Skip to content
Disney brings submarine ride back from the depths
It was an underwater battle of epic proportions, pitting the creative types against the cost-cutting suits. But after nearly 10 years, Disneyland's classic Submarine Voyage has been resurrected from the deep.
Reinvented as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, the long-dormant and eagerly anticipated attraction immerses riders in a 12-minute journey through a coral reef, exploding volcano and shark-infested wreck as they search for the orange-and-white clown fish of movie fame. With its impressive animation and spotlessly reconditioned bright-yellow submersibles, park-goers might just forget that the area of the theme park containing the ride — which Walt Disney himself helped conceive — was nearly paved over.
It was 1998 when Disneyland grounded the submarine fleet, calling it costly and dated. Then park President Paul Pressler, leader of the park bean-counters, wanted the ride shut down because it hogged space, proved too expensive to maintain and cycled riders through too slowly.
But the ride had its champions, including Marty Sklar, then Disney's creative chief. He publicly threatened to lie down on the busy street that fronts Disneyland to prevent the subs from being deep-sixed. It was a rare case of an internal Walt Disney Co. dispute being thrust into the public eye.
"Oh, I said it," Sklar said. "I meant it. I'm sure glad I didn't have to throw myself across Harbor Boulevard
. I never gave up."
Over the years, Disney so-called Imagineers lobbied for various overhaul ideas, such as redoing the attraction with a "Little Mermaid" theme, or a lost city of Atlantis vibe. When none stuck, concern grew that the ride couldn't be saved.
A similar attraction at Walt Disney World in Florida was paved over and turned into Pooh's Playful Spot, a glorified playground for toddlers. At Disneyland, the lagoon sits in a prime Tomorrowland location near Autopia and the Matterhorn.
Those who have followed its long journey back say the return is a testament to Disney's creative Imagineering arm and a nod to nostalgia.
"Never underestimate the power of Southern California baby boomers," said Jim Hill, who writes a popular Disney blog. "This was a piece of their childhood
. We're talking about nostalgia and all that. That's what's powering this."
The original ride opened in 1959, a year after the Navy's nuclear-powered Nautilus captured the public's fancy by becoming the first submarine to travel under the polar ice cap. In its honor, Disney named one of his eight 52-foot subs "Nautilus," and it remains today. Walt Disney was proud that he commanded the world's eighth-largest submarine fleet and even hoped to show it off to then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, but that visit was canceled over security concerns.
But over time, the subs' allure waned. Paint on the colored fish faded. In the late 1960s, there was an effort to spice up the ride with live, bikini-clad mermaids. Before long, though, the maidens of the sea disappeared from the lagoon after too many over-eager visitors tried to swim out and have photos taken with them.
By the 1980s, maintenance had become a nightmare, with cracks in the lagoon allowing thousands of gallons of water to seep out daily, according to David Koenig, author of "More Mouse Tales." Park-goers began bypassing the ride in favor of more exciting attractions.
Veteran park watchers figured the subs' demise was inevitable, especially when park management in the mid-1990s shut down other attractions such as the skyway to Tomorrowland, people movers and the keel boats. Months before the sub ride closed in 1998 and amid rumors of its demise, Imagineers — most notably Bruce Gordon and Tony Baxter — attempted to pressure the budget-crunchers to commit to reopening the ride.
They quietly hoisted a flag and put up near the Submarine Voyage a sign reading "Atlantis Expedition Imagineering Preparation Base." The move set off a flurry of speculation and rallied fans, who became convinced that an announcement of a new ride was imminent.
"They were trying to plant — not even a subliminal hint, but low-key subtle encouragement, 'Don't worry, we're working on something new,'" Koenig said.
The two sides were "always locking horns behind the scenes," Koenig said. "But that was one of the rare times in public. They usually don't show it."
The empty lagoon's high-profile location became an eyesore that served as a constant reminder of the park's less-than-pristine condition.
"It just created this jungle [park executives] had to hack their way through," said Al Lutz, editor of miceage.com, a website about all things Disney. "Even when they closed the ride, the fight continued. Everybody that could throw themselves in the way [of closing the ride] — obstruct it, block it, or stop it — did."
One concept for the new ride called for retrofitting the submarines with motion seats, surround sound and fiber-optic effects. The subs would carry people on a search for Atlantis and a lost ship and dodge an attack by an underwater creature.
But Disney's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" movie tanked at the box office in 2001, forcing the company's Imagineer division to dump that idea. And although it briefly pondered a tie-in with "The Little Mermaid," ride executive producer Kathy Mangum said Ariel's story seemed better suited to Fantasyland.
About that time, Sklar said Disneyland executives renewed their efforts to get rid of the submarines, complaining that they took up too much storage space.
"I said, 'Hold on a minute,' " Sklar recalled. "I told them we're going to hire a naval engineering firm
[which] came back and said, 'Fellas, there's 40, 50 years life left in these things.'"
It was another reprieve.
All the while, Imagineers in Glendale kept working.
"There has always been activity since the day the sub attraction closed," Mangum said. "Somebody here was thinking about how to bring it back."
It wasn't until the movie "Finding Nemo" struck box office gold in 2003, though, that the course ahead became clear.
An entire creative team began devising ways to incorporate Nemo into the submarine ride, Mangum said. It was the first time, Sklar said, that Disney had a solid story line to work with.
Meanwhile, fans continued their scrutiny. Sites popped up on the Internet, including the Submarine Voyage Recommissioning Society. Every little development was dissected, photographed and recorded.
In one September 2003 posting, a Disney fan reported that the lagoon had been drained 18 inches and that boat tests were occurring in the caverns. One month later, a monorail rider breathlessly reported spotting a submarine being moved halfway out of the cavern — only to be moved back in again.
A new Disneyland Resort regime, led by Matt Ouimet, helped bring it back, with an announcement of the new attraction made during the park's successful and lucrative 50th anniversary celebration in 2005.
Disney executives declined to divulge how much the high-tech overhaul — or the long period of dormancy — cost the company, though several park watchers estimate it at well over $70 million.
Many of the economic challenges that encouraged budget-conscious executives to shutter the attraction remain. For example, even with the addition of two seats to each sub, the ride will accommodate only about 1,000 riders an hour, compared to faster-loading attractions such as the Pirates of the Caribbean, which carries about 3,400 people an hour. On a busy weekend, with about 60,000 in daily attendance, only a fraction of park-goers will be able to ride the subs.
Even so, Disneyland is bracing for a booming summer. Internet message boards already are brimming with rave reviews from annual passholders and park employees who have taken early spins on the subs.
"IT WAS AWESOME!!!!! i would TOTALLY WAIT IN LINE for like 6 hours for it," wrote one satisfied rider. Another called it an "amazing experience" to be able to ride "one of my all-time favorite attractions at Disneyland with my two children. The moment absolutely made my day." And even before its official opening to the general public today, dozens of grainy, blurry and dark videos had surfaced on YouTube.
With long lines anticipated, park executives are devising ways to keep guests occupied: They'll be selling extra snacks (cheddar fish crackers) and handing out activity guides. And the Finding Nemo will remain open for up to 2 1/2 hours after the park closes, adding up to what Disneyland calls an "eighth day" in the week.
After all this time, Sklar said, it was worth the wait.
"I had kind of a chill at first," he said of his first trip around the lagoon on the refurbished ride. "I just felt like it was deja vu. But then, everything is so much better than it ever was
. In this business, you never say never."
Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.