Disney and the Lasting Legacy of the Nautilus


When Walt Disney made his 1954 live adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it was an instant classic. It featured some of the biggest Hollywood stars of the day, was the second highest grossing film of that year, produced some stellar special effects that earned it three Oscar noms and two wins, and made a squid a formidable foe in many an imagination. With all the memorable parts though, it seems as if the most lasting image from the movie is that of Captain Nemo’s ship itself- the Nautilus.

Designed by Harper Goff, Disney’s movie version of the submarine deviated greatly from Jules Verne’s description in the novel. Verne imagined a ship that was smooth and sleek, very much akin to an actual fish, something that could move quickly and undetected through the water. Goff, on the other hand, wanted to make the ship more menacing and intentionally created it to look like a mixture between a shark and an alligator, the two things he considered to be “the most terrifying monsters living in the water.”  He elaborated on that idea by covering the Nautilus in rivets to better simulate the rough skin of an alligator. In taking liberties and making those changes, Goff unwittingly designed an icon, and since the movie’s release, his version has become THE definitive Nautilus.

In the sixty-plus years since the this Nautilus was introduced to the world, it has remained in the public eye almost continuously, not only by being featured on countless amounts of merchandise, but also by being represented in various ways in Disney parks around the world. Few, if any, other non-animated movies have such widespread visibility within the parks. (Pirates of the Caribbean can be found in five of them, but since it was a ride before the movie series, I feel like it doesn’t count in this instance.)

The Nautilus outside of the Journey of the Little Mermaid

Disneyland was the first to entice guests with the Nautilus. Opening just a year after the movie, the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Exhibit was a walk through attraction that took visitors into the main rooms of the ship itself. Comprised of eight specific rooms from the film, the walk through contained unique displays, interactive features, and many props and models that were used during filming. It even gave guests a chance to see the giant squid as it attacked. The attraction was built mainly as a placeholder in the sorely under-prepared Tomorrowland, and was closed in 1966 when the area received the first of its expansions.



The Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World was the next to bring guests into Captain Nemo’s domain. The much loved, and much missed, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage opened just a few weeks after the park, and took visitors underwater to see the beauty and dangers of the ocean world. Guests got to see exotic sea life, the lost city of Atlantis, and even a few mermaids before having to escape the clutches of the giant squid. Despite closing abruptly in 1994, the Nautilus itself is still represented in the Magic Kingdom, although in much more subtle ways. Celebrating their shared ocean world, an imprint of the sub can be found in a rock wall in the queue for Under the Sea- Journey of the Little Mermaid.

Less obvious of a spot is inside a tree that stands beside the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. As unusual as that seems, there is a good reason. Once upon a time, the tree was part of Pooh’s playful spot, a playground which was located on the site of the 20,000 Leagues lagoon. The Nautilus was included as a tribute, and even though the tree has been moved, the ship remains. Epcot also once had a small, though more direct, homage to the sub in its now reimagined Living Seas pavilion. Near the end of the queue to enter the Hydrolators and Seabase Alpha, there hung an eleven foot model that was used during filming. Although the Nautilus was removed when the pavilion became the Seas with Nemo and Friends, it apparently makes occasional appearances at conventions around the country.

These days, the Nautilus has considerably more visibility in Disney parks overseas. The Discoveryland area of Disneyland Paris contains a walk through attraction that is an updated version of the one from Disneyland. With a keener attention to detail and more sophisticated special effects, Les Mysteries du Nautilus allows guests to explore six rooms, as opposed to the original eight, and once again ends with them eye to eye with the giant squid. Although none of the props are the originals anymore (many of those were destroyed when the Disneyland version was dismantled), it is nonetheless extremely popular and is presented as if guests are actually inside the sub. Tokyo DisneySea has an entire area inspired by Captain Nemo and his volcano fortress, complete with its own version of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. The ride there, however, has a completely different storyline and little to do with either the Disney film or its source material.

Les Mystères du Nautilus in Disneyland Paris



All in all, the Nautilus is one of Disney’s most famous ships and remains beloved by guests, who still get excited by any new sighting of the sub as it surfaces. As usual, I don’t claim this to be a completely comprehensive list, but it does cover some of the most visible and well known examples. Even after decades, the Nautilus looms large in imaginations everywhere, and we can thank Harper Goff for that image.

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