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Disney tests the limits of going green

Disneyland Monday re-launched one of its oldest attractions, the submarine ride, nine years after it emptied the lagoon. In a new green day of corporate America, the theme park revamped the ride to be environmentally friendly. By CNBC's Jane Wells.
/ Source: CNBC

In a new green day of corporate America, theme park operators like Disney are looking for every opportunity to revamp rides to be more environmentally friendly.

But not everything at Disneyland can go green in a big way. When you're in the business of creating fantasy, when employees are called cast members and the park is a stage, Disney says no green initiative is worth it if it ruins the show.

“Our culture is that we want to be very careful about those pieces that we put on stage, and we don't want to take that feel of the show away from the guests,” said Frank Dela Vara of Disneyland Environmental Affairs.

Disneyland Monday re-launched one of its oldest attractions, the submarine ride, nine years after it emptied the lagoon. The original submarine ride was launched at Disneyland in 1958, and the gunmetal gray submarines ran on diesel. The steam kept the submarines going for four decades until 1998, when the Cold War-themed attraction lost its appeal.

“But at Imagineering, we wouldn't let it die. We love the submarines, it's a classic attraction. It's Walt's attraction,” said Kathy Mangum, a vice president at Disney Imagineering.

Disney's imagineers finally found a story around which the submarines could re-emerge: Finding Nemo, the Oscar-winning 2003 animated film about the world under water.

The ride still uses all eight original submarines, but the engines are now powered by clean and quiet magnetic coils.

The fake coral reefs under water are not colored with paint anymore, but with recycled glass sprayed on with an organic epoxy.

“We used 30 tons of it, and it's going to last forever. It gave us color we couldn't get with paint,” said Dela Vara.

Other parts of the park have changed too. Trains now run on 100 percent biodiesel, including the EP Ripley, the same train Disney himself rode on the theme park’s opening day.

Disneyland says it buys 150,000 gallons of biodiesel each year, and prices are currently competitive with regular diesel. Seemingly nothing gets thrown away around here, just greened up.

But where do you draw the line between environmental friendliness and running a successful business?

Disney claims it's saved about $60 million over 10 years on environmental programs, mostly through reducing the amount of paper used. They also re-use TV sets and installed a "reusable mug program," which alone saved a half million dollars.

French-fry memories?
But some of the changes can bring unintended consequences.

Autopia was opened at Disneyland 52 years ago to honor America's auto fixation. For years, the cars were powered by lawn motor engines using gas. Seven years ago, the theme park retrofitted them with pedal starters to reduce idling and new engines.

“We took the opportunity to come with a very clean engine with Chevron's help that reduced emissions by two thirds,” said Dela Vara.

But they still run on gasoline.

“For some folks, they need the feel of the engine running. They need the sound of the engine running,” said Dela Vara. “I like to think that one day we will not use an internal combustion engine and we'll find some way to replicate that part of the experience.” He added.

Some visitors have complained the smell of the trains now isn't the way they remember it: the biodiesel smells somehow like French fries and they miss the diesel smell. But Dela Vara says, their kids will grow up making memories here with the French-fry smell.