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…

Under the Dome: Underwater edition

Image: Disney

Disney trivia alert! EPCOT Center opened exactly 11 years to the day after Magic Kingdom. The Future World portion that comprised the front half of the park focused on attractions that could simultaneously teach and entertain. The Living Seas Pavilion wasn’t one of the initial facilities. It wouldn’t debut for another five years, but the underlying structure was identical. That’s because Disney execs had known since the late 1970s that they’d build their own SeaWorld-esque pavilion. As always, the issues of designing and paying for it delayed the proceedings.

The influences for The Living Seas were myriad. Disney looked at its own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage for inspiration. They’d ported the attraction over from Disneyland to the Magic Kingdom in time for its 1971 debut, less than two weeks after the park itself opened to the public. Disney analysts believed that the fantastical elements of the Jules Verne story appealed to children. While park planners intended EPCOT Center to cater to adults, they understood that many guests would have kids to entertain. A fun version of their latest pavilion would make the day(s) spent at EPCOT Center feel less like school.

Since theming is everything at The Walt Disney Company, the intended pavilion was to embrace the heritage of aquatic mythology. Poseidon, ruler of the high seas, would greet guests at his underwater home. That visual would stand as the first thrill of The Living Seas. EPCOT Center visitors would see something akin to Atlantis. Imagineers drew illustrations for the entire showcase exhibit of the pavilion as an underwater domed city. Tubes would handle all the transportation in and out of the facility, and guests would enter and ride in giant water bubbles to reach the main area.

From a presentation perspective, everything about this concept is sublime. Humans are fascinated by domes, and Walt Disney had at least considered placing the entirety of E.P.C.O.T. in a dome during its planning phase. The presence of this stunning underwater city would have dazzled all observers, even the ones who were long since jaded by most theme park attractions.

Similarly, the Poseidon theme was a fantastic way to reinforce the underlying premise of The Living Seas while introducing a grandiose element right at the start. The thunderous voice of a Greek God would have grabbed everyone’s attention, making his informative speech of the importance of aquatic life unforgettable. It was the kind of showmanship and inventiveness that would have made Walt Disney proud.

The best laid plans…

Building the underwater domed city fell squarely under the header of “Absolutely impossible!”

Don’t get me wrong. Disney Imagineers tried. From the mid-1970s on, they knew that a water pavilion was going to comprise an integral portion of EPCOT Center. They crafted countless blueprints and illustrations of potential ways to bring the idea into reality. Unfortunately, working with water is one of the most difficult tasks on the planet. You may take indoor plumbing for granted, but it’s true.

The financial aspect is also problematic. Have you ever heard the story of Waterworld, the 1995 Kevin Costner movie? With a production expense of $172 million, it was the most expensive film ever made up until that time, but Universal Pictures hadn’t budgeted anywhere near that much for it. They expected a cost of $100 million. The rest stemmed from the production staff’s inability to maintain a steady supply of water on the set. Had they been familiar with the history of The Living Seas, they would have known about this issue in advance.

When Disney opened its seventh pavilion in 1986, they acknowledged that they’d spent $90 million bringing The Living Seas to life. That’s the equivalent of a little over $200 million today. It’s also a lot more than they’d expected when evaluating the project. This was a recurring theme with EPCOT Center. Disney had projected that the entire project would cost $600 million. Even after they lopped off several pavilions from the opening year, it still cost an estimated $1.4 billion, more than double expectations. Still, the financing for The Living Seas was unprecedented. An opening day article from the Orlando Sentinel described it as “the single most costly project ever built in a Disney theme park.”

On top of the shocking financial outlay, Disney had sacrificed virtually all of their grand ambitions for their SeaWorld-killer project. A domed underwater city was one of the first ideas to go. That’s a given since it’s a concept that’s difficult to achieve today, much less in the early 1980s. They also discarded the transparent water vehicles, instead settling on the Hydrolator and Seacab, the former of which was a renamed elevator while the latter was just a themed Omnimover that would introduce guests to the oceanic environment.

