The Birth of a Dream
The 20K ride at Disney World opened October 14, 1971, and was one of the original flagship attractions. It had twelve amazing 38 passenger subs, the huge water tank held 11.5 million gallons of water, and it took up 25% of the real estte in Fanastyland. And it's astounding to think that ride was only a third of the size it was originally planned to be! (The victim sub in the grip of the giant squid is marked as XIII on the fin, making it the 13th nautilus in the fleet. The fact that there was an unlucky sub number XIII on both sides of the track may be why the ride is sometimes sited as having 14 subs.)
The 20K ride was a very close cousin to a ride in Disneyland California called "Submarine Voyage" which opened in 1959 (and in 1998 was shut down as well, I guess it just hasn't been a good decade for submarine rides). The two rides shared many of the same elements and animatronics; I believe that's how the bizarrely out of place mermaids and goofy sea serpent ended up in 20K. However close examination will show how 20K was tweaked and improved in almost every respect. Even the attraction's posters were nearly identical; and here's the Submarine Voyage poster. The Disneyland Submarine Voyage is currently being rehabilitated into a Finding Nemo themed ride.
What follows is an article from Laughing Place by Bob Gurrall about the assembly of the subs. It really gives you a sense of what a behemoth operation the 20K ride was, but it's also quite long and technical, so you may want to skip past it for now.
The WED mechanical engineering team at the MAPO facilities in Glendale California began an expansion in the late 1960's to handle all the new attractions planned for the upcoming Walt Disney World. Up to that time, I pretty much concentrated on several projects at once, usually as the main designer. But during this time frame, we added a lot of licensed engineers as well as drafters. Most of us early Disney guys were told to apply for a state engineer's license. Being a boring engineer did not appeal to me, so I let this opportunity slip by.
I had been in charge of the detail design of the Florida Mk IV Monorail while doing some other project work; Mineral King WED ski lift design, DL Moon Ride Animated Seats, WDW Main Street Vehicles, etc. Then a new kind of assignment came my way......factory representative. Disney had contracts with a number of companies around the US to build our ride vehicles. Tampa Shipyard in Florida was rebuilding existing old steam engines for the WDW Railroad and had been contracted for final assembly of the WDW 20,000 Leagues Submarines, as well as a lot of WDW watercraft.
Many of our folks were assigned to follow the contractor's Disney jobs all over the country. So I wound up assigned to the Subs at Tampa Ship. Disney had rented some condos on a beautiful bay in Tampa, Florida to house the permanent and visiting Disney folks. I was no longer a designer (no license), but was now a team member fulfilling the task of a customers representative handling all the WED-Tampa-Submarine matters. A whole new experience.
George McGinnis styled the WDW 20,000 Leagues Submarine design after the Jules Verne sub in the movie of the same name. Morgan Yacht in Clearwater, Florida started building the basic hulls. Somewhere in the middle of the work, the job was transferred to Tampa Ship. I found myself in a nautical dispute among naval architects, Admirals, railroad guys, and testy shop folks.
McGinnis was making drawings, MAPO electrical drafters were pumping out wiring diagrams, and supplier equipment was arriving daily at the Submarine shop. The Tampa guys had to put all this stuff together and I was point guy. Now Tampa ship was not a movie studio. It was a big naval shipyard full of fascinating stuff. We had a big open tin shed to work in. I had a small un-airconditioned office with a tall stool on a dirt floor. The Tampa supervisor I was to work with drove a blue "Chivvy" truck with a .45 automatic alway layin' on the seat.....told me it helped manage production in the yard. It was summer....every day about 2pm, a big thunderstorm blew up, the first lightning hit was on the tall crane outside, the next hit on the shed roof. The water always rose, forcing me to decide where to stay the next few hours.....office or sub work scaffold.
I had a major problem. New drawings arrived from WED each morning, I had to get them to the sub guys, explain the work before the daily storm. The drawings were filled with inaccuracies and the printed images dissolved in the rain. We worked fast since the rainy windstorm blew the drawings off the scaffold across the yard to oblivion. I was never so hot and sweaty in my life.....weeks at a time of this work during the hot Florida summer months. But there was a camaderie with all the Tampa guys.....I was finally tought how to speak correctly in a very special Southern Language. Highlight of the day; leave the tin shed and head for ABC liquor to get the six pack.
Whenever we received bad drawings, we figured out on the spot what to fix.....never time to call home. Just do it and keep goin'. We were starting to get conflicting electrical diagrams from MAPO. Wires would carry maybe 12 volts DC on one side of the diagram, but end up with 115 volt AC on the other side of the diagram. Parts were specified that had never arrived. We had received equipment for the sub that was not on the diagrams. One Friday afternoon the Tampa supervisor showed me some big coils of navy electrical cable left over from WWII. He said this was going into the subs first thing Monday morning, diagrams or not. He handed me a listing of the wire sizes and colors in each cable for reference. After getting my six pack, I bought a book "Electricity Made Simple $1.25" and settled into the condo for the weekend......to get my new electrical engineering degree!
