Sometime presumably before 100,000 BC, Atlantis was simply another civilization in the world and the Atlanteans were a normal race like any other. One fateful day, a huge comet passed over the Earth. A single piece broke off and fell upon the landmass that was inhabited by the Atlanteans. To their astonishment, they managed to discover the great properties possessed by the comet fragment. Soon, they would use the fragment, which they called the Heart of Atlantis, as their source into becoming a more advanced civilization than any other before in history.
But instead of using their new found technological powers for good, they exercised it to dominate other lands, establishing colonies all over the ancient world and subjugating the people there. They created a fearsome armada of flying machines called Ketaks and artificially-intelligent Leviathans that waged war with unmatched strength. However, their hubris would become their undoing when an accidental discharge caused a Great Flood that threatened to wipe out Atlantis as a whole. The crystal that had fueled their technology and gifted them with extended longevity, would save a part of the city, though it would be buried beneath the waters and deep into the Earth.
Humbled by the result of their arrogance, the elder leaders of Atlantis, in particular its King Kashekim Nedakh, decided to keep the crystal secret, even from its people, forever so as not to repeat their actions. Kashekim went further by ordering all of Atlantis' history to be destroyed and hid the crystal deep within the city through the throne room. Overtime, their past glory had been all but forgotten.
At some point, a shepherd named Aziz managed to stumble upon Atlantis. For two years, he secretly immersed himself it its culture, uncovering bits and pieces of its past, including the location of the Heart of Atlantis. Upon his return to the surface, however, he was considered a madman and subsequently sent to an asylum. While imprisoned, he would detail his journey in great detail, albeit in the Atlantean Language. His writings would become known as the Shepherd's Journal.
The Journal would pass through many hands over time, thus bringing the legend of Atlantis back into the consciousness of the surface world. Some considered it fact, others called it fiction, the discovery of the lost empire was nonetheless considered one of the greatest treasures all archaeologists strive to achieve.
In 1914, Preston Whitmore funds an expedition to Atlantis following the recovery of the Shepherd's Journal three years prior. Under the command of Lyle Rourke and guided by Milo Thatch's translation of the book, the expedition succeeds in finding Atlantis, despite suffering a loss of well over half its crew.
Rourke attempts to steal the Heart of Atlantis after he manages to locate it, uncaring that to remove the crystal from the city would bring about imminent death to its people. Milo leads an effort to stop Rourke and returns the crystal in time to avoid the city being engulfed by lava form an erupting volcano. While the expedition returns to the surface, Milo stays behind the help the people rediscover their past and lead them to a better future. Whitmore Industries ensured that the secret of Atlantis would be kept hidden, but would allow trips to the city in secret for celebrities, dignitaries and Whitmore Industries employees. Among the more notable visitors were Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs who became popular enough with the people of Atlantis for a bed and breakfast to be named for him.
According to Plato, Atlantis is located somewhere beyond "the pillars of Heracles." The exact position has been debated by scholars for centuries with no theory being any better than the other. Many have even reasoned that it may not be in the Atlantic Ocean as has generally been believed.
At the height of it's power, Atlantis was, as Plato described, "an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together," by which he meant the ancient Lybian domain and Asia Minor. Following the Great Flood, all that remains is a small island that has been buried within the Earth. Despite being a fraction of its once enormous size, Atlantis is still a very large city, comparable to the size of the major cities on the surface such as New York City, Paris, Tokyo, and London. The city is divided into several rings and once held a form of monorail transport.
The journey to Atlantis is a difficult venture unto itself. One must first descend toward a specific point in the Atlantic Ocean. Travelers must then successfully pass a Leviathan to an underground tunnel it guards. Upon surfacing into the entrance of a cavern, travelers must trek for days through the catacombs of Atlantean ruins, facing various dangers such as forgotten Atlantean machines, deep chasms, and hostile wildlife such as Pyreflies. Finally, there is a dormant volcano they must pass before reaching Atlantis. After the original expedition, Whitmore Enterprises discovered other means of reaching the Atlantean Highway through hidden caverns in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. These would be the routes they would use to allow celebrities, dignitaries and Whitmore employees to visit Atlantis on secret trips.
What remains of Atlantis is situated atop flowing lava, protected by the power of the Heart of Atlantis. While the city is mostly ruins, it is still vibrant with life. Following the events of the city's rediscovery by the Whitmore Expedition, the Guardians of Atlantis previously thought to have been lost in the Great Flood have surfaced from their dwelling beneath the city's waters and stand in an encompassing circle, signifying the range of their protection. The Heart of Atlantis, once hidden deep within the city, now shines above, hovering over the city. A circulation system provides Atlantis with water, powered by the Heart of Atlantis.
Prior to its resurfacing, Atlantis was located underneath an island, likely a volcanic island created by the volcano near the entrance, which was dormant until 1914. Caverns on the island allowed travel to the surface, though Atlanteans were apparently unaware of them and only the shepherd Aziz ever discovered them. Sometime after the events of the film, likely during the 1914 eruption, the entire island was destroyed, leaving only open ocean above the cavern roof.
