Disneyland 1959: Secrets of the Submarine Voyage

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"This is the captain speaking…welcome aboard. We are now underway and proceeding on a course that will take us on a voyage of exploration through liquid space. En route we will pass below the polar ice-cap and then probe depths seldom seen by man."

This year is the 60th anniversary of the debut of Disneyland's Submarine Voyage, one of the first "E Ticket" attractions.

One of the attractions considered for Tomorrowland before it even opened was a glass-bottom boat ride over the Tomorrowland lagoon suggested by Imagineer Dick Irvine.

Just like the Silver Springs experience in Florida, the boat would have allowed guests to gaze under the water and see live fish and planted surprises, like a sunken vessel, but, of course, this being Disneyland, it would have included some type of a live show, perhaps mermaid performers like another popular Florida tourist experience at Weeki Wachee Springs.

According to Imagineer Randy Bright, Walt said, "No, let's do a real submarine ride. Let's take them down and give them ports to look out of."

Imagineer Bob Gurr recalls it was an offhand remark by Truman Woodworth ("Walt's got everything here except for a submarine.") that Roger Broggie communicated to Walt that might have spurred the development of the ride.

A July 23, 1958, memo from Irvine to Walt Disney listed the creative team handling the project: Claude Coats would work with Bob Sewell on the overall design and Bill Martin worked on the track layout and architectural planning.

Disneyland's submarines took guests to "liquid space," and for a time were the eighth-largest fleet in the world.

Broggie and Wathel Rogers were to engineer and design the animation and effects. Ub Iwerks would work on projections. Gurr would design the submarine vehicles and the drive system with "technical data and advice" from General Dynamics Corporation.

So an investigation began to use the same type of cable system used in San Francisco for the famous cable cars instead of using individual engines. However, the Imagineers, including Broggie and Gurr after a visit to the city and a discussion with the operators, were concerned among other challenges about what would happen if the cables broke about how they would be able to get the guests back up to the surface and back to the shore.

The original concept was that the sub would actually be 6 feet or more underwater. That problem was solved by having a ride vehicle that didn't actually descend below the surface, but moved by a diesel engine with two guide trunks front and rear with flanged wheels along a rail.

Most of the adventure takes place in a huge concrete and steel box of a show building that, thanks to the landscaping genius of Bill Evans, was effectively disguised to look more like a forest behind a waterfall.

The United States Navy expressed an interest in becoming involved in the project, but retired Admiral Joe Fowler, a former Navy man himself and in charge of Disneyland operations, knew that could become a nightmare with all the paperwork and red tape and approvals and regulations. Walt hated being held accountable or overruled by someone else on any project.

There is the popular, and often told story, sometimes by Fowler himself, that when several top ranking naval officers did ride the final attraction, despite being told by Fowler that the vehicle never submerged, the naval officers were completely fooled by the illusion.

For the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Walt wanted a sleek tubular aluminum submarine and pulled out a cigar holder to show what he wanted it to look like to Imagineer Harper Goff. Fortunately, Goff was able to convince Walt to go with that now iconic steampunk design that was inspired by an alligator and a shark. In this Disneyland attraction, Walt finally got that sleek modern look that he had always wanted.

The Disneyland Submarine Voyage was inspired in part by the August 3, 1958, voyage of the U.S.S. Nautilus as the first ship to navigate the North Pole underwater. Of course, this being Disneyland, guests also got to encounter mermaids, Atlantis and even a friendly, cross-eyed sea serpent, so it wasn't completely scientifically accurate although it was indicated that some of these fantasy elements might just be hallucinations from oxygen deprivation.

Setting Your Course on the Submarines: Story Guide and Operations Procedures was prepared by the University of Disneyland for Submarine Operators at the park.

It was a 17-page manual that included information behind the story, operating procedures (including emergency procedures like handling guests experiencing claustrophobia or a broken porthole or power failure), facts about the Disney submarines that can be shared with guests (including that each one cost approximately $80,625 or that there was nine million gallons of water in the lagoon), history of submarines, glossary of terms, suggested further reading and more. In addition, there were diagrams and photos (including behind-the-scenes shots of Walt himself).

Here is the introduction written by Fowler himself:

"Welcome aboard the Disneyland Submarine Voyage.

"This attraction is not just a ride on a submarine; it is Walt Disney's re-creation of a living experience and depicts one of America's most dramatic achievements—the nuclear powered submarine. Our fleet closely parallels its ocean-going counterpart in exterior design.

