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Interview with 20Ker Rob Porter

—What years did you work on 20K?

I was a “casual temp”..started as a freshman in college during the Xmas holiday break in December 1972, coming back to 20K for my entire Summer break (June thru early Sept. 1973) and one final tour of duty during the Xmas break of 1973/74.

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

My college room-mate and I walked into the WDW recruiting center (forget where that was) and went thru a fairly informal interview, there were lots of people applying that day. After a short series of quick questions, they hired us both on the spot…and gave us both our choice (after showing us the pics of both rides) of either 20K or the Canoes….I recall saying to myself “Are you kidding, there is no friggin choice here...those 60 ton Subs are way too cool….I can’t believe you are gonna let me drive one of those – heck I’ve only been legal to drive a car for the past 2 years. So the decision was easy for both of us. We didn’t give the canoes one single thought. It still amazes me today….how lucky we were….to be given this choice out of all the other things that they could have offered us. Keep in mind, I was just 18 years old. The only other jobs I held previously were as a busboy in a restaurant, an attendant at a gas station, and a day laborer for my Uncle who was in the building business. My expectations prior to getting this job, were based on this previous experience, and thus not that glamorous. I still can’t get over how this chance opportunity just happened. I would have taken anything…most likely I would have said yes had offered me a job in the employee cafeteria…or the clean up crew – somebody has to do those jobs…and I needed the money! I was so naive.

—At what stage in your life did you sign on?

I was 18…but just barely by one month…as I said above, I was very young and naïve.

—Where there hazing ritual for new recruits?

I don’t recall any hazing…but I do recall, there was quite a staff of close-knit guys (permanents) by this time. Most likely there was some hazing, I just don’t recall it. We had both recently joined a fraternity back in Atlanta at Ga. Tech, and we were accustomed to fending off such things on a daily basis…so it’s highly likely that if there was some, we simply rolled w/ the punches and I just don’t remember it.

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

Yes they were tight before I arrived (I mean figuratively of course). I could see right away that the job had some serious aspects to it….people (kids) could slip, fall in the water – if you’ve ever been around a platform at a subway station in NY or in London, think about the bad things that will happen to you if you fall off the platform and get caught between the subway train and the platform wall. Same thing here, only introduce the aspect of drowning as well and the danger from the prop – For instance, if you were to fall off the Jungle Cruise boat, I think all you’d have to do is stand right back up as the water over there was probably only 4 feet deep there. Also, you could damage the subs quite seriously (running the nose into a downed loading ramp or into the sub in front of you which we’ve all witnessed at some point). So I’ll say (I hope I don’t sound too arrogant) you had some fairly sharp people on this ride – both driving and loading – which we all did both. For the record, I am sure the same could be said about the Monorail drivers and perhaps others. But I do think that this type of personality will work hard and ends up playing hard…and as such there was tremendous camaraderie…especially in these early years. As I said there were still several guys that were here from the beginning (20K had only opened in Oct. ’71). One I especially remember, I think his name was David Todd (I could be wrong…I’m loosing my memory lately it seems). And the uniform…tell me when someone in a “Navy” uniform just isn’t cool….especially when compared to most of the other guy’s uniforms at WDW which tended to be that tight spandex stuff (like the ones they wore at “If you had Wings” or “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”…or the Peter Pan outfit). Walking around in those Navy Uniforms, I thought we looked just like Kirk Douglas in the original 20K movie…and that fostered the camaraderie too… in the winter time, we even got Genuine US Navy “P-Coats” as part of our uniform…..we were TOP GUN!

