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The Submarine Voyage to Find Nemo

Imagineer Tony Baxter brought Disneyland's classic sub ride back from the depths

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The Submarine Voyage to Find Nemo

Tony Baxter, senior vice president, creative development for Walt Disney Imagineering and evangelist extraordinaire for the Submarine Voyage.

Disney, 2007. Used with permission.
Updated October 28, 2008
In nearly every classic animated Disney film, a young character is separated from his family, often under tragic circumstances, and has to endure an heroic journey to reunite with his loved ones--a young character such as the plucky clownfish from Finding Nemo. The wildly popular Pixar computer-animated movie is the inspiration for the high-profile ride that debuted in 2007 at Disneyland. Well, it didn't debut as a new ride, exactly. Disney's Imagineers, the creative wizards that develop the company's parks and attractions, added a "Finding Nemo" overlay to the classic Submarine Voyage, a beloved ride that opened in 1959. And almost sank for good in 1998.

The Submarine Voyage ride itself is like the main character in a Disney movie. At one time it was a shining beacon of Disneyland--the park's first actual E-Ticket ride, in fact. After years of indifference, however, it was shunned and nearly left for dead. Incredibly, the evil villain in this Disney melodrama was the Disney company itself. Wallowing at the time in a bottom-line mentality that embraced corporate profits over creative integrity, Disney played the big, bad daddy by pulling the plug on its child. Citing high maintenance costs for the subs, it decommissioned them--literally--and left an empty lagoon and a gaping hole in Disneyland's attraction mix.

Thankfully, this story has a happy Hollywood (OK, Anaheim) ending. Another major character in the Submarine Voyage saga is Tony Baxter. As a young boy growing up in Southern California, he was a frequent Disneyland visitor who loved the sub ride and ended up as the white knight who helped save it from certain death. I sat down with Baxter, now senior vice president, creative development at Walt Disney Imagineering, in early 2007 to learn about his long and intrigue-filled voyage with the submarine attraction. Baxter, it turns out, is as plucky as Nemo.

Baxter Dives into the Subs

While he rode and adored Disneyland's Submarine Voyage as a child, it was during the summer of 1969 that Baxter really began developing his fervent stewardship of the attraction. As a teenager, the avowed Disney geek got a job at the park that eventually led him to a ride operator position for the subs. Nearly forty years later, he can still recite the pre-ride spiel without missing a beat. "General Dynamics, builders of the Nautilus welcomes you aboard...." He worked at Disneyland for five years.

Immediately after college, Baxter returned to the Mouse by way of Walt Disney Imagineering. As fate would have it, his first assignment as an Imagineer was to help install the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine attraction at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida. "They knew I had worked on the California ride," he says. "The field experience gave me a good sense of what we could do at Imagineering." Foreshadowing the hard times both submarine attractions would face, Baxter says that he was often called in to help repair the Florida ride. "The caustic nature of maintaining anything that's kept under water can be very demanding," he notes. And expensive. For example, Baxter says that instead of standard maintenance and repair crews, the parks had to use trained divers.

Walt Disney World's sub ride opened soon after the Magic Kingdom park debuted in 1971. It closed in 1994. Although nothing has replaced it, 20,000 Leagues' fate was sealed when the Florida park filled in and paved over its sub lagoon. When the cost-cuteers set their periscopes on California and closed its sub ride a few years later, they at least left a glimmer of hope by leaving the lagoon intact. Why, however, did Disney want to sink either of the popular attractions?

Back in the days when the Disney parks used ticket books, Baxter says that each attraction had direct, attributable revenue. The expense to operate and maintain a ride could be balanced against the income it generated in ticket sales. Since an E-Ticket attraction like the Submarine Voyage brought in beaucoup bucks, its high cost of operation could be justified. Once Disney switched over to a pay-one-price format, however, the perception changed. There wasn't a clear revenue impact from any one attraction, and a high-maintenance ride like the subs could be viewed as an expense drain.

According to Baxter, the Submarine Voyage suffered during a difficult period when the company worshiped at the altar of maximized profits. Michael Eisner, who was Disney's CEO at the time, had been the company's savior at the start of his tenure, but had seen his halo fade when its fortunes started to falter. Eisner appointed Paul Pressler as Disneyland's president in the mid-1990's. With an intense (some might say ruthless) focus on trimming expenses and wringing profits, Pressler slashed the subs' maintenance budget. That led to its slow, sad decline. With little support and the Florida fleet gone, the Submarine Voyage's days were numbered.

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