Interview with 20Ker Bert "Bass" O'Connor
Bert, or "Bass" as he was known to his fellow 20Kers, served on the 20K ride from 1974-78. He picked up his nickname by pointing out that the giant sea bass were malfunctioning one to many times. By the end of his enlistment he was a Lead and knew the ride inside and out. He has gone far beyond the call of duty in answering a whole slew of questions in terrific detail. Bert is the 20K ride technical whiz! I can't thank Bert enough for his generosity in shedding so much light on what went on behind the scenes at 20K.
In the picture above Bert performing one of a series of hand signals in the 20K training manual!
At what point in your life did you sign on?
17 years old when I was in high school and 17 was the youngest they would hire someone to work on the rides.
What was the average crew age?
17 up to approx. mid 30's... but average was 17 - 23.
Were there promotions?
Only to assistant Lead or Lead...from there you could get into Supervision but the fast track into Supervision was to get a job in Human Resources as an interviewer (so you could find out about openings before anyone else) or go to work at Peco's Bill's in Frontierland... don't ask me why, it was a fast food place and if you got a job there as an assist. supervisor, you ended up getting promoted to full Supervison.
Was in common to only work one ride for long stints?
No, but you could voice your preference but you had to use reverse logic... if you said you perferred 20K, you got "Its a Small World" (Barf)... so you told supervision to give you anything but 20K, that you despised 20K and guess what? 20K is where you were "banished" to. Once you were in Fantasyland, you were fair game and became cross trained on all of Fantasyland's rides including Skyway (now closed and removed completely) and Tomorrowland Skyway. I worked pretty much at 20K most of the time though. The fireworks are fired directly behind 20K... amazing blasts right over the ride.
The job I hated most was PCC or Parade Crowd Control. Hot, sweaty, having to squat for over an hour, adults and children trying to get crushed by the floats and bother characters in the parade... fun fun fun.
How did you get selected to work on 20K?
During my first day at orientation I was asked whether I wanted to work at Gran Prix Raceway or at 20K ... I chose 20K because I liked the Jules Vern story and thought the ride was cool.
I was also designated to give tours of the entire park to new Disney employees while wearing my 20K costume...to go into other "lands" within the Magic Kingdom and not change costumes was considered "bad show" but since I was leading a tour, I was given the exemption to do so and it was fun... gave me a change of pace.
What sort of training/briefing did Disney give you before turning you loose?
The training was thorough back when I was trained. I was also a trainer myself and was designated as such by Jerry Birch, someone I hold in high regard to this day but have not seen since the 70's. Back in the mid 70's Disney would give prospective employees interviews like we were professionals and they would test our ability to read, write and do math. But somewhere during my time there they changed the entrance requirements and actually started hiring people who couldn't read or write. I trained a guy on Snow White and when I got his answers back on his training test, what I thought was mispellings turned out to be his ability to write at the fourth grade level!!! When I showed the scribblings to my supervisor, he told me that the requirement to read was optional. I was stunned. I have a whole story about this but won't tell it now as it would take a bit of time to tell. I use to know so much about all the rides in Fantasyland but a lot of the info has faded over time.
Did they require that you read the 20K novel?
No, but some people were shown the Disney movie... but that was early on in the 1970's, after awhile they quit doing that. I think they showed me the movie on 35mm film...amazing.
How seriously did people take their 20K jobs?
Very serious. We even started to wear US Army issue combat boots, polished of course and we'd crimp our hats a certain way to show an Esprit D'Corps. Sometimes we even stood at attention.
Any troublemakers onboard?
A few, they got weeded out and I did a little weeding in my day... and those types were usually scum and didn't last long anyways.
Were your friends jealous of your job or did they make fun of you?
Well most of my friends were there at Disney, but those who weren't didn't seem to care as they knew I was going to college and pursuing a career. Now I did see one guy wearing his 20K costume at my college and even I laughed at him... he looked stupid.
What were the different duties of 20Kers? Did you rotate?
