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A Ride Sub-Dued

Landmark Disneyland attraction is about to go the way of the E ticket.

September 03, 1998|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the 1960s, there was no Ariel. There were living mermaids who greeted us from the rocks of the Submarine Voyage lagoon at Disneyland. If we were lucky, one might even swim over with her one big fin and wave through a porthole.

With ride operators who resembled sailor boys, it was all very romantic: "Guys and Dolls" meets "Beach Blanket Bingo." And that was before we submerged into the lagoon, "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 then that the Submarine Voyage is embedded in my memories of childhood.

"If you rode it at a certain age," said 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, indicate that park visitors want something more exciting.

"We know it isn't as relevant today as it once was," Disneyland Resort President Paul Pressler said in announcing that the submarines would soon enter dry dock.

Dreamed up by Walt Disney, the eight submarines that ferry 32 passengers each around a turquoise bay debuted June 6, 1959. They 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 former Soviet Union was the enemy.

"Wow," said one friend upon 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 instead of swimming, and the subs cruise in four feet of water: no computer-driven turns and splashy plunges here. On a recent spin, the lights went out. Patches in the reef and a tarp were visible as the "Seeker" sub 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 a former orange grove, retiring 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 Disney 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."

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"Dive! Dive! Take 'er down easy. Aye aye . . . 10 fathoms. . . . All ahead full. Steady as she goes. This is the captain here. . . ."

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Ride operators of yore didn't all love working on the submarines. They belch diesel fumes and go in circles. Ventilation is bad when, say, someone decides to change a diaper. Over the years, workers played pranks on one another. According to the 1994 book "Mouse Tales," an unauthorized history of Disneyland by David Koenig, these often involved people getting 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 now are shut permanently.)

In a truly strange episode occurring on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, in 1974, one of the most famous crashes marooned a submarine in the lagoon for three days. It seems that 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.

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From the summer of 1965 through the summer of 1967, Disneyland had live "mermaids" perched on the rocks about four hours each day. They brushed their hair, primped with an oversized hand mirror and sunned themselves.

"It was like a dream job," ex-mermaid Shannon Baughmann told Koenig. "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.

They were very popular, and not just with little girls.

"They were quite an eyeful," "Disneyland: The Nickel Tour," now on sale at the Magic Kingdom, 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."

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Jennifer Berdine, 8, of Missouri, was leaving the ride with her father on a recent morning. She had been waiting two days for this lumbering voyage. Unlike me, she had something besides a Hans Christian Andersen tale upon which to base her mermaid comparison.

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