Looking back on 20 years of ‘Finding Nemo’ in Disney parks

It’s been two decades since we first visited P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney. As “Finding Nemo” celebrates its 20th anniversary, let’s look at the Pixar film’s history in Disney parks — from beloved attractions like Turtle Talk to forgotten horrors like the Nemo walk-around character.

2003 Nemo walk-around character
Photo by Melissa Taylor

“Hi, I’m Nemo”

Disney released Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” in theaters on May 30, 2003. Andrew Stanton, a Pixar staffer since the “Toy Story” days, directed “Finding Nemo” in addition to co-writing the film and voicing Crush the sea turtle. Stanton later directed “WALL-E” and “Finding Dory” for Pixar, and remains part of the studio’s executive team today.

Nemo hugging Marlin in Finding Nemo
Images courtesy of Disney

“Finding Nemo” was an instant hit, earning $70 million its opening weekend in 2003. Just a few short months later, “Finding Nemo” dethroned “The Lion King” as the domestically highest-grossing animated film in history (it no longer holds that title today, but the record was impressive nonetheless). Once award season came around, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave “Finding Nemo” the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Nemo Swam Because Atlantis Sunk

The artists of Walt Disney Imagineering are always dreaming up future ideas for the Disney theme parks, and naturally, they often look to Disney animated films for inspiration. With such critical and commercial success, “Finding Nemo” became a wellspring of source material for attraction concepts.

Dory smiling in Finding Nemo

As author Leslie Iwerks points out in her book “The Imagineering Story,” the acclaim that Pixar films achieved in the 2000s was especially important in relation to theme parks because Imagineering couldn’t rely on Disney’s own animation studio to produce hits at the time. Disney Animation’s films chronologically before and after “Finding Nemo” were “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear.” These were modest successes that certainly had their fans, but were dead ends in terms of theme park inspiration. The public just didn’t latch onto Disney Animation stories and characters of this time period the way they did with Pixar films (with the lone exception of Disney’s 2002 sensation “Lilo & Stitch”).

This lukewarm reaction to Disney movies sometimes stinted Imagineering’s projects. Iwerks notes that Imagineer Tony Baxter hoped Disney’s 2001 feature, “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” could justify reviving the long-dormant submarines at Disneyland, but when “Atlantis” didn’t make an impression with audiences, the idea fizzled.

However, once “Finding Nemo” came along, things changed. If anything has the authority to commence near-immediate development of attractions at Disney parks worldwide, it’s a “Lion King”-sized hit. As we’ll soon see, the Imagineers got busy — and fast.

Darla in Finding Nemo

I Met the ‘Cursed Nemo’ at Epcot in 2003

How do you create a theme park version of fish characters that guests can meet? Disney dared to answer this bold question with a concept that has haunted my nightmares every evening for 20 years: cursed Nemo.

2003 Nemo walk-around character
Photo by Melissa Taylor

As my family approached the plaza outside The Living Seas at Epcot in September 2003, we found Nemo — or at least, something supposed to be Nemo. Rather than a traditional costumed character, Nemo was a vehicle of sorts. The large… thing… was a huge figure that glided around. Its fins flapped in an unsettling manner. The loud sound of wheels emanated from underneath its “bubbles” as it rolled along the cement. Its wide eyes, peering left to right, seem to pierce into passersby’s souls and say, “I know what you did.”

My mom quickly took out her disposable camera and excitedly urged me to stand next to Nemo. The task was easier said than done. Nemo roamed about the plaza with no formal line, and the guests he awkwardly wheeled toward didn’t know how to react. I eventually got Nemo’s attention, braved a smile, and entertained my mom’s request for a photo, though inside I couldn’t wait for the encounter to be over.

I’m not sure how long the cursed Nemo walk-around lasted. He swam (walked? rode?) in the 2003 Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade on ABC, so he at least stuck around until the end of the year.

Even if a Nemo meet and greet wasn’t meant to be, I admire Disney’s creativity in trying something different to please guests’ expectations to meet a popular character. As it turns out, Disney would soon have another go at a “Finding Nemo” character experience. This time, they’d be far more successful…

A Taste of What’s to Come

Today, we know Epcot’s oceanic pavilion as The Seas with Nemo & Friends. However, Nemo’s takeover of what was formerly The Living Seas didn’t happen all at once. In 2004, Disney utilized Nemo and his pals to teach Epcot guests about marine life through colorful signage within The Living Seas’ aquarium exhibits. At the time, the Orlando Sentinel interviewed Disney spokesperson Dave Herbst about the arrival of the Nemo edutainment.

Clownfish inside The Seas with Nemo & Friends at Epcot

“It’s a natural to bring the ‘Finding Nemo’ characters into the picture at The Living Seas,” Herbst said, “because the two are thematically connected. It connects what The Living Seas is about with something young audiences might be familiar with.”

Turtle Talk with Crush

Later that year, what began as an unsuspecting experiment soon became the park’s next big hit: Turtle Talk with Crush. In Turtle Talk, several dozen guests gather to interact with Crush the sea turtle through his “viewing window,” a large screen in disguise as an animal habitat. An animated Crush moves about on the screen and speaks with guests in real time. It’s a unique blend of cutting-edge technology (especially for 2004) implemented in a surprisingly intimate experience. The result is instant magic.