The boisterous introductory speech from Poseidon even fell by the wayside. Disney replaced it with a much more generic two-and-a-half minute video that felt like a PBS special rather than a booming Brian Blessed monologue. In three simple steps, they reduced The Living Seas from glorious celebration of mythic Atlantis with some SeaLab 2020 thrown in for good measure. Left in its wake was a pavilion that only parents could love while their kids wondered why they were doing this instead of riding Space Mountain.

The worst part is that like The Haunted Mansion before it, Disney had advertised the spectacular version of their underwater pavilion years before its arrival. They bragged of attractions such as The World of the Sea and Sea Base Alpha, the latter of which they declared would be a “futuristic undersea research station.” Disney is in the habit of under-promising and over-delivering because that’s good business. With The Living Seas, they were the opposite, and it led to shattered dreams from park guests and park planners alike.

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…

The world’s sixth largest ocean

Image: Disney

Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. The precise term is that The Living Seas instantly became the sixth largest ocean manufactured by mankind. It wasn’t as big as actual oceans, of course, but it was one of the most impressive feats ever accomplished by human construction to that point. The fact that Epcot still uses the body of it 30 years later reinforces Disney’s greatness in building this phenomenal architectural triumph.

Even though sacrifices were made that lessened the pavilion from its potential status as the greatest thing in theme park history, it has still stood the test of time. The Living Seas is something SeaWorld execs could only dream of bringing into reality. On opening day, guests witnessed cast members swimming through the depths of this artificial ocean. The Disney employees loved to display the nautical acrobatics possible within the enormous saltwater tank. With a wetsuit, an oxygen tube, and goggles, they could mimic virtually anything that a deep sea diver does during their time underwater.

The fun and games aspect of The Living Seas was a side benefit rather than a true purpose, though. Disney leaned on the side of science and academics when they finalized construction details. The heart of the building, the portion that guests still enjoy today, is Sea Base Alpha. Imagineers crafted a quasi-futuristic “underwater” laboratory. It was so plausibly science fiction in look and style that a 1990s series called SeaQuest DSV actually filmed there. 

Sea Base Alpha offered several attractions, almost all of which were informational in nature. The dive tank chamber and wave tank showed off the latest in underwater technology, highlighting the gear that would allow people to spend more time under the sea, and in a more comfortable manner to boot. Cast members would swim in these waters, demonstrating near-future wetsuits and the like. The wave tank also revealed the impact that the tide has on the otherwise unseen depths of the ocean floor.

Image: Disney

The first floor of Sea Lab Alpha also included several aquatic modules. In these sections, guests could watch marine life in its natural habitat (and the same was true of the marine life with humanity). Ecosystems included a coral lagoon with countless starfish and other sea creatures, a viewing center for manatee interactions, some maps and educational videos/imagery, and an Audio-Animatronic whose sole purpose was to hype the future explorative value of underwater robots. Cast members also schooled observers in the nature of various fish.

The second floor was more of the same, sometimes literally. A couple of the main exhibits were (more than) two stories tall, so the higher floor provided a different view of the same activities. The Observation Deck was the seminal part of the top floor of Sea Lab Alpha. Its sole purpose was to display as many of the elements of The Living Seas aquarium as possible.

The design of Sea Lab Alpha wasn’t a product of happenstance. A few years prior, park planners felt pressured to throw out the grand design of a single immersive attraction. They’d intended to build an entire exhibition. It would begin the instant the park visitor boarded the transparent bubble and rode to the underwater laboratory. Their vision was of an all-encompassing underwater dome city experience. When the bean counters said no, many of the ideas Imagineers saved became truncated. Disney compartmentalized each one in a single section of The Living Seas. By definition, the modules made a trip through the pavilion modular in nature. The compromises lessened the impact of a visit to a water realm beneath Earth’s surface.

