Oh 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Let me start by saying this is/was my absolute favorite attraction ever at Walt Disney World. It’s older sister, Submarine Voyage at Disneyland, is right up there with it...but 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was just *chef’s kiss* the complete embodiment of wonder, suspense, and magic. Based on the 1872 novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea , by Jules Verne, and the 1954 Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason - this attraction took much of what made Submarine Voyage great, and turned it into something even more spectacular.
On opening day of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea could be found nestled back in Fantasyland, within a huge lagoon that spanned from Pinocchio’s Village Haus to the Grand Prix Raceway (what is now known as New Fantasyland). Each Nautilus submarine, reminiscent of the submarine in the movie, carried guests around the beautiful blue lagoon. Captain Nemo guided you through the attraction as you view out your porthole window into the lagoon, through a waterfall, and then dive...DIVE!... into the depths of the sea...seeing all the amazing sea creatures, mermaids, ruins, a diver, and battling a giant squid! Once you escaped the clutches of the squid, you were transported safely back to the dock. Magical, incredible, and truly an unforgettable experience of Imagineering genius.
I remember my first ride on this attraction at age 7 - I was mesmerized by the thought of traveling ‘under the sea’, the storytelling, and the sights along the way. The Nautilus sub was beautiful, looking like a sea creature itself, it’s still a sight to behold in photographs and memorabilia. The submarines in California at what is now known as Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Adventure, are still really cool to see, but nothing holds a candle to the majesty of a Nautilus. My second encounter with the Nautilus was in June of 1994, just a few months before 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s untimely demise. My friend and I rode with my parents, and what was awe inspiring as a child, was now nostalgic and silly as a teenager - but I didn’t care. I was so excited to take that ride with Captain Nemo again. Say hello to the mermaids and battle the giant squid once again. Looking up, I can remember seeing ducks swimming alongside the Nautilus, almost breaking the magic for me...but we hadn’t dove into the depths of the sea just yet...after all, we were on an adventure with the greatest sea captain in the most sophisticated submarine in the world. What could go wrong?
1998 marked our Senior trip, and one day would be spent at the Magic Kingdom. I couldn’t wait to ride 20K again. Alas, signage and the entrance that once adorned the lagoon were now replaced by fences, and a King Triton statue holding a water-spewing trident would be found directing visitors to visit Ariel in her grotto...but one could still see the beautiful waters, the waterfall, and tracks on which the Nautilus once sailed. Jump ahead to my first Walt Disney World College Program roaming the parks as Cast Members, I wanted to ride with Captain Nemo more than anything, hoping that King Triton would be gone, or the ride would be re-themed, or something would bring me back to the Nautilus. Unfortunately, the Nautilus was gone for good. By my second College Program, King Triton had been removed from the lagoon. And by 2005, the lagoon had been filled in completely and replaced with Pooh’s Playful Spot. I was devastated. Today, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid stand where this magnificent attraction once was.
As a Cast Member, one can gain access to information that others cannot. I could scour archival information while working in the Disney Learning Centers, and I personally knew the resident historian at the time, Jim Corkis, and now collecting 20K memorabilia has become a fun hobby for me. The history of the closure of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is intriguing and upsetting, clouded by conspiracy and cast member lament. You can explore this on your own as there are many fan pages online devoted to this. After its closure, pieces of the ride, remnants of the attraction were auctioned off - from fake coral to costumes to actual portholes from a Nautilus. You can still find things on collectors pages and occasionally on eBay. An attraction ‘boneyard’ used to surround a backlot on Disney property, where 12 of the original 14 Nautilus were left to rust and be dismantled. At one point, one Nautilus had been sunk in the diving beach area of Castaway Cay, but many hurricanes later, it has not survived. A walk through of a Nautilus can be found in Disneyland Paris near Space Mountain for their steampunk take on the future. A different version of the Jules Verne classic can still be found, in full operation today, at Tokyo Disney Sea! (and one day I will get there to see it!)
Today, you’ll find nods to the Nautilus in the rocks surrounding Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid. Across at the DVC center, you’ll see the giant squid adorn a weather vane atop the building, as well as a nod to the designer of the Nautilus for the 1954 film, H Goff, on the Cartographer’s sign. There’s also a small Nautilus above Pooh’s front door as you enter the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh attraction as this house once stood in Pooh’s Playful Spot. Take a trip to the Polynesian Village Resort and you can grab a specialty drink in an actual Nautilus mug at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto! With 2019 being the 65th anniversary of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movie, much more vintage-inspired memorabilia has hit stores and brought back that nostalgic feeling.
On my last trip to Disneyland in November 2019, I was fortunate enough to ride the Submarine Voyage once again (my first being in 2009). While it’s been re-themed with Finding Nemo since 2007, it warms my heart to see a lagoon full of sparkling blue waters, the waterfall flowing, and submarines (while not a Nautilus, lovely all the same) diving to the deep! It’s beautiful. If you never had the opportunity to experience 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, I hope you have a chance to experience the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at the Disneyland Resort, and find the magic that I did that has stuck with me for so long.
Oh 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...you are missed, but not forgotten
Sources used to assist with historical context in this article: