Many people are quite critical of the direction that EPCOT has taken since the lower-casing of the place in 1994. I generally agree, but not all of the changes made since EPCOT Center became Just Epcot have been negative. In this new Honest Look series, I'll be taking a look at the Future World attractions whose latest incarnations are either markedly better or at least no worse than the originals. First up is The Living Seas.
Although EPCOT Center was nearly three-and-a-half years old by the time The Living Seas opened in January 1986, the pavilion was always part of the park's original plan. The 1982 book Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow painted a picture of the as-yet-unbuilt pavilion that was based on WED's bold, exciting initial concept for the attraction. Anyone who pored over that book, as I did at age 7, then experienced the version of the attraction that opened in 1986 must have been disappointed.
The WED Imagineers' original concept had guests being greeted by a giant Audio-Animatronic Posiedon, God of the Sea, who would pull back a curtain of water to reveal the loading area for the ride portion of the attraction. The guests would then board clear plastic bubbles and be taken on a 10-minute ride through re-creations of some of the ocean's wonders, exiting at SeaBase Alpha. In the original concept, however, SeaBase Alpha would actually be located inside the aquarium, giving guests the feeling of really being deep beneath the ocean.
Sadly, the pavilion's sponsor United Technologies was run by the same breed of visionless, pointy-haired MBAs who voted to give Journey Into Imagination the New Coke treatment just to save money. And there was no way they were footing the bill for such an ambitious and expensive project. The attraction that got built, of course, boasted the largest man-made underwater environment in the world at the time, and it initially attracted huge crowds. I remember the first time I visited The Living Seas in late 1986; the line stretched out the front of the pavilion to the monorail track and this was late in the evening after the sun had set. When I next visited in the summer of 1989, the large crowds had disappeared. The line was short and moved quickly. The old Living Seas was perfectly servicable, it just had none of the "zazz" of WED's original concept. More than anything else, it was like a public aquarium you might visit in some place like Chicago. It lacked the old-school Disney charm of Horizons or Journey Into Imagination.
In the original version of The Living Seas, guests watched a short film on the formation of Earth's oceans, then boarded "Hydrolators" that supposedly took them down under the sea to a boarding area where they took a short ride to SeaBase Alpha via Omnimover vehicles called Seacabs. During the ride, you were treated to various views of the coral reef in the aquarium, and upon arrival at SeaBase Alpha you could view all kinds of educational exhibits. In 1998, United Technologies ended their sponsorship of the pavilion, and sometime in 2001 the Seacabs portion of the attraction was closed and the Hydrolators exited directly into SeaBase Alpha, which basically turned the Hydrolators into a purposeless bottleneck. Whatever Disney "specialness" The Living Seas once had was gone. Guests were staying away from the pavilion, and anyone could see that it needed some kind of "fun injection".
Disney's answer was to give the whole place a Pixar makeover. In 2006 The Seas With Nemo and Friends debuted. Gone were the Hydrolators and the introductory film. The drastically enlarged queue area creates the whimsical illusion of gradual entry into Nemo's undersea world from the beach. The Seacabs have been replaced by "ClamMobiles" that move horizontally along the same track the old ride used. Along the way, Nemo and other characters from the Pixar film appear to be swimming inside the aquarium, thanks to some cutting-edge technology. The ride exits into the Seabase (or whatever it's called, now) and there's an assortment of exhibits to browse. (I can't vouch for their educational content; my wife was really cranky the day we visited and had no tolerance for me scrutinizing the exhibits) Of course, the main draw in this area is the "Turtle Talk with Crush" show that utilizes the same technology seen in Tomorrowland's Monster's Inc. Laugh Floor to enable kids to actually "interact" with Crush, who kind of reminds me of Keanu Reeves in sea turtle form. It's not one bit educational, but the kids seem to love it. I visited this new incarnation of the Seas pavilion on Labor Day weekend 2007, and I haven't seen the place as crowded since 1986. The line stretched out the door, even though the indoor queue area is so large that a first-time visitor starts to wonder if there's any room in the building for the giant aquarium they've heard about.
So, was the Nemo refurb a good thing, or did Disney give the Living Seas the Journey-Into-Imagination-New-Coke treatment? Well, unlike the hated Imagination refurb, Disney actually spent a lot of their own money on this one (the pavilion still doesn't have a sponsor), and the new version of the attraction certainly costs more to operate than before. It would have been nice to see Disney make a real effort to get kids thinking about the effects of human behavior on the oceans, maybe working in something about how Nemo and his friends are being affected by global warming (which harms coral reefs) and overfishing. Maybe there's an exhibit somewhere in the Seabase that mentions those topics, but it would have been nice to see them get more attention.
In the final analysis, The Seas with Nemo and Friends isn't worse than The Living Seas, it's just different.