If there’s one thing Disney Parks fans love, it’s continuity. That is, a thread that connects multiple attractions or even lands into a continuous story; two dissimilar thing suddenly coming together.
Sometimes, the connections are vast and visible. Take Disneyland's Adventureland, uniformally set in the 1930s with all of the land's rides, attractions, restaurants, and shops absorbed into the overarching story of the ongoing excavation of the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Or Magic Kingdom's brilliant New Tomorrowland in 1994, creating a living alien spaceport that united the Timekeeper, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, Alien Encounter, Cosmic Ray's, and Astro Orbitor into one vast comic book adventure.
But sometimes, the threads are subtler... Such is the case with the most mysterious, enigmatic, and sought-after cross-continental tale Disney has ever woven... welcome to the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. With a manifesto hidden in time, no one seems entirely sure of the origins of S.E.A., a secret society determined to illuminate the vast, dark corners of the globe. Some say the organization is rooted in the early work of Leonardo da Vinci, famous artist, inventor, and dreamer of the Renaissance.
Either way, membership in the elite club is invite-only, and it seems that only the brightest, most cunning, and most enterprising minds ever see the Society's inner workings. For the rest of us, the members of S.E.A. have left behind a few hints as to their findings, and a few stellar attractions currently operating at Disney Parks across the globe. Here, we’ve collected the tiny scraps of evidence scattered across the globe that hint at this centuries-old club whose vast, international frame story is still unfolding...
1. Fortress Explorations
Location: Tokyo DisneySea, Mediterranean Harbor
Setting: Modern day
SEA Connection: Confirmed
The first remnants of S.E.A. came to light in 2001 with the opening of Tokyo DisneySea, the much loved second gate at the Tokyo Disney Resort. Right inside the park, across from the sprawling Mediterranean Harbor and cemented into the cooled lava flows of the park’s iconic Mount Prometheus is the majestic Fortress Explorations.
A sort of mini-land in its own right, Fortress Explorations is a four-story complex comprised of ten individual exhibits housed throughout the fortress’ domes and towers. It may be most easily understood as a museum of arts and sciences concealed within a grand Renaissance palace tucked away in one of the most extravagant theme parks on Earth. And like a modern (and yet ancient) reimagining of Tom Sawyer Island, every nook and cranny is open for exploration.
Within its hallowed halls, you'll find a three-story Foucoult pendulum, a recreation of Da Vinci’s Flying Machine, a Navigator's Hall containing perhaps the world's classiest remote-controlled ship game (piloting antique sailing ships around ancient continents, above), and even a centuries-old camera obscura – an early dark chambered camera that seems more from Milo Rambaldi's realm than ours. Spiral staircases, stone turrets, drawbridges, hidden chambers, optical illusions, grand murals and frescoes, and ancient engravings abound within.
One of the fortress's stone bridges even leads to a seismic recording station embedded in Mount Prometheus, where S.E.A. members have tracked and recorded the volcano's activity – one stop of many on the Japanese language "Leonardo's Challenge" scavenger hunt quest that sends guests throughout the fortress collecting clues and puzzle pieces.
Even with all of its oversized wonder, the most breathtaking and beautiful element within this ancient citadel of knowledge must be the Chamber of Planets. Residing in the Fortress's main golden dome, guests here can manipulate antique cranks and cogs to send metal planets revolving around a glowing Sun.
Outside is Explorer's Landing, an interactive dockside play area of crates, cargo nets, and the docked sailing ship Renaissance, open for adventurers to all ages to climb aboard.
More than just an elaborate palace and dock, Fortress Explorations is the home base of S.E.A. In fact, a bronze plaque near the water’s edge touts: “We, the members of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, herewith establish Explorers’ Landing in order to promote the sharing of nautical and scientific knowledge for world exploration.” Mission accomplished.
2. Tower of Terror
Location: Tokyo DisneySea, American Waterfront
Setting: New York, 1912
SEA Connection: Confirmed
Forget everything you think you know about Hollywood 1939, a freak lightning strike, and an elevator that travels directly to the Twilight Zone. Tower of Terror (sans Rod Sterling) is part of the attraction line-up at Tokyo DisneySea, but it’s not a beacon of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Instead, the 13-story Moorish revival building is part of American Waterfront, representing New York City two decades before the story of the Hollywood Tower Hotel would even take place!
When the Oriental Land Company decided to incorporate the renowned drop ride into DisneySea, they faced a problem: The Twilight Zone is a relative unknown in Japanese culture. So rather than forcing the intellectual property into a mis-matched culture, Imagineers set to work developing one of the most intriguing and brilliant original stories ever to take place at a Disney Park.
The magnificent Hightower Hotel was indeed a beacon, but to flaunt the wealth of its builder, Harrison Hightower. Weaving through the hotel’s magnificent lobby, a very interesting picture is painted. Literally. Murals throughout the lobby proudly display Mr. Hightower making off with priceless treasures from ancient cultures around the world, usually while locals follow with spears raised and tempers flaring. Mr. Hightower is that most despised kind of antiquities collectors: a thief.
It seems that Harrison – a prominent if disliked member of S.E.A. – would return with his riches to this opulent headquarters here in New York, stashing his stolen treasures in a gargantuan vault, flaunting his vast collection to the old money of the city's elite.