Three rotations, Front Dock, Intermediate Dock/Tickets, Rear Dock. The worst rotation was Intermediate dock (because you had to do tickets as well). Here's the tickets spiel:
"For all of you standing in line for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Welcome! Please remember that all foods and drinks have to be consumed and all smoking materials extinguished before entering the ride. Please pass your tickets, that is your E Tickets to the first person in your group as this will speed up your wait time in line. That is "E" as in Euripides so you rip-a-dees these tickets out of your ticket book and hand them to the first person in your group. Thankyou."
[See all the 20K spiels on the original guidesheet on the Behind the Scenes photos page]
Which duty did you prefer?
I liked running the subs perfectly so that the guests got the best ride possible. I also actually liked Intermediate Dock unload because that position was responsible for grouping guests so that parties didn't get separated. That position was called Grouper/Tickets ... you'd unload the Intermediate dock's boats, groups guests and then rotate to tickets to collect tickets and filter out trash and drinks from coming into the ride. Sometimes after tickets you'd sweep in front of the attraction to keep things neat... then go on break and start all over again. Sometimes you did the whole thing at Intermediate dock.... load, operate the sub, unload/group, then tickets... that was brutal, especially in the withering Florida Summer heat.
Did you enjoy your job?
In retrospect, yes. At the time, it was tolerable. I say that because I was young and looking to start my career and standing at a loading dock at 20K in 100 degree heat in 98% humidity was not considered fun. I discovered during one Summer that the company laundry didn't rinse their clothes completely. How do I know? When it got hot during the summer, you'd sweat profusely and then behind your knees and under your armpits your clothes would foam up with soap suds.
I also liked running the subs "deadhead", which means empty...no guests. Sometimes I'd run it with the sound effects and audio track and sometimes I'd run it silent. Those were the days.
Which section of the ride did you think was the coolest? Atlantis? The squid?
I liked the giant sea bass, but I also liked the Atlantis section...
[See Bert's bass namesakes on the Journey Through Liquid Space photos page, and his dual nametags on the Behind the Scenes photos page]
Did piloting one of those subs fire up your imagination? I know it would for me.
Well as with any repetitive activity, it got boring as you knew each and every nook and cranny of the ride and even though you weren't paying rapt attention to it, if something went wrong you knew it instantly and how to get out of the problem "on the fly" so to speak.
When you were driving what did you see from the wheelhouse?
Everything above the water ... we didn't refer to it as the "wheelhouse", its like a real sub, so we called it the "Sail" just like on real subs. I think I have a photo of the Sail and I definitely have a drawing of the sail. Matter of fact I even have a drawing I made for a logo used on one of our polo shirts for one particular Summer. Every summer we had a contest as to who's logo got to be made into our crew polo shirts. I won two years running. We agreed to come up with a crew golf shirt so that when we were not in costume, we could wear something that would separate us from the crowd of off-duty Disney employees, we could be proud that we were 20k'ers and no one else was. The artwork I did was fashioned after the movie posters for "Alien" which was new then in 1979. A lot of people didn't get the movie reference, including the crew members who wore it, but they loved the art for the back. The art for the back depicted the sub coming out of the caverns, splashed with water with palms over the caverns. I did all this freehand or with a ruler...it took me many many nights to do both of them.
[See Bert's photo and drawing of the sail, as well as his shirt logo on the Behind the Scenes photos page]
What was involved in driving the subs? How much was automatic?
It was all about timing. Trigger switches in the track actuated the 8-track audio tapes down below and behind the sail in a steel grey box, (later, much later, they were replaced with an audio CD) but up in the sail the sub driver could activate the tapes anytime he wanted or retard when they started... to compensate for the sub going too slow or too fast. Sometimes the switches in the track didn't start the tapes and the sub driver would have to do it manually. If the tape player didn't stop, you could stop it manually in the sub sail control panel, you could also start the tapes as well. Sometimes the tapes had a mind of their own and you had to "reboot" it by shutting the whole thing off then back on again...all the while balancing on the metal rails that were between the seatbacks that the guests used down below the operator. The other trick was to be sure to time the start of the proper audio track at the proper time so that the guests in the back of the 40' sub heard the appropriate audio track with the appropriate animatronic fish/turtle/ visual that they were looking at out through the portholes. If you started the tape track too late, the guests up in the bow were past the visual that went along with the audio ... and visa versa.
Did subs ever collide?
Yes the subs collided all the time but its not what you think.