While kids loved seeing the fish and remembered the Observation Tower and other exhibits vividly years later – and I speak from experience here – they bored quickly of the stuffier elements of The Living Seas. Watching fish is fun for a few minutes. Then, it gets old fast. As for the educational elements, Disney deserves tremendous credit for their decision to prioritize knowledge over entertainment. It was the opposite of SeaWorld’s strategy. Unfortunately, kids have a heavy favorite in this race, and it’s not knowledge. That’s why Epcot’s decision makers eventually redesigned The Living Seas with a more child-friendly theme. We’ll get to that in just a moment. Before then, let’s discuss the pink elephant (well, dolphins) tap dancing in the living room.

Fish stories…

Image: Disney

“We won’t commercialize sea life. There are no tricks here.”

The above quote comes from a Disney spokesperson on the day that The Living Seas debuted. The employee was understandably proud of the seventh pavilion at Epcot, and they didn’t back away from the pointed comments about other, more social water-based entertainment facilities. In fact, the PR rep quickly doubled down.

“Dolphins don’t jump through hoops in the ocean. They won’t do it here. Sharks don’t go around eating boats or cities. They won’t do it here. If you see some showgirl riding a porpoise, you’re at the wrong place. Living Seas’ focus is educational, not Hollywood.”

Yes, that’s a shot at SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and any number of low-rent amusement parks all in a single, vaguely condescending quote. Disney employees felt confident that their company was going to do everything right, and they felt this way due to past experience. A decades-long track record of excellence builds faith. Alas, some things in life are beyond the control of even the greatest professionals.

Image: SeaWorld

I won’t recount the Blackfish incident and how it’s destroyed SeaWorld. Let’s simply acknowledge that many individuals feel conflicted about the capture and harboring of mammals in small environments. Even as Disney sought to differentiate itself from SeaWorld, they employed some of the same practices, largely because they were commonly accepted ones in the mid-1980s. The public perception of these capturing methods didn’t change until the 21st century.

Veterinarian Jay Sweeney was the focal point of Florida dolphin captures during this era. He was a co-director at Dolphin Services International, and he proudly proclaimed that he’d taken 80 dolphins out of their natural habitats. He performed these captures on behalf of theme parks like SeaWorld, knowing that the industry needed dolphins. They were the friendliest and most popular creatures at the parks, and they could perform tricks to boot.

When Epcot analysts plotted strategies for The Living Seas, they knew that dolphins would attract huge crowds. They hired the services of Sweeney and other dolphin trainers in the region, understanding that training was frequently code for capturing in the wild. That’s the first misfire from Disney park planners. They didn’t anticipate that removing a cuddly dolphin from its natural habitat can turn the creature into a killer. In their defense, who expects dolphins to turn feral?

Delivering the dolphins to Disney

During the 1980s, Sweeney was one of only a handful of federally approved supervisors for dolphin collection. He was also quite good at his job. The veterinarian captured a total of six dolphins for Epcot, two of which were female, and he did so in a much quicker timeframe than Disney had projected.

As for his qualifications, Sweeney was entrusted with their caretaking by the federal government. His professional reputation was above reproach. A 1991 Los Angeles Times article detailed his capturing philosophies:

“Sweeney - -one of the world's leading marine-mammal veterinarians -- generally uses conservative methods for catching dolphins. He's never captured more than two or three dolphins on a given day; he personally monitors the animals for signs of shock and supervises their adjustment to captivity. "If I don't like the way an animal is developing, I always err on the side of safety and release it," he says. "We have never killed an animal in a capture operation."”

If you’re wondering, Disney didn’t hide their intentions, either. To the contrary, the company planned a photo shoot for Sweeney’s dolphin hunt. They also filmed the events for posterity’s sake. You can watch some of the footage here.  In the build-up to the opening of The Living Seas, nothing the company or Sweeney did was considered unbecoming. Had they only caught five dolphins, the entire perception of their dolphins captures might have been perceived differently.

