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The Living Seas at Epcot's Future World

"Hydrolator number 2, descending to SeaBase Alpha. Docking port cleared. SeaBase Alpha, Hydrolator on approach..."

It seems that at Epcot, the only thing that stays the same is change. That's why we're back at Walt Disney World's infamous second gate for yet another entry in our ever-growing Lost Legends collection to capture a fan-favorite closed classic for a new generation of Disney Parks guests. And of course, we've taken our heartbreaking tour of Future World in in-depth features before, from Journey into Imagination to Universe of Energy; World of Motion to Body Wars; even the original Test TrackSoarin', and so many more. But today, our tour of a lost EPCOT Center classic takes us to the deepest trenches of the ocean.

The Living Seas embodied everything that EPCOT Center was about – it was a gargantuan, spectacular, larger-than-life attraction rooted in reality that was meant to inform, inspire, educate, and leave guests caring just a little more about the real-life wonders of the world around them.

Image: Disney

But you may be surprised what EPCOT's aquatic pavilion was supposed to look like. Today, we'll dive deep into the sunken story of The Living Seas to see how Poseidon – then, King Triton – was earmarked to star in this Future World show, and how a little lost clownfish beat them both... The history of the Living Seas may go deeper than you ever imagined. Step on board and let's set foot in this pavilion as it existed years ago...

"Hydrolator number 2 in lock-out chamber, pressurized, and prepared for guest arrival."

EPCOT Center

To start at the beginning: EPCOT Center was unlike anything Disney had done before.

Image: Disney

Though long-gestating plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (a real, actual, functioning city of the future to inform all modern cities built after) died alongside Walt Disney, the core concepts that powered Walt's fascination with EPCOT – his limitless idealism, his dedication to futurism, and his admiration of American innovation – lived on. EPCOT Center skillfully blended the "heart" of Walt's optimistic pursuits with something much more grounded and familiar to Walt Disney Productions: a World's Fair.

The legendary second gate at Disney World would be a permanent one, but just like the international expositions that had flashed in and out of annual existence across the world, it would feature massive, enormous "pavilions" dedicated to culture and technology, and – ideally – sponsored by governments and mega-corporations willing to fit the bill. EPCOT Center was a conceptual behemoth, featuring at its height nine gargantuan pavilions in its Future World realm, each dedicated to a single area of science and industry.

Image: Disney

Most spectacularly, those nine pavilions – while presented in different styles – really played to one unifying theme. Spelled out eloquently in its dedication, EPCOT Center was where, "human achievements are celebrated through imagination, wonders of enterprise and concepts of a future that promises new and exciting benefits for all." Each pavilion's topic was merely a piece of the puzzle and – when combined – painted a picture of where American innovation had been, where it stood, and where it was headed next.

One of our simplest understandings of EPCOT Center (and particularly its Future World) has always been the simple distinction that, unlike Disneyland or Magic Kingdom, this realm of industry and innovation set out to forget fantasy entirely in favor of the cold, hard facts of those selected areas of science. But that's not entirely true... In fact, one of the earliest concepts for EPCOT Center included a pavilion dedicated to the legends, stories, songs, and tales of the sea...

Stories of the seas

Image: Disney, via Progress City U.S.A.

As with most of EPCOT Center's Future World pavilions, plans for a pavilion dedicated to the seas go back as far as concepts for the park itself. As a matter of fact, even in the park's 1978 prospectus, The Seas pavilion was there, located where The Land is today. But as for what a pavilion dedicated to the ocean should look and feel like? For a time, the Seas was set to have a very different tone than it has today.

The Seas pavilion would've seen guests "sail through moments of peril and triumph with the great explorers who charted the seas for civilization. In another adventure, Poseidon the sea lord will challenge visitors to journey to the ocean depths, from the continental shelf to the great coral reef, finally arriving at SeaBase Alpha, an authentic ocean environment with live marine life, an underwater restaurant, and a showcase of oceanographic exhibits and displays."

