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In Memoriam: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 1971-1994


In the spirit of the “In Memoriam” segment found in the upcoming, well-known Hollywood awards show, the WDW Radio Blog will be honoring Walt Disney World attractions and/or locations we have loved and lost over the years.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Disney Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons WDW Radio
Memaids, Adventure and Giant Squids Oh My! Photo & Graphic, Kristin Fuhrmann-Simmons



Extinct Attractions: 4 Fun Facts About 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

As a long-time Walt Disney World fan, I find myself reminiscing about the old days (like the real old 1970s!) and the attractions that were part of the Disney Resort of my youth. There is one ride that immediately comes to mind, and conjures up feelings of excitement (and terrifying memories of a snapping squid beak): It’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In honor of our series on extinct Walt Disney World attractions and locations, I want to share 4 fun facts about the beloved ride.


1.) The Jules Verne Influence:

The 20,000 Leagues attraction was a crown jewel in the early days of the Walt Disney World Resort. Based on the 1870 novel by Jules Verne (and the subsequent Disney Studios movie hit), the attraction was modeled after a submarine voyage counterpart at Disneyland. Verne was a 19th century master of adventure and science fiction (some of which is is now science fact). His handprint can be seen globally throughout the Disney Parks. Walt Disney was fascinated Verne’s prescient outlook  – one that mirrored Disney’s own appreciation for science, forward-thinking technology, and rich storytelling.

The 20,000 Leagues story line follows a group of sailors, searching the world for an illusive sea monster (no, its not that giant squid I had referred to!) The mariners’s embark upon an odyssean-style adventure and an encounter with a mysterious mariner, Captain Nemo. It turns out, Nemo is at the helm of THE submarine (named the Nautilus) that was mistaken as the elusive sea monster. The sailors become part of the Nautilus’ crew and find themselves exploring new lands, digging for treasure, and in a tension-filled struggle with a gigantic deep sea squid. (The book is fantastic, as is the movie. I highly recommend both. For actor Kirk Douglas, it was a peak performance. And boy-oh-boy he can sing!)


2.) An improvement over the 20,000 Leagues experience at Disneyland

The 1954 movie hit garnered Disney Studios two Oscars and extensive fan admiration. The ride’s boats, designed by the movie’s art director, Harper Goff, featured steam punk-era elements that resembled both a shark and deep water angler fish. The spiny top deck and large, eye-shaped observation window lent a spirit intrigue to the ride experience – a “voyage into the unknown” if you will, that was a trademark of Verne’s literary style.

Goff’s Nautilus design was thought of as a “step-up” for the “Florida Project” expansion of Disney Parks in 1971.  A similar ride was already a hit at Disneyland and featured Navy-Inspired submarines. A lagoon was constructed in the new Fantasyland to house the ride. (The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train now sits where the lagoon was located) The lake featured bright blue and green colors, a dock, a waterfall, and a rocky cave. The boat’s eye-shaped windows and metal riveted spines sat above the waterline, creating an intriguing visual for park guests.

While not actually submarines, guest sat aboard these specially constructed boats below water level. Fold-down seats and individually-sized portholes created a singular viewing experience for the riders. Guests would climb aboard and were greeted by a helmsman who stood at one end of the boat. An upper hatch closed down on the boat once everyone was seated and the lights were dimmed. Bubbling screen effects at each porthole, combined with flashing red lights and the sounds of “Dive! Dive! Dive! over a loud speaker, completed the effect of a deep sea dive.

The boats wound their way around a track, viewing sea life, a sea serpent, mermaids, treasure and of course, the creepy, tentacular squid, all while narrated by Captain Nemo himself!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Disney Kristin Fuhrmann Simmons WDW Radio
My record album cover from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo read the story in his oh-so-mystical voice. Photo scan of Disney record and Design by Kristin Fuhrmann-Simmons


3.) To Backlots, landfills  and deep lagoons:

The ride was a fan favorite from 1971 until 1994. It was closed at that time, for what was deemed “routine maintenance”. Several of the Nautilus boats were docked at the lagoon and guests could still view the attraction in a stand-still state. It was officially shut down in 1996 and all but three boats were moved to a landfill. Two of the boats made their way to Castaway Cay: Disney’s private island in the Bahamas. They are located underwater in the snorkeling cove and are now homes for aquatic wildlife. The third ship was located in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and could be viewed during the Backlot Tour.


4.) It scared a lot of people (well, me for sure)- in a healthy, fun kind of way

I was 20,000 Leagues fan, (thanks to my dad, who is a voracious reader and my mom, who is a movie buff). I can tell you this: even though I had read the book and seen the move, the ride experience at Walt Disney World brought it all to life in a very real way. The details of the ride made for an all-ecompassing sensory experience: there was NOTHING like it at the Disney Parks (or at ANY amusement park) at that time. It was a dark ride in the truest sense. The only light inside the boat came from red safety lights. It’s as if guests were almost forced to look through their portholes in order to see any light. We were successfully intrigued and transfixed by this design. The portholes were just big enough to lure you in to see the views outside – and small enough that you could NOT see what was up ahead, adding to the surprise factor of the views of lagoon. The jolt that came from seeing the big squid eye and its snapping beak was enough to cause me to reach out for my dad’s arm, or to hide in my moms lap.

I was not alone in this. Every time I rode 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I would hear that shocking “Welp” from guests of all ages. As I got older, this always made me remember my childhood with a smile.

(Images from the author’s personal collection.  Album cover ©Disney.)

Did you love/like/hate 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?  I would love to hear your memories of the ride!


Kristin is a food writer and social media manager in the great State of Maine. When she is not seeking out the next-best-thing-she-ever-ate, she is busy planning for her runDisney vacations and cooking with her family. She can be found at @kafcooks.