Killer dolphin: NOT a SyFy movie

The problem dolphin was named Bob. He was part of a school of dolphins along with Christie and Katie, the females, and males named Geno, Toby, and Tyke. Over a period of three years, Bob killed three of his siblings. A fourth died of non-Bob-related causes, leaving only the killer dolphin and what I’m confident was a very nervous sibling who never turned his blowhole on Bob.

I want to stress that the problems were not Bob’s fault. If you take any mammal out of its natural environment, you shouldn’t experience surprise if the creature lashes out. In Bob’s case, he became two aggressive with his fellow dolphins. That behavior directly caused two deaths in 1987, and then he “roughhoused 12-year-old Katie, worsening her lung condition and leading to her death, preliminary test results show.”

Animal rights activists were understandably appalled. Disney adapted a transparent posture, with a corporate vice-president acknowledging that The Living Seas had a “pretty cruddy” record with dolphins. Since Bob killed both the females, Disney’s dream of breeding the dolphins died with Bob’s multiple sororicides. They later transferred him to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where he promptly contributed to the deaths of two other dolphins before dying himself.

Disney had the legal right to try to breed dolphins again. So, they acquired a trio of them from the Navy. Another government agency had marked them for release. Disney stepped into a bureaucratic nightmare, and their attempt failed yet again. The dolphins currently hosted at The Living Seas were all acquired elsewhere. Nobody questions the treatment of these mammals, but the potential for negative publicity always exists as long as Disney continues to host them. They largely avoided the backlash that destroyed SeaWorld during the Blackfish fiasco since they don’t host creatures of that size. Also, consumers natural trust Disney more as a brand. The benefit of the doubt has helped them remain above the fray.

“For a guy with three hearts, you are not very nice.”

On a lighter note, dolphin caretaking isn’t the only problem Disney faced in populating their aquarium. Their original announcement for The Living Seas celebrated the presence of sea lions. Quick, when’s the last time you saw a sea lion there? Sure, they’re a staple at SeaWorld, but they're persona non grata at Epcot. The reason for that is simple. They stink.

In the early days of The Living Seas, cast members quickly came to resent the presence of the sea lions. They seem so harmless and fun from a distance. Up close, they’re loud, obnoxious, and odiferous. Over the years, Disney quietly phased out the sea lions part of the habitat, repurposing it as a home for manatees.

Today, the location hosts Lil Joe, widely considered the most famous manatee in aquatic history. For 25 years now, he’s enjoyed his celebrity status at several zoos and theme parks. Disney hosts him at the pavilion to save the manatee from getting stuck in the pipes again.

Yes, Disney would rather have a clumsy, fat manatee who is terrible with directions instead of sea lions. That says everything about how awful they were as residents of The Living Seas. Finding Dory’s sea lions have a presence in the movie due to the popularity of fish tales involving the terrible behavior of these creatures. It’s an open secret at Epcot that they quickly wore out their welcome. Take a moment to consider how awful they must have been. Even Bob received the benefit of the doubt for several years and a few murders!

If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities of the dolphin capture issue, you can read more about Sweeney here and a Time article about the practice here. And this PBS piece reveals why the Navy employs dolphins.

In the big blue world

Image: Disney

As attendance dwindled as the underwater pavilion, cynics derided it with a new, commonly used nickname. What was once the most expensive building at Epcot became known as The Dead Seas due to its lack of traffic. Disney officials were part of the problem at first rather than the solution.

When Epcot lost the original sponsor for the pavilion, United Technologies, the notoriously cheap CEO, Michael Eisner, chose to shut down one of the most expensive elements, the Seacabs. Why this decision made sense to anybody is up for debate. Without the introductory portion of The Living Seas, it felt incomplete, as if a person were catching only the second half of a movie they’d never seen before.

