Remembering the Magic: The Seas with Nemo & Friends

by Jonathan Heigl, contributing writer

Our trip back in time this month looks at The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion in Future World at Epcot. There is a short history, but a much loved one.

We start by exploring the pavilion's previous incarnation and work our way up to present day. If you're ready, let's dive into the story of this much loved pavilion!

The Living Seas (January 15, 1986 – August 21, 2005)

"We welcome you to The Living Seas. We welcome you to Sea Base Alpha." This is one of the most popular and beloved lines to a lot of fans of this pavilion.

Originally sponsored by United Technologies from the pavilion's opening through 1998, the pavilion featured the largest saltwater tank in the world. It was 203 feet in diameter and 27 feet deep, and held 5.7 million gallons of water. It held that title until 2005, when the Georgia Aquarium opened . This pavilion opened when Future World in, then, Epcot Center, had more of a focus toward science and education. The premise of this pavilion was to educate guests on the life in the seas and how the seas formed.

Upon walking in to the pavilion, guests were shown "The Seas," a film that was about seven minutes long and which was a brief history of how Earth went from a volcanic planet to a planet vastly covered by water. Fans of this pavilion will always remember the voice of the female narrator as she says. "And it rained... and rained…. and rained... the deluge!" This line has become another beloved line by fans of The Living Seas.

After the film, guests were then sent to the hydrolators, which were "elevators that took guests down to Sea Base Alpha." Guests would gather into a small room about the size of a large elevator, and screens the size of the walls would surround the hydrolators and show the water and rock walls moving up as the floors of the hydrolators would rumble, simulating the effect of traveling downwards. The hydrolators did not actually go anywhere, but the effects made it feel like it did. Both inside and outside the hydrolators, there was also a "level display" to further dramatize the effect of being transported to under the sea, as it would highlight the level the guests were on, similar to the way an elevator shows the floor, but this was a diagram that would light up based on the level the guests were passing.

Once the hydrolators "arrived" to Sea Base Alpha level, you would exit through another set of doors on the opposite side of the hydrolator into a queue for the "Sea Cabs to Sea Base Alpha," which was an Omnimover ride system that took guests around and through the tanks. This ride was not very long—only about 3 and a half minutes. When the Sea Cabs arrived at Sea Base Alpha, riders disembarked and could walk around to the different exhibits that were in the pavilion.

There were two levels to Sea Base Alpha. On the first level were six exhibits, which were:

  • A 24-foot-long tank to show how waves are formed and how they affect the ocean floor (this would be removed in 1999).
  • The Diver Lockout Chamber, where every 30 minutes, a diver would enter or exit the main tank via this chamber (this was also closed in 1999, but later reopened in 2001, only to be closed again in the future).
  • Module 1A – Ocean Ecosystems, which had various tanks and contained a Pacific coast kelp forest, Pacific coast coral lagoon (which was a 3,000 gallon tank containing star fish, sea anemones, hermit crabs and small fish), predator tank containing barracuda, grouper, and moray eels, and a few other free standing tanks.
  • Module 1B – Marine Mammal Research Center, an underwater viewing area for the manatees that were in the pavilion.
  • Module 1C – Earth Systems, which contained "What on Earth?" a map to show underwater volcanoes, faults, and more when the corresponding buttons were pushed. The exhibit also had "An Animated Atlas of the World," a six-and-a-half-minute animated video of the world, and other minor fun, interactive activities.
  • Module 1D – Undersea Exploration, which included Jason, an Audio-Animatronic version of the real Jason, which was a robot that explored the ocean in some of its greatest depths. It also included a JIM suit, which looked similar to a space suit but more metal and bulge, used for deep sea diving. There were two more suit, but were cut out so you could interact with them and try to maneuver them using the various levers, wheels, and so on.

On Level 2, there were three exhibits:

  • TheObservation Deck, which allowed for viewing of the main tank.
  • Module 2A – Ocean Resources Sea Lab, which also included the Pacific coast kelp forest (this display spanned both levels), and a mariculture lab which would show techniques for aqua farming, where a marine biologist was usually available to answer questions.
  • Module 2B – Marine Mammals, an area where you could view the manatees from above, and where a marine mammal specialist would answer any questions.

