It’s the strangest thing. Ostensibly I’m writing a souvenir guide to Disneyland, and I haven’t yet given you even one word of useful information in that regard. But that changes now. For next 52 weeks, I’ll write a review of one Disneyland attraction every week. By the time we’re done, one year from today, you’ll know all there is to know about the better attractions at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure — and the WGA strike should be just about finished. Knock wood.
Disneyland Park’s newest attraction, the tortuously-named Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, is actually one of the Park’s oldest. The original Submarine Voyage opened in June 1959 and ran until September 1998, at which time the attraction was unceremoniously closed down and left to rot — another victim of then-Park president Paul Pressler’s inept handing of Disneyland and then-CEO Michael Eisner’s late-career ennui. Disneyland is still suffering the effects of their collective indifference, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Shortly after new Park president Matt Ouimet took over in 2003, the Disney admin-o-sphere was somehow convinced to refurbish the attraction and give it a thematic overlay based on Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” In the interim, Robert Iger took the departing Eisner’s job, promptly brought John Lasseter and Pixar fully into the Disney fold, and the old Submarine Voyage quickly became one of the most technologically-advanced rides in the Park.
Thankfully, the main elements remain unchanged. You still board a 40-seat “submarine” which is essentially similar, in principle at least, to a glass-bottomed boat: While you do ride below the surface of the water, your craft does not fully submerge. Great cascades of bubbles are released underneath the boat at key points, which give the illusion of submerging when viewed through portholes. This modestly simple trick, conceived fifty years ago, remains the Submarine Voyage’s most convincing illusion, and it delights me every single time. Ditto the “dive” into “deeper” waters, which neatly coincides with another bubble curtain and the sub’s entry into an enclosed show building. I defy you not to get that Jürgen Prochnow feeling as the diving officer takes her down to two-five-zero feet at 10 degrees down angle. I start to feel all cooped up in these U-Boats. I had a bad experience once.
The original Imagineers knew their stuff. However, at that time they were severely limited in their ability to convincingly animate figures underwater, and the colors of the Submarine Voyage’s painted “coral reef” quickly faded in the heavily-chlorinated water, two conditions which created countless maintenance problems over time. In revamping the ride, Disney’s new Imagineers found ways to solve these two problems for good. One of them works creatively; the other does not. The story of the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, which (spoiler!) is almost exactly similar to the film of “Finding Nemo,” takes you, inexplicably, to Australia, where your sub plies the waters of the Great Barrier Reef.
The underwater sets are almost breathtakingly gorgeous. The rock work is perfect, completely indistinguishable from real coral. The automatic figures of divers and fish, while still limited in their range of movement, are far more evolved than the crude figures that the attraction opened with 48 years ago. And the colors really pop, thanks to a Imagineering brainstorm: Instead of paining the “coral,” they sprayed it down with powdered glass, which will never fade and glistens even in the chlorinated water. But your time in the Great Anaheim Reef is limited, and before long you’re plunged into the darkness of the show building, where the “Nemo” story unfolds apace.
There’s very little narrative explanation of why the fish have begun speaking in punchlines, and that’s fine; I have no problem with the ride’s new theme or cartoony vibe. Whay does bother me is the means by which the Imagineers have added the attraction’s new theme: through high-definition video, projected onto sheets of glass. Some time ago, Disney decided that three-dimensional animation was too cost-prohibitive, and have turned increasingly to video to achieve effects. This works in some controlled cases — Star Tours comes to mind — but in a richly-imagined “real” environment like the one that the subs travel through, video projections look like, well, video projections — flat TV images floating in a 3-D world, like that creepy goth girl from “The Ring.” I couldn’t see them as anything but digital avatars, regardless of the detailed, real-world sets that surrounded them.
This fault put the entire attraction into sharp relief for me, and I became aware of other things that wouldn’t have bothered me otherwise: The new-agey soundtrack, the cloying dialog (couldn’t Disney have enlisted the writers of the film?) and the substantial lag between the end of the ride and actual disembarking. These things, taken individually, are minor — but when the video projection aspect is factored into the equation, you really get to wondering why you waited in line for ninety minutes. You could have watched the entire movie in that time.
A Nemo-ized attraction is far preferable to having no subs at all, and as the curiosity around the still-new ride dies down and the long lines winnow away, I can easily imagine the new Submarine Voyage growing on me. Still, I think back to the day in late 2004 when I saw one of the old subs parked in the lagoon (pictured above), and I remember thinking, wow, the Imagineers must be doing something thoroughly amazing in there. Never would I have imagined that they were simply screening the “Nemo” DVD against a glass wall.