After the events of Atlantis: Milo's Return, the city of Atlantis is now situated in the center of the Atlantic Ocean again, out of sight of any nearby land but in the middle of a fishing ground.
Atlantis appears to be a monarchy led by a King and Queen. However, in the sequel, Kida mentions a Council that she says can look over the city while she is away, implying that Atlantis has another branch of government with as much power as the King and Queen themselves, a branch which is democratically elected. The royal bloodline has a special connection with the Heart of Atlantis, which means they are in charge of defense of the city, development of technology, and use of the crystal's power. The Council likely is in charge of more day-to-day activities and the creation and enforcement of laws.
Various types of strange animals live in and around Atlantis. They were likely inhabitants of the continent where the city originally existed, but have gone extinct everywhere else except the city due to the flood.
Some examples of Atlantean animal life include:
- Parrot-like, beaked flying lizards
- Pyreflies, small bioluminescent and combustible insects that nest in large groups
- Blue ostrich-like reptiles, possibly domesticated as they are seen in a marketplace
- Marine animals such as fish, crustaceans, and eurypterids, which the Atlantean people catch and eat
- Lava dogs, domesticated dog-like omnivorous animals which can withstand the temperature of magma
- Lava whales, larger relatives of lava dogs
- Domesticated dicynodonts
- Giant domesticated crabs which the Atlantean people ride on
The filmmakers noted that the vast majority of their research about Atlantis was primarily done through the Internet. Sifting through all of the information they could find, both plausible and fictitious, to pick out what would work to facilitate the story they were telling.
For the visual design, directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale immediately did not want Atlantis to be heavily influenced by the commonly used Greek look. Art director David Goetz noted that, as part of the desire to illustrate the civilization as being the "mother culture," they looked into the unusual architectural designs used in Southeast Asia, notably Cambodia, as well as the Myan architecture found in South America. Further refinements were done in an effort to emulate the art style of production designer Mike Mignola.
The core production team took a trip to the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southeastern New Mexico during the pre-production stages of the film. This was done for research to get a better feel of what it is like to live underground. It also provided inspiration towards the development of the caverns the Whitmore Expedition journeys through towards Atlantis.
With the myth having captured the imagination of people for countless years, other interpretations of the city of Atlantis exist in various Disney media, though are unrelated to the version depicted in Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
Atlantis appears in the DuckTales episode "Aqua Ducks", a part of the "Catch as Cash Can" story arc. Here, Scrooge McDuck searches for portions of his fortune lost at sea when transferring it to be weighed. After running afoul of a group of Fish-Men, they are sentenced to work in their dump, which is actually the ruins of Atlantis, which the Fish-Men deemed just another large chunk of human garbage. Scrooge's team eventually manages to raise Atlantis by using Gyro Gearloose's Super-Fizz, which brings it up to the surface and eventually allows it to float into the sky. The Fish-Men are angry at the escape at first before realizing that the trash is now being taken away and Scrooge claims the treasure of Atlantis and finds the lost portions of his fortune along the way.
In DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, it is offhandedly mentioned that Merlock the Magician used the powers of Gene the Genie to destroy Atlantis (which was apparently a popular resort that refused to give Merlock a reservation), among many other evil deeds.
In the episode of the same name, Atlantis is the main location Phineas, Ferb, Buford, Isabella, Baljeet, and Irving go see for the day. They manage to briefly raise it up to the surface which ends up winning a sand castle contest for Candace, only for it to sink back down to the depths. They also sing a song of the location's name after they find it.
In the Marvel comic book series for The Little Mermaid, Atlantis was shown as an island with a crystal globe plugging an active volcano. The Merpeople, Sharkanians, and an unknown race of pegasus-centaur hybrids were the main occupants of the island. It sank after the prince of the Sharkanians removed the crystal globe from the volcano, resulting in it exploding. It is also implied that the princess and the king of the merpeople of Atlantis were Ariel's ancestors.
Though Atlantis has yet to appear in any media, it is part of the backstory of the Sword of Triton. According to Pirates of the Caribbean Online and On Stranger Tides: The Visual Guide, this weapon is said to have been forged in the lost city of Atlantis and has passed from one ancient mariner to another, until falling into Blackbeard's possession.
In one episode, an entity called The Ethereal claims to have sunk Atlantis because they had become too arrogant. This lines up surprisingly well with the reason the Heart of Atlantis sunk the city in the film. Some might speculate that The Ethereal is somehow related to the Heart of Atlantis due to these similarities; The Ethereal in the TV series even mentions a well-stocked library having been in the city, which Atlantis in Atlantis: The Lost Empire once had.
A city called Atlantis City appears in one of the episodes; it is portrayed as being very different from Atlantis as seen in the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire, suggesting that it is probably not the same city; it is also in a completely different time period. The reason it sunk is also different, as an accident gets it unwritten from fate and causes it to sink. It is a reference to Atlantic City, New Jersey.