Widen Your World – 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (20K)

Last Update to this page: January 27th, 2017

As Captain Nemo’s famous metal-plated Nautilus submarines took their final voyages on September 5, 1994, a chapter of Walt Disney World history sank in their chlorinated wake.  By that time the Magic Kingdom had already lost attractions unique to Florida (like The Mickey Mouse Revue, Plaza Swan Boats and If You Had Wings) but it hadn’t yet lost such a high-profile and popular ride, a ride with such an immense scope and such undeniable appeal.  20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which had been synonymous with the park since 1971 and entertained millions of visitors annually, was the first WDW giant to fall.

20K (as the ride was called by, first, Disney cast members and later also by its fans) was a giant not just because it took up 20% of the real estate in Fantasyland, and did so prominently with a lagoon that contained 11.5 million gallons of water, but also because it reached far enough with its content to readily capture the imagination of its riders even when the special effects were not entirely believable.  Most guests were enthralled to witness divers corralling sea turtles, an underwater volcano and a giant squid attack firsthand – no matter what the level of approximation.  Furthermore, the attraction was a key facet of the Magic Kingdom’s personality: an anchor component of the park that nearly all visitors would find themselves passing several times in the course of a day.  Although based on Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage, 20K surpassed its predecessor in theme, size, art direction and execution, making itself a WDW original in most respects. 20K had helped to define WDW from the offset of “Project Florida,” one of the resort’s early working names.  It was on the original roster of proposed attractions and its concept art was a compelling teaser for the theme park portion of the resort.  Additionally, the ride would go a long way toward distinguishing WDW Phase One – the Magic Kingdom in particular – from Disneyland in California.

Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage attraction opened in 1959 (it closed in 1998 and reopened in 2007 with a Finding Nemo overlay).  The eight-minute trip via nuclear-era submarine began in Tomorrowland’s scenic lagoon (where frolicked animated lobsters, sea turtles and myriad species of fish), “descended” to the ocean floor for a look at sunken galleons, the wet side of the polar ice cap, giant squid and the lost city of Atlantis and concluded with a glimpse of a ridiculous-looking sea serpent.  Bubble machines and lighting effects contributed to the illusion of depth. Guests may have easily fallen for the submersion hoax providing they didn’t look for the water’s surface, which could be seen about two feet above their viewing portholes.  The eight submarines, each with a capacity of 36 passengers, never dove as much as an inch from their starting position.  The sea life animation was limited and probably didn’t pass for real with any guests over the age of twelve, but it was well staged… especially the scenery that was contained in a dark show building disguised as a waterfall grotto.   

Submarine Voyage was popular enough to warrant a planned East Coast repeat of the attraction in 1967, when designing for WDW began in earnest.  But WED (Disney’s Design & Engineering firm) artists assigned the Florida version a glamorous new facet: guests would travel inside replicas of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, making the ride a better fit for a home in Fantasyland.  From the offset it was clear that this would be one of WDW’s cornerstone rides, capitalizing not only on the irresistible concept of an undersea voyage but also tying in directly with a classic work of literature and the company’s highly successful 1954 film adaptation of the 1870 Jules Verne novel.  This added dimension lent the ride a sense of mystery and romance that its predecessor lacked.  It also provided a motif upon which to base the queue area, loading docks, lagoon and the caverns that hid half the show area: Nemo’s home base of Vulcania.  There was a minor back story issue to contend with, namely that Captain Nemo both in print and on celluloid was a genius, but also a homicidal madman.  So why he would want to welcome thousands of strangers daily as “guests” aboard his submarines for a spin around the globe (one that launches from “secret” island headquarters no less) was pretty much unknown.  WED dealt with this seeming disagreement by not explaining it all.  The inference is simply that, somewhere along the line, Nemo must’ve had a Dickensian epiphany and decided to offer sightseeing rides.  

The twelve submarines were built at the Tampa shipyards, 60 miles southwest of WDW.  Never before or since has a Disney attraction been synonymous with such a fantastic ride vehicle.  Above the waterline, the subs were strikingly faithful – down to the simulated rivets – to the Harper Goff-designed Nautilus from the film.  At 61′ in length they were 1/3 scale replicas of the full-size version.  Below the surface, they were little less detailed, with either side of the hull lined by 20 small portholes rather than the large main salon window that would have appeared in a completely faithful recreation.  To the front and rear of those small portholes was a floodlight for illuminating scenery in the ride’s open lagoon at night. The submarines were equipped with drive wheel mechanisms that would ride atop an inverted-V elevated track, as opposed to a recessed trough like that of the Jungle Cruise.  The interiors were rendered as Industrial Age function with some Victorian appointments – mainly the red leather cushions – giving it a little bit of form.

The job site in Florida required little excavation since the rest of the park was built up to an average of fifteen feet.  Therefore the bottom of the 20K lagoon was able to conveniently rest below Fantasyland street level without breaking the topsoil – while the perimeter was either filled in or lined by the walls of the park’s tunnels (directly to the west of the main lagoon were the Kingdom’s subterranean employee locker rooms).  The show building was erected over the northeast portion of the ride track and its southern facade was shrouded within false rock formations and waterfall pools.  The sets were assembled on site with hundreds of scenic pieces fabricated at Disney’s MAPO division in California and Florida’s Staff Shop.  From small bits of coral to immense giant squid, nearly everything was produced in duplicate form so riders on both sides of the submarine would see the ‘exact same’ scenery at the exact same time.  The primary building materials for the set items were fiberglass, concrete and silicon rubber.  Ice formations, ancient ruins and diving parties were installed along the floor of the lagoon or suspended from the ceiling of the main show building.  Within that warehouse a series of catwalks and bridges permitted work crews access to the mechanisms that would animate many of the ride’s effects.

In spite of the years spent on its planning and construction, 20K wasn’t ready to open with the rest of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971.  According to some first-year cast members, problems with the lagoon’s ability to hold water delayed the ride’s debut – a delinquency noted frequently by journalists visiting the park during its first two weeks.  On October 14, however, guests began pouring into Nemo’s subs by the thousands, ready to embark on a trip unlike any they’d experienced before.


As the company expected, 20K was extremely popular from the offset.  As a result, the permanently sheltered queue area constantly filled to capacity even on moderately busy days, flowing beyond the turnstiles and out into Fantasyland’s main thoroughfare.  The company’s first response to this situation was to add a long green canopy structure that stretched east from the turnstiles down towards the Mad Tea Party (they added similar shade devices at the Haunted Mansion and the Hall of Presidents – all were in place by 1973).   So guests approaching 20K often found that their wait began outside the coral wall of the proper queue area and underneath that canopy, where they would stand for up to ten minutes before reaching the entrance turnstiles.  Above the turnstiles was a mast flying nautical signal flags which spelt out “20,000 Leagues” in semaphore.  Just inside, the queue area was a maze of metal railings and switchbacks ensconced within volcanic rock outcroppings, throughout which were interspersed the vertical beams upon which the metal roof structure was supported.  Several ceiling fans were mounted to the overhead ductwork.