However, something is indeed about to happen that will change all that. On New Years Eve 1899, Mr. Hightower threw a lavish party to show off his collection of international treasures, and to highlight his newest – er... – acquisition: a wooden African idol called Shiriki Utundu. When local reporters questioned if Hightower was intimidated by tales that the frightful idol may be cursed, Harrison laughed and – just to prove he held no fear – put his cigar out on Shiriki Utundu’s head.
What followed defied explanation, but suffice it to say that Mr. Hightower never made it to his penthouse that night. His body was never found... though Shiriki Utundu was inexplicably returned to his prized pedestal in Hightower's study without a single scratch...
Now, it's 1912 – thirteen years after Hightower's disappearance – on the streets of DisneySea's American Waterfront. A blight on the otherwise bustling streets of New York, the Hightower Hotel is slated for demolition. But the New York City Preservation Society has begun an aggressive campaign to protect the building as an architectural landmark, running tours of the once-grand hotel and Hightower's abandoned collection with an attention-grabbing name: Tower of Terror.
Replace the Hollywood Tower Hotel's lobby, library, and boiler room with Hightower's lobby, study, and vault and you get the idea. But Shiriki Utundu stands now as one of the most sinister and genuinely scary villains in the Disney Parks catalogue. In fact, our first encounter with him ends with one of the most unsettling "how'd they do that?" special effects ever.
Tokyo's one-of-a-kind reinvention of the treasured fan-favorite freefall is so spectacular, it earned its own in-depth entry in our series, Modern Marvels: Tower of Terror tracing the history of Disney's drop ride from Florida to Japan and beyond. Make the jump there to dive deep into the haunting history of the Hotel Hightower.
While the ride itself mirrors its cousins in California and France, Harrison Hightower and his standing in S.E.A. create a tantalizing tale that gives this Tower of Terror timeless and international appeal... and our first concrete figure to stand among S.E.A.'s enviable ranks.
But Hightower wasn’t the only member of S.E.A. to spend his life collecting antiquities and treasures…
3. Mystic Point
Location: Hong Kong Disneyland, Mystic Point
Setting: Mystic Point, Peru, 1916
SEA Connection: Confirmed
Sure Harrison Hightower might give S.E.A. a bad name, but a visit to Mystic Manor across the sea at Hong Kong Disneyland will help you see the bright side of this international organization. Lord Henry Mystic is just the saving grace that S.E.A. needed. Lord Mystic toured the world just as fervently, stumbling upon many cultures and locales and all the while collecting his treasures the old-fashioned way: without stealing them. The kindly fellow did just as much exploring as Hightower, but made a lot more friends in the process, including the mischievous monkey Albert, whom he saved from a giant spider somewhere in the African jungle.
When Lord Mystic decided it was high time to retire from S.E.A. and his expeditions, he took one final journey to Peru where he constructed Mystic Point and an elaborate hilltop mansion. The mesmerizing architecture of Mystic Manor (featuring elements from many different cultures around the world all combined together) well represents the experience within, where Lord Mystic and Albert welcome guests to tour their collection of treasures. The queue weaves through an Exhibition Room where black-and-white photographs on the wall show the opening of Mystic Manor in 1896, and a group portrait of S.E.A. (including Harrison Hightower!) dated 1899.
Lord Mystic and Albert usher us deeper into the home where we board his latest and greatest invention: magnificent Mystic Magneto-Electric Carriages that will whisk us into the manor and through the priceless artifacts stored there.
Cleverly, these Magneto-Electric Carriages are brought to life through Disney's groundbreaking trackless ride rechnology, as four carriages at a time are dispatched into the home, weaving, spinning, and dancing around each other effortlessly with no track in sight.
The journey begins in the Acquisitions and Cataloguing Room, where Lord Mystic sets us loose to explore his newest arrivals before they’re properly sorted. His most valuable? A newly-arrived ancient music box – encrusted with jewels and golden monkeys – whose music is said to grant life to the lifeless. A silly superstition, of course, so Lord Mystic leaves us alone with Albert, who can’t seem to keep his eyes off the thing. One touch later and the trackless ride sends guests through Mystic’s collection in a whole new way. The manor’s many rooms – dedicated to ancient Greece, Norway, Egypt, Medieval England, and more – all spring to life as the inexplicable floating dust of the music box spreads through the home.
After a stunning finale wherein the Chinese collection literally tears the mansion apart, all is restored to order as we return to the Cataloguing Room and the musical dust is sucked back into the Music Box just as Lord Mystic returns to check on us. “Now, Albert, you didn’t touch my music box, did you?” The monkey rolls his eyes at his master and chirps, "Oh no, no!" and another S.E.A. adventure has come to a close.
Mystic Manor is commonly understood as one of the most impressive and amazing attractions at any Disney Park in the world. That's why it, too, earned an in-depth look – Modern Marvels: Mystic Manor – that tells the complete story of how a monkey and a music box fuel an Imagineering masterpiece.
Mystic Point also includes the Garden of Wonders, a collection of oversized relics too large to fit into the mansion, each providing unbelievable optical illusions and astounding scale. There’s also a Mystic Freight Depot Stage, the Archives Shop, and an Explorer’s Club Restaurant, all connected within the same S.E.A. backstory.
We may have met two of S.E.A.'s most avid artifact collectors, but the ship hasn't sailed yet. On the next page, we'll find out about a third member and the first S.E.A. ride in the United States... Read on...