20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

YOU GUYS YOU GUYS YOU GUYS. This morning I discovered that, in one of my greatest childhood fears, and most enduring recurring nightmares, I am not alone. Other people also find the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Ride at Disneyworld terrifying, yet irresistibly attractive.


Like schadenfreude, I’m sure the Germans have a word for that combined passive-aggressive force of terror and excitement which this (now nonexistent) ride causes, but I don’t know what it is. But, early this morning, celebrated genius and madman John Hodgman live-tweeted his experience watching an amateur video of the ride, sharing all the fascination and fear I had long thought was just a figment of my own insanity.

Sadly, I missed this live-tweet treat. I was asleep. I know, it’s really irresponsible for me not to stay awake all night hoping that a forty-something-year-old man will get all liquored up and describe the YouTube videos he watches from his lonely hotel room. Fortunately, his tweets are preserved for Internet posterity:

Now, with my oatmeal and coffee, while waiting for the air conditioner repair technician to come over and provide us with The Startup Special (maintenance check and cleaning, not a tasty beverage served with brunch for people too cheap for mimosas and too easily confused for bloody marys, although it’s a good idea and someone needs to get on that), I can sit here and relive all the Terrorfascination of my childhood.  AND SO CAN YOU.

This video is particularly perfect because I visited Disneyworld in 1980 at age ten (yes the math is easy and you can skip that), so this experience is almost exactly what I suffered. My brain was completely split on the issue. First of all, the film was part of my Dad’s childhood experience, not mine; he was the one who was jonesing hard for this ride.  The movie wasn’t part of my childhood, so I didn’t know what to expect, except that we were getting inside one of a flotilla of identical pointy submarines to experience a simulated threat. I knew there was a British guy with a beard, a pipe organ, strange machinery, and a giant squid, all of it underwater. This is pretty much all you need to know, true. But, being ten, my brain was right on the fence between “I know this is a manufactured illusion, and I can appreciate that,” and “I am buying this hook line and sinker I need a scuba tank NOW NOW NOW WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO DROWN ME, DAD, WHAT DID I DO THIS TIME?”

Then the former thought process overtook the latter. The fear of being miles below the ocean’s surface, in a metal can helmed by Paul Frees and en route to being squid food was far outweighed by another possibility:

Eyes like a doll's eyes. Just like Jaws.  Robot Fish.

Not only Robot Fish, but Robot Sharks, silently patrolling a graveyard of broken, sunken tall ships. With their barnacle-covered masts just barely visible in the darkness, of course it made me wonder what lurked below. More machinery, turning over and over in the watery darkness?

What if the pane of glass, against which my nose was inextricably pressed, were to crack?

I backed off a bit.

What if there were a leak? Had anyone gone over safety procedures with us? Where was the  steampunk stewardess with a nice clear Disney name badge explaining the proper use of oxygen masks in the event of cabin depressurization? If one of the windows broke, would the robot sharks get sucked in here, along with gallons and gallons of water? Or would we get sucked out? Would I end up trapped in the water under a ceiling of machinery, the sleeves of my shrinking wool sweater tangled in the mechanical tracks and arms? Would my last sight be the too-close face of dead robot fish eyes and teeth? Would I meet a watery grave in the arms of a faceless seaweed farmer? Or would I just be trapped under giant white molars of fiberglass shaped like glaciers?

This guy and the lady statue face from the Jungle Safari ride take turns in my nightmares.  My childhood fascination with Greek myths made me perk back up at the mention of Atlantis. As we came around a corner to meet an adorable little coven of mermaids, their pearlescent faces too cute to be anything but dolls’, I wondered what an actual bloated human corpse, trapped in their mechanism, would look like. By the time the squid tentacles wrapped over the windows, all I could think about was in what ways a human head would be destroyed by that kind of water pressure. Would it explode, or implode?

Fortunately, the ride isn’t even fifteen minutes long. My over-active imagination and I survived the trip. I still have recurring dreams about riding on Disney gondola rides and being pushed out of the boat, into the dark water, and sucked into the machinery below, as sober-faced statues stare me down.

Now that I think about it, I wasn’t ten when I took this tour. I was fourteen. That explains why I was more worried about what I couldn’t see than what I could. I remember that, on an earlier Disney World trip, when I was ten, the 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Ride had been shut down for cleaning and maintenance. We rode The Skyway over the Magic Kingdom, looking down at the soggy neon landscape, as maintenance workers brushed and hosed rubber coral reefs in the November sunshine. My dad, for once, was silent, the opportunity to share pure fear with his children deferred.

The Walt Disney Company plans to shoot a new 20,000 Leagues movie in Australia. So, maybe within the next five years or so, my brother and I will get to relive our childhood fears on some new version of that ride. I hope this time they have actual seats, rather than those little metal stools that folded out of the wall, because our butts will be much less forgiving by that point. Until then, we’ll just have to satisfy us with loving tribute websites, like 20Kride.com and Lost Attraction Tribute, which not only share the fun of the ride experience, but the creepiness of the backstage.

Thank you, John Hodgman, for not only reminding me of my first grand mal anxiety attack, but helping me relive it, and helping me know that even if I am insane, I’m not the only one who has this recurring nightmare.

And I know, I haven’t posted anything in nearly six months. I have a good explanation, but that’s for another time.


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