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

You know, my main favorite excitement was driving the darn things….(can you tell I’m still excited about that part to this day?). With regard to what was going on underneath – well it took me some time to finally calm down and try to take in all of the plot below. But I would have to say, Atlantis…one of my favorite movies is the original Journey to the Center of the Earth…so I am partial to Atlantis…

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

Yes, they could make fun of it, in one specific way, after we got back to school and were around our friends, they really thought that it was bizarre that we could recite most of the spiel from memory (still can). It sounds real corny to someone who isn’t in the sub when they are hearing it…so yes, they would encourage us to recite it…then laugh at us like we were full of it…”This is Captain Nemo speaking, you are about to embark……….bla bla bla…”

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

Obviously by now you know the answer is yes…Lots of enjoyments. It was a great satisfaction to me that I was able to drive the darn thing in the first place. The interaction with the crowd was extremely beneficial…and the camaraderie with the rest of the crew. My entire time there, all three tours of duty, I was on the night shift…and especially in the summer time it was the best. Here are some of my happy memories:

[1] Each nite, about 9pm (summer), rotating to the “unload” position at the forwardmost dock #1, you were very close to the pavilion where they had an outdoor singing act. That summer of ’73 there was this act that mimic’d the sound of Barry White & Issac Hayes. Every nite about 9:05pm he would sing “Shaft” (and it was a long version)…he was really good at it and so was the band. Standing at that unload position, you were far away enough from the 20K que line so that they were not distracting you…and you could kinda isolate your self from the commotion of the que and concentrate on the music….the breeze right here was always good-coming off of the lagoon and so, between the music, the summer breeze and the smell of the burger’s grilling at Pinocchio’s Hut (also in that same general direction)…this was to die for, I swear. To think, they were paying me for this – I would have paid them (seems like I was making $2.25/hour - the most I had ever made….)

[2] Our cutting up on the VHF radios (each sub had one in the sail for instant communication w/ Sub Control). After I had been there a short period of time, I felt like I was fitting in… though I can’t recall what any of the instances were. So especially when it was late at night, we really did get kinda crazy on the radio…of course we weren’t supposed to (they told us it was monitored by the FCC – Ha Ha). But the temptation was so strong b/cause out of sight in the sail, you were anonymous when you broadcast some comment over the air. They really couldn’t tell who it was coming from and late at nite, there was less supervision…well, that is all the temptation it takes for me. We sure did laugh…never got caught…

[3] This one’s THE BEST - Summer time the park closed as best I recall at 1am. By 1:15am we had everything put away and – many, many nights we changed clothes and popped back upstairs where we caught the monorail to the Contemporary Hotel… (I can’t recall how we were able to get monorail service for so long after the park closed but we always did – w/ our Disney ID’s, it just wasn’t an issue). Once at the hotel, it was up to the TOP where there is this incredible cocktail lounge overlooking the entire Magic Kingdom. Now remember that most states including Florida, had just the previous year, lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18….just in time for me. I will tell you that there is no single better memory of my time at 20K than these many “cocktail hour trips” after work, to the top of the Contemp. Hotel. Prior to this, the nicest place I had ever been was the Bonanza Sirloin Steak House in Atlanta (like today’s Ryan’s). The view up there is tremendous at nite…you can see the entire complex…the lights stay on all nite. It’s absolutely a wonderful way to cap off the evening….and it fostered our camaraderie hugely, if that’s a word (I think a mixed drink was $99 cents for an employee….my preferred drink there was a Gin n Tonic). We didn’t get too smashed…just enough to put a nice ending on a honest days work….and since we didn’t have to be back there till 4pm the next day…it was just perfect. Get home by 3 or 4 am, wake up, do it all over again….Man these are great memories…

—How seriously did people take their 20K jobs?

I was trained very well as were all others at 20K. No one that I ever witnessed failed to perform as they were expected to do. I was a temp. employee but I eventually got to the point that I became a trainer as well…and I really enjoyed this part too….I remember adding a little blue bar/stripe on my name badge (see attached picture above) and I concocted the story that this was to signify that I was a “trainer”…I made it up ..but it’s still on my badge today. Customers noticed it and asked about it. And that’s what I told them…they were very impressed that I was Captain Nemo and a driver/trainer too!