From speakers in the ceiling, nautical songs such as “Blow The Man Down” and “Whale of a Tale,” played for the waiting crowds.  In the midst of the music, Captain Nemo (Disney’s talented Peter Renoudet, whose voice appeared in other Magic Kingdom attractions such as Mission To Mars, The Walt Disney Story and Country Bear Jamboree, gave a marvelous James Mason-esque performance for 20K) provided occasional comments on the ride that guests were preparing to experience and discoursed on the sea, its majestic nature and all the cool stuff about it.  For example:

“Modern man’s most compelling interest in the ocean lies in its great potential for renewable resources, not only in protein-rich food, but also the wealth of minerals, energy and drugs.  Our recent explorations have revealed vast deposits of minerals that can be mined.  At Vulcania, we have tapped the ebb and flow of the tides to produce clean and efficient electric power.  One of the most promising areas of investigation is in the field of marine biomedicine.  We’re discovering many antibiotics and other useful drugs in ocean organisms.  There are many, many other potentialities to be found in the earth’s last frontier.  But we must always keep in mind that the bounty of the sea is not limitless – man must be prudent in his exploration and utilization of this vast great storehouse of natural wealth.”

Nemo’s not only a welcomng presence now, it turns out he’s also kind of like an ecologist.  As guests digested his ruminations (if they could, because the din of the crowd mixed with the hum of the nearby submarine engines could make any sound from the speakers a muddle), the queue shelter afforded them a panoramic view of the ride’s lagoon area without the sun in their eyes.  Park visitors could also gaze upon the lagoon from three other vantage points: A) its western rim adjoining the Fantasy Faire tent and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, B) a small portion of its southern edge adjacent to the ride’s eastern exit and C) from the Skyway.  The lagoon was oblong and its perimeter formed by undulating coral formations broken up by a few sandy beaches with the occasional treasure chest lying about (Magic Kingdom visitors were able to view this body of water until summer of 2004, when the company finally decided to dismantle the lagoon wholesale).  Across the liquid expanse was the show building, hidden within the volcanic rock walls and waterfall grottos, into which the submarines disappeared and from which they would reemerge at the conclusion of each ride cycle.

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Some of the exact same seafaring song recordings that played in the 20K queue area, among them “The Sailor’s Hornpipe” and “A-Roving,” could also be heard in the Columbia Harbour House’s (Liberty Square) original background music loop.  One had to be unoccupied by more productive thoughts or activities to notice it, perhaps, but the fact of the overlap stands.

This begs a question which must have come up during Magic Kingdom planning: why not locate 20K at the western end of Fantasyland where it could have abutted the Harbour House restaurant and the Yankee Trader shop?  Those establishments at the north end of Liberty Square were coastal in architecture, albeit 18th-century Bostonian vs. the 19th-century San Franciscan facades depicted in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues film.  Either way, it would have made compelling thematic sense to provide 20K riders with the opportunity to dine – just steps away from Nemo’s Vulcania – in a restaurant full of old-world maritime decor.  With Peter Pan’s Flight also really close by, most of the park’s nautical motifs (save for Pirates of the Caribbean) would have been pulled together into one corner.

So what if the Fantasyland Skyway station had been built closer to the Pinocchio Village Haus, where all the Bavarian woodwork and yodeling could have been consolidated into one section of the park rather than separated by It’s A Small World, which itself could have easily been positioned opposite Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?  20K could have sat where the Skyway station was actually erected and given the park a true wharf district.  If you’re still not convinced, consider that this arrangement would have also put every attraction in the park with pipe organ music (Swiss Family Treehouse, Mickey Mouse Revue, Haunted Mansion and 20K) west of the castle…at least prior to Snow White’s Adventures’ 1994 rehab when Snow White’s Adventures got a musical dwarfs scene.

Maybe the park’s designers felt that the open vista across the 20K lagoon would have made it difficult to conceal the Haunted Mansion’s boxy show building (which the elevated Skyway station helped to accomplish).  But the Hall of Presidents’ massive, dull roofline was long visible to anyone on the streets of Frontierland, and the Skyway itself gave everyone the chance to see just how industrial the park appeared from above.  Since there was nothing futuristic about 20K, its proximity to Tomorrowland could not have been deemed crucial.  There must have been another reason.  Maybe it was something to do with how West Fantasyland was once going to center around something called “Pinocchio Street” on early prints.  Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. 

At about this point most guests would have picked up on the smell of the diesel fuel that powered the subs.  The subs originally ran on natural gas, but were converted to Perkins diesel engines prior to the ride’s tenth anniversary.  For fans of the Disney film – or anyone who listened closely to the voiceovers while standing in line – the odor was a clear sign that Nemo’s miraculous source of clean and efficient energy had since been co-opted by the trucking industry. 

Nearing the end of the queue, guests were soon greeted by a ride host called the “grouper,” possibly the first of Nemo’s ambassadors that they would have encountered.  20K ride hosts wore blue and red uniforms that were faithful to those of Nemo’s crew in the Disney film.  The grouper’s job was to direct guests to one of three holding areas (at either front dock, center dock or rear dock) immediately prior to their boarding a sub.  Depending on daily attendance projections, 20K could run as many as nine and as few as three submarines at any given time.  The number of subs online determined which holding areas were used by the grouper.  On an average day 20K could be found running three convoys, or “packs,” of two subs each that would typically load and unload from the front and center docks.  The rear dock, which loaded from its own small island east of the queue, was typically unused except when the number of subs on line totaled seven or more. In addition to counting out two rows (each with twenty guests) per submarine and directing riders to holding areas, the grouper kept track of how many ride units were running and had to remember which docks to pre-load for each incoming pack of subs. To assist in keeping things straight, the grouper would sometimes use a chart like the one shown below.

Once properly sorted, guests watched as their submarine pulled into its load/unload station and was tethered in place with a thick rope tied to a metal cleat on the dock.  Hatches to the front and rear of each sub slowly opened while crewmen waited to lower the hydraulic ramps that allowed guests to transition safely from the dock to the sub and vice versa.  Exiting riders were directed out one end of the sub by their driver/helmsman while new riders were brought in the opposite end.  Guests descending the narrow twin stairwells into the submarine would find before them a long, rivet-encrusted passage constituting the vehicle’s sole passenger chamber.

The sound of Captain Nemo’s pipe organ played throughout the cabin, the soing being the title theme from the film as a short cycle of music which would repeat for the duration of the ride*.  Over this recording guests would soon hear from their helmsman.  He was positioned above them, two-thirds of the way toward the front of the cabin, on a platform that placed his upper torso in the submarine’s “sail,” from which he could look out the vehicle’s two convex bubble windows as he piloted the vehicle.  On a microphone he instructed incoming guests to continue all the way down the length of the passage before selecting their seat.


