In 1981 visitors to Florida’s Magic Kingdom could stop by the EPCOT Center Preview Center on Main Street and get a preview of the new park by watching the 15-minute film “The Dream Called EPCOT”. For many people, that film was the first they ever heard of The Living Seas. Interestingly, although it described a Living Seas experience that was pretty much exactly what we got, other EPCOT promotional literature promised a much more elaborate adventure that was rooted in earlier concepts for the pavilion.
One of the earliest renderings of the Seas’ aquarium is this one:
It’s certainly a pretty picture, but it’s also a rather fanciful concept that would have been impossible to build with late-1970s technology and would likely prove daunting to 21st century engineers, as well.
A much more reasonable version of the Seas pavilion could be seen in WED’s EPCOT Center concept model from 1978:
Positioned in the Future World West plot now occupied by The Land, this version of the pavilion featured a rocky-looking exterior with a cavelike main entrance and a glass-roofed aquarium. This would seem to be an exterior view of this cutaway model seen in Richard Beard’s EPCOT Center book:
It was this version of the Seas pavilion that formed the basis for most official descriptions of the attraction contained therein. And since The Living Seas didn’t open until 1986, these descriptions hung out there for four years after EPCOT Center’s 1982 opening. In the process, they served to set a lot of incorrect expectations for what a visit to The Living Seas would be like.
Originally, The Seas was supposed to consist of three main experiences:
- A preshow hosted by Poseidon or perhaps Neptune, which led to:
- A dark ride in bubble-shaped Omnimovers through a number of set pieces and Animatronics depicting scenes of undersea wonder and peril, culminating in:
- The ride vehicles cruising into the pavilion’s massive aquarium through a clear tube leading to an observation area, where visitors would disembark to observe the aquarium and perhaps view educational exhibits.
And although the location and exterior configuration of the Seas changed several times, that basic attraction layout persisted. Another draft of EPCOT Center, likely dating from 1979, shows the Seas pavilion in the Future World East plot that Horizons would eventually occupy:
In this rendering the building looks a little sleeker, and there’s now a blue dome over the aquarium.
By 1980 the Seas had been moved to its final location in Future World’s northwest corner. And it had received another facelift:
This version of the Seas pavilion had a less organic appearance, and this time the aquarium was covered with a multifaceted golden dome, much like the one that later became Wonders of Life’s defining visual feature.
Giving the aquarium a transparent or semi-transparent roof was certainly visually attractive, but I wonder how practical it would have been. For one thing, it likely would have made it more difficult to control the water temperature. That’s critical because live coral can’t handle much temperature variation. And imagine the noise when the torrential downpour from a tropical storm or Florida afternoon thunderstorm struck that roof!
Finally, the EPCOT Center concept painting from 1981 shows what many people believe to be the final version of The Living Seas pavilion:
But is it? Let’s compare this painting of the pavilion to an aerial photo:
Notice how the northeast corner of the pavilion in the painting contains an angular extension that’s missing from the pavilion as constructed? Why is that? Well, according to Martin Smith’s Living Seas Ultimate Tribute video the final Seas concept to include the immersive dark ride was, on the outside, very similar to the pavilion we ended up getting. It was just a little bigger in the back to accommodate the ride. Therefore, it’s a good bet that the Living Seas pavilion we see in the 1981 painting is that version.
