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Why (For) did Walt Disney actually have Disneyland's Submarine Voyage built ?

Jim Hill

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Why (For) did Walt Disney actually have Disneyland's Submarine Voyage built ?

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Julie L. writes in to say:

All of the other Disney sites have been running stories this week about Disneyland's "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage". So what's your take on this classic Tomorrowland attraction coming back to life after being shut down for almost nine years now ?

Dear Julie --

To be honest, what I find interesting about Disneyland's old Submarine Voyage attraction isn't that it's returning with a "Finding Nemo" -themed overlay. Or even that this Tomorrowland classic is returning to service at all.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

No, what I find fascinating about the Submarine Voyage is that it may be the very first theme park attraction to ever have been built out of spite.

Don't believe me ? Then check out this article that legendary Hollywood gossip Hedda Hopper wrote for the Los Angeles Times back in February of 1965, which featured this attention-getting headline:

Rumored Sell-Out Denied by Disney

Another rumor bit the dust when I called Walt Disney to check the story that he was selling out everything -- studio and Disneyland -- to CBS. "Absolutely untrue," said he. "With the business 'Mary Poppins' is doing, Disney might make an offer to buy CBS. Years ago, I tried to sell them on coming in with me at Disneyland. They weren't interested. They put their money in Pacific Ocean Park instead, and lost their shirts."

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

Walt sounds pretty angry in that quote, don't you think ? Well, there's good reason for that. You see, in September of 1953, Roy Disney flew out to NYC to meet with the various heads of the television networks. Roy was looking to trade a Disney-produced weekly TV series for the funds that Walt desperately needed to get started on construction of Disneyland.

As the story goes, Roy's first stop was the corporate headquarters of the Columbia Broadcasting System. Which only made sense given that CBS was then known as the "Tiffany Network" because it was perpetually No. 1 in the ratings. More importantly, because execs who worked at this network always made sure that they only presented top-quality programs that featured the very biggest stars.

Anyway ... It would have been quite the feather in Roy's cap if he had been able to cut a deal with CBS. Have Disney's very first weekly TV series debut on the nation's No. 1 network. But the way I hear it, CBS officials rejected Roy's proposal. Supposedly because Walt refused to shoot a pilot. But also because the "Tiffany Network" didn't want to be associated with something that sounded as low-class as that "Coney Island" clone that the Disneys wanted to build in an Anaheim orange grove.

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

Of course, hindsight is always 20 / 20. And once Disneyland opened in July of 1955 and proved to be a huge financial success, CBS immediately wanted in on the theme park business. So after spending a year or so scoping out possible construction sites (As well as persuading executives from the Los Angeles Turf Club -- I.E. The operators of the Santa Anita Race Track -- to come in on the project as their financial partner), "Tiffany Network" officials officially unveiled the project in January of 1957.

According to an article that appeared in the January 30th edition of the New York Times :

The Columbia Broadcasting System is going into the amusement park business, following in the footsteps of American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres and Walt Disney.

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

C.B.S. and the Los Angeles Turf Club, it was announced today, will develop the Ocean Park Pier area in Los Angeles and Santa Monica into a thirty-acre family amusement park. The project, featuring an Oceanarium and a South Seas island among other attractions, will be operated as a year-round enterprise. It is expected to be ready for business early in the summer of 1958.

The joint announcement by Frank Stanton, president of C.B.S., and Charles H. Strub, executive vice president of the Turf Club, said the Santa Monica City Council had voted to grant a twenty-five year lease on the tidelands property.

Now did you notice the most important part of the above article? That CBS was going to take a previously existing amusement pier and radically retheme it? So that this new entity (Which would eventually become known as Pacific Ocean Park) would be as good as Disneyland? If not better?

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

So Ocean Park Pier closes in March of 1957. And CBS hires top people in the then-still-new field of theme park design to come create new rides, shows and attractions for this nearly 60-year-old structure. While press accounts from this period talk about how the "Tiffany Network" was planning on spending some $30,000,000 on their Southern California amusement park project ... Truth be told, the total amount that CBS & the Los Angeles Turf Club were willing to invest in the initial overhaul of this Santa Monica landmark was just $10,000,000.

Anywho ... Pacific Ocean Park opens with great hoopla on July 28, 1958. With over 20,000 guests turning up for the festivities. Which -- of course -- featured appearances by dozens of celebrities who were then appearing in various CBS television shows. And over the next week or so, POP (As Pacific Ocean Park eventually came to be known) actually proves to be a bigger draw than Disneyland. With hundreds more tourists pushing their way through the turnstiles in Santa Monica then there were out in Anaheim.