The haphazard deletion of an iconic element of the pavilion escalated its rate of descent. Anyone who had visited Epcot in the past resented the absence of the Seacabs. When new guests exited The Living Seas, they felt like they’d missed a key step. The entire premise had collapsed from the grandest of ambitions to the least popular building at Epcot. Park planners accepted that they needed to change the fundamental nature of the entire facility, albeit at an acceptable cost.

The central flaw with The Living Seas is that it didn’t appeal to kids the way that Disney had intended. Rather than building a SeaWorld-killer, they’d compromised far too many times. All they had left was a building whose fish population outnumbered its human guests.  They had to act to reinvigorate one of the costliest constructions in company history.

Image: Disney

The solution came in the form of a clownfish.

As I discussed at length in this article, the release of Finding Nemo presented an opportunity to Disney officials. While they wouldn’t purchase Pixar until 2006, the two corporations enjoyed the type of friendly relationship to be expected of the two finest animation studios in the world. In many ways, Pixar was the second coming of Disney Brothers Studios, the 1920s business that grew into The Walt Disney Company. They were story-focused and family-oriented. Both of those are hallmarks of the Disney brand, and that’s why Epcot execs took notice during the summer of 2003 when Finding Nemo dominated the box office.

Themed attractions at Epcot weren’t historically unprecedented at this point. The Lion King already had a presence at The Land. What park planners plotted was new, though. They strategized on the best way to draw attention back to The Living Seas, and they acknowledged that the most effective way was through theming. The pavilion would become The Seas with Nemo & Friends.

A Clamobile is a Seacab, only sillier

Image: Disney

In order to make such a drastic change, Disney restored some old ideas with a new coat of paint. The cobwebbed Seacabs could return anew, albeit with some alterations. The updated Omnimovers would point to the sides rather than straight ahead, drawing eyes to the walls the way that should have been done all along. They’d also receive different theming. Out was the clinically scientific vibe of deep sea exploration. In was the Clamobile, a Nemo-appropriate ride cart that was warmer and more inviting to younger guests.

Beyond the surface changes, the former Seacab delivery system underwent a dramatic modification. The “walls” of the aquarium disappeared for the most part. The majestic views of all the fish contained within the water world vanished. In their absence, scenes from Finding Nemo sprang to life. The lone exception is at the end of the ride, and even that combines with artificial imagery. Disney park planners were acknowledging the obvious.

SeaWorld’s strategy of catering to children first and then their parents afterward is the correct one. Disney’s always known that, of course, and it’s standard operating procedure for most of their attractions. They tried to act high-brow with The Living Seas, and the strategy cost them.

Image: Disney

What does the future hold for The Seas with Nemo & Friends? The important factor to remember is that the facility is still wildly expensive to operate. Filtering, cycling, and maintaining that much water on a daily basis is a nightmare. Imagineers are also stuck with the architectural choices of the early 1980s. More than 30 years later, technology has come a long way in this field. Park planners don’t have the ability to rebuild the aqueducts, though. They’re stuck with the plumbing they’ve got.

Short of tearing down the entire facility and starting from scratch, something they’re extremely unlikely to do, Epcot strategists are left with what’s on hand. That’s unfortunate because they still own the blueprints to one of the most imaginative, potentially spectacular pavilions they’ve ever built. I’d go so far as to say that if they somehow could build underwater dome they illustrated during the 1970s, it’d instantly become the most popular building at the entire park.

In its stead, all they can offer at The Seas with Nemo & Friends is a bunch of seagulls parroting, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” There’s also a charming themed ride that would feel right at home at Magic Kingdom, but that makes its presence at Epcot that much odder. The themed version is a far cry from what was announced for the park and directly counters the Disney spokesperson on opening day of The Living Seas. That person claimed Disney would never commercialize sea life. Reconciling that with Nemo theming is equal parts frustrating and sad. Somewhere along the way, Disney tried to beat SeaWorld at its own game. They badly lost their way, and only a clownfish kept the most expensive pavilion at Epcot from being called The Dead Seas today.


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