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Disneyland Scuttling Submarine Fleet

Venerable Ride Is Latest Victim of Changing Times

July 30, 1998|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Walt Disney Co. said Wednesday it will retire one of Disneyland's oldest rides, the venerable fleet of yellow submarines that have taken millions of passengers on underwater journeys, without ever fully submerging the vessels.

The 39-year-old Submarine Voyage will close following the Labor Day weekend, to make way for a new, snazzier attraction that will debut in 2003.

It may be months before the company decides exactly what it will install at the submarines' Tomorrowland location, said spokesman Ray Gomez. One option involves using Atlantis as a theme, he said.

The company is closing the submarine ride because surveys show that customers want "something more exciting," Gomez said. Still, he admits that some people may feel sentimental about losing an attraction that Walt Disney called "the eighth-largest submarine fleet in the world."

"Likely there will be some nostalgia about the attraction because it's been here for 39 years," Gomez said. "But the vast majority of our guests tell us they want something different."

The closure of the submarine ride is in keeping with Disneyland's recent updating of Tomorrowland, which some customers felt had become more like Yesterdayland, with its dated attractions. The $100-million renovation, which was completed in May, added new attractions while booting out some of the oldies--including the Carousel of Progress, the People Mover and Captain Eo.

"The very nature of Tomorrowland is to evolve and change," Gomez said.

Submarine Voyage--while still cherished by some customers--is clearly pinned to the past. The ride was designed by Adm. Joseph Fowler, who supervised Disneyland's construction and managed the park after it opened July 17, 1955. Built at a cost of $2.5 million, it was inspired by the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarines of the 1950s and the Disney film "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea."

U.S. Navy officers attended the opening ceremonies June 6, 1959, and rode the 52-foot-long submarines to compare them with the real thing.

The ride--which features eight submarines--was designed to take about 1,400 people an hour on an eight-minute journey into "liquid space." Halfway submerged, the fleet lumbers around a lagoon filled with 9 million gallons of water and decorated with plastic plants.

Initially painted a military gray, the ships were repainted bright yellow in the 1980s and transformed into an "underwater research fleet," the company said.

While the ride made sense during the Cold War era, Gomez said, park visitors are no longer as enthralled with the subject of nuclear submarines. A statement issued by the company on Wednesday said the ride "isn't as relevant" today as it once was.

But that seemed lost on the children who rode one of the submarines Wednesday, their faces pressed to portholes. They gasped with wonder at the low-tech imagery before them, which included suspended fish, rocking turtles and twitching crabs. No one seemed to care much that the surface of the water was a mere upward glance away.

"Wow," said one girl.

"The bottom of the ocean," her grandfather responded.

The excitement was almost too much for one small girl, who began to cry when the sub's "captain" announced a "weather warning" and bubbles perked around the ship.

"Honey, don't cry," the child's grandmother said, rubbing her back. "It's not real."

Before the ride was over, the grandfather had his own problems to worry about, as water dripped from a leaking door above his head.

"Grandpa's getting a shower," a woman said.

But at the end of the ride, one granddaughter recalled only the good parts.

"That was neat," she said. "We even saw a mermaid."

Some visitors said Wednesday that they will be happy to see the ride go, while others bemoaned its demise.

"It's kind of pathetic," said Melissa Ferrari, a college student from San Diego who confessed to liking the ride when she was younger. "I'm 19 now, so I think it's kind of boring."

"You grow out of it," echoed Randy Wickerd, 20, from San Diego.

Not everybody is eager to part with the past.

"Oh, man," said Gino Osborne, bending with disappointment upon learning that the ride would close. "We've definitely got to go on that."

His wife, Robyn, however, was unconcerned.

"That was one of the weaker ones for me," the Mission Viejo resident said. "If it were 'It's a Small World,' then I'd get upset."

Among the park's most popular rides today are the Indiana Jones ride in Adventureland and Honey I Shrunk the Audience in Tomorrowland, Gomez said.

More than a dozen of the park's original rides are still operating, he said.

On Wednesday, the lines at Submarine Voyage were even longer than usual as word leaked out that the attraction's days are numbered.

"The line is usually right up there with the longest lines at the park," publicist Chad Halliburton said. "It's one of those rides where, if you haven't been here in a while, it's 'Hey, we've got to go on the submarines.' "

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