Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sombrero Grande finds crowds at the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Trip report by Sombrero Grande

It’s a little-known fact that Sombrero Grande’s first job out of high school was working at Disneyland as a "captain" on the Submarine Voyage attraction in Tomorrowland. In 1998, I left the park’s employ and the Subs were mysteriously closed down soon afterwards. Immediately rumors began swirling on the Internet theorizing that the Subs were closed due to "budget cuts" or "an upcoming replacement attraction," though I knew the real reason: without Sombrero Grande working there, the Subs just weren’t worth keeping around. Now it appears that the Disney Imagineers have found something to fill the void I left and make the old submarine ride seem fresh and new again: a tie-in to Pixar’s highest-grossing animated film to-date, Finding Nemo.

Much ballyhoo and hype has surrounded the Submarine Voyage’s return with its new headlining animated clownfish star, so this past weekend I set the Mesa’s rooster to crow extra early so that I could try to beat the crowds to see it for myself. The crowds, however, were on to me and somehow were already hiding out ninja-like in the park before I ever got there.

Knowing full-well from two years as a Cast Member working the attraction that the Submarine Voyage is an incredibly slow-loading ride, and that this was a brand new, heavily publicized attraction opening at the start of Disneyland’s busy summer season, I realized that this would be a "perfect storm" of sorts, leading the FNSV to achieve horrendously long lines. I figured that if I were to stand any sort of chance of avoiding a four hours or longer line, I had to hit the park right at opening one morning and make a bee-line straight for the ride.

On Sunday the park opened at 8 AM, and I planned to be there. That morning, a little before 7:30, I exited the 5 freeway, Disneyland-bound, only to find that the parking lot hadn’t even opened yet. A few minutes later it did and cars slowly began to make their way in. After taking the morning’s first parking lot shuttle over to the main entrance, I discovered a gaggle of people who had apparently either parked elsewhere and walked over or came over from the nearby hotels already waiting at the front gate. I seem to recall that Disneyland used to open Main Street an hour before the rest of the park, so the fact that it was 20 minutes before the whole park opened and no one was being let in yet perplexed me. The park must have changed its policy and didn’t tell me. How rude.

Promptly at 8 the first guests were being let into the park and I followed. Security Cast Members all up and down Main Street urged guests not to run, and while most of the rabble paid them heed, there were the usual "the rules don’t apply to me" assholes who didn’t. As the wave of humanity turned left at the park’s central hub, Cast Members at the entrance to Tomorrowland were waving everyone over towards the Matterhorn, saying, "that way for Nemo." At the Matterhorn more Cast Members pointed us towards the Alice in Wonderland area, and that’s where we found the end of the line for the Subs.

Now, I’m no stranger to long lines for new attractions. Heck, I can recall that when the Rocket Rods first opened in 1998 the line stretched from Tomorrowland all the way down Main Street to the Opera House. When the Indiana Jones Adventure first opened in 1995 the line wound its way out of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, out of Adventureland, wound around on Main Street and then back into Frontierland all the way to Thunder Mountain. Here, once again, I would find a line for a new attraction that dared to cross clearly defined "land" boundaries.

From my vantage point in the line I could see other guests walking onto the Storybook Land Canal Boats and the lone guest who had the entire Mad Tea Party all to herself. While normally I would avoid crowded attractions to, say, be the only person riding the Haunted Mansion in the morning, today I had a mission. That mission was to ride the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. I was too far in to back down now, and, after all, I did get to the park right at opening, as I had planned, so how bad could the line really be?

After twisting around the Matterhorn and Autopia, I arrived at the loading dock for the ride just a few minutes shy of 10 AM. The line, as of park opening, stretched two hours long. It eased my mind (slightly) to know that later on in the day, perhaps even then, the end of the line would easily grow to double the wait I had just experienced.

So, you ask, was it worth it? Patience, dear reader. If I can wait two hours for the ride you can certainly wait a few paragraphs. There’s some background info I need to get across before I start reviewing the experience.

The overhaul the Subs underwent to reopen was extensive, but only someone who spent as much time with its pervious incarnation as I did would notice just how much. I think some of the barnacles guests initially see underwater before the ride gets underway may be the same, but everything else, from the loading dock to the track to all the underwater rockwork has been completely replaced. Even the subs themselves have been converted from diesel power to electric (which, I can only imagine, makes working on the loading dock a heck of a lot more pleasant now).

Externally, a few changes are already visible to the casual observer from outside the attraction. Most noticeably, the ride’s "cave" has been extended farther out into the Submarine Lagoon. This was done to allow more room for "show scenes" inside, but at the cost of mucking up what used to be a pretty cool view. The subs themselves, originally painted a cold silver when the ride first opened in 1959 (when they were meant to look like nuclear submarines) and later repainted a brighter, more cheerful yellow and orange (to show them to be post-Cold War, peaceful oceanographic vessels) are now an almost neon yellow and deep blue in coloration. Lastly, the Submarine Lagoon now hosts its first above-water inhabitants since the live girls dressed as mermaids were phased out early in the ride’s history: three seagulls from Finding Nemo sit perched on a buoy, occasionally chanting their memorable "Mine! Mine! Mine!" although I found it a bit hard to hear them over the din of the masses winding back and forth in line.

Once onboard one of the eight submarine vehicles, I was instantly hit with nostalgic remembrances of past days spent captaining these vessels. The inside has been repainted, and I could swear the seats have gotten smaller, but the same sheer coolness of going underwater in a real-looking submarine remains.