Son of a gun.....This electrical stuff is kinda simple after all. Electrical devices are interconnected by terminal strips using multi-conductor cable containing colored insulated individual wires of appropiate sizes. You only need to know where each multi-conductor cable goes in the boat, and refer only to a wire list to make the connections. Monday morning I handed the guys the cable pull list of how many cables went from where to where in the boat. They could leave long lengths coiled up at each location to be served out later following the wire lists. This bought me time to make up the wire lists in time for them to start the terminations. The next thing was to test the connections. The guys used a dry cell battery and a loud ringing bell to prove out every circuit. Gad, how ship-yard simple. They did this following my test procedure write up, starting with the lowest voltage equipment first. I was kinda chicken to subject workers to electrocution after following the instructions from an unlicensed mechanical designer. It all worked....not even one blue flash. We wired and tested the first sub in less than a week.
Meantime all the fancy interior trim parts began to arrive so I could work out the installation procedures. Big problem. Seems that Morgan Yacht was a bit loose with the fabrication dimensional tolerances in the hull, and McGinnis drew his stuff to fit his design mock up back at the Studio in Burbank. Tampa Ship had to fit the whole deal together no matter what didn't fit right. By using the "hack 'n fit" method, the guys built a pretty good looking Submarine. It's just that the drawings and the subs were not in agreement. So be it.....the first sub was due tomorrow, August 13, 1971 way up in Orlando.
It took a whole day to make the drive up there with this spectacular Jules Verne creation weaving it's way thru small towns trying to find a route to miss all the overhead power lines and such. We had put the sub on the biggest trailer we could find. By the end of the day I pulled into the Walt Disney World Central Shop area a few minutes ahead of the sub. WDW Shop Manager Arnold Lindberg was waiting for me. We stood smiling as this great green monster rolled in with most of the overloaded trailer tires blown out, trailing a thick cloud of burning tire smoke. I wanted to go home to California, but Arnold said...."Oh Bob, we have this Tram Tractor problem".....
As one of the original E ticket attractions, 20K ride was a smashing success. The crews of 20K and of Jungle Cruise often competed for which attraction could dazzle more visitors in a day, and 20K always kicked their ass. The ride wasn't for everyone, but for the young and the imaginative it was all the spark they needed to light their dreams on fire. The life of the ride is best depicted with photos and videos, and in the stories of the men who ran it, so it'll leave it at that here.
In 1979 a curly haired 3 year old boy with a glint in his eye rode the ride, and at the time no one could have guessed he would go on to be a notable part of the 20K ride story. That boy was me.
The 20K ride was abruptly "temporarily closed" for "renovations" on September 5, 1994; which as it turned out was just a nice way to say, "We're shutting down the Best Ride in the World forever."
Actually a inside source tells us that at the time it was not in fact intended that the closing would be permanent. Apparently Disney was seeking a corporate sponsor for 20K to raise money for it's rehabiliation (as in, "Brought to you by Chicken of the Sea!"), which clearly didn't come to pass.
It wasn't until early 1996 that it they actually admitted that the 20K ride was closed forever. The tragic shutdown shocked, angered and saddened thousands of people, young and old. Thankfully there were no suicides.
Still, the 20K ride had had many good years of operation; touching and inspiring thousands with its bubbles, fake looking fish and amazing giant squid.
There are many rumors as to why the 20K ride was closed. Some say it was because of its very high maintenance costs, others because it was difficult for the handicapped to access, and yet others because the spotty air conditioning sometimes let it get too hot inside the subs and people would faint. Of course, it was fear of the giant squid that sent those people down, not the heat. The giant squid was too much for weak people to take and that's why they closed the ride.
No seriously, this excerpt from an article by Jim Hill has the real story behind the 20K ride shutdown, and as you're about to find out the consipracy ran far deeper than anyone would have imagined.
...If I had to pick the most extreme example of WDW staffers deliberately faking out the folks back in Burbank - I'd have to say that it was "20,000 Leagues Ovitz the Sea." Or - as this incident is better known in WDW inner circles - "The time we slipped Mike Ovitz a Mickey."
Okay. In order to properly appreciate this story, you have to understand that, while WDW visitors may have loved the Magic Kingdom's "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas" ride, the park's operations staff absolutely HATED that attraction. Why? Because the subs were a maintenance nightmare. Each year, the ops crew would have to pour tens of thousands of dollars (and devote hundreds of hours of back-breaking labor) into the upkeep on that attraction. They'd spend weeks scraping scum out of the bottom of the lagoon, repainting the coral, repairing the fish, etc. And they had just grown tired of dealing with this annual headache.
So - when Disney's CEO Michael Eisner put out the word out in the summer of 1994 that the theme parks really had to start toeing the line, cost-wise - WDW ops staff finally saw their chance. By shutting down this single Fantasyland attraction, they could automatically save the company beaucoup bucks (as well as shine in Team Disney Burbank's eyes for moving so quickly to honor Eisner's wishes), not to mention putting an end to their enormous annual maintenance headache forever.
What these WDW ops guys hadn't counted on was that the public would get so upset when they found out that "20K" had quickly and quietly been closed back in September 1994. Within weeks of the attraction's closure, calls and letters began pouring in to company headquarters in Burbank - insisting that Disney immediately re-open this Fantasyland favorite.
Of course, the news of this uproar didn't sit well with WDW ops staff. Here they had finally found a way to close "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and they intended to keep this Fantasyland ride closed. No matter they had to do.
So they were ready in early 1995 - when then-president of the Walt Disney Company Michael Ovitz came through the Walt Disney World resort on a corporate familiarization trip. Of course, while Ovitz was touring the Magic Kingdom, he brought up all the guests' complaints about "20K" being closed. In response to this, the ops staff insisted that they had only shut down this Fantasyland attraction because the ride was in such awful shape. Not to mention being unsafe.