This -- of course -- does not go unnoticed by Walt Disney, who is just livid about this whole development. First of all because CBS had initially rejected the idea of Disneyland as being something that was far too carny for the "Tiffany Network" to be associated with. And then because the theme park designers that this top-rated television network had hired had so blatantly ripped off many of the rides, shows and attractions that Walt's designers had created for his park.

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

By that I mean : Disneyland had a "Rocket to the Moon" attraction. Pacific Ocean Park had a "Flight to Mars" ride. Disneyland had an Autopia. Pacific Ocean Park had a "Union 76 Ocean Highway." Disneyland had a Skyway. Pacific Ocean Park had an Ocean Skyway. The list goes on and on ...

But perhaps the rip-off that galled Walt the most was that Pacific Ocean Park had taken Disneyland's "20,000 Leagues Under the Seas" walk-through and then used it as the inspiration for their own submarine-themed walk-through attraction. Only -- in this case -- it was the modern version of the Nautilus that POP guests got to tour. The USS Nautilus, to be precise. The world's first nuclear-powered vessel. The first submarine to ever travel underneath the pack ice and reach the North Pole.

As Todd James Pierce (I.E. The author of a forthcoming book that documents the history of Disneyland's earliest competitors) explains it, this was a crucial moment for the ol' Mousetro :

Throughout his life, Walt was not so much an innovator as he was a person driven to produce technologically superior products. The early Alice comedies are a technologically superior version of the Koko (Out of the Inkwell) cartoons. "Steamboat Willie" is a technically superior interplay of sound and image compared to other earlier cartoons who experimented (rather unsuccessfully) with sound. "Steamboat Willie" is usually trotted out at the first "sound" cartoon. But as you know, more accurately, it is the first cartoon to very successfully synchronize music and movement.

Guidebook scan courtesy of Todd James Pierce

From where I stand, I see this same impulse at play (with Disney's response to POP's submarine attraction) ... POP had a walk-through version of the USS Nautilus. So therefore Walt (-- in order to "one up" his competition -- had to then create) an actual working version of the Nautilus that took people beneath the polar ice cap.

I know, I know. Some of you may find it very hard to believe that kindly old Uncle Walt actually worked this way. That he could be fiercely competitive. But consider this : The memo that outlined Disneyland's submarine project -- listing which WED employees would tackle what aspects of this new Tomorrowland attraction construction -- was dated July 23, 1958. Just five days before Pacific Ocean Park officially opened to the public.

And Walt ? He certainly wasn't shy when it came to talking with the press in late 1958 & early 1959. During this period (When Pacific Ocean Park was viewed as being a pretty significant threat to Disneyland's financial future), Disney regularly gave interviews where he talked about how his theme park was ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

... pushing rapidly toward completion of a $5,500,000 development program, which will bring the total investment (in the Anaheim theme park) to some $29,000,000 and increase to forty-eight the roster of attractions. These numbered twenty-two when the park opened in 1955.

The big new additions are a scaled-down replica of the Matterhorn, the great peak in Switzerland; a mile-long monorail, and a submarine voyage, all executed with Walt Disney's ever-surprising Barnum-like flair.

In the underwater feature, visitors will be transported on eight forty-passenger submarines through a man-made seas involving 9,000,000 gallons of water. It will be populated by hundreds of specimens of simulated marine fauna and other features, including a 2,300 pound sea serpent.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Walt also made sure that the actual construction of Disneyland's subs got as much press as possible. Check out this January 1, 1959 article from the Los Angeles Times:

Disneyland Orders Eight Submarines for Sight-Seeing

A West Coast shipyard with considerable experience in turning out ocean-going merchant ships and men-of-war had received an order to build a fleet of eight submarines.

The undersea craft, however, will never fire torpedoes in anger or stalk an enemy convoy. Instead they will be underwater passenger carriers on submarine sight-seeing tours at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA.

The order received by the Los Angeles division of the Todd Shipyards Corporation calls for the construction of eight fifty-two-foot submarines complete with conning towers and diving planes. They will be powered by Diesel-electric machinery.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Each of the craft will provide air-conditioned quarters for forty passengers, who will view underwater scenes through heavy-glass port lights. The submarines will operate in a lagoon being built in an expansion of Disneyland. The new section will be known as Tomorrowland.

The submarine flotilla is to be completed by May 1. Previously the shipyard built for Disneyland the steel hull for the stern-wheeler Mark Twain and the hull and skeleton framework of the square-rigged vessel Columbia, both of which are in operation at the park.