The subs did indeed float in the water, just like a boat... but you could not steer it as there was no need to. There was a concrete track throughout the ride. Beneath the floating boat hung the all steel mechanism with wheels at the end that slid into the track... sort of like an oversized electric slot car racing set peopel put under their Christmas trees.... this wheeled contraption under the floating sub is what would "collide" with the wheeled contraption beneath the boat ahead of each sub. This contraption was rubber bumpers at each end of the boat so that if you got smacked from the rear, the contraption took the hit... not the sub hull itself.
If the impact was great enough, this wheeled contraption would pop out of the slotted concrete track and the sub would become lodged in-place. It usually happened in the caverns when there was a traffic jam and someone wasn't paying attention or misjudged and smacked the sub ahead of them. Problem was that since we ran in packs of three, if the front sub of a pack hit the rear sub of the pack ahead of it, the two subs following the guy who misjudged would smack into each other, thus risking them jumping the tracks as well. It was not easy to make a sub jump the track, you had to really hit another sub at full speed and if you were on a turn (and not on a straight part of the track) that was when you were at the greatest risk of jumping the track during an impact.
When a sub jumped the track, the ride was shut down. Guests were escorted out of the sub through the caverns which had an all wood scaffolding with railings and a walkway that allowed us to lead them to the big exit gate by Teacups. Once everyone was evacuated, divers had to be brought in to lift and place the wheeled contraption back into the slotted track and then we could open again.
So subs hulls never were damaged by collisions with other subs. Now in docking, yes, damage occured and it was usually dumb errors on the part of the crewmen.
What powered the subs?
Each sub was 40' long and weighed approx. 40 tons. They were initially powered by a natural gas engines but the longevity of those engines was not very good so they switched over to diesel. Walt's idea was to save the environment from pollution by using natural gas or steam whenever possible but money and practicality took over and diesel was the "cheaper" and more reliable alternative. The airconditioning was not the greatest or it worked too well. I constantly had colds during the Summers because I was going from hot to cold over and over every day.
I noticed an engine fire extinguisher switch on the controls. Did you ever have to use that?
Oh, yeah, we had to use it a few times. The engine compartments of these subs had an Halon system to extinguish fires. A fire on ANY boat is extremely bad news. So we had "sniffers" on the natural gas powered boats to sniff for gas leaks, hence the gas leak detector in the Sail. If a fire broke out, we could trigger the Halon system and extinguish the fire in the engine compartment. Halon is a gas that is used to replace the oxygen in the engine compartment. Fire needs oxygen and with Halon replacing the oxygen, the fire goes out immediately. Problem is that if Halon gets in the Guest part of the sub, it could be bad news. So we had emergency hatch releases on both hatches just in case power was lost and we had to air out the boat due to Halon dispersion or simple exiting of the boat. The hatches must have weighed 500 lbs. apiece!
The beauty of the system was that there is no cleanup or residue... Halon is clear but it does have an odor to it... maybe it's added like in natural gas so you know its been used. After use, all they had to do was recharge the Halon system and we were back in business...of course whatever caused the fire had to be fixed!
Did the subs acutally have spinning props in the rear? Is that what moved them?
Yes, they were bronze I believe. And yes, that's what the prop was for, propulsion.
Did the depth of the subs change at all? Even a few feet?
No. I've walked the track when the ride was under Rehab and all the water was drained and the track was level all the way through. You cannot imagine the volume of water that ride took... without water its like walking through the Grand Canyon...well almost.
Since people only looked out one side of the sub, does that mean that there was two sets of the same animatronics?
Yes, pretty much...there were minor discrepencies but it was pretty much a mirror image.
How often did the animatronics need maintenance?
Constantly. The water was infused with massive amounts of chlorine to kill the algae and gunk that is in Florida water and that chlorine ate paint like crazy plus played havoc with the mechanics of the animatronics.
Did you get a kick out of seeing kids and adults enjoy the ride?
All the time.
Many people feel 20K was the best ride at Disney world. Why do you feel the ride had such an impact?
What kid never wanted to ride in a submarine? It was the biggest attraction to me and 2nd behind that was Gran Prix Raceway (what kid doesn't want to drive a real car?)