Image: Disney, via RetroWDW.com

In reality, this Seas pavilion would've been perhaps more grand than any of EPCOT Center's epic dark rides. Guests would enter the pavilion through a swirling, eroded, carved grotto and step into a semi-circle, wrap-around theater, where a storm would gradually build all around. Wind, mist, and rolling thunder would shake the theater until all guests were seated. Then, with a flash of lightning, the ancient god of the seas Poseidon would appear, calming the storm with a flick of his wrist and introducing guests to some of the brave adventurers who'd conquered the oceans. With Poseidon's blessing, guests would be invited to explore the sea themselves – the true cradle of life on Earth. 

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney, via Martins Videos

During this pre-show, the theater (actually two back-to-back auditoriums on a turntable) would physically rotate 180-degrees to reveal one of the most spectacular scenes Disney Imagineers had ever created...

Image: Disney, via Martins Videos

An entire underwater kingdom reigned over by Poseidon, with a winding watery path through this paradise. Guests would now step out of their theater seats and journey deeper into the ocean, leading to the undersea load area of an Omnimover dark ride. Sitting in Omnimovers disguised as glass bubbles, guests would be whisked away through an elaborate and oversized dark ride through the ocean set around the perimeter of the building.

Image: Disney

Follow its path through the winding chambers in the pavilion-wide artwork above and you'll see that this high-capacity dark ride through the oceans would sincerely match Epcot's other Lost Legends: World of Motion, Journey into Imagination, or Universe of Energy in scale and scope.

And as this dark ride's grand finale, those bubbles would glide into a glass tube through a 5 million gallon aquarium surrounded in salt water fish.

Image: Disney

Next stop? SeaBase Alpha, a spectacular glass-domed platform in the center of the tank, with glass bridges leading off to exhibit areas.

While the pavilion's location was changed over the years (from The Land's eventual spot to Horizons', then to its final destination in the park's northwest corner), the design for The Seas remained the same.... for a little while, at least... On the next page, we'll explore the final design of The Living Seas pavilion and step inside for a tour before watching everything change thanks to a little lost clownfish...

Building the Living Seas

Image: Disney

By late 1979, the design of the pavilion was finally beginning to shift, and would only continue to do so throughout the early '80s. Chalk this pavilion's grand origins and spectacular style to Imagineer Tim Delaney. Despite he and his team's earnest efforts, engineers reported that Disney's hopes for a completely-underwater, glass-enclosed sea-base in the center of a 5 million gallon tank were simply not feasible. 

The Living Seas was refined to be quite a bit closer to the final look and feel of the final pavilion, with a SeaBase built not in the center of the salt water tank, but in a two-story arrangement set on one side of the tank, with 5-8 inch thick acrylic windows as portals into the pool.

Image: Disney

The Omnimover attraction, too, was reduced to its smallest form yet. Now, the SeaCab attraction wouldn't feature any dark ride scenes. Instead, a 375 foot long ride path would simply glide through the central aquarium en route to SeaBase Alpha. The glass tubes planned for the ride's grand finale became acrylic windows looking out into the aquarium instead, and the "fantasy" elements of the attraction were slowly sapped so that the fanciful world of Poseidon gave way to a futuristic, scientific ocean research base. 

By late 1980s, the Living Seas had more or less been designed. But it wouldn't open until four years after the rest of the park. Even in "reduced" form, the aquatic pavilion was one of the largest projects ever undertaken by the Walt Disney Company. Reportedly, the cost for the pavilion topped $90 million (equivalent to about $200 million today), made possible by sponsorship from United Technologies – an international engineering and aerospace firm.

Image: Disney, via Diz Avenue

Here at Theme Park Tourist, we offered an in-depth feature exploring the staggering statistics behind the Living Seas pavilion, but just imagine: Walt Disney World became the site of the sixth largest ocean on Earth. (And wonderfully, the Living Seas' central aquarium – the Caribbean Coral Reef Aquarium –remained the largest saltwater tank on Earth for 20 years, beaten only by the Georgia Aquarium in 2005.)

When the Living Seas opened on January 15, 1986 – more than four years after the rest of the park – still-new CEO Michael Eisner and Disney President Frank Wells were on hand for the underwater ribbon-cutting. Even back then, the AZA-accredited Living Seas was home to 4,000 creatures. What was a trip inside like? That's where we're headed next...

