Walt’s Deep Sea Adventures: Tomorrowland’s Submarine Voyage

<em>Submarine Voyage</em> Tomorrowland poster, ca.1959; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, © Disney.Submarine Voyage opened on June 14, 1959 as part of a major expansion of the park that also included the addition of the Monorail and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. Walt looked on proudly as the new fleet was christened with a champagne bottle by Mildred Nelson, wife of the U.S.S. Nautilus’ chief machinist.

Prominent Imagineers such as Claude Coats, Bill Martin, Ub Iwerks, Roger Broggie, Wathel Rogers, and Bob Gurr were challenged with designing an attraction that could safely transport guests through an underwater environment. Disneyland’s Vice President of Operations, Joe Fowler, was a retired rear admiral of the United States Navy, so he took special interest in the project as well. The resulting thirty-eight seat vehicles moved along a track and sported portholes so that guests could peer beneath the surface of an artificial lagoon and behold mechanical creatures of the deep. There were eight subs: Nautilus, Seawolf, Skate, Skipjack, Triton, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Ethan Allen. The subs were painted a Navy gray and ran on diesel engines. They sailed through specially filtered water that provided a bit of murkiness to the atmosphere. As Submarine riders entered the enclosed caverns of the lagoon, they wouldn’t have had any idea that there were guests driving their Autopia cars on the highways of tomorrow right above their heads. Above that, other guests were soaring on Monorail vehicles: riding the “highway in the sky.”

Shortly after leaving port, bubbles blown across the portholes created the illusion of diving to lower depths. The recorded voice of the captain and his crew provided commentary on the various scenes outside of the sub. Passengers first passed through a coral reef to view various species of fish, sea turtles, moray eels, fighting lobsters, giant clams, and an octopus grappling with a shark. More bubbles passed the windows as the subs seemed to go deeper to avoid a storm at the surface. Down here, sunken vessels were clearly visible with scuba divers attempting to salvage the treasures within. Like the U.S.S Nautilus, the Disneyland submarines then took guests to the mysterious world beneath the polar icecaps, drifting through darkness at the sub’s “maximum depth,” and passing strange, glowing sea life and a giant squid. Mermaids began to materialize as the subs came across the lost city of Atlantis, as well as an underwater volcano that had a hand in the ancient civilization’s destruction. The tail of a sea serpent gave the captain and crew a fright, but much less so when its comical face appeared. A last stream of bubbles simulated the return to the surface as passengers ended their journey through liquid space.

In addition to the mermaid figures beneath the waves, live actresses portrayed these mermaids on rocks above sea level for the official opening, and again during the summers of 1965 to 1967. For a few hours each day, these mermaids could be seen swimming about, lounging on rocks, and combing their hair.

The museum’s Disneyland model includes a depiction of the Submarine Voyage. It is the only negative space on the model, meaning it is the only part that sinks down into the surface of the model. While the other bodies of water are blue-tinted panes of glass, the lagoon is filled with gel to allow us to see what lies beneath. If you look closely, not only can you see a mermaid at the center of the lagoon, but also the sea serpent lounging underneath the Monorail track. It’s difficult to see, but its head is below Monorail Red and just along the edge of the glow of a submarine’s headlight. We’ve been told that all of the model makers who worked on our Disneyland model inscribed their names on the bottoms of those little subs.

<em>Submarine Voyage</em> postcard, ca.1959; collection of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, © Disney.The Submarine Voyage would go on to become a Disneyland classic making way for generations of helmsmen to become a part of Walt's little navy. Piloting a submarine usually takes a great deal of training and qualification; however, if one were to become a helmsman on the Disneyland submarines, that kind of training was not necessary. The eight subs never actual dove and were attached to a 1,365 foot track. Therefore, the helmsman only needed to control the speed by moving the throttle back and forth. The helmsman stood on the center platform inside the sub, peering out from the tower, or “sail” of the submarine. The guests sitting below could see the helmsman's legs jutting down from above.

Walt said about the guests’ experience at Disneyland, “Members of the Disneyland audience, unlike the audience at a motion picture or a Broadway show, do not simply look on. They participate in the drama, the adventure, or comedy.” Walt’s vision of sharing the wonders of the world beneath the seas was realized in the Submarine Voyage: a classic attraction that combined practical education with fantastical phenomena.

Walt Disney’s vision had helped to create another classic attraction that provided practical education with fantastical wonder.


Shawn Carrera

Education Associate at The Walt Disney Family Museum

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