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

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

“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!”

Voyages Extraordinaires

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 MoonAround 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)

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Images: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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!)

Image: Disney

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.

Submarines surface

Submarines had first been widely used in World War I (1914 – 1918) but in the 1950s the escalating Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had amplified their presence in popular culture. After all, the technology had leapt forward…

In 1954 – the same year that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was electrifying theaters – the United States launched the USS Nautilus (no, really!), a cutting edge 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. That made the real Nautilus an international headline; a living, breathing example of future technologies giving humans the power to explore our world as never before…

Views of tomorrow from sea and sky

Image: Disney

Imagine what “tomorrow” looked like for audiences of the 1950s… Escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had rallied both nations behind the power of innovation. Whether toward the seas or space, the race was on to go farther, deeper, and faster. The rapid increase in innovation also gave Walt his long-awaited chance to reimagine Tomorrowland.

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?

Submarine Voyage (1959)

Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage opened June 14, 1959 as part of 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.

Image: Gene Spesard, Flickr (license)

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.

Image: Google

In a most ingenious use of space for the tiny little park, the massive cavernous showbuilding of the 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!

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.

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 Imagineers fresh from school.

Perhaps the most well known of that “class” of designers is Tony Baxter, whose story is of particular interest for many “armchair Imagineers.” Baxter famously worked at Disneyland (first as an ice cream scoop, then a ride operator on the Submarine Voyage!) before being invited to Glendale after a few of his school projects caught the eye of Imagineers.

The result? The artist went from operating Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage to working with the legendary Claude Coats to design Magic Kingdom’s version. And Baxter’s new perspective would be essential since the Walt Disney World installation of the submarine ride was going to get a major reimagining…

Future vs. fantasy

Walt didn’t 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, and like all the other Disneyland originals exported to Florida, Magic Kingdom designers hoped to turn the Submarine Voyage on its head and create an even grander, richer, more detailed experience.

Image: Disney

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!

Image: Disney

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 submarine blueprints 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 beat Disneyland’s, featuring 12 40-person subs in a 11.5 million galloon lagoon.

Image: Disney

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.

Beneath the waves

Seated within the hulking metal frame of the docked Nautilus, boarding guests would get their first view of the watery world beyond the ride’s copper portholes while the stirring and dramatic sounds of Nemo’s organ play. It’s a stunning introduction to the nautical world where barnacle-covered steel arms support the loading dock overhead. Pulling away from the landing, the subs pass through bubble curtains as Nemo and his crew call through the ship: “Dive! Dive!

As the bubbles dissipate and the ship steadies, Nemo introduces himself and his undersea realm as guests get their first glimpse of the ride’s sea life: great green turtles, sea bass, giant clams, and schools of fish (all represented by animatronic creatures). “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.

The ship would continue on past scientists studying the sea life and a memorable (for its absolutely inaccuracy) scene of an octopus battling a shark.

20,000 Leagues submarine

Image: State Archives of Florida

Pressing on, the sub’s crew would warn of an upcoming storm, so Nemo would call on the ship to dive once more to safety. Passing through another bubble field, the remainder of the ride would now take place in the ride’s showbuilding, setting the tone for the darker depths of the ocean. This time, the calming bubbles would reveal that the Nautilus had found itself within the Graveyard of Lost Ships. “Man-eating sharks” circled like vulture above the centuries-old splinters of grand ships.

Beyond, the sub would pass through the deepest waters of the polar ice caps, gliding effortlessly between the hypnotic, angular bottoms of massive floating icebergs. This scene was one of the ride’s most gorgeous, as Nemo would point out that, even here, light from the Aurora borealis would refract through the ice above as the polar caps would radiate in orange, yellow, and green.

A descent to the darkest depths brings the Nautilus near to its failure point, but not before eerie bioluminescent life forms swarm around the ship with their natural glows amid the pitch black darkness. At Nemo’s command, the ship rises a bit as it encounters an ancient lost city full of crumbled statues and… mermaids? Sea serpents? “Mr. Baxter, if you think you’re seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you’ve been submerged too long!”

