This is the article about the former attraction at Magic Kingdom. For the currently existing attraction at Tokyo DisneySea, see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Tokyo DisneySea attraction).
The Submarine Voyage
In 1959, an ambitious expansion of Disneyland's Tomorrowland was completed, which included the addition of new attractions, including the Matterhorn Bobsleds (which is now located in Fantasyland), Disneyland Monorail System, and Submarine Voyage. "Commissioned" on June 6, 1959, in front of President Richard Nixon, Walt and his wife Lillian Disney, and officers of the US Navy, the attraction made use of early animatronics to create underwater life, and the use of forced perspective to increase the feeling of realism. Eight submarines painted in Cold War-friendly grey took guests through the attraction, which took place in a lagoon visible from Tomorrowland and a large show building hidden behind two waterfalls. It became extremely popular with guests, and Walt Disney Imagineering consequently planned for a more elaborate version for the forthcoming Florida Project concept, which would become Walt Disney World.
By the time development work for what is today Walt Disney World began, Disney imagineers had already been working out a rough concept for a sister attraction to Disneyland's Submarine Voyage. It was one of the biggest and most expensive Disney attractions ever conceived. The Florida version had 12 submarines (14 counting two submarines which grappled with giant squids on either side of the track).
It is popularly believed that the Magic Kingdom attraction was originally intended to have been installed in place of the Submarine Voyage at Disneyland in 1959, as the two attractions were identical except for the theming and some elements of the plot. It is also believed that the ride's corporate sponsor, General Dynamics, preferred to keep the original concept, and so the Submarine Voyage opened in 1959 with a non-specific theme, and with nuclear as opposed to Victorian submarines.
Despite the efforts of the construction and installation teams attached to the 20,000 Leagues project, the attraction opened two weeks after the Magic Kingdom due to infrastructure problems with the lagoon. On October 14, 1971, it was opened for business. The completed attraction covered almost a quarter of Fantasyland, including the lagoon and hidden show building surrounded by palm trees and volcanic rock, meant to evoke the impression of Captain Nemo's Pacific Ocean base Vulcania. A storage facility at the back of the show building served to house submarines removed from the main line during day-to-day operation, and also included a dry dock for repair work.
Along the shores of the lagoon, small beaches were built, one with a chest of abandoned pirate treasure. The words "20,000 Leagues" were spelled out in nautical code from signaling flags at the entrance to the attraction. The team of cast members operating the attraction played the roles of Nemo's ever-silent crew, and even wore authentic replicas of the screen production's costumes. Throughout the attraction's life, the crews were almost exclusively male. The first helmswoman appeared in the 1970s.
One of the signature pieces of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the fleet of twelve passenger vehicles, adapted for theme park use from Harper Goff's Nautilus design for the 1954 Disney live-action version by Disney Imagineer George McGinnis. The basic hulls were constructed by Morgan Yacht in Clearwater, Florida, with the final building work being transferred to Tampa Ship midway through. Another veteran Imagineer, Bob Gurr, oversaw the project. Upon delivery at Walt Disney World in August 1971, the vehicles weighed some forty tons, and were installed into a concrete guide (track), mounted on top of a mechanism that limited "bumping" accidents.
The attraction vehicles were not actual submarines, but instead boats in which the guests sat below water level. The interiors were a mix of metal paneling, rivets, and bolts, as well as Victorian-esque fittings in the form of passenger seats that could flip outwards, and armrests beneath the portholes, in keeping with the Harper Goff concept from the 1954 feature film. Each "guest" aboard the Nautilus had his or her own seat, as well as a round porthole to look out into the attraction. A small button located in the porthole recess was intended for defogging the window if needed, though this rarely worked.
Above the seating area was the sail (as it was known to the employees) where the "helmsman" stood and controlled the vehicle's operation. The "diving" effect was produced by bubble machines located throughout the attraction, as well as using the waterfalls at the entrance to the show building.
Each of the twelve vehicles accommodated a total of forty riders. Vehicles normally cycled through the attraction in packs of three.
In the 1990s, Michael Eisner began seeking ways to cut costs and maximize profits. As a result, older rides and thematic elements that did not contribute to the bottom line were put on the chopping block at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride was one of the first to go. At the time of its closure, Eisner considered the ride too expensive and labor-intensive to operate, never mind the fact that the lagoon leaked badly due to cracks formed by the Florida sun, and the effects were dated. The ride closed on September 5, 1994 for what was considered a refurbishment. However, no activity was noticed at all, and the submarines sat still in the lagoon and show building, as if frozen in time. Two years later, in 1996, Disney announced the ride would never reopen for the aforementioned reasons.
The submarines and many props were removed from the lagoon, with the props auctioned off and the subs sent to the "Boneyard" to be stored until they could be used for something else or disposed of altogether. In later years, two of the subs were moved to Castaway Cay (Disney's private island for its cruise ship) and placed in the snorkeling lagoon. Over the years, one of the subs lost its wheelhouse and dorsal fin to hurricanes, while the other sub disappeared without explanation. A third sub was moved around the resort, before finding a home on the Backlot Tour at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Its current location is unknown after the closure of the Backlot Tour. The rest of the subs were moved around the resort before being stripped and buried in a landfill in 2004, with many parts auctioned off to fans of the ride.
The lagoon itself sat empty as a scenic viewpoint. At one point, the waterfalls were turned off and the entrance and exit of the show building covered by a vine-like scrim, and a spouting statue of King Triton was installed. The lagoon itself showed up on park maps as Ariel's Grotto, tying in with the nearby meet-and-greet of the same name. The queue area became a character meet-and-greet spot for Winnie The Pooh characters, due to the film's ride being across the way. Investigation by guests revealed the water fountains by the ride were still functional.
In 2004, ten years after the attraction was shuttered, the lagoon was drained, and Disney announced it would be demolished and filled in. Demolition crews made commemorative t-shirts for the occasion, and Disney issued commemorative pins. All of the remaining props were either removed and auctioned off, or outright smashed. Following removal of the props, the track, docks, and drydock were removed, the show building was demolished, and the lagoon was filled in, ready for new expansion. It was replaced a year later by a children's play area known as Pooh's Playful Spot, which included a tribute the the old ride with a knot in a tree shaped like the Nautilus.
Pooh's Playful Spot was replaced by the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The nearby Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid incorporated the remaining standing walls of 20,000 Leagues's show building and the Little Mermaid area features several nods to the attraction and film, with the Nautilus appearing in the queue's rockwork, the Whale of a Tale song being featured in the queue's music loop, and a giant squid weathervane on the Disney Vacation Club building across the way. A ceremony to commemorate the new attraction's opening included a symbolic "passing of the torch" with a bottle of water saved from the original submarine lagoon being poured into the waterfalls around Prince Eric's Castle.
The attraction's California counterpart, meanwhile, reopened in 2007 as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, and remains operational as of May 2020.