Note: Guests heard the voices of two different “helmsmen” during each ride.  The first was that of their aforementioned driver, a real employee, who would address them at the beginning and end of the experience.  The second was the recorded helmsman whose voice was part of the ride’s narration tapes.  The two seldom sounded anything alike, and only the latter exchanged words with Nemo as part of the storyline.

The “room” was divided by a partition which formed the seat backs, and to which the circular seat bottoms were hinged.  Upon reaching their individual cushions, passengers lowered them into place and sat facing their own private 1′ porthole, each equipped with its own air vent.  Through the portholes guests would usually peer upward first, just to verify that they were indeed below water.  The sight of the surface was always there to greet them.  Those on the port side of the sub could view the rock wall below the dock structure, which was encrusted with barnacles and other minute bits of sea life.  Guests facing starboard would see the iron and wood supports of the spur dock which separated the ride’s loading & unloading lane from the spur line, where inactive subs were often docked.  Beyond those support beams guests often faced the portholes of a parked submarine; they may have also glimpsed a member of Nemo’s crew (taking his break in the solitude of an empty, opposing vessel) staring back at them.   

Back in their own sub, the helmsman issued the standard requests (no eating, drinking, smoking or flash photography) as the loading ramps were lifted up and the hatches at both ends of the sub were lowered.  This reduced the cabin’s illumination to just a few white, overhead globes and whatever light filtered in through the portholes.  At night this made for a mysterious, inky interior right from the beginning of the ride, which reduced the dramatic impact of the deep dive simulation (when subs entered the darkened show building) later in the ride.  During daylight hours, the gradual dimming of the cabin made for a more measured and effective experience.  Soon the cabin was filled with the sounds of the Nautilus being prepared for its next voyage, beginning with Nemo’s directions to “secure ship for sea.”  As an unseen deck hand removed the holding rope from an exterior cleat on the surface, the submarine slowly began a forward roll out of the loading area.

Once each sub reached the end of the dock and entered the lagoon, Nemo ordered the crew to take the vessel three degrees down.  Through the portholes guests saw a mass of bubbles generated by machines on the lagoon floor.  This effect could work amazingly well if – as with the Disneyland original – guests didn’t see the surface of the water above them.  That depended entirely on how far they leaned into the window and, of course, whether they looked up.  Regardless, the sight of bubbles going up was a convincing enough means of making people think they were going down for it to be employed again at Epcot’s Living Seas pavilion in 1986 (the trick was used in the hydrolators leading to Seabase Alpha), where it was arguably the best part of a painfully lame pavilion.  As the bubbles cleared away and the sounds of the sub’s horns and mechanics died off, a placid aquatic vista, called the fish plains, came into view.  Varied, colorful coral formations inhabited by a range of exotic – albeit nearly motionless – fish.  One fish struggled in the grips of an anemone, many others floated amidst seas of kelp.  Crabs and lobsters quarreled with each other atop rocks.

Nemo introduced himself over the speaker system, welcomed guests aboard the Nautilus and briefed them on the trip ahead (“We are proceeding on a course that will take us on a voyage 20,000 leagues under the sea.  Enroute we will pass below the polar ice cap and then probe depths seldom seen by man”).  He didn’t explain that by 20,000 leagues he and Jules Verne meant a measurement of distance rather than depth.**

Soon the animal life increased in size with the appearance of great green sea turtles and grouper.  Aside from assorted small fish dotting the lagoon, the animals all had some basic animation elements to them.  Air lines caused them to rock, move their flippers or open their mouths.  The giant clams that followed the grouper released streams of bubbles.  It was obvious to most riders that the animals were mounted to either rock formations or the “sea floor,” but there was still – as with many Disney attractions – a lingering desire to question whether any given creature might, somehow, be the real thing.  Another consideration playing into the illusory effectiveness was the depth-of-field beyond the fish in the foreground.  The further the submarines progressed into the lagoon, the greater the appearance of  broad vistas in the distance.  This was achieved with forced perspective and, inside the show building, aided by the designers’ full control over the set lighting.  Despite the chlorination, the main lagoon’s more distant backdrops were often hard to discern because the natural light caused heavy diffusion.  

   After the clams, as guests absorbed the vacant expressions of moray eels poking their heads out of a reef, Nemo took the opportunity to promote his sonar hydrophone technology.  He stated that this development proved that “fish actually talk.”  Riders were summarily treated to some sound effects that, while not being the least bit intelligible, certainly could have been talking fish…or ape chatter sped up on tape.  The submarines then happened upon harvesting parties from one of the Nautilus’ satellite ships.  Divers in gear emulating suits from the film were seen tilling beds of seaweed (a necessary component of Nemo’s “good as Cuban” cigars) and roping sea turtles that were exhibiting the good sense to seek a forceful escape.  Pumps on the ocean floor provided the divers with a constantly replenished source of oxygen.  In Nemo’s words, his men were “harvesting the abundance that nature has sown here beneath the sea.  Kelp beds are cultivated, sea creatures corralled and protected – just as terrestrial shepherds protect their flocks from ravenous wolves.”

This was the first point in the attraction where the sequence of show scenes varied significantly from Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage.  In that original version, the divers – who were of course not under Nemo’s employ –  appeared slightly later in the ride and were seen salvaging treasures from shipwrecks.  That subtext stood in sharp contrast to the agrarian undertakings represented in 20K.  The depiction of Nemo’s crew tending to aquatic gardens, rather than pursuing submerged wealth, helped reinforce the ride’s already hinted-at underlying conceit: the Nautilus was being applied toward the latter-day end purpose of fostering an appreciation for the sea and its natural resources.  It was like a well-funded underwater commune.  Whether gold and silver gains were still used as ballast aboard ship, as in the film, was not addressed during the ride.

At this stage the recorded helmsman reported surface storms to Nemo, who ordered the vessel eight degrees down.  The last thing guests saw before the dive was a shark caught in the grip of an octopus.  From atop a rock, the octopus held the shark at tentacle’s length” in a face-off.  Guest may not have realized it, perhaps the ride’s designers didn’t either, but this vignette foreshadowed the attraction’s climactic scene…four minutes ahead of time.  More on that later.

The Nautilus “dove” again with the aid of more bubble machines.  This time the effect was augmented, particularly in the daytime, by the submarine’s penetration of the darkened show building.  When the bubbles trailed off, guests were left staring into an inky blackness.  The only sights were those lit by fixtures mounted above the waterline.  Nemo commented on the Nautilus’s ability to evade storm activity and reflected on the fate of roughly a dozen ocean floor shipwrecks, now visible to his passengers, that were “not so fortunate.”  Within this “graveyard of lost ships,” sharks circled ominously among the broken masts and shattered hulls.

