TPT logo

Your guide to theme parks in Orlando and beyond

 

Main menu

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

Complexities

Few would deny: both Submarine Voyage at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were truly beasts to operate. There were a number of reasons.

1. LOADING: Because the submarines had guests seated below water level, loading and unloading was a lengthy process, though varied between coasts.

In California, the 38 passenger subs were accessed via a tightly wound spiral staircase with a low overhang. All 38 guests needed to exit before a new crew could board, leading to a long turnover between groups.

In Florida, the larger, 40 passenger subs (blueprint above) were accessed via a straight set of steps, and dual stairways on each end allowed one group to exit as another boarded. Even if Florida's more efficient system sped up the process, in both cases, the ride was relatively difficult to load and unload, and that lead to long waits right up until boarding. 

2. CAPACITY: Theoretical capacity for 20,000 Leagues (running 40 person vehicles) hovered around 200 people per submarine per hour. During peak times, up to nine subs could be on the circuit, giving the ride a realistic operating capacity of 1400 - 1500 guests per hour. But on a normal day, only six subs would be in use, yeilding a maximum hourly capacity of around 1200, and a realistic capacity of less – quite low for a ride operating at the most-attended theme park on Earth, and about on par with Test Track. In comparison, Splash and Space Mountain are both designed to handle about 2000 people per hour, with Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean easily handling nearly 3000.
 

3. ADA ACCESSIBILITY: While neither sub ride was required to provide access to individuals with mobility impairments (having been constructed before ADA accessibility laws), Disney has always tried to assure accessibility as much as possible. In the subs’ case, any guest in a wheelchair who wished to experience the attraction would be required by necessity to transfer out of their wheelchair and find a way down the stairs – not an easy task, even with friends and family to help. And there was no way Disney could change that. 

Image: gotfox, Flickr (license)

4. WEAR AND TEAR: Put simply, it’s not easy to service rides that spend their lives submerged in water. Even simple fixes to animatronics or scenery would require the complete draining of the submarine lagoons, so refurbishments were few and far between particularly at Magic Kingdom. There, the attraction is known to have gone through three major refurbishments over its 23-year lifetime. That’s a lot of years to be completely submerged in water for those animatronics. And fittingly, Disney staff spent hundreds of hours scraping scum, repairing animatronics, repainting coral, plugging holes, and more.

5. EXPENSE AND SCALE: At the end of the day, Disney balances budgets. They want the most “bang for their buck” out of every square foot of the Florida resort. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea took up 25% of Fantasyland’s footprint (which we'll see below) and, in return, had a relatively low hourly capacity, a comparatively enormous operational budget, huge maintenance requirements, and an ecologically questionable ride system comprised of sputtering diesel engines guzzling massive amounts of fuel.

Setting sail

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Paris

In 1992, Disneyland Paris opened. And sank. The resort was the most elaborate and built-out Disney had ever constructed, packed with details and stories. The park is often described as the perfect blend of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, with the former's intamacy and the latter's scale. But the French wanted none of it. The park’s finances crumbled and at once, then-CEO Michael Eisner became infamously wary of any large-scale expansion at the parks, vowing to never repeat the mistakes of Disneyland Paris. At once, budgets were slashed and “pencil-pusher” executives were brought in to toe the line and cut costs wherever possible.

On September 5, 1994 – twenty-three years after its debut – Magic Kingdom’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea closed for an unexpected and unannounced "temporary refurbishment." Allegedly, Disney intended to use this time to locate a corporate sponsor for the attraction (at a time when sponsors were dropping like flies at Epcot), no doubt hoping to recoup some of the loss of the expensive-to-operate-and-maintain ride.

Apparently, they couldn’t find one. In early 1996, Disney announced that the closure a year and a half prior would remain permanent. It was a different time for Disney Parks, when budgets mattered more than guest experience and when social media didn't exist. The complex issues with 20,000 Leagues mentioned above had become too much for a budget-conscious Disney Parks, and it was simply the most obvious attraction to cut. Guests didn’t have a last ride, or a chance to say goodbye. Instead, they went a year and a half assuming the worst, and were proved right.

Burying the subs

Image: Rod Ramsey, Flickr (license)

After sitting idly in the lagoon for years, the submarines were pulled from the water and moved backstage at Walt Disney World. There, their portholes were popped out and sold at the Disney Store for $125 a piece.

Two of the subs were sent to Castaway Cay, the private island Disney stops at along its Disney Cruise routes. There, the Nautiluses were sunk in a snorkeling lagoon and covered with rope so that oceanic organisms and creatures could grow along its exterior.

One of the subs is still there, so any guest visiting Castaway Cay on a Disney Cruise can snorkel out to it and examine just how massive the 40-person ride vehicle is. (But be warned: the enormous sub is located quite a ways off the shore in a distant corner of the acres-large snorkeling area, so it’s an exhausting trip to see it.)

Most of the subs were auctioned off to a scrap yard, which picked the Jules Verne ornamentation off to the fiberglass shells and reportedly crushed and buried the remnants in a landfill.

Replacing a classic

Most sadly, the lagoon in Fantasyland remained for years as a stark reminder of what once was. The 20,000 Leagues loading dock became a character greeting location with large crates disguising the ride’s landing.

Then, a purple-rocked cavern with a cascading waterfall was built at the lagoon’s western edge, housing a meet and greet for Ariel from The Little Mermaid. As part of Ariel’s Grotto, a bronze statue of King Triton took up residence in the lagoon, his trident spraying water toward his daughter’s meet-and-greet. But it was a sad state for the massive lagoon, with the coral still visible beneath the crystal clear waves.

In July 2004, the lagoon got the same treatment as the subs: it was buried. The coral, caverns, animatronics, and expansive sets from the ride were demolished in shocking photos preserved on 20kride.com. The remaining rubble was filled in with dirt, and then concrete, with hundreds of trees planted on the empty parcel of land.

In 2005, a very small portion of the land was re-used as a playground called Pooh’s Playful Spot, meant as a companion to the Winnie the Pooh dark ride across the way (itself occupying the spot formerly held by another Lost Legend Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.)

In 2010, Pooh’s Playful Spot closed, as well. Rather than leaving the large plot of land filled with trees, Disney decided to move forward on a massive reimagining of the park’s Fantasyland, replacing much of the original Medieval fair / tournament tent style with detailed, Wizarding World style sub-areas dedicated to Beauty and the Beast, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, and classic Disney shorts.

New Fantasyland – including a Little Mermaid dark ride, Beauty and the Beast restaurant and walkthrough, and Snow White roller coaster all now occupy the enormous footprint of the 20,000 Leagues lagoon, showbuilding, and dry dock, which goes to show just how massive the ride really was. Is the land better used as New Fantasyland? Objectively, probably so. But that doesn't help those who grew up with the ride and were mesmerized by its imagination. 

By the way, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea did get a little "cameo" appearance in New Fantasyland. The intricate rockwork meant to evoke the seaside caverns beneath Prince Eric's castle contain a very unique natural formation hinting at another ship that met its end here. And as the comparison photo above shows, the showbuilding for Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid is almost exactly in the same position as 20,000 Leagues', and in the same shape, too. 

Floating on

You’ve no doubt heard it said, “good ideas never die at Disney.” That’s probably true, because despite the closure of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, its ingredients and elements live on. On the last page, we’ll discuss where you can get your 20,000 Leagues fix today and where the stories continue.

Go to page:

Pages


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.

Pages

Connect with Theme Park Tourist: