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Why For did WDW wave "Buh-Bye" to Seven Seas Lagoon's Wave Machine?

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Why For did WDW wave "Buh-Bye" to Seven Seas Lagoon's Wave Machine?

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TikiTerry writes in to say:

I've really been enjoying all of these Disney World history stories that you've been sharing with JHM readers lately. So I was wondering if you could maybe talk about the Polynesian Resort's wave machine. How long did it work? Where was it located? Why did Disney shut it down?

TikiTerry -

Wow. That's a lot of questions. And - to be honest - there aren't a lot of answers out there. Mostly because the team that opened Walt Disney World was genuinely embarrassed that they'd spent $400,000 (which is $2.2 million in 2011 dollars) on a piece-of-sh ... machinery that didn't work properly. And for a while there in late 1971 / early 1972, there was concern that the wave machine might wind up costing Dick Nunis his job.

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You see, it was Dick who - in his role as vice president of operations of Disneyland and then-just-beginning-construction Walt Disney World Resort - who had pushed & pushed hard that a wave machine be one of the key elements of Seven Seas Lagoon (You know? That 200-acre, man-made lagoon which the Imagineers had built out in front of the Magic Kingdom).

"And why did Nunis push hard for this wave machine?," you ask. Well, you have to remember why people vacationed in Florida before there was a Walt Disney World. It was to take advantage of the wonderful weather as well as snag a spot for their blanket on the Sunshine State's 825 miles of beautiful sandy beaches.

And given that Dick viewed the Atlantic Ocean & the Gulf of Mexico as Disney World's direct competition ... Well, he wanted Seven Seas Lagoon to have some of the real ocean's appeal. And - to Nunis' way of thinking - that meant white sandy beaches. More importantly, the sound & feel of waves lapping against the shore.

Besides, you have to remember that the Company's original vision for WDW was that it would be "The Vacation Kingdom of the World." That - in addition to those days that they exploring the Magic Kingdom - Guests would also want to go boating on Bay Lake, hiking around Fort Wilderness, shopping at the Lake Buena Vista Village ...

An overview of the wave machine set-up in WDW's Seven Seas Lagoon,
with Beachcomber Island and all of its wave-making machinery to the
top right of the photo and Beachcomber Beach towards the bottom
left. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And as for Seven Seas Lagoon, Dick dreamed of someday staging surfing competitions out there. Nunis figured that pictures of all those buff guys riding the curls (with WDW's Polynesian Village conveniently  in the background of each shot, of course) would be great publicity for the Resort. In much the same way that those photos of Arnold Palmer & Jack Nicklaus playing on the Magnolia & Palm courses at the first-ever Walt Disney World Golf Championships & Pro-Am Tournaments in late 1971 helped raise the public's awareness of WDW's Golf Resort.

The only problem was - in order to turn Nunis' dream into a reality ... Well, that wave machine would have to be installed before Seven Seas Lagoon was then filled in with water. More to the point, a special cove area would have to be carved out just down the beach from Disney World's Polynesian Village. Someplace that was within walking distance of the hotel which was surf & surfing friendly.

And this was all going to cost serious money. And given that - in late 1969 / early 1970 - the costs of constructing Walt Disney World had already begun spiraling out-of-control ... finding an additional half million dollars (which would cover the cost of the wave machine as well as construction of the Polynesian Village's Beachcomber Cove area) was going to take some doing.

But Dick was up to the task. So he twisted some arms and cajoled a few members of senior management at WED. And eventually Roy O. Disney himself voiced his approval for the project.

So the money was found. And the wave machine was installed. And then the Seven Seas Lagoon was filled with water. And sometime during the Summer of 1971, Walt Disney World's wave machine was fired up. And - from all accounts - it initially worked very well.

A close-up view of the mechanism used to power the wave machine on Beachcomber
Island. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And by that I mean: Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan (who was part of the opening team of the Walt Disney World Resort) has very fond memories of spending an afternoon with his family at Beachcomber Cove during the late summer of 1971. "I taught my son to surf (on the curls that were created by) the wave machine that was at the Polynesian," he recalled in a 2007 interview with Disney historian Jim Korkis.

"So if Cast Members were enjoying the effect that WDW's wave machine created in September of 1971, why then don't Guests who visited Disney World in October of that same year  - during the Resort's first official month of operation - recall this amazing piece of machinery at all?," you ask. It's simple, really. By then, Seven Seas Lagoon's wave machine had been shut down for tinkering.

"And what exactly was the problem with WDW's wave machine?," you query. Well, it's at this point that the stories diverge.

Now some longtime Disney World employees will tell you that the wave machine was shut down because it did too good a job of replicating the action of genuine ocean waves. Meaning that it kept causing serious beach erosion at Beachcomber Cove.

The Southern Seas II paddles by Beachcomber Island (please note -- just off the stern of
this WDW steamship -- some of the machinery used to power Seven Seas Lagoon's
wave machine). Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

On the other hand, Transportation veterans will tell you that the real reason that WDW's wave machine was shut down was that the surf that this extremely expensive piece of machinery created made it extremely difficult to operate watercraft safely in and around the Polynesian Village. With the Southern Seas (i.e. that 100 foot-long side-paddlewheel-powered steamship that was used to transport Guests around the Resort from 1971 to 1975) being particularly vulnerable to the rolling waves that would come rebounding out of Beachcomber Cove and then make Seven Seas Lagoon a tricky stretch of water to traverse.

And there are other longtime WDW employees who will tell you that the main reason that the wave machine had been turned off by the time Walt Disney World had begun its three-day-long grand opening celebration on October 23, 1971 was that this piece of machinery had already proven to be problematic. That this wave machine could only run for a few hours at a time before it would then break down. And then it would take a full team of engineers working in wet suits to finally get the thing going again.

Mind you, though Dick Nunis himself insisted (as part of his June 1999 Window-on-Main-Street ceremony at Disneyland Park) that WDW's wave machine " ... only ran for one day," that wasn't really the case. In fact, there's a black-and-white photograph in a 1972 edition of "Eyes & Ears" (i.e. the then-weekly newsletter / magazine which was distributed to all Disney World) which shows Dick on a surf board, riding a wave into Beachcomber Cove. So WDW's wave machine was operational - if somewhat erratically so - well into 1972.

"So why didn't the Imagineers and/or WDW's engineers just find a way to fix this wave machine?," you ask. The story that I've always heard is that - in order to make the sort of permanent repairs that would have finally made this expensive & balky piece-of-sh ... machinery work properly ... Well, that would have involved draining Seven Seas Lagoon and/or building a very expensive dike around Beachcomber Island (i.e. the artificial isle just offshore where all of the machinery for WDW's wave machine was kept). And during the early, early days of Walt Disney World (when the Company was still trying to recover the $400 million that they'd poured into the construction of this Resort), that just wasn't an option.

Dick Nunis' Window on Main Street in Disneyland Park. Please note -- according to the
bottom line of this turn-of-the-century window advertisement -- that wave machines are
supposedly a Nunis specialty. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And speaking of money ... One surprising source of revenue for the Walt Disney World Resort in those early, early days turned out to be parties for big convention groups. To be specific: Major corporations were willing to pay top dollars for beachside luaus for their employees similar to the one that was held for the press & honored guests as part of WDW's grand opening back in October of 1971.

And as you might have already guessed, that luau was held right at waterside in Beachcomber Cove. Which - given the hours & hours of on-site prep that are typically involved with properly staging corporate events of this size - meant that the beachfront area where these highly-expensive-to-produce waves were supposed to come rolling in often had to be closed off for Polynesian Village Guests.

Then - because a number of high profile (more importantly, would have been extremely profitable for the Resort) corporate parties had to be suddenly cancelled during the Summer of 1972 due to Central Florida's highly changeable weather - a decision was made to build an all-weather structure down along the shore by Beachcomber Cove. Here's a description of that project from Walt Disney Productions' 1972 annual report:

Luau Cove - Due to the popularity of our evening luaus, particularly as a convention activity, the need arose for an all-weather shelter where these events could be held, rain or shine. Luau Cove, now under construction along the beach adjacent to the Polynesian Village, will provide sheltered seating for 500 guests, as well as a stage and food warming facilities. It is scheduled for completion early (next) year.

