most valuable properties, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a short-shift in it's parks.

No Disney Park ever had submarines they were semisubmesible trains on tracks.
They were decorated as subs. Disney Still uses SemiSubmersible trains as the Ferrys to the Magic Kingdom

Kind of! Like the article says, they're essentially just boats that travel along a flat track (using diesel / electric engines), just with guests seated below the water line.

Assuming you're talking about WDW, the ferries that run across the Seven Seas Lagoon between the TTC and Magic Kingdom are fully free-floating, and are often run between the resorts and the Magic Kingdom. The maintenance facility for them (and the resort launches and cruisers) is off the northwest tip of Bay Lake. The craft you're probably thinking of are the paddlewheel steamers that run along the Rivers of America around Tom Sawyer's Island in Frontierland, and are vehicles that run on an underwater track, but are not semi-submersible.

There's a small "homage" to the ride at Winnie the Pooh in his tree house in the entrance to the ride. If you walk into the tree house from the larger side door and look around the top edge there is a shape of the Nautilus.
Source: I work the Winnie the Pooh ride.

Darn, I was snorkeling at Castaway Cay just six months ago. Wish I had known about the submerged sub; I'd have made the swim to see it!

Thank you for that retrospective on Disney's 20K ride. I first saw 20 Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a young boy and it absolutely captivated me. So when I visited WDW in 1972, I headed straight for the 20K ride and it didn't disappoint. I found it the most spellbinding and captivatingly immersive (no pun intended) ride in the park. I think I went on it 3 or 4 times on that visit alone. Of course over the years I repeated that experience every chance I got. So I can't tell you how shocked and disappointed I was when I took my own young boys to WDW many years later only to find the ride gone. I was sad for them. I was sad for me. Like you said, we never got to say goodbye or take one last ride. So thank you for this chance to view that great footage and to "relive" that wonderful experience once again via the miracle of the Internet. I can only hope that one day Disneyland and WDW will bring some of that nostalgic retro-futuristic style back to their parks and give us North Americans a chance to revisit the future that once was. Cheers.

I have been to WDW at least twenty-five times from almost it's opening and EVERY SINGLE time I have gone there, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was closed for maintenance. I always wanted to go on it and it almost became a joke for our family because we would march down to the ride and the familiar "Closed for Maintenance" was up. From these developments, it seems as though I was just never meant to go on it! lol :-(

I was just at WDW MK last week and the people mover is still there and running and had a 30min wIt al day..

This ride is s running at Tokyo Disney Sea I rode a few years back (in 2013) it was interesting I guess but I fail to see how it was that great.

The ride at Tokyo DisneySea is completely different than the shut-down ride at WDW. The original WDW 20K ride was similar to the one in DisneyLand where the subs are actually in water with the riders looking out of portholes. The Tokyo DisneySea is actually dry- with the cars supended above sets and the water is between the porthole window glass. The story and sights are also completely different.

I was a College Program cast member on 20K during its final season in the summer of 1994. I have fond memories of that attraction. The capacity was horrible and the lines were always long, but guests loved it.

We did know it was closing Labor Day weekend of that year and for good. A final cast picture was scheduled and dozens (if not hundreds) of costume pieces mysteriously disappeared as August came to a close. One of my few regrets in life is that I had to return home ten days before that photo was taken and had to miss it.
An interesting tidbit not mentioned in the article: one of the subs (I think number eleven) was powered by natural gas, not diesel. I also remember that the engines leaked so much fuel and the water was so dirty (even though clear), that if anyone accidentally fell in, a tetnus shot was mandatory. All told, it was a summer I'll never forget.

The Tokyo Disney Sea 20,000 leagues ride is a blast. i make sure to ride it every time I visit. I'd love to see something like it at one of the US parks.

My father worked at Disneyland Anaheim for 20+ years. We spent 18 mons in Tokyo while my dad help build Tokyo Disneyland. On our way home back to the states we made a trip to WDW and I had a chance to ride 20,000 leagues. It was a fantastic attraction. Im a huge fan of the movie and being raised in a disney family it was a ride I really enjoyed.
Its funny because I tell people all the time about the organ in the haunted mansion and people question it.
Great article, I really enjoyed it and brought back a lot of great memories of a piece of my childhood.

Beautiful read. As a child this was the first & last ride of the day fire me. I was heart broken when it was gone. To never be able to share with my children. Always was always will be my favorite. May have to explore Paris & Japan.

I am so sorry they took this ride away before my 4 grandkids could see it. Two of them are reading the Jules Verne book. I love this ride as a child and an adult. The ocean is very much a mystery and the book is still a classic. With today's technology I don't see why Disney couldn't resurrect it.

I was very fortunate and blessed to work with one of the lead imagineers on this project, Jack Gladdish, of Odessa, Florida. He shared lots of stories with me about working with Walt Disney. He also was the imagineer for Abe Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents (and the trip to NYC for the world's fair) as well as working with Julie Andrews on Mary Poppins. He told me about his nightmares after 6 months of trying to get the birds to chirp with the music. If you look closely at her dress sleeve you can see the pneumatic air lines going up her arm to the bird. It was and is nice knowing him and hearing all his stories about working with Walt. He is alive and kicking in Florida still.

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