Before you can study the scene too much, volcanic activity signals that the underwater systems that buried this lost city are still very much alive. “That seething mountain still denies rest to the civilization it submerged thousands of generations ago.  Helmsman! Steer clear of the tottering columns!” 

20,000 Leagues submarine

Image: Alex Reinhart, Wikimedia Commons (license)

In the ride’s memorable and outstanding finale, a red alert signals that an aggressive giant squid has captured another submarine ahead. “Good Lord!  It’s one of ours.  It’s hull has been crushed like an eggshell!” Indeed, a giant squid has ensnared another Nautilus, marked “XIII” (to represent the 13th in the ride’s fleet). Then, another creature advances on the sub. Nemo initiates an electrical charge across the metallic surface of the sub, and as strobes flash, you can see the beast’s tentacles clinging to the ride’s portholes. This encounter with the squid remained the ride’s signature and most beloved scene even to today… an outstanding example of Disney’s earliest giant animatronics… and underwater, at that!

Having narrowly escaped the creature, the Nautilus initiates an emergency manuever. In another flash of bubbles, the sub begins to surface. When the bubbles cease, daylight once again streams down through the water. “Ladies and gentlemen, in just a few moments we will be docking at Vulcania, our home port.  It has been a pleasure having you aboard the Nautilus, on this memorable voyage that has taken us 20,000 leagues under the sea. Captain to bridge. Reduce speed and proceed to number four berth.  Stand by to dock.”

As always, we’ll end our look at the ride with a rare on-ride video to help memorialize the ride experience. Take a look and see if the video cements any memories of this ride that might otherwise have been lost to time. Then, read on to find out why 20,000 Leagues suspended sails, and what became of the incredible ride.


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.

Image: Disney

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. 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 spluttering diesel engines guzzling massive amounts of fuel.

Despite the relative complexity and costliness of the two Submarine Voyage attractions, the timeless and beloved rides seemed poised to remain highlights of their respective resorts forever. Until…

Setting sail

In 1992, the disastrous opening of Disneyland Paris hit hard. Across the Disney Parks, projects were closed and cancelled throughout the 1990s as then-CEO Michael Eisner seemed to abandon his ambitious scale of the “Ride the Movies” era and instead insisted on cost-cutting measures that have lasting impacts even today. Suddenly, the two submarine rides were financial liabilities not worth their cost.

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 had become too much for the 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.

Image: Disney

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 way off the shore in a distant corner of the acres-large snorkeling area, so it’s an exhausting trip to see it, best undertaken only by skilled swimmers.)

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

Replacing a classic

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Google

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 “Easter egg” appearance in the New Fantasyland that replaced it… 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.

Image: Disney

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…

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.

1. Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

Image: Disney

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, Imagineers 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 on 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.

2. Discovery Bay

Image: Disney

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.

And though 20,000 Leagues was his first major project, it would go on to influence others. What does Captain Nemo have to do with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? 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.

Unfortunately, Discovery Bay was never built. The plot of land set aside for this Frontierland / Fantasyland hybrid back in the 1970s remained empty until it became Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019. 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 remember, good ideas never die at Disney, which brings us to our next evolution of 20,000 Leagues’ DNA…

3. 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 Disneyland Paris, almost every tried-and-true attraction from the original Disney Parks was recast through a romanticized, story-centric lens. That’s why Disneyland Paris doesn’t have a Tomorrowland at all! Instead, the land was replaced with “Discoveryland.” Instead of the white, mid-century, Space Race 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. 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

Image: Disney

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 and Galaxy’s Edge 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.

Image: Disney

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 ranks high on our must-read Countdown of the Most Incredible Audio Animatronics on Earth.

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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 this 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.

Image: Disney

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.