WDW Cast Members posing in front of the then-newly-completed Luau
Cove facility at Disney's Polynesian Village. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And once that structure opened in 1973, the handwriting was pretty much on the wall for WDW's wave machine. So much of Beachcomber Cove's waterfront property had been eaten up by the construction of Luau Cove that it then just didn't make much sense for Polynesian Village's employees to continue promote this now-extremely-narrow strip of beach as a place where Guests could frolic in the surf. Which - at that point, anyway - rarely if ever came rolling in.

So the wave machine was left to rust & corrode just off-shore in Seven Seas Lagoon. And as for those who whispered about how Dick Nunis was going to lose his job with the Company because of this half-million-dollar boondoggle ... Well, as it turns out, there were so many other things that went wrong at Walt Disney World during its first three years of operation (EX: those bob-around boats that constantly broke down out of Bay Lake. Which meant that Cast Members had to regularly go out and rescue boatloads of stranded, sun-burned tourists. Not to mention all of the poorly-poured cement floors in the Garden Wings of the Contemporary Resort. Which then had to be jack-hammered up and replaced in 1973) that the wave machine debacle quickly faded from memory.

Mind you, Dick Nunis never forget about that wave machine. He still believed that - in the proper setting (more importantly, with a piece of machinery that would actually work the way that it was supposed to) - that an in-land ocean experience, where Guests would then get the chance to frolic in some artificially-created surf, would be a huge hit with WDW visitors. So Dick pushed & pushed & pushed and eventually got Typhoon Lagoon built. And when that water park opened in June of 1989 and its 2.7 million gallon wave pool immediately became Typhoon Lagoon's most popular feature, Nunis finally felt vindicated.

Anyway, TikiTerry, that's the story of WDW's wave machine. As I've heard it, anyway. And if you folks have any Disney-related stories that you'd like to see answered as part of a future Why For column, please feel free to send them along to [email protected].

"If -- at first -- you don't succeed ... " Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Special thanks to the nice folks at Pixie Vacations for sponsoring this week's Why For.

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  • this just proves that in the early days of Disney parks existance even the best laid plans had a habbit of changing. though they could have saved all that grief and just when they found the wind machine was a lemon removed it completly

  • Good story.  But what is the the story behind why today, despite seven seas lagoon having two "beachfront" properties, Grand Floridian and Polynesian Beach, nobody swims in the seven seas lagoon?

  • Interesting story.  Is the machine still there?  If not, when was it removed and what's there now?

  • Jim -- You missed the denouement of the story... When Typhoon Lagoon finally opened, the inaugural run of its glorious wave machine was made by one lone surfer -- Dick Nunis, enjoying his moment in the sun.  RS

  • Gordon, the reason people don't swim there now is an amoeba named Naegleria fowleri which is common in Central Florida, and their numbers increase as water and air temperatures rise above 80 degrees.

    It is rare, but people do die from snorting these things up their nose.

    So, Disney doesn't allow swimming anywhere except the pools. Dead guests are not happy guests.

  • I'd love to see the rusting remnants.  Is there anything remaining above water or is it all submerged?

  • Sounds like a nice idea that didn't work for a variety of  reasons.

    Would've beeen pretty cool though......having waves crashing outside the Poly.  

    Very cool!

  • Didn't you mention this in your podcast?

    Also-- do more podcasts... Make them weekly too rather than bi-annually and you've got yourself a listener.

    Keep up the great work!

  • A friend sent me your story and I was suprised there was no mention of Dick's River Country wave making machine that was in the large pool.  It was done after the Seven Seas Lagoon and before Typhoon Lagoons.  Dick was a large promoter of River Country.  Hope they get that cleaned up and going again.  Rusty

  • Agree with Dexter - love the podcasts, would love to hear more!!

  • I went to work at WDW after college in August 1971 as a lark and specifically for that wave machine. Never got to use it.  I worked on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We had our own breakdown history.

  • And don't forget Disney California Adventure also had a wave machine. It was advertised that surfing demonstrations would be presented in the lagoon. The surfing demos never happened but they did run it for a while for the California Screamin' coaster train launch.  It was supposed to crash waves just before your train launched for the start of the ride.  It, too, didn't run very often and its fate was sealed once World of Color fountains were installed. As of January 2016, the equipment and electrical boxes are still there.

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