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Swimming with the Fishes
by Debra Martin Koma, ALL EARS® Senior Editor
with Alexander Koma, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the August 7, 2007 Issue #411 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
I'm sure I'm not the only parent out there who has found that a one-on-one trip with your child to Walt Disney World can be a wonderful bonding experience. My son Alex and I took our first trip without Dad (who enjoys the World, but isn't a fanatic like we are) about eight years ago, and have made the sojourn about once a year since.
This year, even though Alex is now 15 and over his fear of thrill rides, we decided to try something a little different -- the Epcot Seas Aqua Tour, a scuba-assisted snorkeling experience in the 27' deep, 200' in diameter aquarium in The Seas pavilion in Epcot.
Before I begin, I should admit to one thing. I really don't like swimming, don't like being in the water, don't like the feeling of water up my nose, in my ears, in my eyes, water, water everywhere... part of it is fear, going back to a brutal swimming instructor who promised he'd catch me, but instead let me fall into the deep end of the pool. (Yes, I need therapy.) And part of it is that I'm just plain not comfortable in deep water. So, why in the world would I ever want to do the Epcot Seas Aqua Tour?
Well, I was curious. Just because I don't like the water doesn't mean I'm not interested in the creatures living in it. I wanted to try to see the rays and the fish and maybe even a shark up close... or at least closer than usual, without a glass wall in between us. Plus I wondered how the experience would work for someone like me, who was less than comfortable with being immersed in a big body of the wet stuff.
I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised on all counts. But I'll let Alex tell you more about the whole experience.
When my mom first suggested going on the Epcot Seas Aqua Tour, I was a little skeptical. She said that the tour would take almost two-and-a-half hours, and because we were only going to be in Disney World for four days, I wasn't sure I wanted to spend that much time out of the parks. However, she said that she'd like to do the tour, and I do love swimming, so I agreed. Now, before I go into detail about the tour, let me say one thing: I have been swimming my whole life, but I have never had a more incredible time in the water than on this tour. I loved every part of it and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a great way to beat the heat in the middle of your hot summer Disney vacation. I had heard a lot about how great Disney's tours were, but until I actually went on this one I had no idea how amazing they could be.
We were scheduled to be at Guest Relations for the tour at 12:15 p.m., and unfortunately that day, like many days in July in Orlando, was beastly hot. The wait for the tour guide seemed interminable. But, after what was really only about 10 minutes of waiting, our guide showed up. He was a friendly older gentleman named Ed, and he made us feel immediately welcome, cracking jokes and describing everything we would be doing for the next few hours. After taking our sizes for our wetsuits, shoes and t-shirts, he led us through what he called the "spectacular" backstage area of Epcot. (Ed was being a little sarcastic, as the first thing we passed on our "tour" was a garbage dumpster!)
We then entered The Seas pavilion and got a backstage tour. We got to see the area behind the scenes where the manatees are kept, the various labs, and even the kitchen where all the food for the animals in the tank is prepared. Ed also told us about Disney's internship program and showed us pictures of the various groups of interns over the years, as well as showing us the places and programs Disney was working in as part of their various conservation efforts. We then entered a nautical themed viewing area, with various life rings, flags and miniature aquariums decorating the space. It was there that we saw a short video explaining what we would see during our time in the water and how to put our equipment on. After some additional instruction from Ed, we went into the locker rooms, where we found our wetsuits waiting for us and changed. After we were all dressed and ready (which took a little while, since squeezing into those skintight wetsuits was a challenge), they took us out and up to the tank.
As we took the final few steps up the dark, winding staircase leading to the tank, the great expanse of dark blue opened up in front of us, drawing several gasps from our group of 12. Ed was waiting there for us, along with his two fellow dive instructors, ready to help us get into our gear and get into the tank. Our gear consisted of an air tank held in a backpack, fins and a mask. After suiting up, we all got our pictures taken in our scuba gear, and then it was time to dive in.
As soon as I put my face down into the water, I saw the huge, extremely realistic "coral reef" stretching out in front of me. Almost immediately, I saw a school of fish swimming underneath me, with a cow-nose ray following close behind. It was almost like looking right into Finding Nemo, the movie the pavilion is themed after, with even a sea turtle frequently swimming past me. Even though we couldn't go below the surface of the water, many different species of fish, rays and turtles came right up to me, almost close enough to touch. An added bonus was being able to see and wave to people on the observation deck of the pavilion, as well as those people eating in the Coral Reef restaurant, which looks out on the tank as well. The water was a perfect 79 degrees and seeing all the amazing aquatic creatures in the tank so close was the perfect way to spend a hot afternoon. After a half an hour that went way too fast, we were called back in, changed, and then received an Epcot Seas Aqua Tour shirt, as well as a copy of the picture taken earlier. It was a great experience.
