Surfing at the Polynesian – The History of the Wave Machine

Did you know you used to be able to surf on the Seven Seas Lagoon? Sadly, the wave machine now sits abandoned on a forgotten island of the lagoon.

Have you ever heard of the abandoned wave machine in the Seven Seas Lagoon? Maybe you’ve seen remnants of a rock wall on a small island near the Polynesian Resort? In 1971, there was a wave machine built in the lagoon that was meant to allow guests to surf on the lake with real waves. The wave machine worked, but was later abandoned. Find out why by reading below!


When the Polynesian Resort was being constructed in 1971, the Vice President of Park Operations (Dick Nunis) came up with an idea. He wanted to add surfing as a recreational activity for guests. Before the creation of Walt Disney World, tourists visited Florida for one primary reason: the beaches. Disney wanted to be able to compete with the miles and miles of existing beaches, and they believed outdoor recreation was the key! (Surfing was not the only recreation idea – they also wanted guests to go sailing, boating, and hiking on Walt Disney World property).

Sailing in the Grand Floridian

Courtesy of the Orlando Informer

There were a few initial issues with installing a wave machine in the Seven Seas Lagoon. First of all, the wave machine would have to be installed before the manmade lagoon was filled with water. Additionally, a cove area would have to be carved out just down the beach from the Polynesian that was within walking distance and had the proper conditions for surfing. The other main issue was money. The costs of Walt Disney World were already extremely high, and finding an additional half million dollars was going to be difficult.

Dick would not take no, and with the help of some senior managers at WED and even Roy Disney, he was able to secure the funds and the wave machine was installed on Beachcomber Island.

In 1971, the wave machine was tested for the first time, and it worked! It created amazing waves for guests to ride. Dick Nunis even tested the machine sometime in 1972, meaning the wave machine was up and running for over a year.

Dick Nunis Surfing

Courtesy of Retro WDW


However, this was not without cost. The wave machine had three problems that Disney did not expect. First of all, the Seven Seas Lagoon and the  beaches suffered from severe erosion. The wave machine did such a good job of creating ocean like waves that the manmade beaches could not withstand the force.

Wave Machine Polynesian

A close-up view of the mechanism used to power the wave machine on Beachcomber Island, Courtesy of Disney Enterprises,

Another issue was the transportation around the lagoon. The wave machine made it very difficult to operate watercraft in and around the Polynesian docks, specifically the Southern Seas. The Southern Seas was the 100 foot long side steamship used to transport guests from 1971 to 1975. It was incredibly vulnerable to the rolling waves coming off of Beachcomber cove and made it difficult for the captains to navigate the area.

There were also reports that the wave machine machinery failed often, and the wave machine could only run for a few hours at a time. The three issues combined led to the closure and abandonment of the wave machine soon after its opening.

Closeup of Wave Machine

Courtesy of Bill Cotter

The wave machine sat unused and abandoned for almost 15 years. In 1985, before Disney invested in removing the machine, it was tested again. They hoped the lagoon and beaches may have “set” and erosion would not be a concern, as the lagoon had now been filled for 15 years. However, the tests were short lived and it was determined that this was not the case.

Present Day

The wave machine was eventually removed, and today the only remains that can be seen are a small brick wall bordering the island. Rumors have it that under the water still remains portions of the wave machine, left to rot.

Remains of Wave Machine

The concept for the wave machine was not forgotten. When Typhoon lagoon opened in 1989, it included a 2.7 million gallon wave pool and early morning surfing lessons!

Typhoon Lagoon Surfing Lessons

Courtesy of Surf Park Central

If you have any more pictures or memories of the wave machine, let us know in the comments or send us an email at