Then -- of course -- the actual opening of this new Tomorrowland attraction was one of the high points of "Kodak presents Disneyland '59," a 90-minute-long ABC television special that aggressively hyped all of the rides that had just been added to the Anaheim theme park. Which (hopefully) would then prove to the world that Walt wasn't a man who'd just lie down and let his competition roll right over him.

Then-U.S. Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Lillian Disney
board Disneyland sub for inaugural voyage on June 14, 1959.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Of course, the irony of this whole situation was -- by the Summer of 1959 -- Pacific Ocean Park was already in serious financial trouble. This rethemed amusement pier never even came close to making the amount of money that CBS executives had originally hoped it would. Which is why -- in November of that same year -- rather than continue to " ... lose their shirt," the "Tiffany Network" sold its oceanside theme park at a loss.

POP then changed hands a number of times before it finally closed for good in October of 1967. The now-abandoned theme park then became a popular hang-out for the local surfing community.

Anyhow ... Long story short : That's why (I guess) that I look at Disneyland's subs a bit differently than most folks do. I see these vehicles for the interesting place that they occupy in theme park history. Back when Walt Disney was in an amusement park equivalent of an arms race. And he was determined that the "Happiest Place on Earth" had to top POP.

Vintage postcard courtesy of Google Images

Your thoughts ?

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  • That's a very interesting article.

    It's so cool to read stories about where these rides/attractions truly come from.

  • I'm a little confused...


    "Now Pacific Ocean Park - given that (back in its amusement pier days) this project had actually predated Disneyland - Walt couldn't get himself all that worked up about that amusement park. Whereas Pleasure Island ... The very idea that this theme park even existed was making Disney a little bit crazy."

    Possibly, some of the inconsistencies between the two are from new information that you received?  After all, that earlier article states that it was mainly Pleasure Island, not POP, that caused the creation of Disneyland.

    I'd like to see a bit more of an updated article that clears up this imbalance and spreads the blame for the trio of attractions a little more evenly since now it seems that the above quoted text isn't as valid anymore...

  • Frumious, it was probably a little earlier when you read the article above.  But now, if you read it fully awake, most of the inconsistencies you perceived will vanish.  The earlier story centered on the Matterhorn while this revolved around the Submarines.  It would not be out of line for Walt Disney to push the Matterhorn as his response to the perceived ill treatment he got from C.V. Wood, and the Subs for his slight from CBS.  

    As has been stated Disney was fiercely competitive, a trait I admire in him, because he competed not by destroying the competition, but by bettering it.  If he had better animation, if he had better attractions, if he had better people, he could come out on top.  If the competition then withered, so be it.  If it answered back, Disney knew he would once again one-up them with newer, better products.

    So rather than see these two articles as contradictory, I see them as two views of multifaceted story that has many more tales still to tell.

  • I can answer one question regarding the subs. Disneyland had hoped to retheme the subs to Disney's "Atlantis" but that was scrapped when that film didn't do as well as they had hoped. Jim, I find this article interesting as I just received a DVD from the Extinct Attractions Club that has footage of Pacific Ocean Park. It's some neat footage but as far as what I can see from it, the park wasn't much different from other ocean side parks.

  • Is there any more info on that upcoming book on Disneyland's early competitors?  It sounds like a very interesting concept.

    Those postcards of Pacific Ocean Park look interesting.  The South Seas theming predates Disneyland's, and that island with the waterfall surrounding it looks pretty neat.  

    I'm not surprised by Walt's reaction to the competition, given his history.  Having read a lot of the biographies about him, it makes perfect sense.  I also agree that I like his competitive spirit, in that he didn't try to sabotage the competition or do anything underhanded.  He responded by one-upping them and bettering his company/assets in the process.

  • This really has nothing to do with the article, but be careful Jim. Google owns none of the copyrights to those photos, so captioning them "Courtesy of Google Images", when actually you're grabbing them from other sites, is a bit misleading. Google Images is just a search engine you're using to find these images.

  • Again, Jim is doing the ridiculous "courtesy of google images" nonsense.  Jim, when are you going to learn your lesson and just credit the photographer instead of this misleading garbage?  You've already got in hot water from the people you took the images from, what is it going to take to clean up your act?

    You should be ashamed of yourself.

    It looks like the original POP image is from http://www.westland.net/venicehistory/articles/pop.htm

    So anyone want to drop that webmaster a line to let him know his image is being used without permission?

