Like most Disney attractions, the Seas pavilion went through a number of changes between the initial concept and the final design that actually got built. One feature remained constant, though, from the early concepts:
. . . to the final ones:
The aquarium. From the beginning, it was the Seas’ central attraction. But EPCOT is a Disney park, so visitors would have been pretty disappointed if the Seas was just an aquarium. Something else was needed to draw them in.
In the early concepts, visitors were transported to the aquarium viewing area via an immersive dark ride hosted by Poseidon, God of the Sea. By the time the pavilion actually opened in 1986, it had been scaled down to a short Hydrolator trip and a three-minute Seacab ride. Jim Hill says this was because corporate sponsor United Technologies was too cheap to fund the original concept, while Martin Smith’s Living Seas Ultimate Tribute video implies that WED decided on their own that the Poseidon-hosted dark ride was too fanciful and opted for the more academic tone.
The Living Seas, with its preshow film/Hydrolator/Seacab ride combination, did a good job of drawing in visitors, at least until the departure of its corporate sponsor. Forced to fund the pavilion’s operation on their own, Disney went into aggressive cost-cutting mode. The Seacab ride was deactivated and walled off, the Seabase began to take on a dingy look as routine maintenance was scaled back, and visitors began to stay away from the pavilion. People began to grimly refer to it as “The Dead Seas”. Fans began to wonder if the Seas would suffer the same fate as the Wonders of Life.
You know what happened, of course. Disney pumped some money into the pavilion, and in 2007 it reopened as The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Was any attempt made to make the pavilion’s new theme fit in with the rest of Future World? No. Does the ride-thru attraction have any point other than to say “Hey kids, here’s Nemo!” and rehash the plot of the movie? Again, no. However, after making multiple trips to EPCOT last year, I have to admit that the Nemo rehab, ill-conceived though it was, has succeeded in one important area: drawing people back to the Seabase.
Even when the pavilion was The Living Seas, the main attraction wasn’t the Hydrolators, or the Seacab ride, or the preshow film featuring that female narrator with the amazing voice. It was the marine life inside the aquarium. But there really isn’t any point to it being there if no one is compelled to come look at it. During the handful of trips I’ve made since the Great Nemo Rehab of 2007, the Seabase has always been packed with excited families, even on days when the ride-thru attraction was a walk-on. And the families weren’t all crowded into the waiting area for Turtle Talk, either; every window into the aquarium was lined with kids staring into the water with amazement. I heard far more cries of delight at the antics of the dolphins than I did on the ride when Nemo and his friends appeared. Without exception, every kid I saw was much more excited to see a real shark prowling the reef than they were to see Animatronic Bruce and his artificial cohorts. And that’s why I have to admit that The Seas with Nemo and Friends is ultimately a success.
From its initial concept to the finished product, the purpose of EPCOT’s Seas pavilion was always to inform and educate people of all ages about the incredible array of life beneath the ocean’s surface. And when I see the Seabase area full of kids eager to look at and learn about the marine life in that massive aquarium, I’m forced to admit it’s accomplishing that purpose. Maybe it’s not going about it in quite the way I would prefer, and maybe if Disney had stuck with the original concept and built the pavilion with a big and elaborate dark ride I wouldn’t even need to write this. But love him or hate him, at least Nemo and his Computer-Generated friends are getting kids excited about a piece of the real world (specifically, the piece that comprises 70% of the globe). Maybe it’s only an unintended benefit of a rehab that Disney did primarily to sell more Nemo merchandise. But it’s proof that the spirit of EPCOT Center is still finding ways to shine through.