The Living Seas

Welcome to The Living Seas, presented by United Technologies.

Image: Derek Hatfield, Flickr (license)

Say what you will of Future World's gargantuan, imposing pavilions – each features a grand and iconic approach that makes guests feel right at home. Whether its the curving Omnimovers of World of Motion gliding around its central, mirrored support column; the leaping gardens and glass pyramids of Imagination; the towering greenhouse pinnacle of The Land; or this spectacular entry to The Living Seas.

Even if early designs for a rocky, water-carved exterior eventually transformed into the sculpted, smooth, paneled exterior we see, this more organic, curving, natural pavilion is made of layered pieces, undulating and curling like waves. And out front, an outcropping of sea-eroded rocks stands in the center of a pool. Waves crash across the simple scene, atomizing into a mist that suspends across the grotto.

Image: Disney

Passing into the cool pavilion's dark interior, a winding queue passes through a hall with displays and models of seafaring ships, nautical instruments, and tools meant to bring mankind closer to understanding the sea. As in original plans – the pavilion's introduction is a theater with long blue benches. But our focus here is one familiar to many of EPCOT Center's early pavilions: an educational film that will begin our story a very, very long time ago. "Try to imagine, just for a moment, that somewhere in the endless reaches of the universe ... on the outer edge of a galaxy of a hundred thousand million suns ... deep within a cluster of slowly forming planets, a small sphere of just the right size lies just the right distance from its mother star ... cooling in the coldness of space. Try to imagine."

Image: Disney

What follows is an eight-minute film through the formation of Earth, the creation of oceans teeming with the first phytoplankton, creating oxygen, driving the planet's weather, and making our Blue Planet unlike any other we know: suited for life; the origins of oceanic exploration; ships... explorers... submersibles... 

"Try to imagine, just for a moment, a future of amazing technological creativity ... a future of incredible adventure and discovery ... a future of remarkable awareness of understanding."

 and now, a glass-enclosed research base deep on the ocean floor. "...Try to imagine. For we welcome you now to take the first steps into that future. We welcome you to The Living Seas. We welcome you to Sea Base Alpha."

Doors to the theater's side slide open, revealing a new antechamber beyond with illuminated, flashing signs offering: Hydrolators to SeaBase Now Boarding."

Image: Disney

The fabled Hydrolators of The Living Seas are remembered as an attraction unto themselves. Three Hydrolator pods are here, each accomodating up to 30 guests. As the rocky walls of a drilled shaft ascend and bubbles rise past in acrylic windows, you might be entirely convinced that you're descending deep into the ocean... (And indeed, a popular tale suggests that a guest attempted to sue Disney for ear damage from the mounting "pressure" – almost certainly nothing more than an urban legend.)

Of course, in actuality, the Hydrolators are that most spectacular of Disney feats: a deceptively simple special effect that's deeply convincing in context.

As the Hydrolators exit, guests are ushered to the next stage of the attraction. For, though we're deep underwater, we've not yet arrived at our final destination – the deep-ocean research site, SeaBase Alpha.

For that, we'll need to step aboard a SeaCab. This chain of constantly-moving ride vehicles resembles the same Omnimover ride system made famous in Disneyland's Lost Legend: Adventure Thru Inner Space and applied later to the Haunted Mansion, but these SeaCabs don't pivot. They face forward as they round the corner and enter a window-lined tunnel looking out into the Caribbean Coral Reef.

Real fish swim around, and if you're lucky, you may even see a SeaBase Alpha researcher out for a dive amongst the wildlife.

Image: Disney

The ride through the massive tank – ostensibly, the ocean from our point of view as guests – is short, but spectacular. And wonderfully, it's not even the highlight of the Living Seas! Now that we've traveled from our initial descent point through the water, we've arrived at SeaBase Alpha. 

Image: Disney

SeaBase Alpha is a spectacular, futuristic deep submersible base, two stories tall and set against the endless vastness of the ocean we just traveled through. And this is where our adventure truly begins. After all, SeaBase Alpha is ours to explore. Visitors can then walk into a two-story central viewing area, completely surrounded by sea windows which allow them to see the divers live and up close carrying out research studies.

But there's so much more to this massive underwear research station. 

