“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.”
For years now, you've been part of developing our Theme Park Tourist's 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!”
When it comes to exploration, discovery, and romance, there’s no author more prolific, revered, or deeply tied to the genre than Jules Verne. The French novelist, poet, and playwright produced a library of works spanning the 19th century, but many of his best known titles belong to a 54-novel series called the Voyages Extraordinaires.
Sometimes called the "Father of Science Fiction," Verne's collection of adventure stories carried guests From the Earth to the Moon, Around the World in 80 Days, to The Mysterious Island, on a Journey to the Center of the Earth, and beyond. His so-called "encyclopedic novels" are renowned even today for the immense amount of scientific knowledge they contain, giving readers the distinct feeling that they’re actually learning about biology, geology, astronomy, botany, archaeology, and oceanography by reading.
Take Vingt Mille Lieues sous Les Mers. Among Verne's most well-known stories, the epic underwater adventure novel introduces mainstays of science fiction, like the enigmatic Captain Nemo and the fabled Nautilus submarine. But it also crafted the modern interpretation of a submarine and included Verne's staggeringly advanced understanding of electrical power and propulsion.
The exhaustive and extensive research Verne did before sending his protagonists to the deepest oceans or the farthest reaches of space created in the Voyages Extraordinaires an exhilarating, spell-binding series filled with adventure, romance, science, and exploration. Countless adaptations of his works have been seen in film, television, radio, story, and song… Including in one of the most elaborate films Walt Disney Productions ever created.
"From the depths of the never-ending ocean, from that fathomless world of infinite mystery and unearthly beauty which man has yet to discover comes the mightiest motion picture of them all!"
Walt Disney Productions' 1954 cinema classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea wasn't just an epic adventure film on an unprecedented scale; it was the culmination of every trick Disney's team had learned in the decades before. The $5 million feature (the world's most expensive at the time) featured underwater photography, incredible special effects, and immense star power.
The Jules Verne tale recounts a New York based expedition sent to verify accounts of a mysterious sea monster. What they find instead is the reclusive inventor Captain Nemo (played in the film by James Mason) aboard an unthinkably advanced submarine called the Nautilus. On board, the adventurers encounter coral reefs, the Atlantic ice barrier, and – most memorably – an attack by a giant squid (using state of the art electro-mechanical effects and puppetry).
As they'd done with Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, Walt Disney's storytellers had taken a universally-loved (and public domain) story and created its definitive form.
The Academy Award-winning 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.
20,000 Leagues was an industry-changing hit for Disney. And Walt knew just how to take advantage of it...
First visit to the Nautilus (1955)
When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, "the happiest place on Earth" wasn't exactly ready for showtime. Given that exactly one year and a day had passed since the first shovel of dirt had been moved, some corners of Walt's park were just plain unfinished. To Walt's thinking, Tomorrowland was the worst of it. The land had fallen so far behind early on in the park's design that he'd simply decided to halt its construction altogether, determined to focus on the rest of the park first.
But come January 1955 – just six months before the park's debut – he reversed course. Tomorrowland was quickly cobbled together by bringing in corporate sponsors who would be willing to exhibit their wares, like the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame, the Dutch Boy Paint Color Gallery, and the Crane Bathroom of Tomorrow.
Only a small number of Disney-produced attractions were present in the land, but Walt made a clever suggestion that shaped Tomorrowland's lineup for years. Given that 20,000 Leagues had been a massive hit for the studio a year prior, designers began disassembling the sets from 20,000 Leagues and shipping them to Disneyland, where they were re-assembled as a walkthrough attraction just inside Tomorrowland's entrance.
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 south along Tomorrowland's entry (roughly where Star Tours sits today), 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.
Incredibly, the "temporary" 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.
But the sets of the Nautilus wouldn't be guests' only chance to go underwater in Tomorrowland... Read on as we explore the West Coast precursor to the Magic Kingdom classic.