In order for guests to exit Sea Base Alpha, they needed to go to the exit hydrolators and return to Epcot Center. These hydrolators did not have the windows on the side, but instead, a "glass ceiling" that projected an underwater view that got brighter as it reached the "surface." Again, these hydrolators did not actually move.

United Technologies dropped its sponsorship of the pavilion in 1998. During this year and through 1999, all signage referencing United Technologies was removed, as well as all other mentions, such as voice narrations. One of the two preshow theaters was removed and instead, was made into a direct path to the hydrolators if Guests didn't want to view the preshow. In October 2001, the Sea Cabs were then shut down and a wall was installed in front of the loading and unloading zones. Guests leaving the hydrolators would just walk down a corridor to Sea Base Alpha. The Sea Cabs could still be seen through the tanks.

[Read an original newspaper article from the Lakeland Ledger, published on January 17, 1986, about the opening of The Living Seas Pavilion. I find these historical news articles fascinating and will try to include them with subsequent articles, if available.]

"The Dead Seas" (1999 – 2006) – Unofficial Name

This pavilion was starting to become a sad shell of its former self and needed some fresh ideas in the minds of Disney Executives. The pavilion earned the nickname "The Dead Seas" by fans of the pavilion because when United Technologies dropped their sponsorship, the pavilion seemed forgotten. In December 2003, Disney began retheming the pavilion based on the hit movie Finding Nemo. The retheming began on the outside of the pavilion mostly, but in January 2004, they began work on the interior of the pavilion, little by little. After almost a year of work, Turtle Talk with Crush opened on November 16, 2004. This replaced the Module 1C – Earth Systems exhibit. Due to the success of Turtle Talk with Crush, Disney had to plan to move it to a larger space in the pavilion. Bruce the Shark's play area was also added during this time, replacing Module 1D – Undersea Exploration.

The Seas with Nemo & Friends (October 10, 2006 – Present)

By this time, Disney clearly wanted to change the direction and overall theme of the entire pavilion to capitalize on their hit movie, Finding Nemo. The pavilion had been abandoned by its original sponsor for quite some time at this point, needing a lot of attention and rejuvenation. Now was the time to reinvent the pavilion and bring the crowds back to it with excitement and interest.

The outside of the pavilion was mostly rethemed at this point, and on August 21, 2005, the pavilion was closed fully for the full renovation to "The Seas with Nemo & Friends." During this time, the hydrolators that had previously taken guests "back to the surface" were removed with the glass doors that are there at the exit of the pavilion (gift shop area) today; they also served as the temporary entrance when the pavilion partially reopened. The preshow area was being torn down and rebuilt, old signage was removed and replaced, and Sea Base Alpha was being rethemed to the Finding Nemo look and feel (like it is today). Three seagulls were added to the exterior rock formation and occasionally can be heard saying "Mine, Mine, Mine", which is funny for kids, annoying to some adults!

In November 2005, the old Sea Base Alpha part of the pavilion reopened (as well as the gift shop and exit areas, which also served, as previously mentioned, as the temporary entrance). Throughout most of 2006, construction walls were in place in the rest of the pavilion as the preshow area, and the Sea Cabs, were being transformed into essentially what it is today. The winding queue area at the main entrance, where it appears as if you are walking on a sand path on a beach replaced the previous queue and the remaining preshow theater, most of the main hydrolators, and holding area were all converted to the under the ocean area currently there today. The Sea Cabs were also becoming Clamobiles to better fit the theme (the Sea Cabs faced forward like most Omnimovers such as Spaceship Earth, whereas the clammobiles face sideways.

Hydrolator 3 and Theater 1, as they were known, were now transformed into dark sets for the ride. About 280 feet of new track was added to the original track to accommodate for scenes and set designs. The new version of the ride did not feature the tanks and marine life like it previously did. In fact, you do not see the tanks or marine life at all until you reach the end of the ride. One of the more fascinating and awe-inspiring parts of the entire pavilion is the addition of the new projector system at the end of the ride, where Nemo and his friends/family are projected to be in the tank with the real, live fish.

Of course, Turtle Talk with Crush was and is still in the pavilion, as well as Bruce's Play Area. The manatee area is still present, and the smaller aquariums are still in the former Sea Base Alpha, however, they are now updated to include more Clown Fish and Blue Tang to match the Nemo characters.