Image: Disney

At the center of SeaBase Alpha stands the famous Diver Lock-out Chamber. Every half hour, divers enter or exit the Caribbean Coral Reef by way of this two-story tall tube, with SeaBase researchers on-hand to explain the latest in wetsuit and portable air tank technologies. Otherwise, SeaBase Alpha's two floors are explorable by way of "Modules" built off of the main gallery. 

Level 1 of SeaBase Alpha includes a 24-foot long wave tank and four Module labs:

  • Module 1A: Ocean Ecosystems, which included a 3,000 gallon Pacific Coral Lagoon aquarium with starfish, sea anemone, and hermit crabs as well as a Predator Tank with barracudas, moray eels, and connet head sharks, plus side-set aquariums dedicated to symbiosis, bioluminescence, and camouflage.
  • Module 1B: Marine Mammal Research Center, which offered underwater viewing of the Living Seas' renowned collection of West Indian manatees.
  • Module 1C: Earth Systems, which contained displays of ocean composition, tectonic plates, fault lines, and the "Animated Atlas of the World" looping video display.

Image: Disney

  • Module 1D: Undersea Exploration, which featured an Audio-Animatronics display of Bob Ballard's JASON deep sea research rover and cutaway JIM suits for families to explore.

Climbing to Level 2 provides a glimpse of the second level of the Pacific Kelp Forest in Module 2A, and above-water viewing of the manatees in Module 2B. 

Altogether, over 6,000 sea creatures live here, including rays, fish, sharks, manatees, and dolphins. Spend as much or as little time as you like exploring the Living Seas – an hour or a day. This pavilion isn't about a headlining ride. It's a collection of experiences encouraging deeper exploration, allowing access to real animal care and research, and seeing marine animals up close – animals that, otherwise, many humans would live their whole lives without seeing firsthand.

Image: Disney

When you're finished visiting, simply board another Hydrolator for your return trip to the surface! Naturally, The Living Seas was a spectacular demonstration of engineering, and of Disney's ability to transport guests to new worlds. By placing a world-class and record-breaking aquarium into an immersive world, this pavilion became another headliner at EPCOT Center.

But it wouldn't stay that way. As the years passed, a few nagging problems began to develop at EPCOT Center's foundation... Things were about to begin to change, and The Living Seas would become a test bed for a new way of doing things... Read on...

EPCOT’s issues

Image: Disney

Disney insiders have it on good authority that even by the mid ‘90s, interest in EPCOT Center was waning. Even the park’s most ardent supporters can easily see why. We’ll boil it down to three big picture reasons:

1. STYLE: A dated look and feel. Think about it: the 1960s and ‘70s had been an era with a very particular motif when it came to futurism. Look no further than the beloved Tomorrowlands designed in those decades: lands of sleek, Googie architecture, simple white geometric patterns, and the “ease and simplicity” of the Space Age. In fact, fans beg Disney to return Tomorrowland to that now-nostalgic architectural style that’s re-entered pop culture as a naïve-but-natural view of the future.

Image: Disney

The look of Epcot’s Future World? Not so much. Firmly rooted in the ‘80s, the look and feel of Future World is defined by large concrete plazas, harsh brutalist architecture, and an altogether cool gray and beige color palate. So while that long-lost look of the ‘60s and ‘70s Space Age has come back around to be retro-cool, the massive pavilions of Future World haven’t and – maybe – never will… Disney's answer in the '90s? To mask the cool, pastel, gray '80s pavilions by applying layers of saturated, vibrant, neon paint (see above) that, in turn, just looked odd on '80s architecture and dated the pavilions to the '90s – still no better for audiences of the new millennium!

2. SUBSTANCE: Industry over imagination. On the simplest level, EPCOT Center had gained a reputation as a pop culture punch line; it was the Disney park that many kids detested spending a day at. What child, after all, would choose to forego a day with Magic Kingdom’s princess or pirates or a day at the new Disney-MGM Studios alongside Ninja Turtles, explosions, and mermaids for a day of educational dark rides through the histories of industries? Expensive international cuisine? Zero Disney characters?