The sharks were the first creatures in the ride to actually be seen “swimming around,” suspended from cables which hung from rotating wheels above the waterline.  Unfortunately these cables tended to collect bits of fake seaweed that circulated through the lagoon, which – as you might imagine – went some distance toward deflating the illusion.  Theoretically, an accumulation of that debris would be noted on any given morning during a show quality check performed by ride personnel, and a cleaning would immediately follow at the hands of the maintenance staff.  Toward the latter years of the ride’s lifespan, however, such attention to caretaking had become a rarity.  So the sharks often swam with clusters of dark stringy crap hovering directly over their dorsal fins.  Still, the eerie sight of the ocean floor strewn with the wreckage of so many once-proud galleons was staged so masterfully, the sharks hardly mattered at all.   

This was another key difference between the California and Florida versions.  While 20K’s animation effects improved only slightly on the Disneyland original, and its illusion of diving was no more convincing, the art direction for 20K’s sets was far more lush and delicate than it was in Submarine Voyage.  As with the lagoon scenes, the depth-of-field in the Florida show building was greater than in California and provided a more substantial canvas for the forced perspective scenery.

As the submarine glided past the sunken ships, a member of the crew informed Captain Nemo that the vessel had “raised the polar ice cap” and that there was a clear channel at 40 fathoms.  Sonar beeps began to echo through the cabin.  The submerged sides of ice floes came into view of the portholes.  A Viking ship protruded from one of the formations, oars frozen in place.  All of this was beautifully lit by the rainbow incandescence of the Aurora Borealis, which Nemo lauded as a “rare visual phenomenon;”  He had truly come into his own as a lover of not just the aquatic world, but of nature as a whole.  No sooner did guests have a moment to reflect on the tranquility, though, than they were treated to the sound of the sub crunching against the icebergs.  “Take her deep,” Nemo ordered.

The Nautilus then descended – minus bubble effects –  into a pitch-black abyss.  Luminescent jellyfish, oar fish, viperfish, deep sea anglers and other glowing creatures were all that could be seen in what Nemo termed a “realm of eternal darkness.”  The trick was achieved via black light, an effect which several other Fantasyland attractions used more extensively.  It was at this point in the ride that the helmsman piloting the sub could really contribute to the sense of drama.  When the vehicle scraped the ice, he could make the white cabin lights flicker and then go out just as the sub was entering the black light area.  Since that scene was bereft of illumination, guests would be left in complete inky nothingness.  If the helmsman kept the lights out until Nemo’s red alert two minutes later, and then actually turned on the red cabin lights, he scored extra points.

After the sub reached its maximum depth limit, Nemo pointed out that there were “limits beyond which man and his puny efforts cannot survive.”  He directed a return to 80 fathoms.

Upon reaching that more sensible depth, guests saw the remains of an ancient civilization coming into view.  Collapsed pediments, broken walls and scattered pieces of classical statuary littered the ocean floor, among them the golden head (Zeus? Poseidon?) of a bearded god.

Nemo commented that the ruins “betrayed the hand of man,” which – unless you subscribe to the antiquated notion that fish are adept at masonry and have mastered the corbelled arch – might have seemed obvious.   He went on to surmise that this might well have been “the legendary lost continent of Atlantis.”

The Atlantis scene was 20K’s pièce de résistance.  Painstakingly detailed and romantic to the point of sensuality, the landscape of fallen temples and toppled columns seemed to stretch on forever into the background.  It was the sole part of the ride that I, as a 20K helmsman, would climb out of the sail to view when running a dead (devoid of riders) sub around the track –  it was just that cool.  As guests progressed through the sunken city, Nemo briefly explained the legend of a “remarkable” society that had been laid to waste by a volcano.  He tempered this statement with the concession that the existence of Atlantis was held by some to be mere fantasy, along with “legends of sea serpents and mermaids.”

Naturally, as soon as he uttered that phrase, the gyrating green tail of some unidentifiable creature came into view amongst the rubble.  Its lengthy body snaked through the scenery as one of the crew, Mr. Baxter, asked Nemo to clarify that sea serpents were indeed relegated to the world of fantasy.  Nemo, apparently forgetting that he’d just salivated over the prospect of discovering a fabled lost city, took the opportunity to chide his underling for suggesting anything sensational – “if you think you’re seeing sea serpents, or mermaids, you’ve been submerged too long.”

By this time guests were witnessing the visual punchline: that long, green scaly tail culminated in the upper torso of a googly-eyed sea serpent, sitting squarely between a trio of mermaids in a gold-strewn treasury.  Two mermaids were swimming around the beast holding strands of pearls that wrapped around its neck, while the other sat atop an urn admiring herself in a mirror.  A massive outpouring of gold coins, jewel-encrusted plates, vases and other artifacts had flowed from open vault doors on the scene’s perimeter.

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If you were to ask me what’s strange, I would have an answer for you:  It’s strange that Fantasyland – home to so many rides that were ostensibly meant for children – once contained the Magic Kingdom’s sole three attractions depicting exposed breasts.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (20K) was the most obvious and easily explained example, as the mermaids in the Atlantis scene were merely faithful to most mythological treatments of such creatures.  Covering their chests might have been puritanical given the context. 

Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directly across the street from 20K, not only had a barmaid in Winky’s Pub with prominent cleavage but also a painting of a completely nude woman on the pub wall.  Her breasts were partially obscured by her long, flowing hair (she was identified as Rapunzel), but she was clearly meant to be tantalizing.  Given the pace of the ride, it’s conceivable many guests never saw her.  Just the same, it was an unexpected and deliberate element of the pub scene.

Still, it was Peter Pan’s Flight … surely the most child-oriented of the three rides in question … that handled things in the most perplexing manner.  The mermaids in Neverland, seen lounging atop rocks in their private lagoon, had bare chests from 1971 until 1990.  In Disney’s 1954 film version of Peter Pan, however, the mermaids wore seashells just like Ariel would in 1989’s The Little Mermaid.  Only after The Little Mermaid was released did the figures in the ride receive seashells.  So why did they sit uncovered for nineteen years when their 1950s celluloid counterparts were decidedly more chaste?  Figure it out if you can.

