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

Magic Kingdom’s 20,000 Leagues: Submarine Voyage closed unexpectedly in 1994 – most likely an indirect victim of Disneyland Paris’ financial collapse. But Disney executives at the time would no doubt explain that the ride was expensive to maintain, aging poorly, and with a very low hourly capacity unsuited for the number one most visited theme park on Earth.

Still, the ideas behind this adventure through liquid space continue. Here are just a few examples.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

Where? Disneyland Park
When? Debuted June 11, 2007

What ever came of Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage – the Tomorrowland ride that inspired the Magic Kingdom version?

Well, its fate began on a similar track. In 1998, Disneyland opened a very poorly received low-budget New Tomorrowland that saw the closure of another Lost Legend: The Peoplemover and the fall of Walt's Tomorrowland. To make matters worse, cost-cutting executives at the time then turned around and closed the Submarine Voyage – another Walt Disney original. What a way to celebrate a "New" Tomorrowland.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney.

And just like at Magic Kingdom, executives promised that Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage would be refurbished, refreshed and re-opened just a few years later. The difference is, Disney actually did have plans for the California ride. Unfortunately, they revolved around the 2001 film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Disney’s first animated science-fiction adventure film.

Submarine Voyage: Atlantis Expedition would’ve placed guests into the (Nautilus-inspired) Ulysses submarine from the film and no doubt would’ve included the ancient waterlogged tunnels beneath the city, protective bioluminescent stones, and an encounter with the dreaded guardian Leviathan. Atlantis was a gorgeously stylized and unique film that perfectly translated Jules Verne style adventures into Disney’s style.

Image: Disney

But Atlantis failed to make an impression for critics or at the box office and left practically no fingerprints in pop culture, so the ride was canceled before it had even begun. Without a worthwhile intellectual property to float on, the submarines appeared sunk.

Fast forward to 2003 when Disney and Pixar’s Finding Nemo made nearly a billion dollars, won an Academy Award, and (most importantly) became a tremendous fan favorite. Under the leadership of a new Resort president (Matt Ouimet, now CEO of Cedar Fair), Disneyland set out to undo the cost-cutting of the past, and the Submarine Voyage was brought out of the mothballs as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage - a triumphant return from a decade-long closure of a Disney classic.

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

While the Finding Nemo overlay has practically no scenes in common with its predecessor, at least the ride sees the continued preservation of a ride system Walt pioneered and so loved for a new generation. The subs were even redesigned to run on electricity instead of diesel (upping their capacity from 38 to 40). To solve that pesky ADA accessibility problem, they even constructed a virtual recreation available for guests unable to access the subs.

But faced with many of the same complex problems (low capacity, high expense, and occupying a huge parcel of land), the subs always feel endangered. As recently as 2015, the ride closed for a lengthy refurbishment that many fans believed was a permanent closure in disguise, just as Magic Kingdom's had endured. But, the ride re-opened as scheduled with refreshed scenes. As for the future? We'll see how long the ride – and the precious land it occupies – can survive.

Discovery Bay

Where? Disneyland
When? Never built.

Remember Tony Baxter, the young, upstart production designer plucked right some school and plopped down to work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Tony obviously went on to be a Disney Imagineering legend, responsible for the original Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, Journey into Imagination, and many other beloved Lost Legends.

However, his first major project on his own was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. And if Tony had had his way, the wildest ride in the wilderness would’ve been only one part of a brand new land at Disneyland, meant to bridge the gap between Frontierland and Fantasyland. Called Discovery Bay, the land Tony Baxter envisioned and designed was a steampunk, Victorian San Francisco filled with submarines, lighthouses, inventors, hot air balloons, airships, and countless elements of Jules Verne lore.

At one time, a simulator attraction (using the technology later applied to Star Tours) was planned for Discovery Bay, all themed to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So just a few years after Magic Kingdom’s, Disneyland would’ve received its own 20,000 Leagues, but in a very different format. Also planned was an "underwater" Grand Salon restaurant set inside of a Nautilus docked in the Rivers of America (above).

Unfortunately, Discovery Bay was never built. The plot of land set aside for this Frontierland / Fantasyland hybrid remained empty until today, when it's now earmarked to become a Star Wars land. You can check out the full story in our must-read Possibilityland: Discovery Bay feature to learn all about the massive and stunning steampunk attractions planned for this land and the reasons it never came to Disneyland. But they say good ideas never die at Disney, which brings us to our next evolution of 20,000 Leagues' DNA... 

Discoveryland

Where? Disneyland Paris
When? Debuted 1992 

When Disney decided to build a new resort in Europe, they knew that the Parisian park would need a little something extra – something to warm European guests to Disney's very American brand. So instead of cloning the very mid-century Americana elements of Disneyland, Disney sought out (you guessed it) Tony Baxter to take over as executive producer and designer of the French park.

