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

Subs of tomorrow

Image: Gene Spesard, Flickr (license)

Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage opened June 14, 1959 as the largest expansion in the park’s history. But Walt seemed to think it was only bringing Tomorrowland to the standard it should’ve met all along.

Each of the eight Cold War industrial-style submarines held 38 guests and cost a whopping $80,000 to build in 1959 (that’s about $660,000 each today). Walt, for his part, was simply delighted by the attraction. He often joked that he had “one of the world’s largest peacetime submarine fleets,” and reportedly was disappointed when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was denied permission to visit Disneyland that year as he’d looked forward to showing off his submarines.

The brilliant attraction was a pinnacle of Imagineering prowess. Between you and me, the “submarines” weren’t submarines at all. Rather, they’re simply boats that travel along a flat track with visitors seated below the water line looking out of porthole windows. As the subs pressed forward from the loading dock, bubble screens would simulate downward movement and diving just as coral reefs came into view.

Similarly, another screen of bubbles and an overhead waterfall would mask the sub’s entrance into a showbuilding where classic dark ride lighting techniques and effects could simulate ever-deeper oceanic environments of sunken cities, shipwrecks, mermaids, and even an encounter with a goofy sea serpent.

And think about it. Submarine Voyage opened in 1959. The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea walkthrough didn't close until 1966. So for the better part of a decade, the two "submarine" themed attractions co-existed in Tomorrowland, one as a scientific journey promoting submarines as the stuff of tomorrow, and the other as a fantastic walkthrough of a famous literary and cinematic submarine. 

In a most ingenious use of space for the tiny little park, the massive cavernous showbuilding of Submarine Voyage pulled double duty. Grass and trees were planted on top so that the building's roof could also play host to the expanding Autopia ride. As well, the Submarine Voyage showbuilding was home to the Monorail's support beams and, later, the aerial highways of the PeopleMover! 

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

Submarine Voyage remained a guest favorite as the decades passed. In one significant change, 1986 saw the sub's hulls repainted from the militaristic gray to a pastel then bright yellow, recasting the vehicles as research submarines (more appropriate for a post-Cold-War audience). 

Packed with detailed scenery, animatronic creatures, and gorgeous views of brilliant dark ride scenes; Submarine Voyage was a certifiable E-Ticket and an absolute stunning Disney classic.

That also made it a prime candidate for duplication at Walt Disney World.

New perspective

In the 1960s, Imagineering had expanded their footprint in Glendale, California to prepare for the massive influx of engineering projects they’d encounter in building Walt Disney World. They’d also brought on a new group of young, upstart Imagineers fresh from school.

Perhaps the most well known of those Imagineers was Tony Baxter. Baxter had the story so many Disney Parks fans dream about: he worked part-time at Disneyland throughout college when his designs for a school project came to the attention of Imagineering. After a tour of the design facility, Baxter changed his major and his life. Fresh out of school and in his early 20s, he was sent off to Florida as a production designer for a version of Submarine Voyage under construction at the Magic Kingdom.

Future vs. fantasy

Walt did not live long enough to step into his completed “Florida Project,” but Walt Disney World and its theme park, Magic Kingdom, were well into the design phase by the end of the 1960s. Magic Kingdom would be a new and improved Disneyland, given the benefit of size, hindsight, and master planning. It was to include all the best of the original Californian park repackaged and upsized for the international audience who would flock to “The Vacation Kingdom of the World.”

Certainly, the compelling concept of Submarine Voyage warranted its inclusion in Magic Kingdom. Like all the other Disneyland originals, Magic Kingdom designers hoped to turn the Submarine Voyage on its head and create an even grander, richer, more detailed experience.

But a bigger, grander version of Submarine Voyage wouldn't be enough. In the 1950s, Submarine Voyage was perfectly at home in a Tomorrowland designed that decade. But Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland would be a product of the 1970s, and submarines were hardly "futuristic" through the lens of that era. Instead, Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland would heavily focus on aviation and space flight, since those were the prevailing images of the future by then. Submarines were yesterday's headlines and had no place in Tomorrowland.

So Imagineers had a brilliant idea. Whereas Disneyland’s ride had cast the vehicles as the star – as technological wonders of tomorrow – a sister attraction in Florida could recast the attraction as a fantasy adventure focused not on the underlying technology, but on the unbelievable voyage itself. And Disney had just the intellectual property to make it happen!

Located in Fantasyland instead of Tomorrowland, Magic Kingdom’s ride would open as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage.

George McGinnis worked off of Disneyland’s Cold War submarines and restylized them to resemble Harper Goff’s iconic fantasy subs from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The stark, sleek interior of Disneyland’s would be improved, too. To match the Victorian “steampunk” style of the film, the interior of Magic Kingdom’s subs would be outfitted in rivets, cogs, red leather, and bronze portholes.

Magic Kingdom’s fleet would also best Disneyland’s, featuring 12 40-person subs in a 11.5 million galloon lagoon.

On board narration was recorded by Peter Renaday as Captain Nemo (impersonating James Mason) as new scenes were designed to compliment some of the Disneyland originals.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Magic Kingdom opened just a few weeks after the park itself, on October 14, 1971.

Ready to head for the depths? On the next page, we'll take a look at the wonders of the ocean as seen through the portholes of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Read on...

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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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