  • minderbinder said:

    "So anyone want to drop that webmaster a line to let him know his image is being used without permission?"

    Yeah..anyone wanna be a complete jackball and play "self appointed internet police" and tattle on Jim?  

    Jesus...get a life.

  • So you're fine with Jim stealing other's work without giving credit.  Good for you.

    Some of us actually have ethical standards.

  • Calm down, guys. If you'd actually look at the photo credits that we're talking about here, you'd see that that these images are listed as "Vintage Postcards." Which I actually did track down by using Google Images.

    Given that postcards typically don't have photo credits ... More importantly, given that it's been nearly 50 years since these photos were taken and that there is no possible way now to determine who actually took the pictures that were then used to create these postcards ... What am I supposed to do ? This is the best photo credit that I could come up with given the circumstances.

    Given that I myself didn't find these images, I at least wanted to credit the technical device that I'd then used to find these postcards. Which was -- as I keep mentioning -- was Google Images.

    So what is it exactly that you want me to do here ? Invent a photo credit that then attributes these vintage postcards to CBS & the Los Angeles Turf Club ? Given that those two organizations haven't actually owned POP since 1959, or that the park itself hasn't existed since 1967, that doesn't seem right. And why exactly should I be crediting these images to Westland.net ? I mean, that website doesn't post any photo credits for these postcards either.

    Guys, I would really like to make you happy here. And -- if you actually look over JHM -- you'll see that (Unlike a lot of other websites) I make a point of trying to include photo credits and/or linking back to the sites that  get my information from. But in this particular case, given that I was working with vintage postcards -- NOT photographs that previously featured photo credits -- this is the best that I could do given the circumstances.

    Unless -- of course -- you guys have some other suggestion about how I should credit uncredited press photographs and/or postcards that I find by using Google Images.

    Your thoughts ?

  • Hey, Minderbinder...how much you paying for this site? Exactly.  Just for some perspective, I'm a writer...last night I discovered an entire episode of a TV show I wrote in the early 90's on You Tube...know what I'm gonna do about it?...nothing...know how much I care?...about as much as you should care about "Google images" being shared over the internet...not at all.

    Keep up the great work Jim, I work in the film industry, where you have a lot of fans...just a really fun site.

  • "So what is it exactly that you want me to do here ?"

    Glad you asked.  It's very simple.  Though you used google for searching, google doesn't supply the images.  When you click on the google link, it takes you to the website you're grabbing the image from.

    So just credit the image to the website that the image is from.  Is that really so hard to do?  And if you wanted you could even link back to the page or site you got it from.

    I don't see any reason not to do this.  So why not actually credit the original site instead of the inaccurate "google images" (that's no better than crediting the image to "internet explorer" since that's where you saw the image).

    "why exactly should I be crediting these images to Westland.net?"

    Because they actually went to the trouble of putting the image online.  If it wasn't for their website, you wouldn't have that image on this story.  And if the image came from another website, readers might be interested in visiting that site and seeing whatever other pictures and info is there.  So please credit them.

  • If only that competitive one-upsmanship spirit still existed within Disney Co. , instead of the "well our spreadsheet has bigger numbers than your spreadsheet - so we win" spirit. Eisner definately ushered in the "why worry, just see how much money we can pull outa here" era.

    Odd to look at 1959 ushering in the Matterhorn. Without Walt's competitive spirit, the latest greatest ride introduced some 45 years later was (drumroll) an updated Matterhorn.  Yes, Everest is at least half of a really good looking mountain, with a big AA fig that may or may not be working, and lots and lots of flags.  

    Today's Disney Co only competes financially. You know something's wrong when POP looks more inviting than DCA or the Paris Studios.

  • Hey Nancy; I have some postcards of Pacific Ocean Pier somewhere. I can send them too you if you like...but then again they are the same images you have here though mine are a bit frayed as they are used postcards LOL.

  • I think this whole Google Images business is simply a matter of citing your sources.  If you write an academic paper and use information from a website, the citation wouldn't be for the search engine used to find the website; you would cite the website itself.

    Similarly, for example, there's Wikipedia.  It's a great source of information, but the user editing feature can lead to unreliable information, so if the article you're looking at cites its sources, you go to the cited sites, look for the information you want to use, and you cite that site, not Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia led you to that site.

    So really, I'd say the best method for this situation is to say  "Photo courtesy of/found at...." because then the site that originally hosted the pictures gets the credit.

    Of course, all of this is just distracting from a genuinely interesting article, so...yeah.

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