Despite my initial doubts about the tour, I had a wonderful time on this unique aquatic journey. I will cherish my memories of seeing the remarkable animals in the tank so close up and of the things I learned about how The Seas pavilion operates. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for something new to do in Disney and who enjoys swimming or even just The Seas pavilion. The whole staff was extremely friendly and helped me to have a great time in the water. Disney really proved to me with this that few can do tours better, and I will certainly be sure to try something like this again.
As Alex stated above, the staff involved in the Aqua Tour were exceptional. Ed, the coordinator of the tour, lightened the mood by constantly joking with the tour participants, and he gave a great backstage presentation, showing us the areas that are normally off-limits to visitors. I really enjoyed learning about the different fish in the pavilion, and in particular was interested in hearing about their eating regimens. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the creatures are fed the same restaurant-quality seafood that is served to human diners. I was also amused to learn that the cast members have given names to most of the bigger animals, such as the sea turtles and sharks, and that one of them, I believe it was Troy, is on a "diet" -- he's getting too fat! (I can relate!)
One highlight of this behind-the-scenes glimpse was the few minutes of private time we had with the aquarium's two manatees, both of which had been rescued from the wild. Ed told us how the younger male had been a 60-pound orphan when he was brought in -- he now weighs 800-plus pounds! The older male's tail had been severely injured by a boat, but after months of recovery he is just about ready to be released back into the wild. He will of course be monitored, and if he seems to successfully reacclimate, he'll be free -- otherwise they will bring him back to safety and try again later. The two oversized creatures playfully rolled around in the water as we looked on, almost as if they were showing us their tummies and asking for a belly rub, just as my dog does. I could have stayed to observe them longer, but we did have an agenda, and only limited time.
As the program progressed, what really impressed me was the professionalism, and the emphasis on safety and the enjoyment of the participants. For example, in the screening room, you are not only shown the video of what to expect as far as the animals you'll see, but you are also shown the proper way to use the equipment -- how to adjust the mask over your eyes and nose, how to hold the regulator, how to breathe through your mouth, how to walk with your flippers on. You're instructed in proper "etiquette," as well -- how you should not attempt to touch any of the animals and that attempting to dive down was frowned upon (although with the buoyant vest and the salt water you really would have to exert some effort to dive very deep). Then once you are taken up the dimly lit and winding staircase to the tank, you are shown the snorkeling techniques again by the divemasters in the water. They make sure that your mask is sprayed with "Mickey spit" -- a solution that prevents the mask from fogging up -- and that you are belted securely before you're allowed to swim off on your own.
In my specific case, once I admitted to divemaster John that I was a bit afraid to go out into the middle of the tank on my own, he was quick to reassure me and literally held my hand until I felt more comfortable in the water. I can't thank him enough for staying near my side, talking to me and coaching me through the experience, so that I was able to enjoy myself despite my fears. He never pushed me to do more than I felt able to do, but encouraged me repeatedly to put my face in the water and pointed out various sights for me to fix on. Although I didn't stray far from the platform, I was able to watch the rays gliding directly underneath me. I also saw the sharks way at the bottom of the tank, and marveled as one of the turtles swam by. Because the mask tended to magnify everything, I was certain that some of the fish were swimming directly into my face -- and in fact one swam quite to close to me. I would say the highlight of the experience came when I ventured over to the area where the dolphins were held behind a gate. We had been warned not to get closer than 10 feet to the gate (not a concern in my timid case!), as the male dolphins were very territorial and might get a little agitated. But from my safe distance, I was able to see the dolphins swim straight up and then leap out of the water -- they were in the middle of a training session. They were truly something to behold.
All in all, this program is extremely well-run and not just educational, but also thoroughly enjoyable. I would recommend it to anyone and everyone, even those such as myself, who aren't the bravest fish in the sea. I may very well try it again sometime, and perhaps then I really will swim with the fishes on my own.
The Epcot Seas Aqua Tour is offered daily at 12:30 p.m. The tour is open to everyone ages 8 and older (those under 18 must be accompanied by a participating adult). No special certification required. The 2.5 hour experience includes 30 minutes' snorkeling time in the Seas aquarium. The $100 fee includes all your gear, a t-shirt and photo. Park admission is NOT required, as you will meet at Epcot's Guest Relations office outside the park's turnstiles. Annual pass, Disney Vacation Club, and Disney Visa discounts may be available -- ask at time of booking.
NOTE: Bring a bathing suit. You will be given a short wetsuit to wear.
Make reservations for this tour by calling 407-WDW-TOUR.
Read other readers' opinions of this tour in our Rate and Review section: http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=233&cat=66
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.