The Last Splash

Say Bon Voyage to a Piece of Disney History as the Underwater E-Ticket - The Submarine Ride - Goes into Dry Dock.

An Old Favorite Goes Under

A victim of the `90's appetite for thrills, Disneyland's submarine ride prepares for its final swim around the lagoon.

By Nancy Wride

THE OLD DAYS: In the summers of `65 through `67, women in mermaid
tails sunned in the Submarine Voyage lagoon for about 4 hours each day.

     In the 1960s, there was no Ariel. We had living mermaids who greeted you from the rocks of the Submarine Voyage lagoon at Disneyland in Anaheim. If you were lucky, one would swim over with her big fin and wave through a porthole.
     With ride operators who resembled sailor boys, the attraction was very romantic - "Guys and Dolls" meets "Beach Blanket Bingo" - even before submerging "80 fathoms down," past the Lost City of Atlantis, the North Pole and a giant sea serpent.
     The Submarine Voyage was one of the first three rides awarded an E-ticket when it and the Matterhorn and Monorail were introduced in the summer of 1959. I was born six months later. No surprise that the Submarine Voyage is embedded in my memories of childhood.
     "If you rode it at a certain age," observed Disneyland publicist John McClintock, "something about the magic of it never leaves you."
     But leave us the submarines will. After Labor Day, the undersea world of Disneyland will go the way of the Motor Boat Cruise and Mission to Mars. Guest surveys, Disneyland spokesmen said, indicated that park visitors want something more exciting.

UPKEEP: A diver repairs a mechanical turtle in the lagoon, left. Above, Dominic Rojas, 3, gapes through a porthole at the undersea world.

     "We know it isn't as relevant today as it once was," Disneyland Resort President Paul Pressler said in announcing the submarines would soon enter dry dock.
     Dreamed up by Walt Disney himself, the ride - consisting of eight submarines, each ferrying 32 passengers around a turquoise bay - debuted June 6. The subs were modeled and named after the U.S. Navy's 1950s-era nuclear subs. Their construction was overseen by retired Adm. Joseph Fowler. He and other navy brass witnessed the ride's dedication in the days when the then-Soviet Union was still the enemy.
     "Wow," a friend said on learning of the submarines' imminent demise, "I guess the Cold War really is over."
     The ride has, like a vaudevillian, been showing its age. Fake fish on wires bob, bot swim, and the subs cruise in four-feet of water - no computer-driven turns and splashy plunges here. On a recent farewell spin, the lights went out. Patches in the reef and a tarp were visible as the Seeker returned to dock.
     "It was a very spectacular attraction for its day ... You saw mermaids and mythology, the sea monster; it was very special," recalled Jack Lindquist, who worked for the park when it opened in 1955 in a former orange grove and retired in 1993 as its president. "For those of us out of the Stone Age, there's a twinge of sadness at seeing it go, but things ... Disney Imagineers come up with will hopefully be even bigger and better."
     Because Disneyland is a national institution, he said, it can be touchy tweaking the balance of old and new rides at the only Disney park in which Walt walked.
     "Tens of millions of people have grown up with it," he said. "It's a wonderful thing that a huge number of people think of ... as their own."

Steady as she goes

     As a native Southern Californian, I felt like Disneyland was my playground, even if we kids only went once a year. My father worked in international sales, and our family often hosted foreign friends and visitors. All wanted to go to Disneyland.
     The different rides and different years blur together and flash back out of order. Across from Adventure through Inner Space, where riders went microscopic, was telephone land. There, speaking of low-tech, you could go into a windowed room with a sibling and - it was incredible! - both talk at once on a speaker phone. "Hi Mom; we're on the phone, and we don't even have to hold it!"
     Based on my mother's reaction, the sound was intermittently fuzzy or akin to birds screeching. The fuzzy part reminds me now of that portion of the submarine ride that claims to use "sonar hydrophones to actually hear the fish talk!"
     Like the sub voyage, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds that seemingly race through a Swiss mountain, most of the best rides were those that took me far away. And how much farther could you go than under the polar ice cap?
     "Dive! Dive! Take `er down easy. Aye, aye ... 10 fathoms ... All ahead full. Steady as she goes. This is the captain here."
     Ride operators didn't all love working on the submarines, which belch diesel fumes and go in circles. Bad ventilation is worse when, say, someone changes a diaper. Over the years, workers have played pranks on each other. According to "Mouse Tales" (1994), an unauthorized history of Disneyland by David Koenig, these often involved getting people wet. Sub sailors would slide a coin under the hatch of the pilot dome, preventing it from sealing. When the sub motored under the waterfall, the pilot would get soaked. (Hatches are now shut permanently.)

