Celebrating the Classic Submarine Voyage

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Second Opening of Disneyland,” as well as the 50th anniversary of the first “E -Ticket” attractions at Disneyland. One of those attractions was the Submarine Voyage "through liquid space," that officially opened at a special press preview on the afternoon of Sunday, June 14, 1959.

“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.”

Like the 37 other guests in the cramped quarters of the 52-foot long submarine, I eagerly pressed my face up against the twelve inch porthole to see the wonders beneath the sea that would reveal mermaids, the lost city of Atlantis, a volcano and of course, the oddest sea serpent I had ever imagined.

One of the attractions considered for Tomorrowland before it opened was a glass-bottom boat ride over the Tomorrowland lagoon suggested by Disney legend 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, as well.

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. Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers were to engineer and design the animation and effects. Ub Iwerks would work on projections. Bob Gurr and Roger Broggie would design the submarine vehicles and the drive system

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, 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 doesn’t actually descend below the surface but moves 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. There is the popular and often told story sometimes by Fowler himself (although some have doubted the authenticity of the story) 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 to Imagineer Harper Goff. Fortunately, Goff was able to convince Walt to go with that now iconic 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 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 sea serpent so it wasn’t completely scientifically accurate although it was indicated that some of these things might 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 after the attraction opened. 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 9 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).

Sadly, Disney University does not make such cast member-friendly training manuals like this booklet anymore that cover, in intensive detail, not only the operating procedures but the history and story and fun facts of the attraction.

So for those of you who, instead of wanting to be a Jungle Cruise captain, wanted to commander the Disneyland submarine fleet, here are some very brief excerpts from this outstanding training manual. After all, where else can you discover that it was Mrs. Mildred Nelson who christened the fleet in June 1959 and not Lillian Disney as has been stated in some articles and unofficial DVDs of the attraction?

INTRODUCTION by J.W. Fowler, Vice President of Operations

“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.”


“When Disneyland opened its gates on July 17, 1955, Walt said that Disneyland would never be completed. As a result, new attractions were added each year. June of 1959 brought to a climax a $7.5 million construction program and gave to Disneyland three new attractions: the Monorail, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Submarine Voyage. This major expansion was considered the second opening of Disneyland and premiered before a nationwide television audience estimated at 93 million people.

“The first step which led to Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage was the filming of Jules Verne’s story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Pre-production planning went on for two years before actual filming was begun. Then, many weeks were spent under the ocean in the brilliantly-hued, air-clear waters of the Bahamas. Other filming was carried on at the Burbank Studios, and for a period of eight weeks, the 54-man crew worked on an underwater sound stage. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was finally released to the public in December of 1954.

“The second step which led to the construction of Disneyland’s Submarine Voyage was 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 is 320 feet long with a surface displacement of 3,000 tons.

“Construction of the Disneyland Submarine Voyage began in the fall of 1958, along with the Monorail and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The eight submarine hulls were built by the Todd Shipyards of San Pedro at a total cost of $290,000. The submarines were then completed at the Disneyland Naval Yard under the direction of their designer, Joseph W. Fowler, Vice President of Operations, and a retired United States Navy Rear Admiral.

“Walt Disney is proud of his eight submarines, which comprise the largest peace-time fleet in the world. Each one is named after a submarine of the United States Navy Nuclear-Powered Submarine Fleet. During the big opening in June of 1959, the Disneyland Fleet was christened by Mrs. Mildred Nelson, a former WAVE and wife of Chief Machinist Mate Stewart N. H. Nelson of the U.S.S. Nautilus.”

(Sampson note: She used a bottle of champagne. By the way, that initial fleet included the Nautilius, Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, Triton, George Washinton, Patrick Henry and Ethan Allen and the training manual gives information about each of the real life counterparts.)


“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.

“The guests’ ride experience is broken into distinct segments, each of which has been carefully designed to give them a specific experience or observation.

“It is necessary for you to know these thoroughly in order to get the proper feel of your attraction to properly answer questions.”

The training manual then had several illustrated pages explaining the reality and fantasy behind each of the scenes in the voyage.

The attraction opened June 1959 and officially closed September 7, 1998. (The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage opened June 11, 2007.)

The first summer it was open, to add an air of reality, two real naval cadets were assigned to stand outside the attraction to interact with the guests. It turned out that they were more interested in interacting 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. 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 me it many, many years ago.

For the official dedication there was also a water ballet seen on nationwide television performed by live mermaids in the lagoon. They returned in the summer of 1965 as part of the Tencennial celebration and remained from the summer of 1965 through the summer of 1967. They were there for about four hours a day, swimming, sitting on rocks in the middle of the lagoon, primping with giant combs and playing with seashells.

When I interviewed Disney legend Bill Evans in 1985, and discussed with him all the changes that had happened to Disneyland over the years and what was one of the things he missed most, 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. They were pretty good at it. But they couldn't get out of the lagoon. There were always lots of volunteers to help them out.”

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

In 1986 the two-tone military gray submarines were repainted yellow and renamed Nautilus, Triton, Sea Wolf, Neptune, Sea Star, Explorer, and Argonaut. (The Finding Nemo submarines are named Explorer, Scout, Voyager, Mariner, Seafarer, Nautilus, Neptune and Argonaut. The new attraction has several references to the original attraction including some of the classic lines of dialogue and some designs blended into the underwater rockwork.)

Of course, one of the most legendary stories about the Submarine Voyage was that Walt was disappointed when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was denied the opportunity to visit Disneyland because his security could not be guaranteed. Walt was disappointed because he wanted a photo opportunity with him standing with the Russian 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.”

Like many other former Disneyland attractions, I miss the simple joy and wonder that this attraction gave to so many guests including myself. However, I don’t know if my much larger older self today would have been able to maneuver down the winding staircase into a tight little seat but as a kid, it was truly amazing.

“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.”