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History of the attraction: 20,000 leagues under the sea

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Magic Kingdom’s (and Disneyland Park’s) long-running classic attraction, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, has a rich history. Even though its disappearance from Disney theme parks in the United States is obvious, the attraction still lives today in other worldwide Disney parks, hidden gems, and will secure its own Disney+ limited series. If you’re a fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, let’s see where you can get your Disney Society of Adventurers and Explorers fix with Captain Nemo!

History of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Ride

Disneyland Park hosted “Submarine Voyage” from June 14, 1959 to September 9, 1998, before closing and becoming Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. While the ride debuted after the famous Captain Nemo movie, it entertained guests with a sense of adventure and a unique ride perspective. However, it was merely the predecessor to Magic Kingdom’s 1971 opening day attraction, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The latter featured an IP based on the 1954 ride and combined elements found in Disneyland Park with the film.

Offering rides aboard the USS Nautilus, Disney Park visitors were taken for an ocean tour in a submarine, with small windows showcasing a passing seascape as aerial audio described the crew saga. The Magic Kingdom attraction was a hit on opening day and still holds a place in the hearts of many Disney park fans.

Credit: Disney

The ride started with a top-loading, two-sided system. The guests had folding seats and a porthole each. Wikipedia has a full point-by-point runtime of the ride, which will remind any guest who has experienced the attraction of the entertainment that awaits.

The adventure began as guests descended into the rear of the submarine, leaned over to miss the low-level raised rear hatch, and found a place on board. Throughout the journey, an eerie organ version of the Disney movie’s main theme would play on an endless loop, allowing for storytelling support as well as a drop-out music track if needed. After the standard Disney-style introduction and helmsman’s safety notes, the narration, in the voice of Captain Nemo, would begin.

With the submarine clear of the dock, the diving sequence began, with hundreds of air bubbles filling the view from the porthole, creating the illusion of descent. Once cleared, the captain introduced himself to his passengers, then showed them the underwater plains around Vulcania. In the lagoon, guests could see moray eels, crabs, lobsters, bass, clams and turtles as well as a multitude of small tropical fish.

Minutes later, in another homage to the Disney film, an “underwater party” of divers would appear, as animatronics wearing replicas of scuba diving gear designed by Harper Goff worked on beds of kelp and argued with wayward turtles.

nautilus walt disney world
Credit: Wikipedia

With the waterfall bubbles at the entrance to the cavern simulating a surface storm, the captain ordered the submarine to descend into the depths as a precaution, and guests entered the show’s construction section of the attraction. Within minutes, the devastation such a natural phenomenon can create was on full display with the eerie Graveyard of Lost Ships, with centuries-old shipwrecks littering the seabed, guarded by the silent, hovering silhouettes of sharks.

Leaving the destruction behind, the Nautilus would reach the North Pole, circling the polar ice cap below the surface and narrowly avoiding the large stabbing icebergs in the water. Venturing deeper, the Nautilus entered the eerie world of the Abyss, where guests saw examples of the many strange and bizarre species of deep-sea fish that thrive in such an environment.

Up slightly, one of the latest discoveries made is the ruins of Atlantis, complete with a typical Disney sea serpent, accompanying mermaids and a treasure trove full of jewels and gold. With the ruins of ancient civilization soon abandoned, the Nautilus would enter the final phase of its journey, with a tribute to the most iconic and memorable part of the 1954 Disney film: the attack of the giant squid. After seeing a much smaller sister, Nautilus, trapped in the clutches of one of these creatures (oddly marked XIII on the tail fin), the passenger sub would itself be attacked by long flapping tentacles.

With a final push to the surface, the Nautilus would clear the caverns of the dangerous squid and enter the safety of the tropical lagoon, en route to the dock.

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Credit: walt dated world

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has a history of closure hampered by disappointment, as the closure was never officially announced before the attraction was demolished. It was a favorite of those visiting Magic Kingdom, despite its exorbitant maintenance costs and low carrying capacity compared to other attractions. Without notice, the ride was closed on September 14, 1994 for a period of maintenance. Although the attraction was supposed to reopen in 1996, it was permanently closed.

