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Disneyland Article
How Disneyland Refurbished Everything On Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

Finding Nemo: Submarine Voyage
Brady Macdonald
July 21, 2022
July 28, 2022
Even something as simple as buying seaweed for the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is a daunting challenge when you’re talking about the major overhaul of a Disneyland underwater attraction that stretches for acres under Tomorrowland and Fantasyland.

“It’s a lot of seaweed,” Walt Disney Imagineering Art Director Michael Dobrzycki said. “It’s like going to the store and saying, ‘We want all the seaweed that is currently existing in the world.’ It’s not even a joke. It’s pretty much what we had to do. It’s like, ‘Who makes seaweed and can we get the factories rolling?’”

Disneyland added 12,000 linear feet of faux seaweed to the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage during the yearlong overhaul of the venerable 1959 underwater attraction — enough seaweed to stretch for more than 2 miles if laid end to end. Dozens of pallets of brightly-colored sea algae in 3-foot-tall bins were stowed backstage under the monorail tracks during the massive refurbishment. Sourcing that much aquarium-grade seaweed required six months of lead time.

Disneyland will reopen the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage on Monday, July 25 after conducting a series of employee previews aboard the renovated attraction.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind experience you don’t get outside of Disneyland — unless you’re a submarine captain,” Dobrzycki said during an online video interview.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage has an extremely large footprint that stretches all the way back to It’s a Small World with Disneyland Monorail pilings and PeopleMover footings spread throughout the attraction.

“It’s pretty huge,” Disneyland Resort Project Manager Jibram Martinez said. “It’s essentially under Autopia. All you see is the lagoon portion. You don’t see what’s under Autopia.”

The majority of the ride is hidden underground inside a horseshoe-shaped tunnel that stretches under the Autopia and Disneyland Monorail tracks. Every bit of the hand-sculpted rockwork and coral lining the submarine route had to be power-washed, primed, base painted and faux painted during the extended rehab project.

“It’s just absolutely amazing,” Disneyland Resort Lead Ager and Grainer Nancy Hayes said. “It’s 25-foot-tall walls on both sides. All of that is sculpture. All of that is painted. Every single part of that has sometimes seven different layers of paint. It’s just a lot of hand work.”

The massive refurbishment project required nearly 500 Disneyland workers and contractors from a wide host of trades and specialties who all had to work side by side in the submarine lagoon and tunnel.

“It’s several different projects within one overall project — there’s projectors, underwater lighting, XY mirrors, show effects, coral, painting and seaweed,” Martinez said during an online video interview. “From the beginning, it’s about getting the right people in the room to talk about exactly what we’re going to be doing where and when. It’s just making sure everybody’s on the same page.”

The yearlong submarine rehab project started with draining 6.3 million gallons of water from the attraction.

“It’s not like a regular open-air attraction where you can say, ‘OK, we’re going to take it down for a week this year,’” Dobrzycki said. “It’s a big effort to displace the water in the lagoon. So it goes for long stretches where we have to do things with divers and we don’t have the benefit of having it drained.”

After the lagoon was drained, crews power-washed every rock, coral and surface before tackling a series of infrastructure projects that included sandblasting the 1,600-foot-long track to mitigate corrosion.

A host of technical improvements included upgrading 90 projectors and 400 underwater lighting fixtures.

“The technology has improved since we did the last upgrade in 2007,” Dobrzycki said. “The projectors are just crisper and sharper and the colors are truer.”

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage has remained closed since the Anaheim theme park reopened in April 2021 after a yearlong pandemic closure while Imagineering and Disneyland crews refurbished the classic 1959 attraction.

Disneyland’s original Submarine Voyage ride beneath the ocean depths closed in 1998 amid an uncertain future for the undersea attraction. Several replacement thematic ideas were considered for the ride based on Disney’s 1989 “Little Mermaid,” 2001 “Atlantis” and 2002 “Treasure Planet” — but none of them made the leap from silver screen to theme park.

Then in 2007, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage opened at Disneyland after nearly a decade of inactivity in the lagoon. A 2014 refurbishment of the popular Nemo attraction drained the sub lagoon for months.

The goal of the latest refurbishment project: Bring back a brighter and better looking version of the Finding Nemo submarine ride that otherwise remains largely unchanged.

“The show should look exactly as it did under the water when we first opened it,” Dobrzycki said. “It really should be like watching the 2007 show in HDTV.”