None of these situations was morally dubious unless you were offended by partial nudity (and granted, in the 1970s, the number of people in middle America who would think that was unacceptable was pretty high), but given this amount of nudity in Fantasyland you’d think the other Magic Kingdom lands would full of the stuff.  But they weren’t.   Not a single Pirates of the Caribbean buccaneer had his full chest exposed, and the heavily-pursued town maidens kept their apparel on as well.  None of the Jungle Cruise natives revealed their posteriors, and most of the Plains Indians along the Rivers of America and WDW Railroad were heavily dressed…even in summertime.  Consider also the voyeuristic possibilities inherent to the Carousel of Progress, where guests were invited to gaze through the bedroom and bathroom walls of a robotic American family.  The only flesh therein, however, was Cousin Orville’s shoulders and feet protruding from the bathtub.  Even RCA’s Home of Future Living, where walls were missing throughout the entire house, passed on the opportunity to show us people in their underwear.  Such was the peculiar distribution of nakedness during the Kingdom’s infancy.

Just beyond the treasury scene, Mr. Baxter brought to Nemo’s attention a spat of “unusual turbulence,” which came along with the amplified sound of bubbling.  The source was quickly identified as the same volcano that had brought Atlantis crumbling to the ocean floor.  A series of top-heavy columns, glowing red from a lava flow just out of sight, swayed precariously from the disturbance.  As many of the columns were near the Nautilus and threatened against a safe passage, Nemo ordered his crew to a red alert.

The Nautilus avoided a collision with the ruins, but the next threat to its well-being was already on the horizon: another of Nemo’s fleet was being attacked by a giant squid.  “Good lord,” Nemo exclaimed, “It’s one of ours; its hull has been crushed like an eggshell.”  Indeed, a submarine marked XIII – streams of bubbles escaping from cracks in its metal plates – was locked in the grip of a monstrous, red architeuthis.  This scenario echoed the previous ride scene where the octopus held the shark motionless.  But whereas that octopus seemed comical, the squid and its single glaring eye were terrifying…certainly to me in early childhood.  Comparing the scale of the creature to the submarine it held, and the size of a full-sized person to that of a 20K ride vehicle, this squid even made the one Captain Nemo battled in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues film look playful. Guests then heard one of the crew warn of another squid attacking their own submarine.  Nemo immediately directed the use of “full repellent charge,” which riders may have recalled from the film as an allusion to the Nautilus’ electrical defense field – strong enough to ward off cannibals but not always effective on squid.  Massive red tentacles appeared just outside the portholes, shifting up and down as they tried to wrap around the submarine.  They were met, however, with the flash of an electric shock.  Before they could ensnare the Nautilus completely, Nemo ordered the sub to the surface. In another flurry of bubbles, the Nautilus quickly rose from the depths and guests were reacquainted with daylight (except at night).  The sub had returned to the placid lagoon adjacent to Vulcania, where the ocean floor was populated by stingrays and ling cod.  Nemo, apparently no longer the least bit shaken over the loss of life associated with a sister submarine’s destruction, casually informed guests that they would soon be docking.  He expressed his pleasure at having hosted everyone on a “memorable voyage,” and thanked them for sailing with his crew.  Guests were asked to remain seated until the cabin lights were switched on, at which point Nemo gave the “all ashore” call.  And the pipe organ kept playing.

Guests would typically debark the submarine via the portal opposite from that through which they’d entered, as the submarines most often docked in the same position and another group of guests was likely waiting to step down into the sub right behind those leaving.  It was difficult for anyone waiting for the rest of their party to exit 20K to know where exactly to camp out, since one could never state with certainty whether the sub they’d ride would exit from the west (opposite The Round Table ice cream shop) or the east (next to the Mad Tea Party).  This made 20K one of the four Magic Kingdom attractions with exit points variable enough to keep separated parties looking for each other for a while, with the other three being Flight to the Moon / Mission to Mars, the Walt Disney World Railroad and the Liberty Square Riverboats.

Because of its experience with Disneyland Submarine Voyage, Walt Disney Productions knew what it was getting into, so to speak, when it built 20K: a ride with substantial intrigue that took a large staff to operate and maintain.  It was also comparable to Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise in many regards, being water-based and needing a dock crew in addition to boat pilots (the two attractions even squared off during the summer with friendly competitions to see which could move the greatest number of guests on a daily basis), plus a dedicated crew “behind the scenes” who tended to the upkeep of the vehicles and scenery.  What seems phenomenal now is that rides of this description were ever built in the first place.  Compare the number of people needed just to operate 20K on a normal off-season day, which would be no fewer than twenty, to that required to keep the four closest rides up and running (the Mad Tea Party, Mr. Toad, Snow White and Dumbo all ran from one pool of employees) on the same day, perhaps ten, and you get a sense of 20K’s magnitude.  Factoring in extended operating hours for the summer and holidays, the ride took a small army to run it smoothly.  When theme park rides are designed now, a projected minimum staffing requirement of twenty operators would probably be enough to kill a project while it was still on paper…especially if it wasn’t a thrill ride, and 20K was not.

The makeup of the 20K operating team was predominantly males between the ages of 17 and 25, many of whom were also in college at the time.  They would be assigned one of four basic tasks or positions:

– Tickets / Greeter: From 1971 to 1980, when most MK attractions required a ticket for admission, 20K had someone manning the entry turnstiles to take guests’ E tickets.  After 1980, this position was absorbed into the pre-existing Greeter role.  The Greeter was stationed out in front of the attraction where he would answer guest questions, park strollers and tend to the queue.  Every hour on the hour he took a turnstile reading so the ride’s capacity could be tracked.

–  Grouper: As mentioned in the ride description above, this employee directed quests at the head of the line toward a holding area for incoming subs.  The Grouper was responsible for making sure each sub had as close to 40 passengers as possible, and also for accommodating wheelchair guests who would be approaching the dock area via the ride’s eastern exit.

– Dock: Each of the three submarine docking positions had two ramps control boxes, each of which had to be manned if a sub was loading or unloading at that station.  Dock employees were responsible for communicating with sub drivers via hand signals, roping subs into place as they docked, lowering a ramp for guests entering or exiting the sub, directing guests into or out of the sub, raising the ramp again, signaling to the sub driver that it was clear to lower the hatch, removing the rope from the sub and then dispatching the sub via hand signal when all subs in the dock were ready to sail.

– Driver:

Also called the helmsman, 20K drivers manned the sail of the submarine.  They activated the submarine’s forward and rear hatches, gave courtesy and warning spiels to guests at the beginning and end of each ride, then piloted the submarine along the 1,600-foot track.  Along the way, they activated Nemo’s narration tapes in conjunction with the show scenes that guests were viewing, adjusted the cabin lights and attempted to maintain ideal spacing between their sub and others in the “pack,” or group of subs sailing in tandem.

All of these positions were overseen by a lead, who was responsible for keeping everything in check: tending to staff issues such as call-ins, lunch breaks and shift overlaps; monitoring the ride’s hourly capacity via turnstile readings and surveys of the queue, dock and sub packs; bringing subs online from drydock or the spur line and taking subs offline; dealing with guest issues or complaints; and reporting to upper management on matters of imminent concern.

