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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Subs = Zero
Will the Submarines ever sail again at Disneyland or Walt Disney World?

The sub lagoon in better days
The sub lagoon in better days

Too bad Disneyland's New Tomorrowland of 1998 doesn't have a time machine. Then we could travel back to the days before the area's grand reopening. Behind tall construction fences, workers busily added the finishing touches. Giant signs and artwork advertised the dawning of a whole new world of wonder. The excitement was reaching a fever pitch—as was the pessimism.

In his first three years as president of Disneyland, Paul Pressler had become synonymous with cutbacks. It was no secret that he rejected many of the Imagineers' more ambitious—and expensive—suggestions for the New Tomorrowland. No matter how exciting the project would prove, Disney watchers would always wonder what could have been, if Imagineering hadn't been so hampered by budget constraints.

Despite the area-wide overhaul, one corner of Tomorrowland was ignored: the Submarine Voyage. Rumors, naturally, began circulating that the attraction's days were numbered. So in April 1998, when Pressler finally consented to an interview for the Orange County Register, he was asked about the subs. Pressler was adamant: the ride would not close until—and unless—a bigger, better replacement was in the pipeline.

The former sub loading area is now an Autopia themed shop
The former Disneyland sub loading area is now an Autopia themed shop

Less than five months later, Disneyland closed its 40-year-old voyage through liquid space—with no concrete plans for a replacement. Just be patient, the company assured us, be patient. Now, after 28 months and counting, the question has become not so much when will the attraction reopen but if the attraction will reopen.

Pressler's not completely to blame. Long before he arrived, the attraction had been earmarked for drastic changes. In fact, in 1994, while Pressler was still heading the Disney Stores division, Florida's Magic Kingdom closed its 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction because of the same maintenance, capacity and labor problems that torpedoed its California counterpart.

"The subs offered low capacity, but required high labor," said a former Walt Disney World ride operator. "Operating the maximum of nine subs, you needed nine drivers plus breakers, six loaders, two greeters, and one person in the queue."

He said there also were problems with the water filtration system and, not a leaky lagoon as was the case at Disneyland, but leaky subs. "The subs leaked so much that eventually they had to turn the falls way down," the cast member recalled. "They tried a lot of quick fixes, like replacing the hatch areas, but that never worked."

Inside the company, everyone knew that the closure was permanent—something Disney refused to admit in public. In fact, the company demanded a retraction from Reuters after the news service reported that 20,000 Leagues was closing for good. Disney hoped that, in time, the public would forget there ever was such an attraction.

A Little Mermaid meet-and-greet area was built in front of the lagoon. The subs were stashed away in the caverns and the back dock area. One by one, they began disappearing. Disney put the top of one sub in the Water Tank at the Disney-MGM Studios. They took two subs to Castaway Cay, the Disney Cruise Line's private island, and sunk them to make a reef. They reportedly removed the console from a sub to auction off as a collectible. The rest of the fleet sits outside the Shops area, rotting.

The chances of a submarine attraction reopening at Disney World are, optimistically speaking, microscopic. Many still hold out hope for Disneyland. Top Imagineers such as Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter have gone on record to voice their support of keeping a submarine attraction alive, in some form. It's not for history's sake, they argue, but for its uniqueness and entertainment potential. Every other amusement park has roller coasters and flume rides, but where else can guests take an undersea adventure in a real, live submarine?

The former loading area, as viewed today
The former loading area, as viewed today

When the Submarine Voyage closed at Disneyland, management refused to acknowledge that it was a financial decision. The reason, they insisted, was that the ride was:

(a) unpopular (untrue, as evidenced by often full queues) and

(b) outdated (sadly, true. The primitive plastic fish and hackneyed recorded spiel had become laughable. Watch a film like Attack of the Crab Monsters sometime. Special effects circa 1959 don't hold up any better in theme parks than they do in the movies.).

Nonetheless, Imagineering took Disneyland executives at their word. The designers were convinced that the park would reopen the ride if it could be improved. After the Submarine Voyage first closed, Imagineering devoted months to designing—and even testing—countless concepts, ranging from a modest update to turning it into a full-scale, E-ticket thrill ride. One idea was rigging the submarines with Alien Encounter-type effects to simulate an attack by a sea creature that could rock the boats and even smash through portholes. The most probable scenarios seemed to be those tied into the upcoming Atlantis animated feature.

The turtles are still visible from lagoonside
The turtles are still visible from lagoonside

But, as Imagineering soon discovered, it didn't matter how good the ideas were. Disney was in no hurry to reopen the Submarine Voyage, especially with all the money the company was sinking into Disney's California Adventure.

The hope still remains that after DCA opens and Disneyland goes a few years with no major additions, attention again will turn to the original park. Yet, if that means salvaging any of the old Submarine Voyage, some cast members say the company had better act quickly.

At first glance, the area still looks like a shimmering blue lake. Closer inspection reveals neglect. It's not unusual to see trash or a stray plastic fish floating in the lagoon. The submarines themselves currently sit in the caverns, hatches raised, decaying. "The subs were moved out of sight because management was getting tired of guests asking about the attraction," alleged one cast member. "The subs are berthed inside the caverns. However, because of the damp conditions in there, the subs are rusting faster than anything else. They are just sitting in there. If no action is taken to fix or rehab the subs within two years, they will be unsalvageable."

"These facts are essentially correct," confirmed a Facilities worker. "I can't comment on the time line for the end of restorability, but my guess is it's not far off."

The former docking area next to the Autopia shop shows how it is used as a trash recepticle by visitors
The former docking area next to the Autopia shop shows how it is used as a trash recepticle by visitors

Structural problems also plague the lagoon. The maintenance worker said, "The main reason the subs were closed was the fact that the tunnel was collapsing. In at least one place, the guide rails had broken free, and the repair costs were deemed too excessive. At least one sub had damaged its sail when traveling across this section. The water level in the lagoon has to be maintained to prevent a large sinkhole from collapsing underneath Innoventions, which would take out Autopia and Rocket Rods as well. Attempts to seal this hole have all failed, mostly due to the porous soil, so Disney pumps something like 50,000 gallons of water per day into this mess to keep things 'stable.' Each year, the amount of water necessary grows, and nothing can or will be done about it."

Certainly with the opening a brand new park, Disney figures it has more pressing concerns than polishing up a creaky, old attraction that's been closed for years. Hopefully, someone soon will find the time at least to check up on the subs, before they're too far-gone to restore.


You can write to David atthis link..

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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