Pandemic-related supply chain issues caused delivery delays for some of the technical equipment and specialty items needed for the rehab project.

“There’s also the unanticipated challenges of having an attraction down for as long as it’s been down,” Dobrzycki said. “It was longer than normal because we had the addition of having the world shut down for a moment there.”

The unanticipated delays also presented some unexpected upsides with crews able to squeeze in more upgrades and maintenance thanks to the extra downtime.

Disneyland’s sub ride is filled with a lot of water — but not as much as you think. A virtually invisible glass wall separates the submerged subs from dry “show boxes” where many of the upgraded projection scenes and refurbished animatronic figures are located throughout the ride’s tunnels.

“It’s absolutely amazing what happens to create the animation that you are seeing in the attraction,” Walt Disney Imagineering Producer Michele Hobbs said. “It’s a one-of-a-kind system that has been created to give our guests a real-life underwater experience.”

The riders’ point of view through the portholes varies depending on whether they sit in the front, middle or back of the sub — presenting a challenge for Imagineers trying to project undistorted images of the Finding Nemo characters on screens embedded throughout the ride.

“That’s why we test and adjust to make sure everything looks just right,” Dobrzycki said. “The angles change a little bit once you’re down there in the sub. So we’ve got people working really hard to make sure everything lines up just right because of that reason.”

During the extended rehab, Disneyland crews removed faded hand-crafted coral reefs throughout the attraction and added 3,000 new pieces of brightly colored coral.

“The benefit of draining the water from the attraction is being able to go in and deal with all the challenges of the water, the sun and degradation over the years of the show set,” Hobbs said during an online video interview.

A team of nearly 100 painters primed the rockwork throughout the drained attraction and added a base color layer and faux finishes to make the craggy outcroppings look like they’ve been underwater for eons.

“We had a lot of rain at the time so we pumped a lot of water out,” Hayes said with a laugh. “Nature kept on trying to refill the lagoon, which was irritating when you’re doing paint because you want paint to dry.”

Painters sprayed, splattered, flicked and sponged paint onto the rockwork to add texture, highlights and shadows.

“Disney has this down to a science. We use just about every type of process and technique in the toolbox,” Hayes said during an online video interview. “Our process of aging and graining applies different finishes on the surfaces. We use a base color and then more vibrant colors on top of that.”

The newly-added candy-colored coral looked vibrantly colorful before the water was reintroduced into the submarine lagoon.

“When we painted the coral we used super-hyper-saturated color on everything because the addition of the water — even clear water — grays everything down several tones,” Dobrzycki said. “You’d think, ‘Oh man, that’s far too cartoony of a color palette to make it feel like a realistic underwater experience.’ When you first walk through it’s just like walking through a crayon box.”

Imagineers and the paint team had to constantly remind themselves to not be fooled by the unnaturally bright colors of the coral.

“You have to compensate in your brain when the lagoon is empty and just say, ‘It’s got to be brighter,’” Dobrzycki said. “It may seem bright, but it needs to be more saturated. It needs to be stronger. You just have to keep telling yourself that and don’t dull it down.”

Adding water to the lagoon made the jewel-like coral look more natural.

“The first time we rode it, the water was actually still really murky because it takes a while for the water to clear up after you refill the lagoon,” Dobrzycki said. “But now with the true, clear water conditions the colors look perfect.”

Despite all the upgrades and new tech, some things haven’t changed on the 63-year-old submarine ride.

“It’s the same fleet of subs,” Dobrzycki said. “We’ve renamed them and repainted them, but these are still the subs that were built in San Pedro, brought here and finished up in 1959. It was the eighth largest navy in the world at the time.”

The final steps before refilling the ride with water: Painting the underwater track and installing the refurbished audio-animatronic figures. The Nemo rehab crew tested and adjusted the show elements in the ride twice — before and after the lagoon was full of water.

“The water is going to change your point of view,” Dobrzycki said. “It’s going to change the color and change the lighting for sure.”

Maintaining an underwater ride is a constant work in progress — even after a yearlong rehabilitation. Disneyland diving crews conduct maintenance on a regular basis in between major rehabs that typically happen every 10 years or so on the Submarine Voyage attraction.

“Everything we do, we can do underwater,” Dobrzycki said. “It’s a lot harder and it’s a lot slower. You just can’t get to the amount of things that you can get to when the water is gone.”
Attractions Referenced

Disneyland Monorail

Finding Nemo: Submarine Voyage

It's A Small World


Lands Referenced



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