Underwater tales

     An out-of-town couple once asked a submarine operator how long the ride lasted. Two days, the weisenheimer quipped. The couple soon returned, having hopped the Monorail to the Disneyland Hotel, packed up and returned with luggage for what they apparently thought was an overnight cruise.
     There have also been mishaps. Koenig reported that one sub pilot blathered on so long about the dastardly sea serpent that another submarine rear-ended it.
     In a truly strange episode occurring on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec 7, 1974, one of the most famous crashes marooned a submarine in the lagoon for three days. It seems one submarine smacked another, and the guests stood atop their seats neck-high in water before they either squeezed onto the pilot's ladder or burst out the hatch to swim off into the lagoon. All 38 passengers were Japanese tourists.
     About 11:30 on a recent August morning, the 90-degree heat made the lagoon looked [sic] inviting to those winding through the line, which had formed at 9:30 a.m. "It's a popular ride, and even more popular now that people know it's closing," sub operator Andy Quesada said. "One little girl said to me, 'You can't close my submarine ride. It's my favorite.'"
     It was a common refrain. Even those who conceded it had grown dated waxed sentimental.
     "They shouldn't [close it]; it will be missed," said Aiea Ockoa of Las Vegas. "That's not what people look at - that it's not high-tech - they like it because it's been here from the beginning."
     Even though the sub's lights left us in the darkness a few times, and we truly felt in the black "liquid space," Dominic Rojas, 3, was enthralled. He declared the ride, "Gweat!" His favorite parts were "the jellyfish, and the other jellyfish."
     Whether it will be replaced and with what isn't known; some company officials say an new attraction might materialize in five years.


     From the summer of 1965 through the summer of `67, Disneyland had live mermaids perched on the rocks for about four hours each day. They brushed their hair, primped with an oversized mirror and sunned themselves.
     "A special tryout was held at the Disneyland Hotel swimming pool, with requirements specifying a height between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet 7 inches, long hair and good swimming ability," according to "Disneyland: The Nickel Tour," on sale at the Magic Kingdom. "The aspiring sirens were assured that Disneyland would provide the appropriate mermaid attire."
     Of all the Disneyland uniforms, this was clearly the sparkly best - even better than Snow White or that of one of those personal guides, who got to wear a plaid skirt and meet people from exotic lands. When you're job hunting at age 5, anything at the Happiest Place on Earth looks good. But who really wants to be a trash sweeper?
     "It was like a dream job," ex-mermaid Shannon Baughmann told Koenig. At 6 foot 3, she was a lot of Starkist. "You could swim [within] 15 feet of the subs and wave to the guests. We'd do underwater stunts, synchronized swimming, play and splash each other," she recalled. "I was always the last one out, to make sure we didn't forget our oversized combs, necklaces or jewels."
     They were very popular, and not just with the girls.
     "They were quite an eyeful," The Nickel Tour concluded. "Unfortunately, they were too much for some of the guys onshore, who found themselves compelled to jump into the water and swim to the rocks to answer the siren's call."
     Folklore has it that chlorine kept the water clean, but made the mermaids' long and lustrous hair green.

Lagoon Memories

     Eight-year-old Jennifer Berdine of Missouri, who had been waiting two days for the lumbering voyage, was leaving the ride with her father on a recent morning. Unlike me, she had something besides a Hans Christian Anderson tale upon which to base her mermaid comparisons.
     Through the submarine portholes, she could see phony maids gracefully sway in and out of undulating sea plants and hover over a treasure chest. Would Jennifer - a child of the "Little Mermaid" movie generation - be as charmed as I was?
     She climbed out of the submarine beaming. "I liked it when the mermaid[s] came out," she said, declaring Submarine Voyage her favorite ride.
     Like her, I found something dreamy about the underwater world in which life unfolds in blue slow motion and the mermaids resembled giant swimming Barbies. Although it may be time for a modern attraction at the lagoon, I hope any future adventure is a watery wonderland reached by submarine.
     And I will long wistfully for the old faithful, along with Slip `n Slides and the endless summer of childhood.

Be There

     The Submarine Voyage is open through Labor Day at Disneyland, 1313 Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Today, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-midnight; Monday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission is free for children age 2 and younger, $28 for ages 3-11, $38 for ages 12-59, and $36 for ages 60 and older. Parking is $7-$8. (714) 781-4565.

Reprinted without permission from the Calendar section of the Thursday, September 3, 1998 issue of the Los Angeles Times.
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