Ovitz then said "Well, I'd still like to personally take a look at the attraction. Judge for myself whether or not the ride can be repaired and then re-opened." The WDW ops staff said "Well - okay, Mr. Ovitz. But we'll have to do this early tomorrow morning before the other guests enter the Magic Kingdom."
Which is why the following morning at 7 a.m. Mike Ovitz found himself standing in the queue at "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" as a sub that was loudly belching smoke came rumbling up to the dock. The Disney Company President then climbed down the stairs and found a quarter inch of water sloshing around in the bottom of the boat. When Mike pointed this out, the WDW ops staff said "Well, you have to understand that a lot of our subs are over 20 years old, Mr. Ovitz. So many of them have developed small pinhole leaks over time."
The sub then lurched away from the dock and took Ovitz & the ops crew on a somewhat jerky trip around the "20K" ride track, with the attraction's soundtrack barely audible through the ship's crackling loudspeakers. As you might imagine, once the boat pulled up to the dock, Michael quickly climbed out of the mildewed interior. He then turned to WDW's ops staff and told them that they had made the right decision. That - given the shape that "20K" was currently in - the safest and smartest thing to do with this Fantasyland attraction was keep it closed. Permanently.
Now I don't have to tell you smart people that WDW's ops staff had sandbagged Ovitz. That they had deliberately picked out the "20K" sub that was in the worst possible mechanical shape for him to ride in. That they recruited a ride operator that they could trust to give Michael the roughest ride imaginable. That they had even thrown a few buckets of water down into the bottom of the boat to simulate a pinhole leak. All in an effort to leave Ovitz with the impression that WDW's subs were beyond salvaging.
So - if you were one of the poor souls who got sucked in by that fake video shoot at Disney-MGM back in the summer of 1989 - don't feel too bad. After all, at least you weren't on the receiving end of one of Dick Nunis' infamous paint jobs. Or torpedoed like Mike Ovitz was with that "20,000 Leagues" sub scam.
Here are some insider thoughts our resident 20Ker "Bass" wanted to ad to help deepen our understanding of this article:
The subs used to have water sloshing around inside where the guests sat but that was when the waterfalls (at the entrance and exit of the caverns) poured over the upper decks of each sub. So Fantasyland management dammed off the waterfalls so the water fell to both sides of the sub...not directly on them. In order for the 20k sub boats to operate, they had to adhere to Florida laws in regards to watercraft. The hulls of these boats didn't leak. If water got inside it was rare and was because of rain coming in through the hatches or something else.
Another point was that Fantasyland management did not rehab 20K annually. 20K opened in 1971 with the park opening. By 1978 20k had gone through only ONE rehab in 7 years of operation. I think 20K went through only two maybe three rehabs in its entire history.
The other big problem was that Disney had dynamited the 7 Seas Lagoon until they hit the Florida aquifer to bring water up to fill that lagoon which is man-made. Nearby Bay Lake is natural. So all the water at WDW is derived from the Florida aquifer...not city water. It was that water that was used to fill 20K. They had to chlorinate the heck out of it to keep it clear/clean and it was that chlorine (and god knows what other chemicals) that ate the paint off of everything in the 20K lagoon, including the boats. Water in the lagoon was also used to help cool the engines of the subs, which I'm sure caused a multitude of technical problems.
Originally the 20K sub engines were run on natural gas as were most internally combustion powered vehicles in the park. But economics and maintenance forced them to switch out the sub engines and convert to diesel. Those marine-grade diesels ran and ran and ran. If there were any maintenance issues with them, it was because they hired monkeys rather than mechanics to maintain the boats. To their credit, the maintenance folks I knew were always shorthanded and had to wear many hats, had low maintenance budgets and had to fix things with gum and bailing wire (figuratively speaking) so if maintenance was lacking, it was that Fantasyland management shorted 20K maintenance budgets which is why it was rehabbed only two or three times in 20 plus years. If they had maintained it on a regular basis, it would not have been so expensive to fix.
Wheelchair bound guests. That is not a factor in shutting down 20K. I cannot tell you how many disabled people rode that ride...but it was thousands. They'd bring in whole tours of disabled people to ride the ride. The ADA, or Americans with Disabilities Act, protects rides like 20K that were "grandfathered in" and allowed to continue to operate even though they are not wheelchair accessible. Disney's main focus is making money and spending as little on their attractions in order to make that money, so to think they had feelings for the disabled is laughable...they could care less about the disabled...so that was not a factor in shutting down 20K.
Here's another little article from the Disney Vacation Planner about the 20K shutdown:
Sadly the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea attraction formerly located within the Lagoon area at Fantasyland has been removed from The Magic Kingdom, and won't be returning.
The reason cited for it's destruction was a combination of long loading times because of the limited capacity of the submarine ride, and high maintenance costs.
However, it's most likely to be a combination of the slow load times, the high cost of maintaining the attraction, the fact that even though it was well liked, it was getting a little old hat compared to some of the attractions at the parks.
Another contributory factor was probably that it was virtually un-ridable for wheelchair bound or disabled guests, and the costs of modifying the ride to allow wheelchair access were also too prohibitive.
The original submarines that were used are now destined for the scrap-yard.
On the banks of the Lagoon area Ariel's Grotto has now been built, and there are rumors that the original 20,000 Leagues attraction will be replaced by an attraction based around the Little Mermaid (something more than Ariel's Grotto), but nothing has come of this rumor as yet.
