Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Disneyland's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The problem with doing the impossible is that sometimes you run out of money. That issue faced Walt Disney as the July 17, 1955 opening date of Disneyland loomed ever closer. A new concept in entertainment, something beyond a simple amusement park, was relatively virgin territory and a challenge to explore. Right up to "Black Sunday" the asphalt was still drying and the water pipes still being installed. As a consequence, there were more than a few gaps in the list of attractions.

At the time, Adventureland had only one attraction: the Jungle Cruise. It didn't warrant the kind of coverage on the premire television event Dateline: Disneyland that Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland received. A passing mention would have to suffice until a later episode, A Trip Thru Adventureland, and that land remains the only of the original five without a dedication. Frontierland and Fantasyland were, of course, well-funded and brimming over with things, from Snow White's Scary Adventure and Peter Pan's Flight to the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland and the Golden Horseshoe Saloon.

Tomorrowland was somewhere inbetween. Dateline: Disneyland featured the headline Rocket to the Moon attraction and the Rat Pack enjoying Autopia. Dr. Heinz Haber was in the Hall of Chemisty attempting, with limited success, to demonstrate the principles of atomic fisson. Unfortunately but entertainingly, the Tomorrowland segment was the one most fraught with technical difficulties. Still, despite Disney's best efforts, Tomorrowland was largely a dead space.

Solutions had to be found quickly. Monsanto funded the Hall of Chemistry, Kaiser Aluminum was kind enough to fund the Hall of Aluminum Fame, Dutch Boy Paints sponsored the Color Gallery and Crane provided the Bathroom of Tomorrow, but these corporate showrooms left much to be desired. Phantom Boats spun around a shallow slough for that first year and were gone. The Flight Circle featured remote-control planes in a contrived "test flight" environment. Space Station X-1 featured a model sattelite developed by Werner von Braun over a miniature model of the American countryside. Stopgap measures like the Monsanto House of the Future and the Viewliner railway were added in 1957 but the whole thing warranted a redo in 1959, at which time the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage and the Monorail were introduced.

One attraction introduced a few weeks after Disneyland opened and which survived the revolving door leading up to the truly massive overhaul that was the New Tomorrowland in 1967 was the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit. Occupying the space currently housing Star Tours, 20,000 Leagues was an elegantly simple idea. Remembering the splash that the film made in 1954, why not use those now-dusty sets to construct a walkthrough attraction? And so it came to pass.

A more recently-drawn schematic of the attraction.

In these early days, attractions were not included in the price of admission. 20,000 Leagues cost an "A" ticket out of the much collectable ticketbook, or 10 cents paid at the front door. A counter-clockwise path took visitors past scale models used in filming before they entered the dark confines of the Nautilus itself.

The tour took one past the wheelhouse, chart room and various cabins before landing them in the showstopping grand salon. There, the original squid animatronic could be seen through the Nautilus' viewport.

Then past pump rooms and engine rooms to the 11-foot scale model of the Nautilus flanked by Peter Ellenshaw's matte paintings of Vulcania. Across from it was the grand finale: the full-size deck set, lodged in rocks to become the final resting place of the Nautilus.

The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit lasted for 11 years, leaving a strong impression on all who were able to see it. It also made for a fascinating exercise in theme design. It would have been simple enough to have created a more straightforward museum-style exhibit of the film's sets and props, but that would not have been nearly as immersive as Walt Disney was aiming for. His new idea for a theme park required that the guest feel like they are stepping into the world of his films. In this exhibit they quite literally did that, walking the same floors as James Mason and Kirk Douglas.

20,000 Leagues was one of the attractions scrapped for the New Tomorrowland of 1967. In it's place, Monsanto took up residence with their Adventures Thru Inner Space, which was itself supplanted by Star Tours. A 20,000 Leagues version of the Submarine Voyage made its way over to Walt Disney World, but the original Disneyland attraction has its strongest echo in Disneyland Paris' Mysteries of the Nautilus. That walkthrough is almost identical, save that it is comprised of replicas.

One last prop from the film and attraction does remain in Disneyland USA, however. In 1966, they were still in the process of constructing a retirement home for 999 happy haunts and this retirement home needed a good pipe organ. When you visit the Haunted Mansion and arrive at the grand ballroom, the ghostly organist is playing a dirge on what used to be Captain Nemo's instrument.