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Interview with 20Ker Mike Buchanan

Mike was a 20Ker on and off from 1986 though 1988, making him the only representative of the '80s years. Thanks to Mike for all the great photographs he's contributed to the site!

This is a doctored comic poking fun of Mike for being so cheery. Notice the stitches on his chin; the full story behind those is below.

—How did you get selected to work on 20K?

I was a junior at Penn State and was accepted into the college program (one semester working at Disney plus taking some Disney University classes which explained various aspects of the parks management.) I think I got into attractions because I was a recreation and parks major. I was probably put at 20K because: 1. It's a very labor intensive attraction and needed new blood. 2. I wasn't enough of a wiseguy to be good at Jungle Cruise.

—At what point in your life did you sign on? What years?

I worked at 20K, January-May 1986 and then after graduating, I worked there from Sept. '87-Sept '88, although not always at 20K.

—Where there hazing ritual for new recruits?

None when I was there.

—Were the 20Kers a tighter knit group than other ride crews? If so, why do you think such camaraderie developed?

I think we probably were tighter than most because 20K was such a themed ride. I mean we were all sailors in Nemo's navy. We had relatively cool costumes compared to say the wimpy sailor costumes Small World people had or the all polyester suits they wore in Tomorrowland. We also had activities that encouraged camaraderie such as during the Easter rush, we had "Dock Wars" where each docking position competed to see who could get their guests loaded and unloaded fastest. It would get really intense with the leads out there practically shoving people down the stairs.

Another fun thing that promoted camaraderie was having radios with which we could communicate with each other in the subs. Sometimes, the guy at "Rear dock control" (the guy in charge of informing all the subs the status of loading/unloading) was a real cut up and would have us in stitches as he kept up a banter.

—What was your favorite part of the ride (i.e. Atlantis, the giant squid)?

The sharks, I loved how they swam around and around (and you could barely see the wires :-) The crew's favorite line of Captain Nemo's is in Mermaids when he says "'Mr. Baxter, if you think you're seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you've been submerged too long'." We often felt like we had been submerged too long after driving the subs more than 8 times without a break.

—Were your friends jealous of your job or did they make fun of you?

Hey, who wouldn't be jealous, you got to work outdoors but mainly under the shade of the queue. You got to drive a cool sub, wave at all the kiddies & cute girls, play macho at roping the subs with one smooth motion and have the best spot in the park for watching fireworks.

—Did you enjoy your job? What aspect did you enjoy/dislike the most?

I really enjoyed seeing the excitement on the kids faces when I waved to them from the sail. I must admit though that being in the sub was at times boring. I used to take a Disney World map in the sail and read it over and over and over again...

I can relate with what Bert "Bass" O'Connor said about hating doing crowd control at parades. Although it was fun to be out of the sub rotation and working with others (i.e. girls, since there were none at 20K), the actual parade time was a pain, making people get down from planters, telling parents, little Johnny couldn't sit on the fence rails, even though the parent was holding him. I once had a kid run out into the street and try and pet the big horseys leg, his parent's thought he was so cute. My worst experience with parade was a main street electrical parade were I was supposed to be the person in charge of my section (around the hub in front of the castle). It was my first time to be in charge and I didn't even do parades that often. The parade was going real smoothly when about halfway through, one of the floats got stuck or something and there was a huge gap in the parade so that you couldn't see anymore floats coming over the Liberty square bridge and people thought the parade was over and just flooded onto the street and we had to go running up and down the street telling people to sit back down so the parade could continue.

—How seriously did people take their 20K jobs?

Some very seriously, others were slackers and didn't care much about putting on a good show. For example, the slackers would go full throttle around the entire attraction, ignoring rear dock controls suggestions to pace themselves and would come out of the caverns way too early and just sit in the lagoon or halfway out of the waterfalls.

—Any troublemakers?

None, that I remember.

—Do you keep in touch with other 20Kers?

No, but maybe some will show up at this site.

—Did piloting one of those subs fire up your imagination just like riding them did for the people below?

At times yes, I remember late one night after the rush had died down, being out in the lagoon, watching the palm trees swaying over the caverns and a beautiful orange moon hanging just above. I felt like I was out in the south pacific.

—How fast could the subs go?

About 2mph although each sub was unique in how fast it could go and how long it took to get up to top speed. Some boats were quite fast but didn't reach full speed till you reached the caverns. You hated being in a slow boat especially if you were the leader of a pack, everyone would be bumping even pushing you along and ragging you on the radio to speed up. I think the subs were faster back in the early days which is possibly why they derailed so often. There was a legend that one sub was so fast you could water-ski behind it! My favorite sub ever was one that had mediocre forward speed but the reverse was turbo charged. You could come full speed into the docks, put the boat into reverse and after a second or two you could feel the deceleration and the boat would stop on a dime.