The original 20,000 Leagues attraction was based around the classic film, in which Captain Nemo took guests below the Lagoon in the Nautilus, complete with attacking squid, and Nemo playing the organ.
As well as being an interesting underwater attraction, the lighting effects of the artificial reefs, polar ice caps, and the Lost city of Atlantis were quite effective and were well worth seeing.
All I can say is, the bastards! They scuttled our dreams just to save a few million dollars. What a bunch of bastards.
Well, I guess I can concede that the ride had problems, but at the very least they should've had a big announcement and a Final Days fan-fair. They should've given the 20K ride the grand send off it deserved and given fans from the around the world a chance to pilgramige to Disney World and ride their old friend one, last, bittersweet time. Then they should have taken the subs to the coast, pointed them due East, and turned them on full speed. The crews would have stood at attention on the shore and a 21 gun salute would go off as the they dissapeared into the sunset (er, sunrise).
For a while after the shutdown the subs were hanging around in the lagoon, but they were eventually removed and sent to the back lot scrap yard. Disney auctioned off numerous portholes from the subs on ebay and sold them in the disney store for $125 each. Years later 8 of the subs were auctioned off to a scrap dealer who tore off every other imaginably desirable part and sold many of them on ebay. It is reported that these 8 subs have since been literally ground up and buried in a landfill, apparently so decayed and picked clean that they were just dangerous fiberglass hulls. Apparently the remains had to be buried in sealed containers because the paint contained lead, and Disney even tried to recall some of the parts the scrap dealer had bought. However, an owner of some parts did a lead test on the paint and found none. It could just be that Disney wanted the parts back because they hadn't realized how much they'd be worth to people. But still, just to be safe, if you got a 20K part on ebay, don't lick it!
Not quite all the subs met this sad fate though. For a time one sub that was cut in half length-wise was moved into a pool to decorate the queue area of the Disney MGM Studios Special Effects Tour, but it has since been removed. It was last seen wrapped up on a trailer to be moved somewhere. Its debated whether that sub was actually one from the ride though. One of the subs is reported to have been buried on Disney propery as part of a ritual they observe when a ride is retired. There was also a fun rumor that one of the subs was donated to the Smithsonian Museum, but this has been confirmed as false.
More exciting is that two (possibly three?) of the subs were sent down to Disney's Caribbean resort island, Castaway Cay, which is where all Disney cruises end up. One of them was completely submerged and you could scuba dive near it! The latest reports are that the Caribbean subs have gone MIA though, and are presumed to have been removed by Disney, destroyed by a hurricane, or simply crumbled away.
Here is Tony Crane's spine tingling report of diving near the Caribbean sub:
"The sub at Castaway Cay is completely submerged… With the top of the sub probably 6 feet under. It DOES have a rope line around it… But it lets you get fairly close, and if you wanted to it’d be quite easy to get right up on it. What kept me personally from doing this was the 4 foot long barracuda sitting right on top of it. Honestly. That thing was freaking me out. But the sub looked at home there… Fish swimming by it, completely underwater, in the ocean, not on a track… And let me tell you, when you’re floating along it, the thing is HUGE…It’s almost eerie floating above something that big. I probably spent 30 minutes just staring at it, knowing there was a chance I wouldn’t see it again. They have a HUGE roped off area to snorkel in… I mean literally acres big… And the sub is located WAY out in a back corner of this area. Basically, if you’re out where the sub is at, you’re there for a reason. And there I was, the only person out around the sub at the time. In fact, to be honest, it was a LOT of work to get back to shore afterward, I was exausted. The other thing I would mention is that my cruise was the first ship back to Castaway Cay after the center of the hurricane (Irene, I think) bowled directly over it inSeptember of 2004… We didn’t even know if we were going to go to the island because they didn’t know it’s condition when the cruise started. But all the plants were dead from seawater, all the buildings showed some sign of wear from the storm… But there the sub was, out in the extremely clear blue water, no worries at all. It weathered the storm perfectly. About the only weird thing was that a good portion of it was covered in what looked almost like cargo netting? Don’t know what that was about. Possibly to give ocean life a better foothold to grow upon?"
For 10 years the lagoon lay fallow (a statue of King Triton from The Little Mermaid was installed but that doesn't count), decorative wooden crates appeared on the loading docs and camouflage netting was hung over the cavern entrances. The robots in the lagoon were removed, but most of the sets and props in the caverns just sat there rotting away in the cold, dark water. How creepy cool is that image!
The waiting area was used as a meet-and-greet where you could get your photo taken with Ariel and other Disney characters called the "Fantasyland Character Festival". During these years there were numerous letter writing campaigns and everyone kept their hopes alive that the ride would return one day.
However, in 2004 a green wall went up around the lagoon, and in July it was drained and demolition began. The coral, the sets, and most of the animatronics within the lagoon and caverns were smashed to bits, although many items were saved by Disney employees, such as the sharks, one of the squids, a viking ship, and the serpent's heads. Demolition continued throughout the remainder of the year, as the lagoon was leveled off, filled in with dirt, and concreted over. Large amounts of Foliage began to be added, and in mid 2005 a rather small playground called 'Pooh's Playful Spot' was opened. Most of the large area that was 20k was simply covered by foliage. 20K was not completely forgotten thoughthe designers put a small, barely noticable green knot above the door to Pooh's house which resembles the Nautilus!