Tony and the Imagineers dove in, creating what’s often regarded as the most beautiful, detailed, and romantic Disney Park on Earth. In Baxter’s Disneyland Paris, most every tried-and-true attraction from the original Disney Parks was recast through a romanticized, story-centric lens. Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and Space Mountain are all radically different at Disneyland Paris, developed as completely new versions of Disney classics!

The same is true of Tomorrowland. In fact, Disneyland Paris doesn’t have a Tomorrowland at all! Instead, the land was replaced with “Discoveryland.” Instead of the sleek, modern, futuristic Tomorrowlands, Discoveryland is meant to be a retro-futuristic land. In other words, it’s a view of the future rooted in the past; the kind of future great European thinkers like H.G. Wells, Leonardo da Vinci, or Jules Verne might’ve envisioned.

Instead of the Space Age architecture, silver, white, blue, and purple that fills Tomorrowland, Discoveryland is cast in gold, bronze, sea foam, and copper. It’s filled with rivets, bolts, panels, organic towers, red rocks, bubbling lagoons, and plants that evoke the "steampunk" Victorian style. It’s a view of the future that’s one with nature rather than being opposed to it like Magic Kingdom’s.

Among the land’s most unique attractions is a walkthrough called Mysteries of the Nautilus (including a very cool encounter with a giant squid in one of the sub's galleries) and a completely original version of Space Mountain designed to be based on the Jules Verne novel From The Earth to the Moon

Mysterious Island

Where? Tokyo DisneySea
When? Debuted 2001

The epitome of Jules Verne’s literary world brought to life exists at none other than Tokyo DisneySea. The park – often cited as the best theme park on Earth, and certainly a Mecca for Disney Parks fans the world over – features themed “ports” situated around a 200-foot-tall volcanic park icon.

By the way, one of the park’s themed lands is located inside that volcano, in a collapsed caldera. Mysterious Island (based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name) is Captain Nemo’s hidden base situated deep within Mount Prometheus. The land is a wonder; perhaps the only Disney Parks land to exceed Cars Land in scale and scope. Guests are relegated to iron and copper catwalks that circle the interior of the caldera, with bubbling water and steaming geysers below.

The land’s two attractions are both standouts. Perhaps the most popular attraction at the park (as well as its  signature ride and a bucket-list goal for most Disney Parks fans who cite it as Imagineering's best creation ever) earned it own in-depth entry in Lost Legends' sister series, Modern Marvels: Journey to the Center of the Earth. It's worth noting that the mysterious, mythical creature lying in wait deep inside Mount Prometheus topped our must-read Countdown of the Most Incredible Audio Animatronics on Earth.

But Mysterious Island’s second attraction is... 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea! Japan’s version of the ride is not a submerged boat ride at all. Rather, it’s a suspended dark ride (think of Peter Pan’s Flight, and see image above) wherein guests are situated in six person subs – two looking out of a right porthole, two front, and two left.

The ride sends guests deep into the ocean with each pair equipped with an adjustable flashlight for exploring the depths. The ride’s big secret? You’re not really in water at all. Instead, the portholes are double paned with water between the two panes of glass. Whenever the ride needs to “dive,” that thin layer of water is overcome with rising bubbles that give the impression of diving. The effect – like so many of Disney's best – is unimaginably simple, but incredibly believable. 

The ride includes magnificent and stunning scenes including a sunken city (made all the more interesting by your ability to “choose” what to look at with your flashlight), a coral reef, a shipwreck, and (of course!) an electrifying a stunning encounter with a massive giant squid. The ride’s finale is equally show-stopping, with a deep-sea Atlantean race granting you a magical return to the world above.

Among DisneySea’s massive line-up of world-class, E-Ticket attractions, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea feels like a C-Ticket diversion for families. But if the same ride were duplicated in any other Disney Park, it would be a headlining dark ride in its own right. Videos of the ride are practically impossible to capture, but our friends at Attractions 360 used their astounding low-light camera to capture what may be the only accurate account of the awesome ride.

Sailing for the horizon

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a classic – a stunning dark ride equipped with groundbreaking technology and outstanding storytelling.

Magic Kingdom may never play host to a Jules Verne ride again. But we can’t help but be hopeful that more of the engaging and literary stories like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea find their way to Disney Parks. Even if the submarine ride itself is gone, elements of it live on in the plans for Discovery Bay, and the paths of Discoveryland and Mysterious Island. The lesson? Disney's international parks are altogether willing to tell the adventurous stories from Jules Verne's world, whereas the U.S. Disney Parks won't seem to greenlight anything unless it's tied to Frozen, Marvel, Pixar, or a box office boom.

Which is a shame. If 20,000 Leagues (and its international cousins) proves anything, it's that these stories do fit among Disney classics. They're timeless, engaging tales set in fantasy environments that only Disney can bring to life. And we'd love to see that happen again.

For now, help us immortalize the experience of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Share your thoughts and memories in the comments section to preserve this ride for a new generation of Disney Parks fans who never got the chance to become part of Nemo's crew. Then, visit our In-Depth Features Library page to set course for your next Lost Legend.

And until then, thank you for sailing with us.

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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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