—Any troublemakers who had to be brought in line, or overly serious guys who had to be loosened up? None come to mind….we really had a great group. I will tell you that on the first day on the job (the day after the interview I think) we arrived for orientation…and I was either sent home or was asked to go fix the problem. And the problem being that my side burns were too long…..and either I went home and shortened them and came back that day or the next. So I guess I was a trouble maker that day. This is really odd, b/cause I was in Air Force ROTC back at Ga. Tech. The week before this, my sideburns were just fine for the military..but now, here at WDW they were too long…go figure.. so I cut them. Probably never got another haircut again the entire time I worked there…in fact as I look at my picture (attached) which is the only picture I have from my days there, my hair is much longer than it could have been for ROTC..but nobody nailed me on it after I got away from the Orientation/Recruiting center that first day…they really wanted that “clean cut” look!

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

As I alluded to above…it did fire up my imagination and pure enjoyment just by driving it…just as it would any little kid if you asked him if he wanted to drive it…

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

Of course, that was a big part of performing the mission…making them happy….and clowning around with them became a natural consequence of that too…that was very fun!

—Did kids ever ask if you were Nemo or talk to you like you were really a submariner? Yes, and so did the parents. BUT, more likely it was the 17 year old blonde who was tugging on my leg to let me know that the loading crew had just asked her to “be sure and let the Captain know that she was number 914”…to which case it was extremely pleasurable to reply to her ”Yes ma’am, you certainly are!” This was the summer when –or- maybe it was 1971, they had just invented “halter tops”. I have to tell you, there were thousands of them at WDW that summer and we had more than our fair share of “914’s”. Whomever or When ever someone invented this “call sign” (inline with the other Radio Call sings like “10-20” etc)…well I can attest to the fact that it was certainly in use when I was there in 1972. Sorry I digressed from the original question. At the time, all this made quite an impression on me.

—Many people feel it was the best ride at Disney world, why do you feel the ride had such an impact on people?

DisneyWorld in those days…(NOT SO MUCH TODAY, I AM SORRY TO SAY), very much had the ability to affect the emotions and outlook of the kids (obviously) and ALSO of the adults. Just as during Christmas time everybody is really happy and genuinely in a good mood for Christmas day, but then the day after, it’s back to reality and grumpiness. 20K was especially unique in this aspect, b/cause as a guest, you were sitting down in your personal seat, looking thru that private porthole. As such, the distractions of the other people around you, the chaos and misery (heat) of the park faded away. You had a your own small blast of cool air blowing in your face (the rest of the day it was hot as hell and 100% humidity. Remember most of the other places in the park had no shade ie: the Goodyear go-cart ride, Main Street, etc). So consider the following: 20K guests had this semi-private comfort time and a brief relaxation from a somewhat hectic day at WDW. Add to this the soothing narration that was coming out of your speaker (Capt. Nemo’s cool voice aka: James Mason’s voice) and the tranquil view of the tropical water (especially before you went in the cave and it got dark and where the pace quickened). All this conspired to allow one to become fully involved in the “fantasy”….even the adults had that same happy, tranquil feeling come over them. Of course I’m biased here, but pretty much all the other attractions kept you on your toes, your mind wouldn’t drift away as much. On the other rides, you were interacting with the attraction in a much more engaged way (or holding on for dear life IE Space Mountain…..not that that is bad). But 20K could really take you fully into the “fantasy”…and as such, the people had VERY strong feelings and memories of the experience they had here…both the kids and the adults. I’ve heard it said before that “water” has this calming effect on most people…

—Some people feel the ride was slow and boring and fake looking, what you think you think they’re missing that others clearly respond to?

These were the people that were just too worn out by the time they got here (see above)…and this affected their ability to loose themselves in the “20K fantasy”….So they left WDW without experiencing any of the magic… some people don’t ever get it…

—Would you have been scared to swim in the lagoon at night? Or fall in?