Of course, by the time that construction began on The Living Seas in 1984 (the year it was originally supposed to have opened) corporate sponsor United Technologies had refused to pay for the dark ride, and a scaled-down version of the pavilion was what began to take shape behind the construction wall. Nevertheless, the Coming Soon sign on the wall featured this concept painting:
I love this picture. The bubble cars, the impossibly futuristic divers’ suits, and the Honda Civic-sized mini-sub tooling about, it’s great. But it has the same problem as the first piece of concept art we looked at: it depicts a saltwater tank that’s impossibly huge. I realize that this is more a piece of artwork than a technical diagram, but wow! The aquarium in the actual pavilion was the largest ever constructed at that time, but it’s a kiddie pool compared to this! Still, the mini-sub is extremely cool (even if it is too big for the actual aquarium at the Seas) and it’s a shame it didn’t make it to the final version of the pavilion because it definitely had merchandising opportunities, as this Seabase Alpha interior rendering shows:
This next couple of concept paintings may very well date from the version of the pavilion that featured Seabase Alpha and the bubble-car dark ride. We get a glimpse of the Omnimover unload area here:
. . and a scene from the ride itself here:
These renderings belong to the family of paintings I call “Smiling People Pointing At Things”. But as I mentioned previously, despite the Concept Art People’s happy pointing corporate sponsor United Technologies decided it didn’t want to pay for this awesome ride. So the bubble cars were turned into more garden-variety Omnimovers, and the dark ride was completely scrapped. Now, the SeaCabs would just convey visitors on a short trip past some aquarium windows and into Seabase Alpha.
The attraction flow of the Seas pavilion was therefore changed. Instead of the preshow/dark ride/Seabase combination that we’d been hearing about for four years, we got a preshow/Hydrolator/SeaCab/Seabase combination.
While they didn’t make up for the loss of the dark ride, the Hydrolators were a nice touch. Aside from the interior effects that simulated movement, the Imagineers even added “overflow pools” outside the Hydrolators that bubbled up as the Hydrolators reached the “surface”, as if their upward movement was displacing the water in the submerged elevator shaft.
SeaBase Alpha was impeccably detailed:
It really felt like an undersea research station you’d see in one of the Star Trek movies from the mid-80s. In fact, if you remove just a very few of the 20th century trappings, it would have served as an ideal filming locale for an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m told that seaQuest DSV actually did film there, but I never watched seaQuest. In fact, the only thing I remember about it was that there was a talking dolphin and that kid from the ridiculous movie that gave birth to the Chuck Norris Facts meme.
The thing that doomed the Seas, in the end, was the modularity of its experiences. I’ll explain: the pavilion only worked if you experienced everything: the preshow film, the Hydrolators, the SeaCabs, and the Seabase. Each individual experience wasn’t terribly immersive, but they all added up to an experience that was nearly as immersive as the proposed dark ride would have been. But when United Technologies failed to renew their sponsorship, the Eisner-Pressler cost-cutting machine swung into operation and walled off the Seacabs. Because of the way the ride was designed, the unload area was just a scant few yards away from the load area, so it was nothing to simply block the whole thing off and funnel everyone from the Hydrolators directly into the Seabase. You could never do something like that to Spaceship Earth; the design of the building just won’t permit it. Just like that, a key piece of The Living Seas experience was gone, and the pavilion now felt incomplete. People began to stay away, maintenance cut back, and the pavilion gained the derisive nickname “The Dead Seas”. Eventually, The Living Seas was shuttered and slated for Pixarification.
I’ve always tried to maintain a balanced view of The Seas With Nemo And His Computer-Generated Friends. After all, since its facelift the Seabase area is absolutely teeming with little kids who are genuinely excited and curious about the marine life swimming around in the tank. However, the pavilion still suffers from United Technologies’ decision not to fund the elaborate dark ride. How? Well, thanks to the pavilion’s modularity (there’s that word again!) the Seacab ride was never demolished, just walled off. So when the Seas got its Nemo refurbishment, the Imagineers took the logical route and simply built a ride around the existing (very short) ride track. The preshow theaters and Hydrolators were ripped out and replaced with . . . an elaborately themed queue. And while it’s really nice-looking, you have to work a lot harder to suspend your disbelief and convince yourself that you’re “really” going beneath the sea.
If, back in the early ‘80s, United Technologies hadn’t been so stingy, we might still have The Seas With Nemo and Friends. But it would be a much more immersive and transportative experience than what we have today because the longer dark ride would still be there.
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this exhaustive, long, and rambling look at The Living Seas. If you did, then you absolutely must check out Martin Smith’s Ultimate Tribute To The Living Seas, which was where I got the majority of my information for this post. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Progress City, USA’s (and D23’s) Michael Crawford for helping me get some of my facts straight.