Others feel the ride was slow, boring and fake looking. What you think you think theyre missing that others clearly respond to?
At the time, no other ride in the world could match 20K. If you were a kid, it was very real. Adults require a higher threshold of realism to be convinced...unfortunately that usually results in building the biggest and fastest rollercoasters to make "adults" happy... hence why there's talk about replacing the 20K lagoon with a rollercoaster ride.
Did anyone ever fall in?
It happend a couple of times to other guys and was immensley dangerous because if you fell in at the dock when a boat was coming in (between the boat and the dock) you could get crushed very easily or sucked into the prop and chewed up... a lot of rough concrete made to look like coral was down there and it would be easy to get crushed and scraped up all at once.
Would you have been scared to swim in the ride tank at night?
BTDT ... Been There Done That ... I even swam in the lost city of Atlantis with two of my buddies once... while subs passed us by...we wore our underwear as we had no trunks at the time. At the very tippy top of the caverns is a lone rocky spire that has a metal rod running horizontally through it, like a curtain rod, and we hung our wet underwear there and as far as I know its still there over 20 years later. I have some coins somwhere that I acquired during my swim down there.
[See the coins from Atlantis on the Behind the Scenes photos page]
As for nowadays, there was a lot of high voltage coursing through those waters plus tons of chlorine (when it was running) so I wouldn't recommend it now as its been allowed to decay and I wouldn't want to put my body in that water with God knows what has been in it all these years.
How many sub were there?
12 but in actuality I think there were 14 but one was permanently in drydock and the other was permanently awaiting repairs.
Did the subs have individual names?
20K subs ran in packs (taken from the German "wolf packs" of WWII) of subs.We referred to them as Submarine Nautilus Units numbered I thru XII (Roman numerals).
Drydocking subs was important because even though we had 12 subs, only a maximum of 6 could be docked by the queue area (where the guests waited for their rides). The main dock held 3 subs and the spur dock had 3 more subs. Now, on occasion, like during Summer, it was just too much of a hassle to dock the boats in drydock, a procedure I'll explain in a moment. So if we were going to run 9 boats the next day, we'd park 3 boats in the caverns (there were mooring cleats there for the boats to be lashed to). So this means 3 subs parked out in front by the queue area's main dock, 3 more subs by the spur dock and 3 more subs in the caverns. Summer morning comes, we start out with six subs running. Front dock was the first dock to open, so usually for the first 30 to 60 minutes of the morning we'd fill only one sub while 5 others went empty or Deadhead. When we were deadheading we didn't run audio tapes (except for the first trip around where we'd test the tape players to be sure they worked right) and deadheading was boring. As the morning got busier, we'd open up intermediate dock and then eventually when it got real busy we'd open rear dock. Rear dock unload was at an elevated position, so that crewman was given a radio and even though his boat was almost ready to go, he'd dispatch the first sub in the pack at front dock and by the time the sub at intermediate dock took off, rear dock's sub was good to go... this is how we got a higher cyclical rate than Jungle Cruise (whom we competed with annually during the Summers).
Just like in rail road jargon, we had spur switches in the track. Simply put these were metal sections of the track just before rear dock and just after front dock that were activated by Sub Control at his console by intermediate dock. If a sub had no airconditioning or broken audio deck the sub driver would notify Sub Control (the Lead) about it and that sub would be told that the next time around he'd be deadhead and then when he came to rear dock, he'd go off track to the spur dock. When that sub exited the caverns the spur switch would be open and that sub would turn off into the spur dock... the spur switch would then be switched back and the rest of that sub pack could come through and dock at the main dock. Maintenance could then cross over the subs at the main dock and step onto the all metal spur dock and go fix the problem. Now if the problem was a dead boat (the motor died or the A/C was broken badly) the sub could be pushed out of spur dock by a "good" sub that was deadheading but in front of the dead sub had to be another deadheading sub. Remember, these subs were 40 feet long and weighed 40 tons, they didn't move very fast but when they got up to speed, there was a lot of mass there and to stop it took another sub in front of it.
