(as the ride was called by Disney employees)
was a giant not just because it took up 25% of the real estate in
Fantasyland, and did so prominently with a lagoon that contained 11.5 million
gallons of water, but also for reaching far enough in 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.
Extinct WDW Attraction
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 (below) 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.
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 a submarine trip 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 something of a madman ... a genius, yes, but a homicidal genius. 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 sketchy, unless he of course planned to kill them all mid-trip. WED sagely dealt with this seeming disagreement by not trying to explain it at all - at least not overtly. And with a spectacular set of design imperatives established, they set about putting the ideas for the ride into motion.
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 reminiscent - down to the simulated rivets - of 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
significantly 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 - lending a touch of elegant form.
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.
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" 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 you could pull out of it.
As guests digested Nemo's pedantic ruminations, or more likely tuned them out - as the din of the crowd mixed with the hum of the nearby submarine engines could make any sound escaping the speakers a merely pleasant muddle of background nonsense - the queue shelter afforded them a panoramic view of the ride's lagoon area.
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 - one of which held a treasure chest
(Magic Kingdom visitors were able to view this body of water until summer of
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.
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 2" thick rope, tied off 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 reverberated through the cabin. He (presuming of course that he didn't let anyone else touch the instrument, although with a whole fleet of submarines it must have been hard to keep watch all the time) played 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.
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.
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 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.
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 that was 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.
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 five Magic Kingdom attractions with exit points variable enough to keep parties separated longer than necessary. The other four were Flight to the Moon / Mission to Mars, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, 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:
All of these positions were overseen by a foreman, or 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.
So there was a regular opportunity for guests 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 process similar to that described above was utilized in 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 affair could be conducted 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, as mentioned above, were a great place for helmsmen to take a break in total solitude.
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? Yet with WED's insatiable desire to fill Fantasyland with as many breasts as would fit (see Exposures box above), the mermaid theory takes center stage in terms of plausibility.
It's conceivable that the inlet, with a sloped mass of coral rising from its center in a highly conspicuous fashion, happened by accident. That seems, however, inconsistent with WED's design process; almost every aspect of the park (outside of the overall misplacement of the lagoon) was master-planned ad nauseam. Whatever the intent, I think the stage was definitely set for something to occupy that spot. Sadly nothing ever did.
Speaking of things sad, it is only appropriate that the final days of 20K be given some consideration here.
By now, many WDW visitors had grown accustomed to walking past the idle 20K lagoon since the ride's 1994 closure and wondering, innocently, if the ride would ever be resuscitated. When they visit again, their questions will be harshly answered as they reach the former site of the attraction and find that all traces are completely gone. Granted, most of those who followed the ride's death throes on the internet were not given great cause to believe that the submarines would ever sail through Fantasyland again...especially past 1996. But as long as the lagoon, queue structure and show building remained in place, there was still some glimmer of unlikely hope.
20K's demise is directly attributable to WDW management, who deemed 20K too costly to operate and maintain. While that is an oversimplification of the mechanisms behind its ultimate abandonment, it is essentially the reason why 20K no longer runs today: its closure gave the park's profit margin a considerable boost. By the time I trained at the ride in 1989, a story was already circulating about the ride's potential conversion to a Little Mermaid tie-in. That talk persisted throughout my tenure, but nothing even remotely of that nature occurred until Ariel's Grotto opened in 1996, two years after 20K had closed. And that grotto, of course, is not a ride or even truly on former 20K real estate, it is merely a character greeting location built on land that once formed the "backstage" area of Fantasy Faire.
After I left 20K, the ride underwent another full-fledged, draining and repainting rehab in 1990. Then, in 1993, two interesting things happened. First, by March the queue area background music had been expanded; the original songs and Nemo's commentaries remained, but instrumentals from The Little Mermaid were worked into the song cycle. Then, in August, the ride was closed for a massive refurbishing of the queue roof structure. When it reopened in September, there was a large map on the far west rock wall with a detailed depiction of Vulcania and surrounding locales. Given this attention, it hardly seemed that the ride ran an imminent risk of being shuttered.
In August 1994, however, up sprang one of those rumors that had an all-too-dismaying ring of authority to it: 20K would close that September and be replaced with a walk-through version of the Nautilus like the one in Euro Disneyland. Cast members and internet chat rooms bore out the consensus that it was real, and September 5 was finally purported to be the attraction's last day. On August 31, the company asked as many current and former 20K employees as possible to gather for a final photograph. The result is shown below, courtesy of my one-time fellow helmsman Bill Schmidt (that's him sitting on the rock in his 20K attire).
Six days later, just as everyone said it would happen, the subs took their final trips through the lagoon. Some were parked in intermittent locations throughout the lagoon, some left along the spur line and the rest parked in drydock. The ride went on an undefined hiatus beginning September 6, 1994, with signs and WDW Information stating that it had been temporarily closed. And, as most of us have learned in life, the word "temporary" is subject to a good many vast and often conflicting interpretations.
A future update to this page will address the ride's transition to permanently closed status and the ten-year period that led up to its destruction
Because 20K was the the last attraction I worked during my employment at WDW, and because I stupidly hoped for several years past 1994 that the ride might be revived, it took a long time for me to address its closure on this website. With sentimental feelings on the subject, I wanted to do it justice without building it up to be the park's best ride, and to describe how much fun it was driving those subs, working with a bunch of guys who mostly found the experience purgatorial, while I defaced the operating panels with a ballpoint pen and spieled with a mouthful of Saltines. Atmospherically 20K was a triumph, but in truth it wasn't something I would ride often as a guest in the park. It was more important by far just to know it was there and to see those amazing subs slowly pushing through that big lagoon as one walked through Fantasyland. 20K was most valuable not as a ride but as a visually dynamic building block of the park's identity, one that was easy to take for granted because it had been there since the beginning.
On the twelfth anniversary year of 20K's departure, its absence is now just one more reminder of how the Magic Kingdom once contained myriad unique experiences which have been deep-sixed since the 1970s. It is highly unlikely that Disney or anyone else will ever create another attraction as dated and silly as If You Had Wings, another boat ride as ornate yet seemingly superfluous as the Swan Boats, another dark ride as utterly preposterous as WDW's Mr. Toad or another submarine experience as far-reaching in scope and detail as 20K.
* The pipe organ recording that guests heard in the sub was shorter than the full original recording by nearly a full minute. The longer version, which is linked to above, contains a subdued instrumental passage at the end of the ride's familiar 20K theme - thereby more faithfully reproducing the film's title score.
** Given that, guests on the ride
truly could have traveled the full 20,000 leagues "under" water. But that
would have required meal service onboard and a much longer track ... certainly
one that would have used up all of the land later occupied by Mickey's Toontown
Fair. THAT would have been a shame.