The lead also had to dispatch employees from 20K to do parade crowd control in the afternoons, usually from 2pm-3:30pm.  This was a common occurrence in the Operations department, which provided the manpower for placing stanchions along the parade route, roping off the path and keeping guests clear of the parade itself once it kicked off.  Due to the generally hot and disagreeable weather, however, the assignment was not a popular one for most 20K helmsmen.  

Another function of the operations staff was the daily animation checklist, or show quality check, which – as mentioned above regarding the sharks – was intended to be the most consistent means of letting the maintenance staff know when basic animated features of the ride were not working properly.  The checklist, one page of which is shown here, also referenced an element which never made it into the attraction: the “Dolphin Wheel.”  One could infer that this would have been the inverse of the shark wheels from the Graveyard of Lost Ships scene, with dolphins – attached to a rotating, floor-mounted disc – swimming in circles through the Fish Plains scene.

20K was a complex attraction to maintain; given its size it would have required a formidable amount of upkeep even if it was just a static built site.  But with the underwater animation, behemoth ride vehicles and the element of water itself (which needed to be crystal clear if riders were to see anything through the portholes), it was a foregone conclusion that there would be a tremendous investment of time needed to keep the ride in top shape.  From its opening until the day it closed, divers made regular visits to the lagoon for spot repairs to lobsters, and mechanics were constantly tending to its submarines. The attraction also underwent regular downtimes, or rehabs, to allow for renovations that could not be performed overnight or with water in the lagoon.

Rehabs generally took place with all Disney rides every three or four years.  From the mid-1970s until 1993, 20K had at least five full-fledged rehabs.  Next to paint jobs on Cinderella Castle and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, 20K’s rehabs were the most visible in the entire park because of the vantage point of the lagoon as viewed from the Skyway; there was simply no way to hide such a huge undertaking.  This gave park guests several opportunities over the years to look down into the drained lagoon and photograph workers repainting the coral reefs or replacing multicolored strands of kelp.  As seen in the adjacent photo from 20K’s 1987 rehab, from the collection of Robert Boyd, the hues adorning the rockwork are incredibly vivid.  The reason for this was that the colors dropped out by about 50% when viewed underwater, so everything had to be exaggerated. 

The most prominent 20K rehab ran from September 1975 through Spring of 1976.  This shutdown was made not just to correct mechanical problems but also to improve the ride’s animation and filtration systems, as well as to cosmetically embellish many of the main lagoon’s rock formation and shoreline elements.  This was one of the first projects personally overseen by then-upstart WED designer Tony Baxter (hence the ride narration’s “Mr. Baxter”), who had collaborated with Claude Coats on this and several other WDW attractions in 1971 and would soon be masterminding huge changes to Disneyland and WDW.  Baxter personally oversaw a large crew of craftspersons who – working from his scale models – sculpted entirely new reefs along the west side of the lagoon.  Inside the show building, the ice caverns were also completely rebuilt and sections of Atlantis were reworked.  On the rocky cliffs adjoining the show building’s exterior waterfalls, a flock of seagulls was added – complete with head turn and wing flap animation, to augment the coastal illusion.

Baxter’s team also added one thing to 20K that guests would never be able to enjoy…a nesting seagull tucked into a piece of volcanic rock above the ride’s lead office.  The bird could only be viewed from either the sail of one of the submarines or by someone standing on the side of the lagoon opposite from the dock.  You couldn’t glimpse it from the dock, the Fantasyland footpaths or the Skyway.

This photo, which I took through the dirty sail window of a sub in early 1989, gives a blurry indication of the gull’s nesting spot.  The bird was even animated with head rotation just like its counterparts on the show building’s cavernous facade.  As a teenage sub helmsman, this was to me little more than a passing curiosity.  As an adult, the fact that the bird was there is a source of endless fascination.  Well, not endless.  It’s a mild fascination, actually, but still more than simple curiosity.  Kind of.

Aside from the lagoon and show scenes, rehabs were the ideal time for the maintenance division to give the submarines themselves an overhaul.  Almost all repair work performed on the subs was conducted in the drydock area, which was positioned due north of the lagoon on the other side of the palm-laden hill.  That’s where the original natural gas engines were switched over to diesel engines, where the subs were repainted and where their air-conditioning and audio systems were serviced.  Subs were constantly being worked on, whether there was a rehab taking place or not.  Since no more than nine subs could be running the main track at any given time, the remaining three were available for maintenance around-the-clock.

Subs were transferred to drydock via a spur line track that joined the main track in the Black Light scene.  In order to transfer a sub from the main line to dry dock, the driver had to pull forward of an unseen track switch within the show building, using lights mounted along the catwalk as a guide, and signal via radio that he had cleared the switch.  Then the lead or another designated employee (who had hiked to drydock from the Lead Office by passing Dumbo and walking along a narrow footpath that took them behind the Fantasy Faire tent and over the forested berm) would activate the switch from drydock and raise a large solid metal gate that kept light from penetrating that darkest of all the ride’s show scenes.  The driver would see a light signal box, through his rear window, change from red to green along with (during daylight hours) the open gate.  Then he would put the sub into reverse and pull back into one of three channels in drydock.

All other subs had to accommodate this process by giving the sub being taken offline a head start into the show building, otherwise they would end up going into a hold pattern and screwing up the experience for their passengers.  On busy days, with nine subs cycling, a seamless transfer of a sub to or from drydock with no disruption of the show quality for guests was the ultimate and most elusive goal: achievable, but only with much experience and confidence. Once the sub in question was in drydock, the lead would then shut the metal door and reverse the switch, notifying the rest of the drivers that it was okay to proceed with normal cycling.  Then the driver of the now-docked sub would climb out one of the hatches, join the lead and head back to the attraction (or go have a vinegar-laced chicken sandwich in the nearby employee cafeteria.Only one of the channels in drydock was, in reality, a true “dry dock.”  The southernmost lane dead-ended in a chamber from which all water could be pumped out, allowing maintenance workers full access to the vehicle’s exterior.  The other two channels were constantly filled with water outside of rehab periods, when the rest of the ride was also drained.

A similar process was followed when transferring subs to or from the spur line that ran parallel to the passenger-loading dock.  That was the ideal location for storing any three subs that were simply going offline due to either light crowds or the end of the day’s operation.  It was also less complicated in the sense that the entire procedure could be handled from the dock, plus the spur line could be accessed from either side of the lagoon.  Glass balls floating in the lagoon served as signals to let drivers know which position the spur line switches were in, and lights at the head of the spur line served as backups.  Subs docked along the spur line were a great place for helmsmen to take a break in total solitude.