So if memory serves me right, after the polar ice cap came a turn that had a spur switch. The pusher sub would push the dead sub past that spur switch and the lead sub would slow down and stop the dead sub behind it. The drydock garage door would be elevated by another crewmember with a radio, and then the front sub would back up and push the dead sub into drydock... then pull back out and the spur switch would switch back and the following sub would proceed through back to the main dock.
Drydock is a misnomer. Drydock was actually full of water, but, there was a small area that one sub could fit into and all the water drained out and hull repairs/prop repairs/fiberglas repairs could be made below the waterline.
These spur switches sometimes got stuck and would not switch back and that would stop the ride. Sometimes these spur switches would switch the wrong way all on their own and a boat would hit it and the wheels beneath the sub would jump the track and/or destroy the spur switch. These spur switches were pneumatically actuated and sometimes they wouldn't completely open or close and if a sub it it just right it would bend the switch.
Did you ever run all the subs at once?
On the packed days of summer we'd run four packs of three each or 12 subs total. When we ran 12 subs there was practically a traffic jam through the Caverns and many times the subs had to slow down to a stop to allow the others ahead of the pack room to run their subs at a normal pace. Unfortunately on busy summer days (maximum capacity of the Magic Kingdom is 82,000 people) we had to run guest through the ride at a hectic pace and sometimes they got the chef's tour of the ride instead of the normal paced ride. This was back in the day when we took E Tickets and the more E tickets we took, the more $$$ the ride made.
How were all those subs co-ordinated?
We used handheld Motorola radios in our Submarine Nautilus Units. By Intermediate dock we had a podium with knobs that controlled the Front Dock spur switch and the Rear Dock spur switch. There's a whole set of stories just about the spurs themselves. Anyways this podium also had 20K's command radio which we referred to as the Submarine Console Command or simply Control ... official FCC call sign KUJ-399. Proper radio etiqutte...
Submarine Nautilus Unit number 12, Control.
Unit 12 bye.
Unit 12, what is your 10-20?
Control, my 10-20 is tottering columns.
10-4, Unit 12. After you unload guests you'll be deadhead to drydock, 10-4?
10-4, KUJ-399 clear.
What did you like most about the job?
Working with my friends, many of which I went to high school and college with. It was mindless work and paid me better than minimum wage. I also got to meet a lot of people my own age and of course its where I met my best friend and my future wife. Also, being part of something big like Disney was always fun. I could go in the park 24/7 and go anywhere anytime. I even know how to get to the top of the Castle and have done it many times. Also, I really liked working in Watercraft (another Disney World ride) as we actually learned to operate real ships with no tracks.
Were the 20Kers a tighter knit group than other ride crews?
Very much so as it was the ONLY all male attraction at WDW. Yes, once, management succumed to feminist pressure and had one woman work there ... but it was diametrically opposed to the original theme of the ride which was based on the movie which had NO female crewmen on the Nautilus. I personally knew the woman and actually dated her for awhile but it just didn't work out. It was odd seeing her blonde hair coming out from under the 20K hat but we dealt with it and took it in stride but it didn't last long.
So, such strong camaraderie developed among 20kers mostly because we were an all male attraction and we had to work as a team to make the ride run smoothly during peak attendance. Also, there was a lot of trivia about the ride that we HAD to know so that guests and "shoppers" didn't trip us up. Shoppers were Disney employees dressed as guests who went around watching how rides were operated and whether or not cast members were doing their jobs right or not, if they knew their rides technical specifications, if they knew where the bathrooms were or First Aid, emergency phone numbers, etc. They rarely if ever asked about the movie or book... having seen the movie or read the book was not a requirement for the job.
We were also in constant competition (during the Summers only) with Jungle Cruise to see who could have the highest throughtput of guests in one day. The contest was called the "Kissimmee Cup". The winner got a keg party supplied by the Lead or Supervisor of the losing ride... and we won constantly. If memory serves me ... the highest throughput 20K had was over 17,600 people in one day. I think it was just manufactured to build up a little competitive spirit between our two rides. Bottom line was crews from both rides attended the party afterwards.
[See Bert's original Kissimmee Cup victory certificate and other supporting documets on the Behind the Scenes photos page]
Sometimes we even took donations from each other to buy a fellow submariner a birthday cake and beer stein with his name engraved on it.
What does "Kissimmee" mean?