Three fan-favorite underwater vehicles have been rescued from the fleet and installed behind the scenes for Walt Disney World guests to view. The others were scrapped. Two ships were sunk at Castaway Cay for snorkeling and artificial reef development, but one was so badly damaged due to weather conditions that it was pulled. The third vehicle was parked as a backstage feature for those on the Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but was eventually moved to an empty lot. After Disney’s Hollywood Studios redesign for Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the submarine was shut down, to be retired for runDisney and other events.

shipwrecked nautilus cay
Nautilus Castaway CayCredit: Reddit

Meanwhile, the giant lagoon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride area was renamed “Ariel’s Grotto” and a King Triton Fountain was installed. This lasted until 2004, when the entire area was demolished, making way for Pooh’s Playful Spot (2005). This playground would give way in 2016 to Magic Kingdom’s large Enchanted Forest Fantasyland expansion, including Storybook Circus, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, and Be Our Guest Restaurant, among other attractions.

However, the Imagineers were not without a sense of history. They hid a silhouette of the Nautilus in The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure in a rock face, and there’s a small sculpture of the Nautilus inside Piglet’s Treehouse. Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto also hosts a cocktail called (and served in a) Nautilus!

nautilus sam cocktail trader
Nautilus cocktail from Trader Sam’s Grotto Credit: Reddit

Which Disney parks have the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride?

Thanks to global Disney parks like Disneyland Paris and Tokyo DisneySEA, we can get League-flavored excitement. At Disneyland Paris, you can experience “Les Mystères du Nautilus” (that’s French for “The Mysteries of the Nautilus”), which is a step-by-step attraction. This is an updated version of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea walkthrough attraction that stood at Disneyland in Anaheim, California in the early 1950s, based on the movie of the same name, before to be transformed into an underwater voyage. Although not the original ride, it is very similar and will give fans a taste of the movie.

Tokyo DisneySEA greets guests in a small remote-controlled submarine developed by Captain Nemo. They go on a tour to explore the underwater world, but of course the remote goes wrong and as the sub attempts to rise, the sub is attacked by the Kraken and loses control, resulting in a detour into an unknown world.

tokyo disneysea 20000 leagues under the sea
Credit: Tokyo disneySEA

But what about the original car? For Disney fans who loved the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction, there’s still a chance to relive the attraction! Thanks to the Defunctland virtual reality project, you can now climb back onto the Nautilus underwater ship and sail with Captain Nemo and the crew. An entire YouTube series hosted and created by Kevin Perjurer delves into defunct theme park attractions like JAWS the Ride, ExtraTERRORestrial: Alien Encounter, Back to the Future, Captain EO, and more. Each episode of the Defunctland series is an Imagineering story and mashup, creating a digital theme park out of once-beloved attractions. Even Disney Hollywood Studios’ Sorcerer Hat is getting a VR experience.

vr 20000 leagues under the sea
1 credit: Defunctland

the Nautilus Disney+ TV Series

For big fans of this classic attraction, Disney+ will host a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea series titled, Nautilus. In development for over six years, the show will be streaming-focused and is written and executive produced by James Dormer. According to the film’s director, Bryan Singer (X-Men), 20th Century Fox’s version of Jules Verne’s classic “steampunk” inspirational novel, which is set to begin filming later this year, will depend heavily on the tensions of post-reconstruction the American Civil War.

Acting as a prequel to the original titular 1954 film starring Kirk Douglas, Nautilus will follow Captain Nemo in his youth before he meets Ned Land, as an “Indian prince bereft of his birthright and family”, who is a prisoner of the East India Company – the same company determined to destroy Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean — and is determined to right the wrong that stole his life. The series will see the mysterious Captain Nemo battling enemies and discovering “magical undersea worlds” with his motley crew aboard the Nautilus, surely proving to be a storybook-worthy adventure,” reports Collider.

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Credit: Disney

For Disney fans who wish we had one more sci-fi chance to dive deep into the sea, we highly recommend planning a trip to Disneyland Park and swimming with Dory on the Finding Nemo Underwater Journey, which will give you the physical experience of the Nautilus contraption and a similar 3D puppet aquarium visual of the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction.

Are you a fan of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction? Leave us a comment below!