Image: Disney

3. SPONSORS: Funding the future. In each Lost Legend entry for EPCOT Center classics, the story generally pivots around sponsorship. Disney’s once-brilliant move to have mega-corporations pay for pavilions and commit to their upkeep started to turn around in the mid-‘90s. By then, contracts were beginning to expire, and rather than recommitting and doubling down on investment as Disney had hoped, many EPCOT Center sponsors were choosing to leave, more or less sticking Disney with enormous, unfunded pavilions to suddenly infuse with cash (and, if that particular pavilion was lucky, some creativity, too).

It had to have been clear to Disney that EPCOT Center needed to change. So it did. EPCOT Center was renamed Epcot ’94, then Epcot ’95 before switching to the simpler Epcot we know today. But on a wider scale, Disney had big plans…

Project: GEMINI

Image: Disney

As luck would have it, Disney was working with a pretty full portfolio of ideas. That’s because, in the early ‘90s, Disney had announced a second gate coming soon to the original Disneyland back in California. Called Westcot (above), this new take on the Epcot concept would’ve fixed the three issues – style, substance, and sponsorship – that had already become apparent in Epcot in the decade since its opening.

Though Westcot was cancelled (replaced by the Declassified Disaster: Disney’s California Adventure), the important work designers had done on it would now translate back to Epcot as part of a massive overhaul called Project: GEMINI.

Image: Disney

We dissected this would-be makeover in its own dedicated feature – Possibilityland: Project ­– GEMINI – but here’s the summary: this floor-to-ceiling facelift would redefine Epcot for the 21st century. First of all, those cold, concrete expanses and wide, sun-bleached plazas would be broken up and reformed into Discoveryland, an overflowing oasis of the future marked by forested paths, waterways, organic rockwork, multi-leveled gardens, and waterfalls, all reigned over by the park’s icon, now re-clad in golden tiles. This was the more forward-thinking answer to Future World developed for Westcot, and now it would serve to prepare Epcot for a new century… Style? Check.

Image: Disney

As for substance, Project: GEMINI would’ve turned Epcot into Disney’s "discovery park," inviting exploration into areas of science and industry with cutting edge, technological, reality-rooted thrill rides rather than the educational dark rides of old. Some of the piecemeal parts of Project: GEMINI did come to pass, like the Lost Legend: Horizons becoming Mission: SPACE, World of Motion becoming the original TEST TRACK, and the arrival of the old Californian Soarin’ in the Land pavilion – and you can see how each turned Epcot’s thesis on its head with a very distinct intention of transforming the park’s reputation and offerings.

But equal interest is what did not come to be: the transformation of Spaceship Earth into a high-speed roller coaster / dark ride through time called Time Racers; the dissolution of Innoventions parenthetical buildings in favor of smaller, forested showbuildings; the addition of a roller coaster through the canopy of the rainforest out front of the Land… and finally, the first characters to break into Epcot’s once-hallowed ground, swimming into The Living Seas… Nope, not Nemo.

Image: Disney

The Living Seas was set to become Under the Sea, featuring characters from the movie that had kicked off Disney's Renaissance: 1989's The Little Mermaid. What's especially ironic is that this planned character overlay would've essentially retrofitted The Living Seas with the more fantasy-infused storytelling that had been planned as far back as the '70s…! You can easily imagine the underwater world of Triton taking the place of Poseidon, with Atlantica overlaid atop the pavilion's otherworldly oceanic scenes.

Obviously, while pieces of Project: GEMINI came to pass (including Epcot's retitling as a "discovery" park), they weren't intentionally bundled with the change in style that would've made them more than the sum of their parts. As recently as 2017, Disney has announced that Future World is due for (and expecting) a floor-to-ceiling facelift soon, but it won't look much like the Discoveryland planned back in the late-'90s. 

Finding Nemo

Throughout the ‘90s, Disney’s relationship with young computer animation studio Pixar was rising. Disney’s agreement to distribute Pixar’s first three films (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters Inc.) had proven to be a wise one, as each ran away with $300 million at the box office, out-earning even some of Disney’s “Renaissance” films in the era. Wiser still was Pixar’s part of the deal, requiring that any time Disney’s name appeared, their own did as well, and in an equally-sized logo… We explored that (and the rise of Pixar in Disney Parks) in a must-read special feature: Disney•Pixarland.