Back in the day, Kissimmee was a small town that we affectionately referred to as "Cow Town" because it was very rural... but no more, Disney has turned it into a burgeoning city. So back then, anything referred to as being associated with Kissimmee was a bit of a slap in the face... so the Kissimmee cup was supposed to be our form of humor.
Were there any legendary figures among the 20Kers?
Me and my best man of course. [laughs] Actually, I was photographed as the model for the training manual on how to do hand signals and I contributed to the text of the training manual.
Carl Dvorak and Paul Shepard come to mind as legendary figures. There was a guy nicknamed "Bugs", Larry Larue, Jerry Birch, Willy Jones, Robbie Fulmer, AL Stigall and Alan Smith. There were a few others but I've forgotten their names. The only supervisor who was "legendary" was a former Miss Disney World. I can't remember her name but she struck quite a pose.
Oh yes, and then there's this: Legend has it that upon his last day working at WDW, one of the original 20Kers (from when the ride opened in 1971) drove a sub out into the middle of the Lagoon, stopped it, popped open the rear hatch, stood on the stern of the sub and popped open a can of Budweiser... drank it... jumped off the sub, swam to shore and left Disney forever. True? False? We'll never really know but it was legend amongst us men of the sea, we seamen.
What hand signal are you performing in the photo of you from the manual?
The hand signal in the photo is the "break" signal... telling a crew member that its time for a 15 minute break. We were alotted a minimum of one 15 minute break and one 30 minute break during each 8 hour shift. If things were slow, we'd get two 15 minute breaks on one 30 minute break.
Any more funny stories or pranks?
By the big bubble on the outside of the sub's sail was a hinged flap that when lifted a crewman on the dock could talk to the sub operator through a small hole under the flap. It was common to get a sub operator to put his ear up close to this hole and then the crewman on the dock would slam it down on the operator's ear ... we had it all done to us and we did it everyone else. I put a spin on it though... Every sub had this clumsy portable RCA walkie-talkie radio so we could keep in contact with everyone else. These radios had about a 4 inch rubberized antenna on its top. I'd get some unsuspecting sub operator to get his mouth up right next to this hinged flap and I'd shove a radio antenna right into his mouth... great fun! Of course I had it done to me as well. Its little things like this that kept the job fun and interesting.
Do you keep in touch with other 20Kers after you left Disney World?
Only one, the one who was best man at my wedding.
Did you come back to ride it often after you stopped working there?
Several times. Matter of fact I got to take my kids on it.
Why do you think the ride was shut down?
Someone in management wanted a change plus it was expensive to maintain. Problem is though they didn't replace it with anything... too busy being concerned with keeping the investors happy and paying those high salaries for the bigwigs. Also, they built a 20K in Tokyo... the ride is amazing to look at but the "subs" are dorky beyond comprehension.
What was problematic about it?
Well the air actuated underwater creatures broke down constantly. The incredibly bright Florida sun plus tons of chlorine faded the paint on everything underwater in no time flat. The boats had to be maintained by qualified diesel engineers with something of a marine background...that was probably expensive as well. I'm sure there were other reasons I'm unaware of.
How did you feel when you heard it was shut down?
Crushed. They even auctioned off portholes on eBay for astronomical prices. I actually called M-07, homebase for supervision for Fantasyland, and spoke to the area supervisor and he thought I was some kind of nut but I asked him why they shut 20K down and asked if there was anyway I could get any memorabilia... he just blew me off. I explained who I was and so forth but he thought I was a crackpot.
What would you like to see done with the area?
Build a bigger and better 20K, what else? Its not up to me but if I had any say in it, I would build another 20K.
Have you been to the France or Tokyo attractions?
No, never have been there.
Any non-20K, Disney antecdotes to share?
Here's a good one. Did you know that at one time, a complete and whole Monorail train was in cold storage behind Its a Small World? It eventually was used when they expanded the Monorail system but it was in storage for years.
And did you know that the upper part of the Castle is made of fiberglass and an exact copy of it is in storage in case a hurricane blew it down?
And no, Walt's head is not cryogenically frozen in the top of the Castle.
Anything else to tell?
This was a running joke at 20K: Whats long, hard and full of seamen? A submarine of course!