"Duty aboard an atomic-powered submarine has been limited to a select few because of military security, and as a result, the possibility of an American citizen actually submerging in a nuclear submarine is very remote. Here in Disneyland, Walt has made it possible for everyone to experience the events that men of the United States Nuclear Powered Submarine Fleet have been experiencing during the past decade.

"To tell you the story behind our submarine fleet and to better familiarize you with the operating procedures of the attraction, we have prepared this manual. Your foreman and supervisors are on the job to instruct you and to supervise your work. In addition to your accepting training and direction, we would like you to ask questions whenever there is something which is not clear to you.

"We hope you enjoy your experience working as part of the crew of the Disneyland Submarine Fleet."

The Submarine Voyage was dedicated June 14, 1959 at 3:30 p.m. for a special media preview. It would open to the general public the following day.

Press guests followed the directional signs and viewed this activity from the area surrounding the Coral Lagoon.

When I interviewed Disney legend Bill Evans in 1985 who had landscaped the Submarine Voyage show building to disguise it and asked him what was one of the things he missed most from early Disneyland, he smiled and replied, "One of the things I really miss are the mermaids they used to have at the Submarine Voyage. Those young ladies were very proficient. They were equipped with a Naugahyde tail section and they had to learn to swim in dolphin fashion. But they couldn't get out of the lagoon. There were always lots of volunteers including me sometimes to help them out."

The first mermaids appeared in the lagoon in the summer of 1959 to promote the attraction as the brainchild of Disneyland's Entertainment Director Tommy Walker who held auditions for the role at the Disneyland Hotel pool. The living mermaids were brought back in the summer of 1965 for Disneyland's Tencennial celebration and were a summer attraction through the end of summer 1967.

For the official dedication ceremony, eight live mermaids performed a synchronized water ballet seen on an ABC television special, Kodak Presents Disneyland '59, shown the following night and in the theatrical featurette Gala Day at Disneyland.

The mermaids that could be found at the Submarine Voyage were one of the attraction's biggest draws -- especially for Disneyland's male guests.

Earlier that day, four of the mermaids had appeared on a special float in the Main Street parade where they tossed strands of pearls from King Neptune's treasure chests to guests gathered on the curbs as King Neptune sat in a giant shell throne at the front of the float.

When in the lagoon, they also frolicked underwater to the delight of eager guests peering from the submarine portholes. The mermaids could not see inside the vessels but heard the music clearly so could time their appearances accordingly. There was a rock outcropping in the middle of the lagoon where they could bask and wave at guests.

Participants in the dedication ceremony included Chief Machinist Mate, Stuart M. Nelson of the U.S.S. Nautilus and his first wife Mildred Nelson, a former WAVE, who would formally christen the fleet; Rear Admiral Charles C. Kirkpatrick; Walt Disney and Art Linkletter.

Mrs. Nelson christened the Disneyland Submarine D-301 shouting "I christen thee Nautilus". Walt had handed her a ribbon-decorated bottle of champagne that was sitting on the top of the submarine and she smashed it with such vigor against the conning tower that she almost lost her balance and Walt had to steady her. Walt accompanied her, her three children, Nelson and Kirkpatrick aboard for the first maiden voyage of the Nautilus.

Stuart Nelson died on February 12, 2007 in Gainesville, Florida at the age of 79. He was one of the pioneers of the U.S. Navy nuclear submarine service. He served with recognition aboard the Nautilus, (SSN 571) which is why he and his family were selected for this christening.

By 1957 he was chief machinist mate aboard the Nautilus, where he was in charge of the propulsion plant during the first submerged trans-polar trip in 1958. In 1960 he was commissioned an officer and remained aboard the Nautilus until 1961.

Admiral Kirkpatrick, who had been persuaded to participate in this christening at the urging of Vice President Richard Nixon (who minutes later would dedicate the Disneyland Alweg monorail), said that Nelson was "a man who does what other men can only imagine" and that Nelson was &quo;tofficially commended for outstanding leadership, technical competence and devotion to duty in the first transpolar cruise in history under the sea in submarine".

Kirkpatrick turned to Walt and said, "Walt, this is a real Navy family [referring to the Nelson family]. I don't believe you can put the christening of a ship in better hands or better company."

Disneyland's Submarine Voyage attraction was closely aligned to the commissioning by the United States Navy of the world's first atomic-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus. Built at a cost of $55 million, the U.S.S. Nautilus was 320 feet long.

That Disneyland fleet included the same names as the actual U.S. submarine fleet: Nautilus, Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, Triton, George Washington, Patrick Henry and Ethan Allen, and the training manual gave information about each of the real life counterparts. A total of 38 guests sat in the cramped quarters of each of the 52-foot long submarines.