(a quick recap of stuff from a prior century)

In September 1988 I came to 20K searching for something new.  I had passed my second anniversary in the Magic Kingdom’s Operations West (Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square) department and was getting a lot of shifts at the Jungle Cruise, which is where many male Ops West cast members were scheduled until they accrued enough seniority to base themselves elsewhere.  I had previously worked at other ‘west side’ attractions like The Haunted Mansion and Diamond Horseshoe, but once I was trained at the Jungle Cruise about half my shifts fell there and I just got tired of the constant spieling.  Facing an unknown number of months drifting down the Nile before a relocation might come along, I pursued a transfer to the Operations East (Fantasyland and Tomorrowland) as an easy detour.

At MK East, I’d heard the most pervasive assignment for males was 20K.  The supervisor who processed my transfer actually tried to talk me out of requesting it as my first ride, believing I’d hate it and end up returning to MK West.  What he and most of the 20K guys evidently didn’t know was that their ride, contrasted with the Jungle Cruise, was a cakewalk.  For starters, the ride units were air-conditioned; this alone made the subs far preferable to driving a jungle steamer.  But there were additional perks: the 20K uniforms were light and all-cotton (a rarity in the Kingdom), the ride sat very close to the employee cafeteria and locker rooms, and there was no unholy spiel to deliver hour after hour… just a couple lines to recite at the start and end of the ride.  Any guy who complained about 20K as a bad job was an idiot.  Even after they trained me at other ‘east side’ rides like Snow White / Mr. Toad and Space Mountain (supposedly the elite MK East assignment), I asked to go back to those blessed green sea monsters.

Learning how to operate the attraction was easy.  With the subs on a track, it was basically a forward or backward proposition.  The most complicated parts of the job were A) taking subs on- and off-line as described above, B) docking at a speed which wouldn’t snap the mooring rope and C) cueing the narration tapes at the right times. 

To bring a sub into drydock from the main track required patience, and – if it was accomplished during normal operating hours – a creative manipulation of all the other active subs’ trip times.  If executed improperly it often led to delays in both the Ling Cod portion of the lagoon and the final scenes of the show building, which effectively killed any dramatic tension that would otherwise attend the climax.  Most 20K leads (front-line supervision) were able to manage the process expertly via two-way radio communication, as it was generally the most exciting part of their shift and they gave it their full attention.  It took disinterested or dumb helmsmen to screw it up, but we had quite a few.  

Piloting the submarines was similar to driving through a car wash: There was a lot of water, a slow-moving vehicle going into and out of a dark tunnel and a lot of time on the driver’s hands (if most car washes don’t have huge red squid tentacles getting electrocuted, some DO have spinning red bristles).  Sheer boredom or inattention on the part of a driver, however, made it easy to get going too fast in certain subs.  Momentum itself played a part, plus some subs had less accelerator governance than others.  This led to some guys bringing the sub back into the dock so fast that they misjudged the amount of time needed to brake.  Often they would overshoot the front dock position and have to back themselves up before the dock hand would rope them.  At other times that dock hand would also misjudge the situation and throw the rope on a sub that was plowing by too quickly, and the rope would snap.  That was a cardinal sin in the eyes of management, as the potential for injury was substantial (see: DL’s Sailing Ship Columbia), and all instances of broken ropes were thoroughly investigated.

Getting the narration tapes activated in sync with what the guests were seeing at any given moment was a real feat, as guests seated at the head of the sub were always seeing something completely different from those near the tail.  So ideally you had to time it so guests in the dead center were getting the optimum experience: when Nemo says “the giant clam,” guests in the front of the sub should have been seeing clams already for five seconds, guests in the center should be seeing them at that moment and guests at the tail end should be seeing clams within five seconds.  It could work out nicely if you cared to pay attention, but many helmsmen were more concerned with attaining a top speed than with mastering the finer points of the experience.

20K was one of the few WDW rides never staffed by women (there was one exception in the 1970s), having closed before the trend toward coed operations fully permeated the final holdouts of Magic Kingdom gender division such as the Jungle Cruise.  As such, the attraction operated much like a depraved fraternity, with radio signals like “914” devised to alert fellow skippers when a pretty girl was in the vicinity and salacious discussions of the Toad Complex ladies a constant occurrence in the Lead office.  I was able to stay on the fringe of that without losing respect because I –  it was agreed – created the best graffiti my co-workers had ever seen.  It was a trade-off for not fronting misogyny.  It was in this environment, nonetheless, that I found myself accompanied one afternoon by two Swedish women in the extremely cramped sail of my submarine.  The ride had only just begun when they jointly decided they were feeling claustrophobic and would be better served with a view through the large bubble windows comprising the “windshield.”  Of course I could not leave the sail because all the controls were up there, so they had to squeeze into the space with me for the duration of the ten-minute ride.  There was cheering from my co-workers when I pulled my submarine into the dock, because through the window it looked like I was 3/4 of the way toward reforming ABBA. Then I got yelled at for allowing guests to climb up there.

That sort of occurrence was rare, of course, and the typical shift was filled with many hours of either standing on the dock sniffing diesel or standing in the sail with one hand on the accelerator and the other somewhere between the narration controls, the microphone and one’s nostrils.  Disney had designed the sail so helmsmen were forced to stand for the duration of the ride: there was a dead-man switch on the throttle, so if you didn’t apply constant pressure the sub would begin to slow down and eventually stop.  This meant you couldn’t climb back into the rear of the sail which, although tiny, would allow you to rest your legs.  Some helmsmen tied rags around the controls the keep constant pressure on the throttle, but that was a slipshod affair.  You could also try working the accelerator with your shoe or even by taking your shoe off and letting your foot do the work, but this compromised your ability to truly relax.

I realized that were it not for the dead-man switch, the sub could pretty much be left at the same rate of acceleration once it left the dock. I asked my grandfather, who was a carpenter, if he could make some tiny wooden wedges for me. He produced the perfect solution to my lazy problem: submarine cruise control via pine slivers.  With one of these wedges, I could set any of the subs at my preferred speed and shove myself up into the back of the sail.  From that location I could reach forward as necessary to activate the narration tape segments and, in between times, stuff my mouth with Saltines crackers that I’d taken from the cafeteria.  It would be audacious to suggest that the crumbs resulting from my perpetual snacking were the root cause of many subs being populated by tiny yellow cockroaches, but they may have been a contributing factor.

There were a few other reasons why I enjoyed being up in the sail more than my co-workers (most preferred dock duty by far).  For one thing, I was partial to the ride’s aesthetics, and those were best observed from a sub rather than by standing on the dock.  Piloting the vehicles through the lagoon and caverns might have been repetitious, but a constantly changing vantage point was far better than one that was fixed.  Another factor was the sense of solitude the sail could provide in the midst of the most crowded theme park in North America.  There may have been 40 people below my feet every trip, and tens of thousands more just a few yards away, but the sail felt isolated enough for me to forget all about them if I chose to.     