Amazing photos chronicling the state of the ride from shutdown to demolition can be found in the After the Shutdown photo gallery; don't miss it!
It is likely that in the future Disney will put the land that was 20K to better use, but for me this is where the story ends. Thank you for reading the history of the 20K ride. You've done a good thing.
But in another sense this is also where the story beginsso join me as we keep the memory of 20k alive in our hearts and minds so it can continue to delight and inspire the generations to come!
If you want to read more about the various ideas that had been tossed about for what to replace the 20K ride with, here's an article from The Dream Finder that discusses it at length. It's totally outdated at this point, but is still quite interesting:
"20K" CLOSING CREATES OPPORTUNITY FOR NEW WDW RIDE
This brings us to September 1994 -- when Walt Disney World management quickly and quietly pulled the plug on the "20,000 Leagues" ride at the Magic Kingdom. Genuinely surprised at the public's impassioned outcry at the closing of this beloved Fantasyland attraction, WDW management at first denied that the subs were actually closed. For almost 18 months, all the company would admit was that "20K" was down for an extensive rehab.
Finally, in early 1996, Disney begrudgingly admitted the obvious: the Magic Kingdom's sub attraction wasn't ever going to re-open. Still, hoping to put the best possible face on the situation, they then announced that a "significant" new attraction was being designed to replace the late, lamented "20K." Only then did WDW management turn to WDI and say "You guys got any ideas?"
Luckily, they did. Based on guest surveys, Imagineering knew that WDW guests thought that the Magic Kingdom was long overdue for a new thrill ride. The last somewhat thrilling attraction that had been added to the park was the troubled "Alien Encounter" show back in 1995. Before that, you'd have to go all the way back to 1992 when "Splash Mountain" opened in Frontierland.
The old "20K" site -- positioned at the outermost edge of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland -- was obviously a prime piece of Magic Kingdom real estate. A tall new thrill ride built here would be sure to grab people's attention as soon as they entered the Hub. The attraction would naturally serve as the " weenie " to draw people over to this side of the park, thereby generating great guest foot traffic in the Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Mickey's Toontown Fair area (as well as increasing revenue at all the shops and restaurants in this part of the park). Everyone at Imagineering agreed that the "20K" site offered some tremendous opportunities. But then no one could agree on what sort of attraction should be built on this spot.
TWO VERY DIFFERENT TAKES ON "2OK" REPLACEMENT
WDI quickly divided into two schools of thought concerning this project : those who thought that any attraction that was proposed to replace the old "20K" ride had to be Jules Verne-ish in tone, and those who thought that any new thrill ride that was planned for this part of the Magic Kingdom had to be a good neighbor to Fantasyland and Mickey's Toontown Fair (ie: the attraction should be kid-friendly, fantasy-based and/or cartoony in nature).
Given this situation, WDI management felt that the best way to handle the "20K" problem was to put two different Imagineering teams to work on the project: one that would develop a Jules Verne-y sort of thrill ride, while the other would be tasked to come up with an attraction that would fit comfortably between Fantasyland and Mickey's Toontown Faire but still thrill guests.
The weirdest aspect of this decision is that WDI management didn't tell either design team that there was another group of Imagineers out there trying to come up with a new attraction for the "20K" site. Each team thought they were the only group within WDI working on the sub replacement project.
The Jules Verne group quickly worked their way through a pile of sci-fi based ride possibilities. Among the ideas that were -- for one reason or another -- eventually discarded was a "20K" themed motion based simulator (a ride idea that had originally been proposed by Tony Baxter 'way back in 1976 as a possible attraction to be featured at Disneyland's never-built-but-still-fondly-remembered Discovery Bay area) as well as an Americanized version of the Nautilus walk-through attraction from Disneyland-Paris.
Among the most difficult decisions the Verne group of Imagineers had to make was what to base their new proposed pseudo-sci-fi thrill ride. There were already numerous rides and attractions out there that were based on Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" film ( Plus four or five other new "20K" based attractions that were already in the works for the "Mysterious Island" section of the Tokyo Disney Sea theme park. But that's another l-o-o-o-n-g story for another time ... Anyway ...). The Verne Imagineers wanted to come up with a ride concept that was bold, new and exciting that would grab WDW management's attention, but still have that old Jules Verne feel. Something that would actually top the old sub attraction, not seem like some pale replacement.
NEW ANIMATED FILM LEADS TO NEW RIDE SCENARIO FOR "20" REPLACEMENT
So the Verne team screened all sorts of Disney sci-fi adventure films: In Search of the Castaways,
"The Island at the Top of the World," "The Black Hole." Even "Tron." Looking for something that might inspire a Verne-style attraction. None of these films panned out, though. None of them had the story elements necessary to provide a theme for a bold new thrill ride. Things were looking pretty bleak for this team of Imagineers for a while there ...
... Until someone in development at Disney Feature Animation clued the Verne group into a film they'd just put into production: "Atlantis."
Talk about a dream come true! "Atlantis" was supposed to be something bold and new for Disney Feature Animation: a wide screen sci-fi animated adventure in the Jules Verne tradition. Directed by Gary Wise and Kirk Trousdale (the same team that rode herd on the creation of "Beauty and the Beast" as well as "Hunchback of Notre Dame") , "Atlantis" would feature brave explorers, deep diving subs, giants squids, lost civilizations and -- best of all -- an exploding volcano.