So even as Michael Eisner’s relationship with Pixar’s Steve Jobs began to buckle, the two companies signed yet another three picture deal… but this time, Jobs was ready. He argued that not only did Pixar deserve a bigger cut of the profits, but that Pixar should retain ownership of their first three films. Eisner was incensed.

A fourth Disney•Pixar release was mere months away – Finding Nemo – and Eisner began internally suggesting that the film wasn’t going to be a hit. He hadn’t liked early cuts he’d seen of the movie and believed it was bound to be Pixar’s first failure. According to the LA Times, Eisner began to suggest it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to have Nemo fail; that it would give Steve Jobs “a reality check.”

...But 2003’s Finding Nemo earned $940 million at the box office, becoming the highest grossing animated film ever. And designers knew just where to bring it to the parks…

The new millennium hadn’t been kind to The Living Seas pavilion.

Image: Disney, via RetroWDW.com

In June 1999, Epcot’s sponsorship woes struck yet again, and United Technologies was out. In 2001, Epcot decommissioned one of the two pre-show theaters leading into the attraction, essentially turning the vacant theater into a pass-through so that returning guests need not wait through the film showing and instead could proceed directly to the Hydrolators. In October of that year, the “Caribbean Coral Reef Ride” in Omnimover “SeaCabs” was closed and boarded up so that guests exiting the Hydrolators would simply walk past the old attraction and proceed directly into the SeaBase.

By 2003, The Living Seas was far from a bright, vibrant, anchor attraction at Epcot. Finding Nemo offered the chance to change that.

The Seas with Nemo and Friends

In December 2003 – six months after Finding Nemo’s stunning, record-breaking debut, the first wave of new changes came to Epcot’s The Living Seas in the form of simple scenic additions on the pavilion’s exterior to invite guests in (with, of course, new merchandise in the pavilion’s gift shop.)

Image: Disney / Pixar

Then, the SeaBase’s Module 1C and 1D closed entirely. They re-opened in 2004 as Turtle Talk with Crush and Bruce's Shark World playground. The former is an attraction in its own right (later exported to Disney California Adventure and Tokyo DisneySea) wherein guests are invited into an aquarium for a face-to-face encounter with Crush, the sea turtle from the film. Presented via live “digital puppetry,” Crush interacts with guests in real time, referring to them by name, asking and answering questions about the turtle world, and more.

Needless to say, Turtle Talk made a major impression on the Living Seas’ popularity. On August 21, 2005, The Living Seas pavilion closed to the public. Parts of the pavilion would re-open as available over the course of the next year, but behind ever-rotating construction walls, a rebirth was taking place.

Image: Josh Hallett, Flickr (license)

On October 19, 2005, it re-opened, officially named The Seas with Nemo and Friends.

The beloved Hydrolators were sunk, replaced by an extended queue (leading guests from a beach to under a pier to underwater, so essentially doing the job of the Hydrolators without having to operate and maintain them... a budgetary win).

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney

The third Hydrolator’s space was used to build out the pavilion’s existing Omnimover attraction. The simple Caribbean Reef Ride was extended with 280 feet of new track (nearly doubling the circuit), creating a more substantial, five minute “dark ride” with nine show scenes to usher guests into the attraction's Seabase.

Image: Disney / Pixar

The high-capacity Omnimovers were rethemed from SeaCabs to Clamobiles, and cutting edge technology allowed the animated characters from Nemo to not just populate the reef around the ride, but to appear to swim with real fish in the ride’s finale. At the very least, Nemo and Friends' expansion of the pavilion's Omnimover into a more full-fledged dark ride is a welcome swap, even if it's not quite the caliber of the dark ride originally planned for the Seas.

By 2007, Turtle Talk had become popular enough to move out of Module 1C and into the larger Module 1A, where some reconfigured walls allowed the old pre-show theater to become extended queue space for the popular Crush encounter.

Cartoon takeover

Image: Joe Shlabotnik, Flickr (license)

Though Nemo wasn’t the first Disney character to show up in Future World (that would be Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba in The Land’s retired “Circle of Life” film), the Seas with Nemo and Friends was certainly the biggest takeover of a pavilion we’ve seen yet (though Guardians of the Galaxy will top it).