On October 10, 2006, the pavilion reopened in full. The temporary entrance was removed from the exit, and guests could enjoy the full rethemed pavilion. Much to the delight of many fans of the pavilion, it had finally received the attention it badly needed. However, it lost most, if not all, of the pavilion's original message and purpose, much to the dismay of the pavilion's fans. It was bittersweet as an era had officially ended, and the Disneyfication of the refurbished attractions across "The World" was becoming apparent.

Some other notable mentions, but not the main focus of these articles, are the "other things to do" in the pavilion. The Coral Reef restaurant has been around since the beginning of the pavilion. The restaurant is built next to the tank, so the diners can view the marine life and divers in the tank! Guests can also dive in the tank with an additional cost (and proper certification) called DiveQuest or if they do not have scuba certification, can participate in the Seas Aqua Tour, which is a surface swim with an assisted snorkel system. There is also a Dolphins in Depth experience, which allows Guests to interact with the dolphins in waist deep water. All of these experiences are an additional charge. As a side note, as someone who is scuba certified and has done DiveQuest three times (and will do it many times more), it is something I highly recommend.

My verdict – revert, update, leave alone, or re-imagine?

Those who have read all of my articles to this point might have an idea that I would like to revert this pavilion to it's previous form. I definitely would consider myself one of the aforementioned "fans of the pavilion" in its original state. I was very sad to see the attendance at the former pavilion dwindle, and was deeply saddened at the state it became after losing sponsorship. I have always loved the scientific and educational focus of the Epcot that was, or Epcot Center. I realize there always needs to be new and exciting things to bring in the crowds, but I just think the new version of the pavilion is totally missing the intention of the pavilion.

The ride itself has essentially covered the view of the tanks during its duration, and there really are not that many experts there to ask questions about the marine life in the tanks, not to mention the dramatically lower count of marine life in the tanks as well. Of course the new technologies in Turtle Talk with Crush, and even in the projections of Nemo and Friends into the tank at the end of the ride are truly amazing and cutting edge, and those additions on their own would have enhanced the pavilion in its old form, but I think the Disneyfication of this pavilion is just a little too much and I do not think it captures the spirit of Epcot.

Honestly, I thought Epcot in its Epcot Center form was a perfect fit in "The World", just as Disney's Hollywood Studios is a perfect contrast as it's own park. Each park has its focus and idea, and I think The Seas with Nemo & Friends would have been better placed in the Magic Kingdom where most other Disneyfied attractions can be found. I believe this should have been left an educational, science focused pavilion.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to discuss with me and others! I'd love to hear your opinions on the article and YOUR verdict!


  1. By Jeff Kober


    Thanks for sharing this article. If I were to do a Yes…and I would include say that your coverage is really only about the SeaBase Alpha experience. There really is so much more to The Living Seas:

    1. Education has and always will be a part of the Epcot experience. While it has been less a focus with the Nemo overlay, it has continued for years as part of its youth education programming. Scores of thousands of children have visited special classes at The Living Seas. There is a classroom there out of site of the guests, and there is often some kind of educational programming going on.

    2. During the "Dead Seas" years, Disney did go more out of the box in identifying special tours and experiences. I helped pilot the Disney's Dolphins in Depth--a predecessor, and a more educational experience than the later Discovery Cove at Sea World. Epcot Dive Quest and Epcot Sea Aqua Tour are also available. All three allow you to get in the water and experience some amazing creatures. Having done snorkeling experiences off the shores in Hawaii and Florida, this may seem somewhat artificial, but you will never see as many creatures as you do at The Living Seas. Plus you have some really great educational insights and guidance as part of your experience.

    3. By no means would I consider the Coral Reef restaurant educational, but it is a fantastic dining experience, and by no means has ever been "dead". It remains today one of the most popular dining experiences in all of Epcot.

    4. Upstairs above the Coral Reef is the former sponsor lounge of United Technologies. One of the best things about United Technologies is that it has freed up that space to doing so many fantastic things. There is a great event space looking into the tanks. There is also a board room that rivals anyone's in the country, and a classroom. I was one of the first to use that space by bringing Disney Institute programs into that venue. It gave us an opportunity to do educational things that weaved business concepts and marine life activities together.