—Did you get a kick out of seeing kids and adults enjoy the ride?

That was one of the best parts. It was fun hearing them talk after the ride trying to decide if the sub had really gone underwater and if any of the fish were real.

—Did any kid ever ask if you were Nemo or talk to you like you were really a submariner?

People were always addressing us as Captain Nemo and we would have to explain that we were his helmsman not Nemo himself.

—Did the guests ever do anything irritating?

Well, they always wanted to
exit the sub in the wrong direction, even though we made it very clear which way they were supposed to go, there would always be people coming up the load stairs which slowed down the loading process.

Then there were the people who would take flash pictures when we had explicitly told them they couldn't and even told them why they couldn't (and it wasn't because it scared the marine life!)

So why couldn't they take flash pictures? It was because the glass on the portholes was so reflective that flash invariably bounced off the window, back into the camera and you were left with a very pretty photo of a blob of white light. It was really quite funny, to see the flashes going off, you knew the people doing it either didn't understand English or were just plain silly.

—Were there any guest questions that you got tired hearing?

You mean like, "Are we really going underwater?" or "Why don't you have real fish?" I heard those questions every single day! Actually, there had been talk at one time to put in some fishtanks in the lagoon which could hold real fish but I think by that time they weren't real interested in sinking more money into the attraction.

—Many people feel 20K was the best ride at Disney world. Why do you feel the ride had such an impact?

It was a unique ride, how often do you get to ride underwater in a submarine, even if the fish aren't real. People like experiencing new things and having adventure in their lives.

—Others feel the ride was slow, boring and fake looking. What you think you think they're missing that others clearly respond to?

Well, the ride could be slow, especially when dry-dock or spur dock operations were going on and you could see the strings on most of the fish but hey, this was fantasyland and your supposed to let your imagination run wild and just have a good time. I think those who didn't like the ride just took it too seriously and expected too much.

—Would you have been scared to swim in the ride tank at night?

I would have been scared only because the water didn't seem that clean what with the diesel exhaust that created a dirty film on the water. Look at the picture of the bright green sub in the photos section and notice the band of black just above waterline, that was the diesel film.

There was an area in the caverns that was not seen from the subs and some guys talked about swimming there, but I don't know that it happened. I remember one lead that jumped in on his last day at the attraction but he had two complete costumes so he was able to turn the dry one into laundry and escape from getting caught by supervision.

I almost fell in by accident one time when I was working and had a bad flu. It was much worse than I thought and right as I was finishing loading a boat at front dock, my vision started going blurry. I leaned out to give a thumbs up for the helmsman to close the rear hatch and as was practice, I stepped out onto the back of the sub but I was so dizzy I missed and was only saved from falling into the water because I was holding onto the ramp control box on the dock. Then I staggered along the waters edge looking for the crew room door, banged by leg into a large volcanic rock (which again prevented me from falling in the water) and finally found the door and collapsed inside the office, my final words were "can some one take my place on dock!" They took me in a wheel chair to the infirmary where I stayed for about an hour until I was alright. I found out much later, that some called me Mike "Pukecanan" after that episode although I never actually threw up.

—What’s one (or more) crazy story you have related to the ride.

The craziest adventure happened one night during the college program. We were running 4 subs each by itself and I was driving one of them. As I pulled into intermediate dock, the load person (another college program guy) roped the boat and as I came to a stop I raised my front and rear hatches. To finish my perfect docking I put the sub into full reverse to kill any remaining speed then switched on "dock thrust" which gives the sub just enough forward speed to keep it tight against the rope. The boat however started drifting backwards. I started playing with the throttle lever and dock thrust switch but nothing I did could make it stop. The load person unroped my boat because it probably would have snapped the rope and maybe the leg of someone standing in the queue. The load person also gave me the signal to lower my front hatch. I couldn't lower my rear hatch because I didn't know if any people were on the stairs and was a little busy trying to stop the sub to look for a signal from the unload guy. From the very beginning I was calling control on the radio and thankfully they answered immediately (a small miracle since at that time of night they were often across the street doing paperwork.) The lead began telling me to try all the things I had been trying. Finally, he told me I had permission (yes, you had to have explicit permission) to shut down my engine. This did not really improve matters much. The subs were free floating and weighed 40 tons, that's a lot of mass and my momentum was such that shutting off the engines didn't slow me down a bit. Shutting down the engine did have the unexpected consequences of 1. shutting off all lights on and in the sub (including "emergency light" that should have stayed on) and 2. the public address system was disabled so I couldn't tell people to remain seated and not to panic. The situation was now completely out of my control.

