One of the most innovative attractions ever created for the Disney theme parks was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A Walt Disney World “E-Ticket" attraction since its opening day on October 14, 1971 (back when WDW used individual coupons instead of pay-one-price tickets), this Fantasyland ride closed exactly 23 years to the day after it opened, making it the only E-Ticket attraction to ever be removed from the park.
The 38 passenger (39 with the Cast Member “Captain") subs used in the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction based on the Disney film of the same name were distinguished by their Roman numeral markings on the outside. They were built in a shipyard in nearby Tampa, and then brought over on flatbed trucks to Walt Disney World. In fact, when “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" was open, the 24 subs that operated at Walt Disney World and Disneyland gave the Walt Disney Company the 5th largest naval fleet in the world!
Guests boarded Captain Nemo's submarine and traveled under the sea through coral reefs, dark caverns, and into unexpected danger below deadly ice caps. Sadly, the ride closed in 1994 with almost no notice to guests, not due to lack of popularity, but because of constant ride breakdowns, loading difficulties (the subs were not handicapped-accessible), long lines, and the difficulty and high costs of maintenance (including keeping 11.5 million gallons of water clear enough for guests to see through).
For some time after the attraction had closed, the subs remained “docked" in the lagoon, leaving futile hope that the ride would be refurbished and reopened. However, the subs were soon removed and the lagoon drained. They were later stored for some time in backstage maintenance areas, but have long since been removed to whereabouts unknown… well, for the most part, anyway. While rumors persist that many of the old subs have been either dismantled or buried on the property somewhere, two of the subs were brought to Castaway Cay, Disney's private island, for exploration by Disney Cruise Line passengers. As recent as January, 2005, parts form the old subs, including portholes and flip-down seats, were available for sale in Epcot’s Art of Disney store, and the inevitable secondary market of eBay. (And yes, I have already purchased my personal pieces of Walt Disney World attraction history). Additionally, as part of Disney’s Piece of Disney History Pin Collection, Guests can purchase actual pieces of the 20,000 Leagues attraction in a 2500-piece, limited edition pin.
The attraction’s former queue area became what was known as the “Fantasyland Character Festival, " where you could meet and get autographs from Disney characters. The back of the lagoon area was used for “Ariel's Grotto, " where Guests could meet the star of “The Little Mermaid”, and children could play in a soft park area dotted with water jets. For years, rumors of a larger “Little Mermaid" ride swirled, and in 2003, with the success of “Finding Nemo, " similar, yet unsubstantiated rumors began to surface.
For quite some time thereafter, the empty lagoon that once took Guests to faraway lands on perilous, undersea adventures stood empty - a sad reminder of days gone by. Then, in 2004, something strange happened. . . The area surrounding the lagoon was closed off using the familiar green walls that signal Guests that major renovations are going on behind them. The massive process of removing the entire contents of the lagoon and filling it with dirt began, and at the time of this writing, was recently completed. A trip aboard an elephant ride car high above Dumbo reveals to the curious eye that construction has begun on what will eventually become a “Hundred Acre Wood” meet and greet area for characters from Winnie the Pooh. Conveniently located across from the popular “The Many Adventure of Winnie the Pooh” attraction, this “temporary” area will give children a place to find Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and others, have their picture taken (and of course, purchase some themed merchandise on the way out I’m sure).
Rumors have begun to surface that eventually (as in about 7-10 years), the area is to be converted into a “gate-buster” attraction that will logically bridge Toontown and Fantasyland. (but I’ll save that story for another article). Then again, don’t be so sure that the Hundred Acre Wood area will be going away all too quickly. Remember, that’s what Disney said about Toontown and Voyage of the Little Mermaid - they were just “temporary, ” too. Only time will tell. For now, the wonderful 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction remains a distant part of Disney history, and a cherished memory for millions of fans.
Louis Mongello has been fascinated by Walt Disney World throughout his more than 40 visits, and in the process learned everything he could about the history, secrets and inner workings of the resort. He is also the author of the Walt Disney World Trivia Book: Secrets, History and Fun Facts Behind the Magic