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The Living Seas: How Budget Cuts, Broken Promises and a Killer Dolphin Doomed an Epcot Classic

Anything you can do, I can do better. At least that’s how the saying goes.

The Walt Disney Company enjoys its status as the originator that all its imitators try to duplicate. That’s how DreamWorks Animation wound up making a movie called Antz, an idea that Jeffrey Katzenberg had heard during his time as head of Disney’s film division. It also explains why so much of the design of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is familiar to Disney fanatics familiar with potential park expansions from days gone by. They know that elements such as the Dragon at Diagon Alley were originally part of expansion plans for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And SeaWorld itself? You’ll see.

The unexpected truth here is that Disney is susceptible to such behavior, too. Just because they’re generally the ones getting ripped off (err, imitated) doesn’t mean they aren’t above borrowing an idea here or there. Disney park planners have confidence that even when their ideas share surface similarities with those of competing parks, their theme will differentiate the product.

This justified confidence can get them into trouble. Such is the case with one of their most ambitious endeavors. Disney Imagineers looked on with longing as they watched SeaWorld become one of the favorite vacation destinations for families with small children. The Big Ideas folks at Disney dreamt of crafting their own attractions, ones that could sustain entire habitats for aquatic life. At the same time, the bean counters at the Mouse House sought to take back those vacation dollars the company had ceded to the first SeaWorld.

Back when it first opened in 1964, Disney failed to anticipate the popularity of this concept with kids. Less than 20 years later, the opening of EPCOT Center provided them a rare opportunity to correct that miscalculation. Disney could build its own educational entertainment facility about underwater living.

In the process, they’d honor their company founder, Walt Disney, in two different ways. EPCOT Center itself was the living legacy they were building to honor his lifetime of great works and grander ambitions. And Uncle Walt always felt fascination with the water. That’s why Submarine Voyage anchored the first massive expansion of Disneyland in 1959. Amusingly, theme park innovators David DeMott, George Millay, Ken Norris, and Milt Shedd at least partially gained their inspiration for SeaWorld from Disney’s first water-based attraction. Almost two decades later, the park that was once an imitator had become a source of fascination to Disney employees in several different fields. They all agreed that an aquatic facility at EPCOT Center was a good idea.

Whether all these cast members were right or not is up for debate.

In the 25 years that have followed the original pitch, the facility we now know as The Seas with Nemo & Friends has become undeniably popular. It’s also suffered through an identity crisis, a sharp decline in popularity, a return to glory thanks to clever theming, and several unfortunate incidents involving the animals who reside at the facility. While still an anchor piece of Epcot, its grand ambitions and astonishing architectural triumph have quietly taken a backseat to many of the issues that SeaWorld has faced. How did Disney build such an amazing facility, why did it struggle, and what does the future hold for Epcot’s oddest pavilion? Let’s dive into the complex history of what we once knew as The Living Seas.

A triumph of flattery

Image: SeaWorld

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then SeaWorld was the most popular flatterer in the amusement park industry for decades. Once onlookers in the entertainment industry understood the awesome drawing power of Disneyland, they embarked on a quest to build their own version of the premise. For Millay and his staff, that led to the blueprints for an underwater restaurant.

These businessmen understood that Disney was on to something, and they viewed Disneyland as a kind of proof of concept for children’s attractions of all sorts. Their plan for an underwater restaurant no longer seemed ambitious enough. Instead, they evolved the idea into an entire marine zoo in San Diego, California, only 93 miles away from Disneyland. Uncle Walt and his Imagineers felt a bit territorial about this turn of events, but they also admired both the temerity of the idea and its immediate popularity.

Kids really love cuddly fish, and that assessment was just as accurate in 1964, the year SeaWorld San Diego opened to the public. They received 400,000 guests during the first year. It wasn’t quite the 5.9 million guests who visited the Happiest Place on Earth that year. It wasn’t even 1.2 million who went to Disneyland during its first year, but a third of that total for what was effectively a fish zoo was quite remarkable.

From Disney’s perspective, SeaWorld demonstrated proof of concept twice in quick succession. A decade after the San Diego park excelled, SeaWorld Orlando debuted. It popped up 26 months after Walt Disney World and was only five miles away. By now, Disney officials understood that one of the underlying strategies of SeaWorld was to place them close enough to Disney parks that vacationers would consider visiting both during the same trip. Disney execs were now doubly territorial. Of course, they had bigger fish to fry, so to speak.

Grand ambitions and a changing of the guard

Image: Disney

After Walt Disney’s shocking death in 1966, his employees faced a seemingly impossible task. They had to honor his vision for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow without his direct input. All they had were his blueprints and the introductory video that he’d made about the project. Those weren’t even the gravest challenges, though. They also had to figure out a way to pay for all of it.

Have you ever wondered why the Magic Kingdom came first at Walt Disney World? Well, it wasn’t a magical decision that led to the Most Magical Place on Earth. Instead, it was a pragmatic one. Disney officials including Walt Disney’s brother, Roy O. Disney, understood that they could never finance even a fraction of the company founder’s ideas without a steady revenue stream.

The utopia that Uncle Walt imagined couldn’t become any sort of reality until Disney could pay the bills.   That wasn’t an easy proposition at the time, either. For all its triumphs and name recognition, the corporation faced a great deal of cynicism as outsider observers loudly wondered about the future. Could The Walt Disney Company survive and thrive without Walt Disney? With the benefit of hindsight, that question seems laughable, but it was very real to Disney’s staff during the late 1960s. That’s also when they plotted the specifics of the Florida Project.

Once Walt Disney World opened to a rapturous reception from the East Coast residents who’d always wanted a Disneyland of their own, Disney execs had their revenue stream. And although the process took another 11 years, they would eventually take their best shot at honoring their founder’s dreams for a better tomorrow. EPCOT Center wasn’t quite the utopia Uncle Walt had promised, but it did combine two of his most important themes. It celebrated the various cultures of the world, and it attempted to educate visitors on the impending technologies that could change their lives.

The park we now know as Epcot blended education with entertainment, and the employees in charge of strategizing its future knew one thing for certain. SeaWorld officials had stolen a couple of key ideas from them over the years. The second gate at Walt Disney World would allow them to take some of those concepts back and reestablish them as Disney themes. They could build their own aquatic zoo, and it’d blow the competition out of the water. Hey, everything sounds good in theory. How an idea functions in real life is much harder to anticipate. Such is the case with…

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