As the ride got underway a few things struck me right away. One is how closely the newly recorded spiel follows the old "non-Nemo" version. The recorded captain and his crewmembers say almost word-for-word the same bits of dialogue, only now at different points in the ride and all with Australian accents (there’s even a “crikey!” tossed in for good measure).

Aside from more feelings of nostalgia, the other thing that struck me very quickly was how cramped riding in the sub felt. Admittedly, when I worked at the attraction I never actually had the chance to go down and ride it myself, looking out the portholes like a regular guest did. I realized that I hadn’t actually ridden the ride since I was a pretty little kid, and no less than two minutes into the ride I was already getting cramps in my back, neck and legs from hunching over in those tiny seats to look out those low portholes. I began thinking to myself, "geez, how long is this going to be?" It became clear to me then that this is really a ride designed for kids that adults can also--with varying degrees of comfort--fit into.

Now, in talking about the actual content of the new ride (all the stuff you see) I’m going to invariably bring up some potential "spoilers," so if you don’t want to know what you’re in for story-wise here, it’d probably be best to skip ahead to the end of this review. I’m going to try not to give much away, but, hey, some folks are really picky about spoiler content and as someone who’s had a lot of movie endings spoiled for him (I actually had a film teacher who shut off Citizen Kane halfway through because it was taking up too much class time and simply stated, "it’s the sled"), I can certainly identify.

The initial "outdoor" portion of the ride is rather uneventful. There’s not a lot of actual fish to be seen, though there are a few animatronic figures, including my favorite depicting Darla, the little girl from the film, diving to catch some fish friends. It isn’t until a "surface storm" causes the subs to seek refuge in the cave--"deeper water"--that things begin to get a little more lively. It’s here that the captain turns on the "sonar hydrophones" to "hear the fish talk" and we find ourselves caught up in the hunt for Nemo who’s ditched Mr. Ray’s class (kids never learn) and joined up with Squirt the turtle to go off exploring the EAC.

What many people may not be expecting is that, unlike the few animatronic characters out in the outer part of the lagoon, inside the characters are mainly represented as animated projections, allowing for a wider range of movement and animation and removing the old need for obvious strings to tether the fish down in the water. While it certainly looks cool, the by-products of using this technique are actually my biggest beefs with the new attraction. You see, the projections can’t be done underwater, so the submarines are actually (sorry to spoil the magic here, folks) passing by air-filled enclosures as you look in on these projected scenes. It’s like the reverse of a typical aquarium; the submarines are in the water, looking out at the waterless "fish tanks."

What this means is that, first off, you lose the "realness" of being underwater when what you are seeing isn’t underwater with you. Second, the glimpses you do get of the animated characters (beautifully animated by the folks at Pixar, I might add) are extremely brief as the sub speeds past. Thirdly, the "walls" that separate these tanks, or at least provide a break in the large panes of glass needed to keep these spaces away from the water the subs need to run in, make for all-too-frequent rockwork columns that whiz by, seemingly just inches from the portholes. Watching these go by makes me feel incredibly dizzy. It’s the same way I feel when the subs are initially just getting underway and you’re staring close-up at the barnacle-encrusted walls rushing past your porthole. Maybe this isn’t a problem for other people, but it makes me feel motion-sick pretty quickly.

Overall though, the ride is still pretty fun. Every kid on the sub I rode in was absolutely enamored with the entire experience. The story is put forth quite clearly and most of the effects are pretty good. A few of the projections seemed a little dark to me, and the "minefield" scene felt like it could have been lit a little brighter as well, but for the most part the scenes looked pretty good.

That said, I’m afraid I must return to the shortcomings I found with the attraction as the things that keep me from giving the FNSV a ringing endorsement.

Getting to ride really-for-real under the waterline is only half of what made the original Submarine Voyage so cool to ride as a kid; the other half was knowing that everything you were seeing was underwater with you: the mermaids, the sea serpent, the sharks, the lost continent of Atlantis, etc. With the Nemo version, you really lose some of that cool feeling once you get into the caves.

With the old submarine ride you had wide-open (relatively speaking) underwater scenes not confined behind glass barricades that allowed you to appreciate every part of them as you rode past. Now in the caves of the FNSV, the scenes are squished into smaller tableaus that give riders but mere glimpses of the Finding Nemo characters as the audio continues on long after they’re no longer visible. The fact that there’s so much "going on" in each scene just furthers the frustration of not getting adequate time to see everything, and, unlike with a fast-loading ride like Pirates of the Caribbean, here if you want to ride again to try to see everything, it’ll be several hours of waiting before you can.

My final verdict on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage? I’m glad I rode it, but I’m in no hurry to go on it again. Maybe when the crowds die down and I can possibly find the line at less than a half hour in length (although goodness knows when that’ll be) I’ll give it another shot. More than anything else, I’m glad to see the subs back up and running at Disneyland, still making kids exclaim, "cool!" at the experience. It’s been nearly a decade since the subs last set out on their undersea voyages, so there’s a whole new crop of kids that have never experienced the joy of peering out one of the portholes into an underwater fantasy world. My advice: give the ride some time to work off its initial interest from people willing to spend half their day in line waiting to see it, and pencil in the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage for something to do at a future time. Hey, I think I just found a reason for this non-futuristic ride to exist in "Tomorrowland" after all!


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