“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 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.