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California and the West

Subs Make Final Dive Into History

Disneyland: Deemed too tame for modern audiences, theme park ride that debuted in 1959 takes nostalgic passengers to polar icecap for the final time.


ANAHEIM — With a surge of bubbles, a chapter of Southern California history closed Tuesday night as the 39-year-old Disneyland submarines took their last voyage around the turquoise Tomorrowland lagoon, their replacement still a question mark.

Crowds lined up at the vintage 1959 attraction--one of the original E-ticket rides, christened along with the Monorail and the Matterhorn--and patiently waited up to 90 minutes for one last ride on the yellow submarines. The vessels take passengers to and from the polar ice cap in eight minutes (one of the faster Southland commutes).

It was a wistful farewell for many.

"I remember when the mermaids at the ride were real," Dorothy Shader of Naples recalled fondly, her four children tagging along. "I thought it would be a great job for my daughter, Monica. . . . She's less shy than I was."

Monica, 11, had to agree. Of course, she added, "any job here would be good, but being a mermaid would be really good."

Guest surveys, Disneyland officials said, indicate that the public wants a more thrilling ride than one in which they rumble around a giant tank, with fake fish bobbing in place and a humongous sea serpent wearing a silly smile at the end of the voyage.

But the nostalgic would beg to differ.

"I've heard it over and over," said one ride operator in a sailor outfit as the Triton submarine returned to dock Tuesday afternoon. "People grew up with the ride and still have childhood memories . . . I think the ride operators, the people who work here, will maybe miss it the most."

Disneyland "cast" were to take the last undersea voyages beginning at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

"The park will be closed at that point," said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock. "Then at 11 o'clock, it will shuffle off.

"The subs were decommissioned in a ceremony at 7 a.m. We had a representative of the Navy, Cmdr. Robert Thomas, who said he'd grown up in Tustin and rode subs as a kid," he said. "There is no formal decommissioning ceremony for the Navy, but Thomas said usually there is a ceremony with the lowering of a banner."

That was performed aboard the Nautilus by longtime park employee Manny Mendoza, who worked on the Submarine Voyage when it opened in 1959.

The Nautilus made a circuit of the lagoon and the banner was presented to Donald Duck in his sailor suit. At that point, Disneyland workers had the opportunity to take a ride before the park opened.

By 2 p.m., the mother-daughter team of Pearl Cass and Pam Dongerkoffler of Pinole had taken a final round-trip journey to the North Pole. Cass was taking her first voyage; her daughter had been on the ride several years ago--and recalled the mermaids.

"I remember," she said with a sigh, "when everything was more real."

In those days--starting in the summer of 1965--the finned water sprites sunbathed on the lagoon rocks for four hours daily, primping in oversized mirrors and dragging jumbo combs through their hair. They waved at passengers.

They occasionally swam around and waved through the portholes underwater. For children, it was like seeing Submarine Barbie. It was a job for which Disneyland held auditions at the nearby hotel.

Alas, the clear water got that way with a special mix of chemicals that were no friend of human hair, and overzealous men occasionally dove into the lagoon to answer "their siren song," in the words of "Disneyland: The Nickel Tour." The live mermaids were decommissioned in the summer of 1967.

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