    5. Behind the scenes is a team of people that have always been dedicated to not only the Living Seas experience but to marine conservation in general. Manatee rehabilitation is just one of those efforts, there are others. Also, these folks are major contributors in their various fields.

    6. Finally…did you know that from the Living Seas, the team also monitors Sharks reef at Typhoon Lagoon, the koi fish in Japan, and support the habitats in Castaway Cay and Aulani. There's a lot more to what the team at Living Seas does than just manage a big tank.

    No doubt that Nemo and Friends has been a huge plus for revitalizing the patronage of day guests into The Living Seas. But know that the Living Seas has never really been dead, nor will it be any time soon. The company remains committed to the work done at the Living Seas and will be for some time.

  2. By DisneyGator

    My first trip to WDW was in 2002, so I was abe to catch The Living Seas film and experience before it switched to its current version. I can honestly say that I like the new version and by far. The film was really only worth watching once. After that, it was just a large aquarium where you could walk around and see a lot of fish. To me, I found it very ordinary. Perhaps when it originally opened and other such aquariums didn't exist like they do now all over the country, it seemed very cool - especially with the theme of being "under water". Had I hit this park in the 80s, I probably would've loved it. As it was, I hit it in the new century and found it lacking.

    Then they added the Nemo and Friends overlay, which happened to coincide with the birth of my first child. When we went to Epcot in 06 with her and a 1yo, she loved it and so did we! And each child that has come has been taken on this attraction of clammobiles. I like the feel of it, I like that you come out with a Nemo play area, and we all love Turtle Talk. It has turned an attraction that may have been skipped every other trip into an area that we hit every time we enter Epcot. I'm glad they made the change.

  3. By mkelm44

    Behind the keep it/return it question is a deeper question that concerns all of the parks at Disney World. As Jeff pointed out, Education was always a focus at Epcot- whether it was about our planet or the nations that make it up. However, I always felt as originally designed that EPCOT (and I use the fully capitalized acronym deliberately) was always too big on education and too little on entertainment, which made it interesting for adults, but deadly dull for children, since much of the park was look but don't interact. To a lesser extent, Animal Kingdom has faced this problem too, but since it is a younger park, it has learned the lessons of EPCOT.

    To correct the problem, we've seen rides that are far more thrilling than you had before- Mission Space, Test Track and Soarin are far more exciting than anything that happened before. These more thrill rides can help make the park more palatable for kids and act as "hooks" to interest children in the overriding message of the pavilions. At Living Seas, if Nemo, Crush and Bruce can help children become more interested in the importance of the planets water and the conservation and preservation thereof, then the more educational parts will hit them better. Kids that think the Crush was funny and thought the manatees were cool may continue their interest in the seas and as they grow, develop more of an attachment and understanding to it, and perhaps later give back in significant and conceivable ways.

    Disney has long been a leader in what is now known as edutainment (actually it was Disney that coined the phrase in 1948 with it's True Life Adventures series) and has recently recomitted to that with the Disney Nature series. To me, the new Living Seas represents the current trend in edutainment- education through discovery and interaction. For that reason, I prefer to leave the pavilion the way it is now as compared to the way it was before.

  4. By davidgra

    While I'm no fan of many of the "updates" that have been made at Epcot, I'm not particularly upset by the transformation of The Living Seas to The Seas with Nemo and Friends. The problem with the original pavilion was one of repeatability -- this was a pavilion that didn't stand up to multiple visits very well. The pre-show film and hydrolator experience were interesting the first couple of times you did it, but they just got to be long, boring waits after our first few times in the pavilion.

    In its later years, we found ourselves bypassing The Living Seas more and more, and when we did visit, we'd always go in through the exit, because you could just wait for the hydrolator doors to open on the outside, step in, and pretty much immediately go into the pavilion. With no Sea Cabs, there just wasn't reason enough to wait through the whole entry process. But, even after gaining entrance, the experience inside the pavilion was never exciting.

    On the other hand, we visit The Seas with Nemo and Friends every time we're in Epcot. The dark ride and Turtle Talk are both charming. So, this is pretty much an "update" at Epcot that we enjoy more than the original.

  5. By jheigl

    Thanks for the replies everyone! I appreciate reading everyone's responses. Did anyone read the article from the Lakeland Ledger? If so, do you like that being included with the article or is that something you don't think is necessary?


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