And thus, what seems to be the most frequently used promo image in Disney history was born:

Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot

Disney duplicated Turtle Talk in other parks and on Disney Cruise Line ships in the following years. Beyond that, though, Turtle Talk became a catalyst for a new category of Disney park attractions. Its success paved the way for other unique character experiences like the Muppet Mobile Lab and “talking Mickey,” as well larger-scale shows that leveraged similar technology like Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.

Talking with Finding Nemo's Crush on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship

The Reign of Nemo

By 2006, after having a few years to develop full-fledged, permanent attractions, Imagineering began rolling out a palooza of experiences to incorporate”Finding Nemo” in Disney parks worldwide. The era of Nemo mania had arrived.

At Epcot, The Living Seas officially became The Seas with Nemo & Friends in fall 2006. Rather than a few Nemo-inspired additions here and there, the entire pavilion was devoted to Nemo, start to finish. This included a family-friendly Omnimover ride onboard clam-mobiles. The ride’s finale astonishingly integrates Pixar animation with real, actual fish swimming in the pavilion’s aquarium.

The Seas with Nemo and Friends ride-through at Epcot in Walt Disney World

Just a few months later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom debuted “Finding Nemo: The Musical” in the newly enclosed Theater in the Wild, the former home of “Tarzan Rocks!” Even though “Finding Nemo” doesn’t have any songs, the Broadway-style spectacle retells the film’s story with a collection of tunes written just for the show by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez.

Finding Nemo: The Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom

This production was the couple’s first songwriting collaboration with Disney, but it certainly wasn’t their last. Later, Anderson-Lopez and Lopez wrote the iconic songs of “Frozen” and “Frozen 2.” It’s probably a stretch to say their work on “Finding Nemo: The Musical” directly influenced their involvement with “Frozen,” but it’s neat to think that Elsa’s international superstardom might be thanks, even in a small way, to this Animal Kingdom show.

In June 2007, two Nemo attractions opened in the same week in different countries. First, Crush’s Coaster welcomed thrill-seekers at Walt Disney Studios in Paris. The ride swivels its shell-shaped vehicle as guests hang ten on a roller coaster version of the East Australian Current, just like Crush and his sea turtle buddies.

Crush's Coaster at Disneyland Paris
Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

Over at Disneyland in California, years after holding out hope for “Atlantis,” Tony Baxter finally got his wish of reviving the abandoned submarine lagoon, formerly home to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In 2007, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage opened as a complete overhaul of the experience, once again inviting guests to plunge into the depths of Tomorrowland’s aquatic wonderland.

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland

Flying Fish and Futuristic Pools

Imagineers have implemented the popular Pixar tale over the years, and continue to do so today. Nemo, Dory, and the gang have become regulars in ensemble Disney theme park productions, like parades or nighttime spectaculars. This has included such appearances as Disney Stars On Parade at Disneyland Paris and World of Color at Disney California Adventure. Nemo was even among the characters added to It’s A Small World at Disneyland.

Finding Nemo float in Disney Stars On Parade at Disneyland Paris

In 2012, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort opened at Walt Disney World with an entire hotel wing dedicated to “Finding Nemo.” Guests can stay overnight in suites inspired by the movie, and enjoy vibrant character statues and artwork throughout the campus.

Naturally, the Nemo wing has a pool. Swimmers who listen closely underwater may hear some familiar fish…

Finding Nemo pool underwater sounds at Disney's Art of Animation Resort

In 2015, during Disneyland’s 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration, Nemo earned a special distinction: being among the few icons in Disney history to fly above the Disneyland skies. As part of the “Disneyland Forever” nighttime spectacular, the Matterhorn became a makeshift Mount Wannahockaloogie. Just as he does in the film, Nemo “swam” toward the structure, though at Disneyland he used the zip line usually reserved for Tinker Bell. (Other characters to fly over Disneyland have included Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Zero, and Baymax.)

Upon the theatrical debut of “Finding Dory” in 2016, new characters from the film joined Crush for Turtle Talk.

Finding Dory characters added to Turtle Talk with Crush at Epcot

In 2017, Tokyo DisneySea opened Nemo & Friends SeaRider, a simulator attraction that replaced StormRider in the park’s Port Discovery area.

Nemo & Friends SeaRider at Tokyo DisneySea

A Legacy That Just Keeps Swimming

In recent years, Nemo and Dory were among the characters depicted as golden statues as part of the “Fab 50” for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary.

Nemo and Dory Fab 50 statue at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Photo by Melissa Taylor

In 2022, Disney’s Animal Kingdom debuted an abridged version of “Finding Nemo: The Musical,” now called “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue… and Beyond!” and including some elements from “Finding Dory.” Our reporters interviewed Katrina Menarick, broadcast creative producer for Disney Live Entertainment, just before the re-imagined show premiered. Menarick said the new version includes “technology that didn’t exist when it originally debuted 15 years ago.”

Finding Nemo: The Big Blue... and Beyond! at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Even as we look ahead to the future, more “Finding Nemo” in Disney parks is on the way. A water play area featuring Crush will be part of the transformation of Paradise Pier Hotel into Pixar Place Hotel at Disneyland Resort, set to be complete this winter.

Finding Nemo splash pad at Pixar Place Hotel at Disneyland Resort

Short of counting every single project in Disney park history, it’s safe to say (or as least guesstimate) that “Finding Nemo” has been among the most frequent stories Imagineers have adapted into theme park experiences across the decades. Where in the big, blue world will they take us next?

NEW! Full Opening Finding Nemo: The Big Blue...and Beyond Show at Disney's Animal Kingdom

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