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The Origin of the Submarine Voyage
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a film that premiered a year before Disneyland’s opening. Though more focused on constructing Disneyland, it was a movie that had to still be on Walt Disney’s mind during the making of the park. When the park opened a 20,000 Leagues attraction debuted along with Tomorrowland. This was not a true journey to liquid space, however. It focused on movie props and sets. Still, it was the start of something that would come just a few years later.
Science was something that Walt was behind much throughout his life. He was fascinated with the future and had optimistic views of what could be. It is no wonder that the Submarine Voyage came about a year after a nuclear sub traversed the real polar ice cap – an adventure that guests embarked on during the attraction. Though it clearly took its cue from the 20,000 Leagues film, the ride was much more grounded in science…with the occasional sea serpent and mermaid.
Walt always commented on how he had one of the largest fleets of submarines in the world. The submarines weren’t true submarines, but it was something that Walt liked to joke about. The original attraction started near the surface and let guests gaze at marine life that was akin to glass bottom boats or scuba diving. Then, the sub would descend. The quest was to head beneath polar ice caps and “probe depths seldom seen by man.” Along the way, there were views of sunken ships and divers scavenging through them. Eventually, a giant squid tries to attack the ship, but the sub is able to avoid it. The ultimate find comes in the form of discovering the continent of Atlantis. Each descent was done by the illusion of air bubbles. It was an advanced attraction for its day and lasted that way for quite a while.
At one point some live mermaid beauties spent time on the rocks on the surface of the lagoon. There has been speculation that the mermaids were discontinued because Navy officers swam out to them. While there has been evidence that there really were sailors that swam out to the rocks, this was not the reason for the mermaids to be discontinued. A few different factors led to the demise of the mermaids on the rocks (see this article for info on that).
There and Back Again
The Submarine Voyage was closed on September 9, 1998. Though closed, the lagoon was still around awaiting its fate. Rumors kept circulating on if the attraction would reopen revamped. The problem was the cost of running. Having animatronics and other features all in water with chemicals kept constant upkeep. It wasn’t a huge capacity ride, as well. There wasn’t quite enough of a reason to keep it open for quite some time.
Then, almost ten years after its closure, the ride reopened as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The Disney•Pixar film breathed new life into the attraction. Many of the scenes were not completely in water, making it a bit easier for upkeep. Projections were even employed to bring the animated marine creatures to life. A brighter color scheme was employed for the subs themselves, and even in the coral reef. Seagulls sat on a buoy chanting their infamous “mine…mine.”
It could be said this is an entirely new attraction and not really the revamp of the original. It does keep the original name in its new name, utilizes the same track, and even bits of the narration. I think that had Finding Nemo premiered in 1998 the attraction would have gotten the overlay much earlier.
Regardless of the argument on if the Submarine Voyage truly lives on, it is a Disneyland classic. The original still has references in little homages throughout Disney exhibits and even sometimes fireworks shows. Many love quoting the attraction’s narration such as “Dive! Dive!” It has always been a fantastic and fanciful water-based ride through liquid space.