Hell no, I thought that lagoon was so very cool that one night I actually and finally did jump in. It was about 10pm, maybe later. It was August, I was on the last few days of my summer tour…and I couldn’t stand it any longer. I jumped over to the spur rail and dove right in the main part of the lagoon. Unfortunately I felt like I needed to get out of the water fairly soon….or get caught, otherwise I would have stayed put out there for a while. I will tell you, the water was incredible – warm but not too warm – just right. As others have worried, there was nothing about the lagoon water that was in any way unclean (we were running Nat Gas in those days – no diesel like during those final years)….and I was damn glad I finally made the effort to dive in….I’m a sucker to this day for that Teal Blue Caribbean Water - anywhere….I love those kind of vacations…

—What’s one (or more) crazy story you have related to the ride? One summer, late afternoon, I noticed a pretty blonde girl who for some reason took a special interest in me. I was in the sail and about to “cast off” on another “ten minute tour”. We began chatting (she was probably announcing to me that she was #914). I can’t remember how, but I ended up getting out of the sub immediately upon completion of that ride…so we could continue our verbal getting to know each other (I must have had assistance from another crew member(s) who was helping facilitate this new relationship by relieving me – thanks to those radios). One thing lead to another, and I encouraged her to come back later that nite when things slowed down and I would give her a private ride. I knew somehow that we would have the ability to “deadhead” a ride if we needed to (this occurred when we had too many subs on the tracks based on the crowd that we had in the que). She did come back and I was able (again w/ assistance of the rest of the crew) to actually give her the private ride. Now before you get any ideas…it was totally above board – and above water. I was just too naïve in those days…but we did complete at least one entire orbit. She and I alone on the whole sub. All of it in the sail as best I recall and perfectly legit (she was driving for most of it). This was a true Highlight of that summer…she was staying at WDW for the week. The next day or so was my day off, so I came back to the park…met her somewhere…took her all around to the behind the scenes stuff, down into the tunnels, employee lunch room etc. etc. Finally up on to the roof of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to watch the fireworks from that vantage spot above the crowds….it was really cool..She was very impressed… Again, these days at 20K were incredible…..what else can I say…?

—Any fun pranks people pulled to mix it up?

The obvious stuff, the 914’s, the tell the un-loader happy birthday….or to congratulate him, on his wife having just had the baby….the radio pranks…I just can’t remember … I’m getting too old…

—Was there any legendary figure among the 20Kers?

Again, in my day I think his name was David Todd (pretty sure about this, especially the David part)…he trained me…was a new friend, looked out for my best interests on the schedule. He threw several all nite parties on Little Bear Lake – where I again dived in… near Maitland….Please somebody help me w/ his name if I have it wrong. He was a charter 20K employee from day one. I also remember a supervisor. He was in the big office on Main St. and he was a good guy too. He was not ever a crew member, rather he was part of the WDW lower level management team– I did get to know him. He was the one that I would call from Atlanta before school got out to pre-arrange my reporting for the next employment season. He would have been in his mid 20’s at the time…maybe 28. I think his name was Jim Foxx…hopefully somebody will remember his name. He wasn’t around the ride much, but he would have been the guy above the senior level crew leads….and he was the kind of boss you would want to work for I have nothing but positives to say about him. I think his office was in one of the buildings on Main Street..but on one of the upper floors where all the management offices were..out of sight of the crowds.

—Did you come back to ride 20K after you stopped working there?

Yes I brought my wife here from Texas on our honeymoon in the summer of 1977 (I still had plenty of E-tickets)….how’s that for dedication…and then twice more after that in the eighties….once in the early ‘90’s…but not since. -Do you keep in touch with other 20Kers? Only my college room-mate aka fraternity brother, who was also a casual temp like myself. Other than that no, I would love to...but don’t know anybody’s address, etc. I can’t even recall any of the names, I’m sorry to say…I have a terrible memory.

—Why do you think the ride was shut down? What was problematic about it?

