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Throwback Thursday: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

On the anniversary of the opening of the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland I figured there was no time like the present to write the Throwback Thursday article that I have been putting off. On October 14, 1971, two weeks after the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, a new attraction was opened. It was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it was based on the success of the Submarine Voyage ride at Disneyland.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

A view of the Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was supposed to be an opening day attraction but infrastructure problems prevented it from being ready on opening day. The lagoon that housed the ride took up almost a quarter of the real estate in Fantasyland. The ride vehicle was a “submarine” – your attraction vehicle never actually submerged itself completely in the water but there was the illusion of the dive down when you were riding. There were 12 submarine vehicles with a Victorian influenced design meant to look like Captain Nemo’s ship, Nautilus, from the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The ride itself started as an “E-ticket” attraction and lines would often get quite long as guests waited to board the infamous Nautilus. The ride was slow-loading as guests had to climb down the stairs into the seating area of the submarine and take their seat at one of the portholes on the ship. Once your ship was filled and launch was cleared you would “dive” (bubbles coming up the portholes gave the illusion of the submarine descending). From there your submarine would travel along concrete guide rails through the lagoon. Since the portholes were beneath the surface of the water all the passengers could see were the plethora of sea life that Disney had filled the lagoon with. (Disclaimer: Sea-life is a misnomer meant to save my childhood memories of all the pretty fish. It was really a bunch of painted plastic fish, sea stars, and props held in place with wire at various points throughout the lagoon. Doesn’t sea life sound much better?) As you were exploring the ocean aboard the Nautilus eventually your ship would pass beneath a swirling storm, the Polar ice cap, and you would even discover the lost city of Atlantis. And since you were at Disney, that giant squid – don’t worry about him – he’s friendly!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had its final voyage on September 5, 1994 although the ride sat untouched for another year. Then in 1996 the props that were visible in the water slowly started disappearing from the lagoon. The lagoon sat is a state of slow decay until 2004 when it was announced that it was being removed to make way for a new attraction. Eventually the entire lagoon would be filled with concrete and Pooh’s Playful Spot would come to occupy the once majestic lagoon that served as the visual center for Fantasyland. Just recently Pooh’s Playful Spot was closed down to make room for the new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train as part of the New Fantasyland.

There are many swirling conspiracy theories on why this Disney classic was shut down. I have heard everything from the Cast Members hated working on this ride with the fumes and the constant repairs being made to keep the lagoon pristine and the submarines functioning to the fact that it was not handicapped accessible. Whatever the reason, I was sad to see this childhood favorite go. To this very day when giving directions inside the Magic Kingdom I have to stop myself when I start to say, “If you are facing the lagoon…” There was, and still is, a large and fairly vocal contingent of people who would love Disney to bring back 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. As much as I would love to see the lagoon back again, I am afraid that this is one wish Disney isn’t going to make come true. So instead I will have to settle for the plethora of pictures that others have gathered and some old home movies that people filmed of the ride and keep scouring ebay where every once in a while you can find a prop from the ride appear.

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