It was that exploding volcano -- that figures prominently in Atlantis' explosive finale -- that the Verne team immediately zeroed in on. Here was that rarest-of-rare opportunity: the chance to actually propose a new thrill ride that could logically be housed inside a mountain. The Verne Imagineer team knew that WDW management had long been looking for a way to expand the Magic Kingdom's mountain range. Proposing that the "20K" replacement attraction could be built inside a smoking volcano would make it that much more likely that WDW management would immediately green light construction of the attraction.
Now that they had a dramatic new setting for their "20K" replacement, the Verne team of Imagineers had to figure out what sort of thrill ride their "Atlantis" based attraction would be. They didn't want to just copy pre-existing WDW thrill rides -- do another roller coaster rolling through the dark (a la Space Mountain) or another run-away train ( ditto Big Thunder Mountain). Particularly with all the cutting edge thrill rides that were being built around Orlando at Universal's Islands of Adventure, Sea World - Florida and Busch Gardens - Tampa, Disney was seriously looking for something different to add to the Magic Kingdom. An attraction that would put them back on top in the Florida theme park arena.
IT'S TWO - TWO - TWO COASTERS IN ONE!
With the hope that it might give them some ideas about what sort of ride to develop, the Verne team turned again to WDW's exit surveys. What they learned was that -- while guests really did want a new roller coaster built at the Magic Kingdom -- their favorite new ride at Walt Disney World was the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney / MGM Studios, an attraction that starts out as one sort of ride then mutates into something different. The Imagineers chewed on this info for a bit, then thought: What if we were to combine these two ideas? Create a ride that starts out as one roller coaster, then changes into another?
A few meetings with WDI R & D later, the Verne team of Imagineers had what they thought was a brilliant concept for a new Disney thrill ride. Their attraction would start off as a standard running-on-rails roller coaster. Midway through, the ride system would suddenly transform, changing into a hang-from-above coaster, similar to Busch Gardens - Tampa's Montu. The event that supposedly causes the vehicle to change? The volcano erupts as the guest is riding through it.
Now all this killer concept for a new Disney thrill ride needed was a killer name. Happily, one of the Imagineers on the Verne team remember the second name for the proposed Epcot "Mount Fuji" attraction.
And that's how the "Atlantis" based attraction proposed for the old "20,000 Leagues" site at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom ended up being called "Fire Mountain".
A SECOND FLUME RIDE FOR THE MAGIC KINGDOM?
Meanwhile, the other team of Imagineers who had been tasked to come with a replacement for "20K" were also pouring over WDW guest exit surveys. They learned that one of the guests' favorite rides at the Magic kingdom was "Splash Mountain" in Frontierland. What intrigued the Imagineers was that though guests obviously loved "Splash", they'd also complain bitterly about the hour-long wait to get on the ride.
It seemed obvious that there was demand for an additional flume-type attraction at WDW's Magic Kingdom. A second ride like this would take the heat off of "Splash" and raise guest satisfaction during their visits to the Magic Kingdom.
But what sort of flume ride would fit at the corner of Fantasyland and Mickey's Toontown Fair? Something toony, obviously. But WDW management had specifically asked for a thrill ride to replace "20K", "Splash Mountain" is fun, but -- other than that last 5 story drop -- it's not really long on thrills. Charming, yes. But thrilling? Eh ...
So how do you combine toons with thrills? This team of Imagineers was stumped for a bit -- until they came across an internal document from Disney's Consumer Products division. It seems -- over the past few years -- one of the more popular new lines of merchandise introduced at the theme parks and the Disney Stores was one featuring the Disney Villains.
The Imagineers chewed on this info for a little bit. People like the Disney Villains. People like flume rides. Would it be possible to combine the two?
DISNEY VILLAINS INSPIRE NEW RIDE & WHOLE NEW LAND
For a while, this team of Imagineers struggled over deciding which Disney toon villain to base their proposed flume ride on. Which character was strong enough and memorable enough to build an entire attraction around? Maleficent? Chernabog? The Horned King? There are a lot of great Disney villains, but none of them lent themselves easily to a storyline that could be used to carry a whole attraction.
Then the Imagineers had a brain storm: Why limit themselves to a single Disney villain? Why not build a flume ride around ALL of the Disney villains?
And that's how the concept for "Villain Mountain" was born. (To be truthful, there is a second title currently floating around WDI as a possible name for this proposed attraction. As sort of a tribute to the original "Fantasia", some Imagineers would like to call the flume ride "Bald Mountain". Trouble is, initial marketing surveys suggest that Disney theme park guests don't really care for that name. They don't seem to get the "Fantasia" tie-in [Let's face it, folks. Outside of Disney enthusiasts circles, the film is just not that popular] and/or the "Bald Mountain" name just seems to confuse them. "Would this attraction be sponsored by the Hair Club for Men?", one guest supposedly joked. Given that the names of proposed attractions can change numerous times before they make it off the drawing board ["Mount Fuji", "Atlantis" attraction, "Fire Mountain" ... you get the idea], for the purposes of this article, we're going to stick with the proposed attraction's first, though admittedly much more generic sounding name: Villain Mountain).
This concept really caught fire at WDI. The Imagineers working on the toony version of the "20K" replacement ride just came up with idea after idea for this proposed attraction. So many ideas -- in fact -- that "Villain Mountain" spilled over from being a proposal for a single new thrill ride to a concept for a whole new land at WDW's Magic Kingdom.
