Disneyland’s Tomorrowland: A Whale of a Tale

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The Disneyland Story

From the publisher of The Unofficial Guide books comes The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, the story of how Walt Disney’s greatest creation was conceived, nurtured, and how it grew into a source of joy and inspiration for generations of visitors. Here is a brief excerpt:

Walt was desperately trying to fill space in Tomorrowland, and an employee suggested that he bring some of the sets and props from the popular 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea down to the park. Ken Anderson was pulled away from his work in Fantasyland in the last two weeks before the park opening to work on the show. He said, “I was up all night with two other studio artists just before opening day painting the giant squid. Walt was supposed to be at a party his wife, Lillian, was giving for some VIPs at the park, but he was too nervous about everything being ready on time to stay there. He went around from ride to ride and exhibit to exhibit, checking work, helping out. He even came into where we were painting the squid, put on a mask, and did a little painting himself.” John Hench also joined in.

The walk-through display opened on August 5, 1955. Guests entered the exhibit through a 40-foot mural of the Nautilus and the giant squid. Originally, costumed guides would have provided a tour but that idea was scrapped in favor of a prerecorded narration track voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft (possibly best-known for Tony the Tiger’s, “They’re grrrreat!” for Frosted Flakes). As the guests entered the exhibit, the movie’s theme song, “Whale of a Tale” played in the background while they peered through portholes to see a model of the Nautilus in its final resting place. The guest’s point of view was from the stern window of a sunken ship with treasure chests spilled out in the sand in the foreground and the upper deck of the submarine in the distance.

Next, guests passed through a full-size interior of the wheelhouse, designed by Harper Goff for the film. Throughout was ironwork that was Victorian in feel but without the frivolous ornamentation. Goff called this “sewing machine Gothic.” A spiral staircase led to the chart room and Professor Pierre Aronnax’s cabin, where his writing desk could be seen from the passageway.

The salon was completely furnished and included the famous pipe organ from the film. Through the view port guests could see the scary giant squid moving closer. The prop was hung on cables and animated. In the pump room was a bank of lights that were cleverly made out of the bottoms of glass salad bowls. From there, guests moved into the diving chamber with the equipment hanging in the fitting chamber. The original diving suits were made of rubber, which rotted, and the diving helmets were dressed-up Japanese sponge diving helmets. Occasionally, a bubble would pop from the water at the bottom of the diving chamber. Once past the power supply room the guests got another glimpse of the Nautilus.

Based on the Jules Verne story set more than a century earlier than Tomorrowland’s 1986, the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction may have seemed an odd fit in Tomorrowland. When asked, the Disneyland publicity department would explain that the submarine was powered by atomic energy; therefore, it fit in perfectly.

The 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction had been slated to run six months but stayed until August 1966. Over the years, the park replaced the original rented props. In the early 1960s, fiberglass castings replaced the original rotted diving suits. When the attraction finally closed, the pipe organ was reused in the Haunted Mansion and the glass curio cabinets were installed in the One-of-a-Kind shop in New Orleans Square.

Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennaway is an Urban Planner who runs the fantastic SamLand’s Disney Adventures blog. Sam visits Disneyland on a frequent basis and toured with the Unofficial Guide team on our recent Disneyland Trip.

One thought on “Disneyland’s Tomorrowland: A Whale of a Tale

  • June 12, 2019 at 11:21 pm
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    Based on the number of errors in the short excerpt describing the 20,000 Leagues walk-through exhibit at Anaheim Disneyland, I wouldn’t buy or recommend Sam Gennawey’s book.

    “As the guests entered the exhibit, the movie’s theme song, “Whale of a Tale” played in the background while they peered through portholes to see a model of the Nautilus in its final resting place.”

    It wasn’t a model, but a portion of the live-action deck set featuring the Nautilus’ wheelhouse.

    “Next, guests passed through a full-size interior of the wheelhouse, designed by Harper Goff for the film.”

    The walkway did not pass through the wheelhouse interior set. The set was situated to one side and raised to a higher level than the walkway. The near wall was removed so guests could look into the set. The only interior sets the guests could walk through were the salon and a portion of a passageway. All other interiors were off to one side of the walkway.

    “A spiral staircase led to the chart room and Professor Pierre Aronnax’s cabin, where his writing desk could be seen from the passageway.”

    The spiral stairs led to the chart room in the movie, but not in the exhibit. The spiral stairs were included in the chart room set, but were not accessible to guests.

    “Through the view port guests could see the scary giant squid moving closer.”

    The squid did not move closer. It sat in one place and only the tentacles moved.

    “In the pump room was a bank of lights that were cleverly made out of the bottoms of glass salad bowls.”

    The glass bowls were not in the pump room, but in the power compartment, three sets away from the pump room in the exhibit.

    “From there, guests moved into the diving chamber…”

    Guests did not go INTO the diving chamber.

    “Once past the power supply room the guests got another glimpse of the Nautilus.”

    The author completely omits the power compartment (other than getting its glass bowls confused with the pump room) and the 11-foot filming miniature of the Nautilus hanging just before the exit.

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