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

The rollback period


What went wrong with The Living Seas? Suffice to say that the situation unraveled quickly. The announcement above was featured in an advertising booklet from 1980, two years prior to the opening of EPCOT Center. By 1982, they’d already scaled back all their most quixotic plans for The Living Seas.

At this point, the construction team had explained in detail all the challenges of building the underwater city originally promised. Presumably, these conversations mirrored ones that Millay and other SeaWorld execs had while discussing their discarded underwater restaurant premise.

Imagineers leveled with their bosses about the impossibility of these (wonderful) ideas. Not coincidentally, the projected opening of this pavilion moved back a year from 1983 to 1984. And they were still two years too optimistic. Working with water always comes with a few unexpected tribulations. More importantly, it comes with a cost.

The bean counters at Walt Disney World grew nervous as they started checking the cost itemizations for The Living Seas. They noted that one bill stood apart from the rest. In other to not just compete with SeaWorld but blow them out of the water, so to speak, Disney Imagineers intended to build a massive water tank. I mean a historically unprecedented one. And you know the one I mean since it’s the one part of The Living Sea blueprints that became a reality.

Estimates for the water tank that would become the heart of the pavilion were stratospherically high. To pay for this single feature, the crux of The Living Seas, Disney would have to spend more money than they’d ever spent on anything before. Anything extravagant beyond the water tank quickly moved into the “absolutely not” category. Disney did get their money’s worth on this particular item, though.

A full tank


When The Living Seas finally debuted in 1986, then-CEO Michael Eisner trumpeted the massive aquarium that his company had built. Eisner stood in the cozy confines of a restaurant you’ve probably visited at some point, The Coral Reef. As he looked into the 22,000-cubic meter mother of all fish tanks, he bragged that the 5.7 million gallons included within aptly mimicked a Caribbean reef.

To punctuate Eisner’s point about the majesty of the achievement, Disney president Frank Wells, who drew the short stick on this assignment, swam into view. He was in full wetsuit, and he carried an ornamental pair of scissors that he and a cast member in a Mickey Mouse wetsuit used to cut the ceremonial opening day ribbon. That tank already held 4,000 different fish, and Disney firmly stated that the total would double almost immediately.

The tank at The Living Seas was something that the competition had never managed despite the fact that they worked with water and marine life every day. Eisner and his team were right to take pride in their achievement. This new aquarium would remain the world’s largest saltwater tank for almost 20 years until the Georgia Aquarium claimed that title in 2005.

The company also said something that remains true to this day. They built the underwater tank simply for the sake of learning. Disney hired experts in the field of marine life studies, and they constructed state of the art research centers where the cast members watch and interact with the fish to this day. The company’s employees take such pride in their giant aquarium that a version of it plays a central part in their 2016 animated classic, Finding Dory.

Whether the scientific advances of The Living Seas make up for the overly optimistic initial claims is in the eye of the beholder. What’s undeniable is that once the cost of the aquarium became unwieldy, Disney dismissed the other Big Ideas. Because of these concessions, their attempt to beat SeaWorld at their own game fell by the wayside. What they constructed in its place was…

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