09 September 2021

Walt Disney World 50 for 50: Captain Nemo's Adventures

When we look back and think about some of the Magic Kingdom’s earliest show-stopping attractions, it is hard to not immediately focus in on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. This Fantasyland staple ran from mid-October 1971 until its closure in 1994. No trip to Walt Disney World was complete until you had boarded one of Captain Nemo’s famed Nautilus submarines and taken a journey that he narrated, voiced by the impressive Peter Renoudet, and escaped from impressive sea monsters. Living to tell the tale was one of the souvenirs every child took home with them.
As someone who loved the attraction as a child, and has only seen that fascination grown over the years since it was closed, it is the development, construction, and the remnants of the voyage that continue to draw me in. Today, let’s take an exploration of those when guests could have dreamed of what could be and afterwards when they remembered what once had been.
Even after it had stop taking guests on fantastic voyages through liquid space, there was still something to be gleamed from visiting the area. The rocky shores with tropical vegetation were still there. So too were the metal fixtures and shelter of the queue. And while there wasn’t a single Nautilus to be seen prowling the waters of Fantasyland’s Vulcania, the waterfall covered caves still beckoned for a photograph to be taken of them. Of course, this corner of the Magic Kingdom had to see a ton of work in order to ensure it was worth of being called Nemo’s home port.
Due to the fact that the Magic Kingdom had to be elevated in order to accommodate the utilidors, while not disturbing the close to the surface water table, the Submarine Voyage was able to begin building without much in the way of excavation. True, there was bush hogging that was needed to clear out vegetation, but overall the site was in good condition from the start. The lagoon would be lined with concrete, and the major show scenes, those that occurred beyond the waterfall’s veil in the darkened depths of the oceans, would take place in a large warehouse-like show building. Here we can see what the construction of the attraction, and this corner of Fantasyland for that matter, looked like early in its life.
You can see the track, lagoon walls, and the yet to be covered by rockwork show building. The four vehicles perched on the edge of the unfilled lagoon are sitting on the spot that the queue will eventually occupy. While the reef and show scenes haven’t begun being constructed yet, you can see some of the foundational and utility work taking place in the center of the lagoon. If you look closely at the bottom left corner, you can even see one of the turrets of Cinderella Castle taking shape above the building that will be home to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
The fleet of Nautilus submarines, which would end up numbering twelve submarines before it was finished (fourteen if you count the two prop subs that are attacked during the voyage), and their design was the brainchild of George McGinnis. Meanwhile, over in Tampa, Bob Gurr had the task of merging all of the unruly drawings and electrical diagrams, not to mention the hull assembly of the submarines themselves. Between the shipyards of Morgan Yacht and Tampa Ship, the pieces came together.

Some of you may have already guessed the problem, the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea subs were extremely large, and they had to be transported from Tampa to Walt Disney World. The route to transport these underwater marvels had to dodge power lines, stay clear of the low clearance underpasses, and worry about the size, weight, and awkward shape of the submarines. As with all Disney projects, the team found a way to make the difficult look easy. And while most of us can remember viewing the subs plying their watery course in the attraction, how many of us can say that we saw the subs motoring down the highway, as in this 1971 photograph from Walt Disney Productions?
After 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage was permanently shuttered, many of the Nautilus submarines in the fleet were given unceremonious entombments on land. Two of these vessels, however, were given proper sea burials. Their windows and hatches were removed, as were the “eye” section at the top of the submarine, metal mesh was placed over all windows and openings to ensure guests wouldn’t find their way inside, but that fish could, and they were sunk along the snorkeling section of Castaway Cay.
Snorkeling is not a skill that I was born to, but to see a Nautilus again, I was able to make the voyage out to see them myself. Eventually, have long periods of learning how to navigate under through the ocean, it came into view through the murky, sun-drenched blue waters. From its stunted nose to the gorgeous curve of its tailfin, this Nautilus was sight to behold. I swam around the vessel, taking it all in. The memories of boarding the attraction with my father swept back over me as I peered down the stairwells, the conversations with George McGinnis about their construction came to me as I made my way along the top and towards the tail section (where the rowboat would have been), and the realization that these gorgeous pieces of history had found a new life gave me peace.

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