As soon as the lead told me to shut down the sub, he and several crew came running out of the office with ropes and grabbed my boat just before I was about to go back out to sea. If that had happened, I'm sure I would have crashed into the sub exiting the caverns. He later told me he had no idea what was going on and only saw the back of my sub when it was 3 or 4 feet away. The crew pulled me back into rear dock and unloaded my guests, who didn't seem at all put out, I don't think most of them really understood what had just happened. I, on the other hand was a nervous wreck from all the adrenalin in my system. The whole episode probably only lasted 20 or 30 seconds but it was intense. After I was unloaded, I got to chill out in complete darkness as I got pushed around the track and came off on the rear spur. It was kinda spooky sitting there in the dark, getting to hear all the ships creaks and groans which are usually drowned out by the engine and air-conditioning.

—Any fun pranks people pulled to mix it up?

The most common one was to tell all the guests about to unload off the sub that the unloader's wife had just had a baby (even if he didn't have a wife) or that today was his birthday and to congratulate him and give him a hug. Everybody would be congratulating the poor guy who had no idea what was going on and when he did catch on he had to go along with the joke because it would take too long to explain to each person that it wasn't true.

I once did this prank to a girl named Denise at the Circlevision theatre. I told 400 guests to wish her happy birthday as they entered into the main theatre and to my surprise (and hers) as soon as she opened the doors to let them in, they all launched into a full rendition of Happy Birthday!

Another fun prank was to use a water hose in the caverns and blast the driver's window as he drove past. If the driver hadn't seen you, it really made them jump.

—Did the crewman ever do anything dangerous?

Well, a lot of guys would tie small hand towels (which were used to wipe up leaks) into a rope and then tie it onto the "dead-man throttle" so that they could drive the sub without actually having to constantly hold the throttle. This was a major no-no. I mean, the reason, it's called a dead-man throttle is so if something happens to the crewman in the sail (say he passes out like I did), the sub will stop and you won't have a runaway sub come crashing into the docks. Lot's of guys did it though because it was hard to catch someone in the act.

Another dangerous activity was walking on top of the rails in the queue. It was a lot quicker than having to jump over all the rails plus it was kinda macho looking so everyone did it. Unfortunately, I was doing it one evening and looked up momentarily as I approached the intermediate unload position and my foot slipped off the rail and I did a header into the rail. I got up and thought I was OK and luckily my radio wasn't busted or in the water. But then they guys told me my chin was bleeding. So the lead made me go to an urgent care facility and they put 4 stitches in my chin. The next day I had to go see my supervisor who gave me a verbal reprimand. He did allow me to keep working at 20K which is unusual because normally, if you had a bandage on your face, they would make you work backstage, out of the public eye until you were healed. I never walked on the rails again!

—Was there any legendary figure among the 20Kers?

The closest thing was a really funny lead who was leaving to go to a new area. On his last day, he got up on top of the caverns in full view of everyone, radio in hand and gave a stirring good bye speech.

—Did you come back to ride it often after you stopped working there?

No, I moved away to Pennsylvania and never got back down to see it again before it closed.

—Why do you think the ride was shut down?

It was very labor intensive, it cost a lot to maintain the subs, and do rehabs on the lagoon every three years or so. And people complained about how slow the line moved. None of these reasons are justifications to shut it down though. It was a classic.

—How did you feel when you heard it was shut down?

Sad. I would have enjoyed taking my son there, maybe getting him up in the sail. I wish I had taken more photos and a complete video of the voyage.

—What would you like to see done with the area?

What would be really cool would be to create a continuously moving ride system (like the ones at EPCOT) which would make it a high capacity ride. The cars could sit right on the existing track. Then put a plexiglass tunnel over the cars, like they do in the shark encounter at Sea World. Then fill the lagoon back up with water, put in real fish and dedicate it to the memory of Captain Nemo.

As for the subs, I think they should be placed in some water on Disney property and refurbished as individual hotel rooms. I'm sure there would be lots of people willing to shell out big bucks to sleep in the Nautilus submarine.

—Have you been to the France or Tokyo attractions?

Nope, never been.

—Did you have other favorite attractions?

I had lots of favorites for various reasons. Snow White was fun to operate because you were in complete control of the cars in the loading area and it took a bit of skill to keep the cars from bumping into each other. I enjoyed operating Tea Cups because you were always busy loading guests and preloading guests into the holding area, it really made the time fly being so busy.

My all time favorite attraction to operate (after 20K) though was probably Mission to Mars (where Alien Encounter now is). It was the corniest ride but it was fun talking with
Mr. Johnson (the half-man audio-animatronic). Mr. Johnson was the director of flight operations and normally very proper but one summer day, all the air-conditioning was out in the magic kingdom and Mr. Johnson got heat stroke and did a wild hula dance for all the visitors before he wrapped his hands around some wires, yanked them out and we had to shut down the attraction!