The walkway is dim and cool, decorated in deep blues and greens. Beneath your fingers, dark wood railings serpentine in smooth curves, describing a gently upward-sloping ramp winding between brightly lit display cases showcasing historical diving apparatus and dreams of the sea like a miniature model of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Whale song echoes softly in the air, punctuating the notes of a “pipe” – the sailor’s flute.
At the top of the ramp, you are ushered into a dim theater where a film explains in dramatic imagery scientific theory about how the earth’s unique and amazing oceans came into being. Your vision is filled with cascading water, strange worms gathered around undersea vents that are toxic to most life, and humans braving the strange, harsh conditions of the final frontier here on earth – the oceans.
Then, at long last, you are allowed to visit the logical outcome of the history of sea exploration and scientific knowledge, the latest attempt of mankind to understand, conserve, and live in harmony with the powerful oceans of our planet. Moving past lighted, bubbling pools of water, you step into the hydrolator – the surface-to-underwater tube that takes guests to visit this new glimpse of the wonders of the ocean.
The doors close behind you, and the hum of the hydrolator engines fills the cramped space. The hydrolator car vibrates as it dives toward the ocean floor. Narrow glass windows show you the layers of rock through which the shaft passes, shooting upward as you plummet deeper, bubbles rippling upward toward the surface above.
And at long last, the hydrolator doors slide open, depositing you in a loading area where you will board a SeaCab, a moving transport that will take you from the stone-encased hydrolator shafts to the sea floor base. As you ride, you are greeted by the commander of the sea base, welcoming you even as you glimpse the amazing sights of the ocean around you and gawk, open mouthed, as you slide through a glass tube, showcasing the wonders that researchers at the sea base see every day.
Then, finally, as the transport deposits you on a moving sidewalk, you emerge into a bustling research station. Staff in scuba gear feed and train sea life in the ocean outside the windows; others research breeding and behavior of the ocean’s creatures. A diver swims down through the two-story high lockout chamber leading to the ocean to share what undersea research is like with a crowd of waiting guests, and across the main concourse, deep sea exploration diving suits and submersibles are displayed in hope of attracting youngsters to aspire to come to a place like this in order to better understand how to care for our planet and its oceans.
Welcome. To Sea Base Alpha.
That was the experience that greeted Epcot guests from 1986 to 2006. The Living Seas pavilion, filling the space furthest to the front of the park on the “ecology” side of the park where man’s interaction with the world outside and inside was explored (the other side of Spaceship Earth focused more strongly on “technology”). Planned in the original design for the park, the Living Seas was part of Phase II of Epcot, opening in 1986. The pavilion focused on the wonder of the oceans, starting with a tide pool outside the doors that allowed guests to touch and hold starfish, sea urchin, and other tide pool denizens.
Originally planned as a far grander enterprise, the 1982 Epcot guidebook describes the attraction as starting in “a cavelike area” where a storm would blow up, introducing “Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea,” who would “be the narrator for the rest of the journey to the Coral Reef.”
It didn’t quite work out that way.
The remarkable central tank of the pavilion, however, remains a wonder of design. When the Living Seas opened, it was the largest manmade ocean environment on the planet at 203 feet in diameter and 27 feet deep, holding 5.7 million gallons of water. Massive pumps circulate the water, recycling all of it every 160 minutes at 35,000 gallons a minute. Every one of the windows through which guests peer into the underwater world weighs 9,000 lbs and is 24 feet high.
But most people don’t think about that….they just see the flash of giant schools of fish, coo over the slow grace of the sea turtles, or watch the casual cruise of a shark.
In 2006, the original Sea Base Alpha theme was dropped in a major renovation intended to update the pavilion and make it more “hip” and accessible to a new generation of guests. Disney added a tie-in to its Pixar hit Finding Nemo, with the SeaCabs replaced by shell-backed “clambuggies” that carried guests through a variation of the Nemo story into the main tank area.
The new attraction found approval with audiences who recognized and embraced the connections with the familiar Pixar theme, and the tie-in allowed Disney to introduce the innovative and popular “Turtle Talk with Crush” which brought ground-breaking interactivity between an on-screen computer animated character and live audience members. The show still remains popular years after its introduction, filling with children eager to talk with Crush the turtle and adults eager to see the utter belief on the faces of the children talking to the animated character.
Although the Nemo theme is delightful and the queue is a true feat of imagineering, creating the illusion of delving deeper under the ocean into the realm of Nemo with each turn of the line, the retrofit leaves the theme of the original attraction behind in favor of pop culture appeal. Making that appeal may be a wonderful choice, but it definitely removes The Seas with Nemo and Friends from any strong connection with scientific endeavor trying to further man’s dream of understanding and living in harmony with the oceans.
I enjoy today’s Living Seas, but I admittedly usually slip into the main aquarium through the gift shop area rather than riding the Nemo attraction. For me, the charming ride lacks the thrill of imagination and excitement that the hydrolators (which actually only descended a few inches rather than plunging to the sea floor) brought. I miss being asked to believe, even if just for a moment, that there was this wonderful place of harmony and education called Sea Base Alpha. I miss the pretend of divers coming in through the “lockout chamber” from the ocean (a chamber that didn’t actually lead anywhere) and sharing their experiences. I love the charm of Nemo, but I miss being a participant in this wonderful dream of a future that might be.
What do you remember from Sea Base Alpha? Do you miss anything about the old attraction, or are you grateful for the fun of the Nemo update?