A QUICK STROLL THROUGH THE DARKER SIDE OF THE MAGIC KINGDOM
Roughly, the proposed layout for the "Villain's Mountain" area is as follows: guests could enter this new land at the Magic Kingdom from Fantasyland via a gateway that would be built between the old Pinocchio Haus Restaurant and the new "Ariel's Grotto" meet-and-greet area. Wandering down a dark twisty cobblestone street, they'd find a grubby collection of villain-themed shops and restaurants. There'd be numerous costumed Disney villains lurking about, ready to sign autographs, pose for pictures and/or give a little attitude. There might even be a "Dumbo" style attraction built around the Ursula character from "The Little Mermaid", on which guests would fly through the air while caught up in the Sea Witch's tentacles (A version of this attraction is already slated for construction in the "Mermaid Lagoon" section of Tokyo Disney Sea.)
But the centerpiece of this proposed addition to the Magic Kingdom would be Villain Mountain. A craggy, sinister peak modeled after Chernabog's perch from "Night on Bald Mountain", scary laughter and screams would echo out of the caves that are cut into all sides of the mount.
Though the proposed attraction's storyline remains (even at this late date) a little vague, this much is known: All of the great Disney villains have supposedly gathered deep inside the mountain for a criminal convention to determine who's the creepiest creep. Guests climb into dark longboats -- modeled after the one Hades used in "Hercules", when he was crossing the River Styx -- to journey through the mountain. As they board, the guests are cautioned not to disturb the fiends. But -- of course -- the guests accidentally interrupt the gruesome gathering. Angered, the Disney Villains pursue the guests throughout the mountain, popping out and scaring them at various turns. The only way back to safety ? Down the perilous flume at the front of the mountain.
According to the current plan, guests would board the "Villain Mountain" ride from inside the new land toward the backside of the mountain. The "splashdown" area for the flume would be out front in the "20K" lagoon, facing the new "Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" attraction. The boats would then float through the lagoon, curving back into the mountain to the load / unload area where guests will exit through the inevitable "Villain Mountain" image capture ("Get your picture here!) and gift shop area.
Why have the proposed ride's splashdown area facing into the park? So that guests -- who are walking past the lagoon on their way to Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and Mickey's Toontown Fair -- would see folks screaming down the flume and think "How do I get on THAT ride?" This would then compel them to enter this new part of the park, exploring all the new shops and restaurants before finally making their way to the entrance of the "Villain Mountain" attraction.
Guests exiting the attraction could make their way out Disney's Villain Village by retracing their steps into Fantasyland or by wandering down into Mickey's Toontown Fair. (There's also some talk of creating a transition zone between Toontown Fair and "Villain Mountain" featuring Mickey's old nemesis, Black Pete ... But that's on the WDI "wish list," not a "must have" piece of this proposed addition to the Magic Kingdom.)
SO WHICH MOUNTAIN GETS BUILT? ..... AND WHERE?
The Imagineers felt that they really had a winner with "Villain Mountain". Of course, so did the WDI team that came up with the "Fire Mountain" ride idea. So which concept would WDW management decide to go with?
Initially, they couldn't decide at all. Each of these proposed ride concepts was so distinct, so strong that WDW management was dazzled by both. Either would make a great addition to the Magic Kingdom. Each was an attraction that was guaranteed to drive up attendance as well as provide a strong hook to use in promoting the park.
But -- upon closer inspection --some problems arose with the "Fire Mountain" concept. With its huge cauldara belching smoke and steam, rumbling day and night, this "Atlantis" based attraction didn't seem like that great a fit with Fantasyland and Mickey's Toontown Fair. There were also concerns that the tropically themed volcano would just look odd poking up from behind Cinderella's Castle.
But WDW management felt that "Fire Mountain" was too good a ride concept to just dismiss outright. So it really didn't fit in Fantasyland. Was there anywhere else in the Magic Kingdom that this proposed thrill ride would work?
Actually, yes. With little or no change to its ride building and outer theming, "Fire Mountain" looked like it would make a great addition to Adventureland. Just to be sure, though, the Imagineers did height tests for the proposed attraction. They raised a set of balloons behind "Pirates of the Caribbean", then walked around the Magic Kingdom to see if the proposed height of the attraction would make it visually intrude into the theming of other parts of the park. The Imagineers even checked out the view around Seven Seas Lagoon. The general consensus was that "Fire Mountain" would fit in fine in that corner of the Magic Kingdom park. But -- when viewed from the beach at the Polynesian -- the smoking volcano in the distance made for a truly inspired addition to that resort's theming.
Assured that "Fire Mountain" would fit in the new location, WDW management found themselves with a real dilemma : they now had two killer attractions that they could add to the Magic Kingdom. Which should they build?
IT'S UP TO EISNER: FIRE OR FIENDS?
Not quite sure what to do here, WDW management did the smart thing. They bumped this decision back to Burbank - to let Eisner and his brain trust sort out which attraction to add to the Magic Kingdom. (Why was this the smart move? Given the astronomical costs involved in building either of these proposed attractions, WDW's managers hoped that Eisner would see "Fire Mountain" & "Villain Mountain" and get excited. An excited Michael might open up the Disney Company coffers, freeing up the huge wads of cash necessary to build rides like these.)