Working the dock, on the other hand, left one in direct proximity to both the masses and the elements.  This was great if you wanted to socialize with guests.  But you could also end up manning one of the ramp control boxes at extreme ends of the dock, leaving you out in the blistering sun or, between December and March, exposed to the bitter cold wind that glanced off the surface of the lagoon and reminded you that Florida can indeed be nasty frigid at times.  Fortunately, 20K’s winter-wear collection extended beyond the standard-issue light denim jacket; helmsmen could outfit themselves in black knit turtlenecks, scarves, wool pea coats and knit caps.  This made dock duty far more bearable and, when you finally rotated back into one of the subs, also made your nose run.

On the busiest days, the ride would often employ an additional staff position to keep tabs on the progress of the sub packs as they moved from the loading docks into the lagoon and beyond. Employees in this position, known as Rear Dock Control, would provide a running update via radio to all the sub helmsmen. This was particularly helpful to those driving subs through the show building, as they might need to tailor their speed to make sure they didn’t emerge from the caves too soon and end up sitting idle in the Ling Cod  (between the show building and Rear Dock) portion of the lagoon while subs in the docks were still loading.  Unfortunately, many helmsmen used RDC duty as an opportunity to hone their stand-up skills, driving their co-workers insane with impersonations of Gallagher, Eddie Murphy or Andrew Dice Clay.  The leads would generally try to suppress this kind of nonsense, threatening the guys with write-ups and reminding them that all radio communication was monitored by the FCC (I don’t know if that was true).  But it managed to persist, as any sub operator could verbally snipe from the privacy of their sail and maintain relative anonymity.  It was – again – a far cry  from the Jungle Cruise, where supervisors would literally hide in the foliage to catch skippers in the act of deviating from the approved spiel. 

Although the guest experience was 90% predetermined by the ride’s audio tracks, the sub’s interior and the show scenes that played out beyond the portholes, the helmsmen were largely in control of how well those three components meshed.  We could also tamper with the guests’ psychological and physical well-being.  One easy means of accomplishing that was to, sometime when the sub was in the show building, pretend you were talking into your radio and trying to let someone know you’d detected a leak which was causing you to lose speed.  Almost invariably several guests seated directly below the sail would take immediate (and often worried) interest in this faux distress signal and totally stop paying attention to the show as they looked anxiously around the cabin to see if there was water coming in.  Working a squirt gun into the act added to the fun.

Another trick, but one that required two demented helmsmen working in reckless concert, was to make two subs collide.  This stunt, which was only possible if you and the other driver were a pack of two or the last two subs in a pack of three, pivoted on both timing and a complete disregard for the possible consequences of your actions.  It worked like this: The driver in the first sub (you) floored it once you entered the show building, while the driver in the rear sub simultaneously started to slow down.  Once you got into the Black Light scene (the only place where guests couldn’t easily tell what speed you were traveling – or which direction), you signaled some code word into the radio, such as “daisies,” and threw the sub into reverse.  It would take a while for the sub to coast to a stop and actually move backwards, but it would do so before you got to the Atlantis scene.  Once he got your signal, the other guy would throw his sub into full throttle.  If you timed it right, both subs would slam into each other at a decent clip in total darkness and all hell would break loose; a massive thud would echo through the cabin, the lights would go out and guests would scream as they were knocked out of their seats and into each other.  Then you and the other driver would make some cursory apology for the disruption, failing to cite a cause, and go about the rest of the ride as if nothing had happened.  It was perhaps the most irresponsible thing two Disney employees could do to that large a group of guests without any concrete “proof” of malicious intent.  I never did it myself, of course, but have it on good authority that it happened on more than one occasion. 

It was far more common, naturally, for helmsmen to enact jokes on each other, especially with new employees.  A typical scenario took place inside the show building, where one could lie in waiting for a particular helmsman’s sub to coast into the building and then spring out of the darkness onto the windshield and watch him jump.  Guys were always slipping something vile (small snakes, half-eaten churros) into someone else’s sail through the little flap on the outside meant for communication between the helmsman and the dock crew.  And it wasn’t that unusual to see someone being thrown into the lagoon on his last day.

20K was, in short, a great place to work.  The potential for monotony was ever-present, but it was generally offset by the perks of being involved in such a unique operation.  Few other sights in the service industry could have competed with the view from a Nautilus sail across the lagoon at twilight, watching other submarines plow silently through the rippling water as their underwater lights cast an eerie glow beneath the surface and the skies behind the waterfall grotto sank into a majestic expanse of dark blue.  And few other jobs in the Magic Kingdom afforded an individual such an opportunity to “play” with such a totally cool set of toys as those same beautiful subs.

Here’s something that nobody ever talks about: 20K and live mermaids.  It’s well known among many Disneyland fans that older visitors to the park reminisce a lot about the live mermaids that used to swim through the Submarine Voyage lagoon in the 1960s, and simultaneously lament the fact that they were retired because the chlorine content of the water was bad for their hair and skin.  But before those mermaids could lounge around and wave to guests on the mainland, they had to swim across the lagoon to a coral plateau in the center of the works.  What if WDW’s designers had found a way to incorporate the same concept but eliminated the need for the ladies to take a punishing chemical bath on their way to and from the job site?  I think they did.

Look at this little inlet positioned to the south of 20K’s Ling Cod scene, directly between where submarines exit the caverns and guests walked out of the attraction toward the Mad Tea Party.  If it doesn’t look custom-built for a mermaid or two, I don’t know what would.  Of course I haven’t been able to ask anyone involved in the ride’s conception whether this is just errant guesswork or, possibly, that something else was destined to sit atop that nice bit of rock; perhaps an animatronic sea lion could have sat there and barked madly into the sky?

But at least one early park blueprint alludes to something like this in an even more conspicuous configuration, with the inlet more pronounced and positioned where mermaids, were they in fact an intended element, could be seen very easily by Fantasyland guests along the main park pathway. 

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea – Extinct WDW Attraction

Location: Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom Opened: October 14, 1971 Closed: September 5, 1994

Ticket Required: E (1971-1980)

Descendant of: Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage

Space Later Became: Fantasyland Expansion / Under The Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid

Contributing Personnel: Tony Baxter, Claude Coats, Marc Davis, Bill Martin, Peter Renoudet, John Zovich

Bibliography for this Page: WDW Eyes & Ears, WDW Souvenir Publications

This page incorporates information and/or images provided to WYW by Paul F. Anderson, Robert Boyd, Ty Bumgardner, Mike Cozart, Dave Ensign, Mike Hiscano, Dave Hooper, Ross Plesset, Bill Schmidt, David Shuff and Rose Zettler

All images copyright The Walt Disney Company.  Text copyright 2017 by Mike Lee

First draft of page posted December, 2004.  Current version posted January 27, 2017.

( 1 assessment, average 5 from 5 )