As with any addition, subtraction, or change to Epcot, Nemo’s presence will probably be debated for the rest of time. For our part, we continue to rally for an “all-or-nothing” strategy for Future World.

Image: Disney

After all, it was interconnectedness of EPCOT Center’s pavilions – their unification; how they could each look and feel so different, yet act as pieces of a larger puzzle – that was so thoughtful and spectacular back in 1982 and beyond. 

So if Nemo is going to be in The Living Seas, why shouldn’t the Imagination pavilion be a trip through the subconscious starring the cast of Inside Out? TRON in Test Track? Big Hero 6 in Innoventions? Wall-e in Mission: SPACE? If a cartoon clownfish can represent the seas, why can’t Pocahontas reign over The Land? And for that matter, why couldn't the Guardians of the Galaxy teach us about energy (if, indeed, the new Marvel pavilion will be about energy at all). At least then, the pavilions would be reunited, with each having a "host" character threaded through the pavilion's attractions while retaining their commitment to their areas of study.

Image: Disney

Of course, much preferable to some Disney Parks fans would be just the opposite – the complete and unified removal of Disney characters from Epcot’s pavilions, replacing them with original stories, settings, and intellectual attractions. And couldn’t the Energy pavilion be a blacklight, LPS dark ride alongside original comic character “Energy Heroes” saving us from the powers of the notorious Blackout by exploring alternative energy sources? Couldn’t Imagination feature Dreamfinder and Figment again, as in the Lost Legend: Journey into Imagination? The Land pavilion have an original story or character to unite its attractions?

Image: COSI / Roto Entertainment

We often draw the parallel to COSI, the cutting-edge science center that follows Epcot’s lead (divided into exhibitions themed as immersive realms called Ocean, Space, Progress, Gadgets, Life, Energy)… COSI's Ocean exhibition, for example, is made of two parts – a deep-sea base, and a Temple of Poseidon, exploring the realities of ocean research and the stories we tell about the seas, respectively. Now that’s out-Disney-ing Disney… and at a science museum in the Midwest!

SeaBase: Nemo?

Image: Disney

Ultimately, The Seas with Nemo and Friends did give new life to the Living Seas pavilion, albeit by weakening or removing some of the pavilion’s more signature elements, like its dramatic (and very EPCOT Center-style) pre-show, the memorable Hydrolators, and that famous Epcot sense of optimistic futurism.

In so doing, it also created an odd juxtaposition of style and substance. Despite Nemo’s fanciful, glowing characters, a new dark ride through a cartoon reef, and painting the pavilion's interior in teals with orange accents, the bulk of the attraction is still a clearly-‘80s-designed industrial Sea Base…

Image: Disney

...Not exactly the kind of locale you’d expect Nemo and friends to visit. It's that same issue that some say plagues Epcot's pavilions' exteriors as well – no amount of paint can disguise the dated style of what '80s designers expected the future to look like. And even if the Seas were properly redressed to replace the ‘80s sea base with Finding Dory’s more modern Marine Life Institute, it stands to reason that the billion-dollar-earning 2016 sequel is the tale of Dory’s escape from such an aquarium…

Image: Disney / Pixar

It’s interesting. The Living Seas was – in some ways – Disney’s answer to SeaWorld. And yet, it hasn’t earned one one-hundredth of the controversy. Perhaps it’s for the best. After all, Nemo or not, Epcot’s Seas pavilion remains one of the closet we can find to the original spirit of Epcot: to entertain, inform, inspire and above all, instill a new sense of belief and pride in man's ability to shape a world that offers hope to people everywhere.

In the mood for another story? Make the jump to our Legends Library to set course for another closed classic attraction, or to explore the in-depth histories of Disney’s best (and worst) attractions from around the globe. Or, make a quick connection to another of Epcot’s Lost Legends: Kitchen Kabaret, Soarin’, Journey into Imagination, Captain EO, World of Motion, TEST TRACK, Body Wars, Universe of Energy, Horizons, and Maelstrom.

Image: Disney

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