Their ploy worked. Eisner liked what he saw and tentatively agreed to put both attractions into production. However, given the logistics involved with building " Villain Mountain ( which meant adding a whole new land to the Magic Kingdom to support the story of the proposed attraction ), it was decided that "Fire Mountain" would be built first. (Promotionally, this made sense too. If it was built fairly quickly, the "Fire Mountain" attraction would benefit the residual heat left over from the release of "Atlantis", the feature film that the ride would be based on.)
Under the tentative construction timetable, initial site prep and survey work for "Fire Mountain" would begin this summer. The attraction would then be officially announced this fall, as part of WDW's annual press extravaganza (Usually held over the last week of September / first week of October as part of the resort's birthday celebration). Construction would hopefully start in January 2000 and -- barring any unforeseen delays -- be completed by the summer of 2001. Following two or three months of test and adjust on the attraction, "Fire Mountain" would officially be unveiled October 1st, 2001 as part of WDW's 30th anniversary celebration.
This timetable (which is subject to change) represents WDW management's ideal for what will happen with "Fire Mountain". By having the attraction up and running for the start of WDW's 30th anniversary, Disney would then have a huge new ride as well as a great hook to build that year's promotional campaign around. Among the many ad campaign concepts that have been tied to the project is "Disney World Explodes with Excitement!" The artwork that accompanies the proposed ad campaign shows a roller coaster car full of happy guests being blasted out of an erupting Fire Mountain.
VILLAIN MOUNTAIN TO FOLLOW IN 2004 ... MAYBE
What about Villain Mountain ? Not to worry. Eisner was evidently just as excited about that proposed attraction. (He supposedly asked that the "Villain Mountain" team from Imagineering to make sure that the Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland - Paris management teams were all made aware of the proposed ride concept. Why for? So that these other Disney resorts could consider adding "Villain Mountain" to their parks as well. Eisner seems to think that "Villain Mountain" -- like "Big Thunder" and "Splash Mountain" -- could be an attraction that could work at Disney theme parks in any corner of the globe.)
The construction timetable of "Villain Mountain" is a lot vaguer, though. WDW management would like the "20K" replacement ride in place as soon as possible. But the usual rule of thumb concerning hugely expensive attractions at the Disney resorts is that each theme park gets a new one built every three to four years. If this holds true, the earliest "Villain Mountain" will rise up out of the old "20K" lagoon is 2004.
But WDW management will definitely keep the pressure up on WDI concerning "Villain Mountain". They view this attraction -- as well as the new Magic Kingdom land built around the ride -- as finally giving WDW a legitimate entry into the lucrative Halloween theme park market.
For almost 10 years now, WDW management has stood by each October and fumed as Universal Studios Florida lured Disney theme park guests off property to take part in their "Halloween Horror Nights". This annual fall fright fest has turned into a real cash cow for Disney's competition. Universal has gone from offering just two weekends of Halloween festivities back in 1990 to now almost a full month of frights.
WDW has wanted to snag a bigger chunk of this seasonal theme park market for years now. But the company's family oriented image has long prevented the Mouse from coming up with a really successful Halloween theme park event. To date, the best WDW's Special Events Office could come up with was "Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party", a mild kid-friendly celebration held annually at the Magic Kingdom. This two night special ticket event -- which is usually presented on the last weekend of October -- rarely sells out. Attended mostly by families staying in WDW resorts, it doesn't pull in anywhere near the pile of cash for the Disney Company that Universal's " Horror Nights generates for Seagrams/MCA.
NEW RIDE MAY LEAD TO REVAMPED WDW HALLOWEEN CELEBRATION
But now, with a new Disney villain-themed land and attraction on the drawing boards, WDW's Special Events Office might finally have something to work with. Something that they could build on to create a truly memorable Disney Halloween theme park event. Forget all that "Not So Scary" stuff. Imagine an event where -- after dark -- the Disney villains take control of the Magic Kingdom. There'd be a special night-time parade featuring the Disney villains and the "Nightmare Before Christmas" characters as well as a spectacular midnight fireworks display. With an event like this, Disney might finally be able to give Universal a real run for the money -- Halloween-event-wise.
So don't expect WDW management to give up on the "Villain Mountain" idea anytime soon. Here's too much money to be made off this proposed attraction to leave it lie too long. They'll keep hammering away at Eisner until he finally gives in and green lights construction on the attraction.
So -- if you follow the old WDW formula (At least three to four years between major new attractions being built at each of the Florida theme parks) -- it's likely that "Villain Mountain" won't officially be announced 'til the fall of 2004. Again, with site prep and construction time, "Villain Mountain" and its surrounding themed area probably won't open 'til the summer of 2006. Then, if you factor in test and adjust, "Villain Mountain 's" grand opening probably won't occur 'til the last week of September / first week of October of 2006 -- as part of WDW's 35th anniversary celebration.
Now keep in mind that all this info is subject to change. If you factor in the hard lessons learned during the "GM Test Track" debacle (Just 'cause an attraction gets built doesn't mean that it will be ready to roll on its announced opening day. Sometimes it can take as long as 18 months to get all the bugs out), all projected opening dates are subject to change.
But what's important to remember is that Eisner and WDW management are really enthusiastic about both " Fire Mountain " and "Villain Mountain". Provided that there are no sudden management changes in Burbank and/or Lake Buena Vista, these attractions should be built at WDW's Magic Kingdom. "Fire Mountain" first, following -- 3 to 5 years later -- by "Villain Mountain".