The eight original aluminum vessels chugged along at 1.8 miles per hour along 1,635 linear feet of track for a ride that lasted eight minutes and 15 seconds. Guests saw 126 animated figures and 180 static figures, as well as approximately 10,000 artificial plants.

Construction of the Disneyland Submarine Voyage began in the fall of 1958. The eight submarine hulls were built by the Todd Shipyards of San Pedro. The submarines were then completed at the Disneyland Naval Yard in Anaheim under the supervision of Fowler who had built naval ships during World War II. The vehicles were painted a military gray giving them an added cache of authenticity.

The first summer the attraction was open, to add an air of reality, two real naval cadets were assigned to stand outside by the lagoon to interact with the guests. It turned out that they were more interested in interacting just with attractive young women as Fowler discovered when he went to check out the attraction one day. He reprimanded the cadets for their behavior, but the cadets had no idea who Fowler was and told the "old man to mind his own business."

"Hold that thought," smiled Fowler as he left and got dressed in his full Admiral regalia. When he returned, the cadets immediately snapped to attention and Fowler claimed that there was no further trouble for the rest of the summer as Fowler told me in a phone interview about a decade before he died.

Again, Fowler was as fond of telling stories as Walt was, and I could find no independent source to confirm this one other than Fowler himself telling it several times many, many years ago.

The 1959 training manual states: "Each attraction in Disneyland is laid out in a thematic story framework using re-creations of original sights and sounds to give the guest a living experience. We owe it to our guests to make the Submarine Voyage just as realistic and exciting as possible."

Walt had originally wanted real sea life to live within the lagoon. But the lagoon's need for massive amounts of chlorine, as well as the logistics of rotating vehicles, and the need for a consistency of experience for each guest to see the fish, caused that idea to be abandoned. WED Imagineers used real "specimen" fish and created plaster cast molds to quickly produce the wide variety of sea life needed.

The fish performed simple repetitive movements and some were connected to overhead rotating turntables. Amazingly, these scenes were built twice as a mirror image so that a complete set of the same actions were on display for the guests on both the port and starboard side of the ship.

The guests saw sea turtles, moray eels, lobsters, crabs, sharks, giant clams, an octopus and more until a surface storm caused the sub to dive to 250 feet where it encountered the Graveyard of Lost Ships including examples of Greek, Roman and Viking craft. There was also a glimpse of a pair of deep-sea divers struggling to recover some sunken treasure from the vessels.

Nearing a polar ice cap, the sub dives underneath the North Pole to an area where sunlight has never penetrated and strange luminescent sea creatures live. Then three swimming mermaids and three more enjoying golden treasures on the ocean's floor are seen as the sub enters the ruined remains of the lost island of Atlantis that sunk beneath the waves as a result of an underwater volcano. That volcano is still active and springs back to life forcing the vessel to move into an area where guests saw the long curved humps of a green sea serpent with a comical face.

The captain feels that perhaps a lack of oxygen and being underwater too long is causing hallucinations so orders the sub to return to the surface.

Of course, as I have written about before, one of the most legendary stories about the Submarine Voyage in 1959 was that Walt was disappointed when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his family were denied the opportunity to visit Disneyland in September of that year because their security could not be guaranteed.

Walt was disappointed because he wanted a photo opportunity with the Soviet leader in front of the fleet of submarines. Walt was prepared with the quip, "Well, now, Mr. Khrushchev, here's my Disneyland submarine fleet. It's the eighth-largest submarine fleet in the world."

The attraction opened June 1959 and officially closed September 7, 1998, because the maintenance and operation was too costly compared with the capacity. The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage opened June 11, 2007.

Disneyland spokesman John McClintock told the Los Angeles Times for an article that appeared September 9, 1998: "The subs were decommissioned in a ceremony at 7 a.m. (September 8). We had a representative of the Navy, Commander Robert Thomas, who said he'd grown up in Tustin and rode the subs as a kid. There is no formal decommissioning ceremony for the Navy, but Thomas said usually there is a ceremony with the lowering of a banner."

That ceremony was performed aboard the Nautilus by longtime park employee Manny Mendoza, who worked on the Submarine Voyage attraction when it first opened in 1959. The Nautilus made a circuit of the lagoon and the banner was presented to Donald Duck in his sailor suit. At that point, Disneyland cast members had the opportunity to take a ride before the park opened. The last trip was by 11 p.m.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are surfacing and approaching our home port. We've enjoyed having you aboard on this adventurous voyage through liquid space…our last frontier on the planet Earth."