Back in 1959, Disneyland opened the first three “E Ticket Attractions at the park, which were The Monorail, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Submarine Voyage. The Submarine Voyage, which brought explorers under the polar ice caps and had fantastic elements such as mermaids and googly-eyed sea monsters, was closed in 1998, leaving nothing but an empty lagoon in the corner of Tomorrowland. This corner was not forgotten by guests, or the Imagineers, who would keep trying to find a reason to reopen the attraction. Despite their efforts, it remained closed until 2007, when it reopened with much fanfare. Gone were the fish on strings and diesel engins, and in their place were state-of-the-art digital projections, environmentally safer electronic drive engines, and everyone’s favorite little clown fish, Nemo. There was a massive advertising blitz for the new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, with television and radio commercials, and billboards all along major freeways stating that the subs were back! You had to have been pretty oblivious to miss all of the media surrounding the reopening of this classic attraction!
Well, let’s just say the back half of 2007 wasn’t a great time for me, so needless to say, I did manage to miss all of the advertising. So, when I received my attraction assignment, I was clueless. This did not last for long, as I was getting ready to start my “You’d Better Not Crash” Course in how to be a helmsman on a research vessel for the Institute of Nautical Exploration and Marine Observation, or N.E.M.O..
Now, before we go any further, I’m going to be talking about behind the scenes sort of stuff. The kind of stuff that can ruin the “magic”, if you will. So, if that’s not your cup of tea, I recommend just backing away slowly, and coming back when I’m done talking about this series of jobs.
Okay, first off, here’s a fun fact! While the attraction had been updated with new set dressings, electric drive engines, and fancy projections, the actual submarines that the guests boarded were the original, almost fifty year old attraction vehicles originally built at the Todd Shipyards in San Pedro. This means there was nothing automated, nothing computer controlled, instead it was all operated by nearly minimum wage cast members!
So imagine that you have a submarine full of 35 – 40 guests, sitting just below the waterline, leaning forward and taking in the show. In the middle of them, you have a “helmsman”, standing on a platform, looking out the windows of the “sail”. Using the portholes, they watch for the visual queues to tell them whether or not they are “on profile”, or whether or not the audio in the sub is syncing with the show happening outside the sub. In order to stay on profile, the helmsman is constantly changing the speed of the submarine, using a joystick that moves up and down, or forward and backward. This controls the RPM of the propellers that, well, propel the submarine forward. Now, also keep in mind that these subs, like every other watercraft in Disneyland, are on rails. This means the subs also have wheels, but those wheels exist solely to keep the subs moving on the track. They have no brakes. This means that, when it’s time to stop the sub, you go in full reverse and remember to cut it off before you actually go into reverse.
Yeah, it takes a bit of practice.
So, here I am, being taught not only how to work with guests on an attraction, but also how to run one. Things like “full throttle out of the docks, down to 1000 RPM at the first marker…” are stuck in my head almost ten years later. The thing is, though, each of the subs had their own personality. Nautilus, the lead sub, seemed to be the standard. It was actually my second favorite submarine to drive, right after Scout, which was normally the sub right behind Nautilus. Scout could be a bit tricky. It ran about 15 – 20 RPM off from the other subs, and it took a lot more time to slow down than the other subs it normally ran with. While they did have bumpers on the subs, to help out in case one hit another, if one got nailed, it was out until they could reset the shock absorbers in the bumpers. At any rate…
I was very quiet during my training, and during the first month working the attraction. My trainer was a former Jungle Cruise skipper, and he was part of the shakedown and opening crew for the attraction in 2007. He was used to using a script, or “spiel”, which he provided to me, with all of the approved variations, and I felt he might have been a bit disappointed that I was using the basic bits during training, and not elaborating. However, I did everything well enough that, upon completing my training, I passed my tests and became a full fledged helmsman at the Submarine Voyage.
This was where it started getting fun.