Understanding “big business” (life after Disney), I know how very powerful it is to “trim costs”. I was in the furniture manufacturing business, specifically mattresses. I can’t tell you how many times we decided to cut components or ingredients out of the mattress when we felt customers wouldn’t notice. Yet we continued to sell them at the same price. A 2x4 is no longer 2 inches wide by 4 inches wide. Note: this doesn’t make it right. This same thing happened w/ 20K. You look at the expense with that lagoon…and all the stuff in it….and the time it took to drain and repair it (wasn’t it a couple of months each time?? - see the pix on this web site called “behind the scenes”). The subs themselves…they had to be worn out by ‘94…..from all that time in that humid moldy environment….made out of fiberglass (the California subs I think were made out of something more durable ie metal, they were built in 1958 – as most things were then). It became an easy decision for a management team that had no ties to the original core values that Walt had formulated. Cut the program and take all that expense to the bottom line…and as I describe above w/ the bed business, you keep the admission price into WDW the same (or higher each year). Now take this same concept a step further…and Eliminate other rides/areas in the park as well….don’t just stop w/ 20K. So there you have it…..As time goes by…this is America….the bottom line grows…. I also have another theory, though I can’t be sure of it…Liability Issues. Granted that you never submerged in these subs (I estimate the floor of the sub where you are sitting @ 5’ below the surface). If a porthole ever did blow out and if for some reason, you were not able to blow the hatch (the forward and rear hatch’s were the “ONLY” ways in or out of Nautilis)…..who’s to say how bad it would be. It never happened…but what could occur?? With a blown porthole, water would be at least five feet deep inside that sub...maybe deeper, with only the top headroom technically available for air….(the inner-sub cabins were right at 7 feet high as I estimate). If you couldn’t get that hatch open and even if you did, there is no place to stand on top of the sub itself…Liability Insurance for this contingency is probably very high….people could drown before they got out.

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

Complete Disbelief!!!! Then, Sad…very sad, but more sad now that this web site has re-kindled my memories of 20K…and makes me realize how great it was and is no more….

What would you like to see done with the land eventually?

I don’t think it can ever be the same..so I don’t have an expectation here…sorry.

—How do you feel when you peruse 20kride.com?

I love it…and I really hope that I can re-connect w/ somebody someday….wouldn’t it be great to somehow have a reunion….

—Have you been to the France or Tokyo attractions? If yes, what were your impressions?

I have no desire to go to either…..sorry again.

—Any other anecdotes you’d like to add related to 20K or Disney World in general? You know, I just watched several YouTube videos on 20K and the old Disney Land…it seems that the E ticket was originally invented for the DisneyLand Sub Ride there way back then…they didn’t go above D for anything else in those early days. Obviously when I worked here, there were A thru E levels in place for all WDW rides .. and for many years after that. The concept of having tickets A thru E is quite a good concept. Think about this issue with respect to today’s WDW where they have no tickets. Having tickets was a big incentive for the park to make more money..and for the employees to do better jobs. The more you increased a customer’s enjoyment level, the more times they would have to purchase additional tickets to keep riding these wonderful rides over and over (tickets were for sale throughout the park). The more customers you could get thru the que…the more tickets that had to be purchased (see the story elsewhere on this site about the competition with the Jungle Cruise guys and the “Kissimmi Cup”) It’s just a simple matter…there was this incentive. Now days, there’s no incentive. Ultimately it’s just Not as Cool an experience for the customer. Eventually the customer doesn’t even realize what they are missing….it feeds on itself and soon becomes just the norm. Like a mass-produced, hothouse raised tomato doesn’t have near the taste of the old fashioned, vine ripened true garden type. Most people have now forgotten or don’t even know what they used to taste like. When I read the posted comments on some of the various YouTube Videos regarding the 20K ride, it amazes me that there are actually people that have no knowledge of the ride 20 Thousand Leagues. One comment that I saw was “You mean to tell me this whole thing I see on this video was in the ground where that Winnie the Poo thing is now…no way”. Didn’t 20K take up almost 20% of the entire realestate of WDW back then? This is very sad…the fact that those coming up behind don’t have the slightest impression - and won’t know the true “20K Fantasy” that so many before them knew and remember. But again, I digress…and sorry for this long diatribe…I hope somebody actually reads it…All for now. Count me in if you have a reunion….Thanks Dave (and Walt).