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by Patt Sheahan, February 2002
Ever get to do something so special in your life that you know it's a once-in-a-lifetime event? Ever get to do that something twice? I did.
I did the Dolphins-in-Depth program with my daughter and two friends in February 1999. Due to a gift from a friend, I got to do it again this February.
I mainly wanted to see if there had been any changes in program, since learning tours of this type seem to evolve over time. There were changes, and I believe they were to the benefit of the participants.
This is a 3.5-hour program that occurs Monday through Friday in various areas of the Living Seas Pavilion, with the most impressive location being the top of the two-story tank. The clarity of the water is unbelievable and to see huge stingrays, fish and turtles swimming by when you're supposed to be listening to your instructor is breathtaking.
The program basically begins outside the Guest Relations booth in the front of Epcot. You do not need admission to Epcot to participate in the Dolphins in Depth program since you enter before the turnstiles. PERSONAL NOTE: Do NOT think you'll be able to enter Epcot via the International Gateway from the Epcot Resorts Area. As of my writing, the gates did not open until 10:00 and the program starts at 9:45. You do the math. (What did I do? I walked to the Boardwalk, caught a cab to the front of Epcot. A Cast member suggested I take a bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center and another bus from there to Epcot, but as it was already 9:00 I didn't want to chance it!) The opening of the International Gateway may depend on the time of year you visit, but check before to see if this option is available to you.
After check-in, you are escorted back "behind the scenes" and you get to see the outside of the Living Seas and the massive filtration system that is used. The entire contents of the Living Seas are circulated within 2 hours. Being back-doored into the building, one corridor looks pretty much the same as the other. And, of course, you are anxious to see the dolphins you will be interacting with. That happens pretty quickly.
We were led up to the two holding pools off the top of the aquarium. If you are in the Living Seas and you see the dolphins disappear through two square cutouts in the wall, this is where they are heading. Toby and Bob are approximately 20-year old dolphins, having been captured off of Key West in 1984. Their living together in the Living Seas approximates how male dolphins live in the wild - most of the time they buddy up in groups of 2 to 3 males. The female dolphins and their calves live in larger groups.
Toby and Bob seemed just as anxious to see us as we were to see them. They came in and stood up on their tails, heads and necks bobbing out of the water to get a better glimpse of us. PERSONAL NOTE: While they cannot guarantee you will have close-up interaction with the dolphins, they say in the years they have been doing this there have only been two times when the dolphins didn't want to come in. Monday appears to be the best day (this was the day I took the course), because the dolphins haven't had any outside contact with humans beyond their handlers since Friday and they're anxious to be fawned over!
Most of the research they are working with the dolphins on is sonar communication and item identification. We were put through the paces to see if we could discern items in film containers, feeling things while having our eyes closed and having to pick out what we'd felt, etc. I scored 100%, due not to the fact that I'm a dolphin but that I'm a good guesser. These instructions take place right by the holding areas and it was a little disconcerting to have two huge heads peeking out over the side of the pool at you. I think they were laughing at us ...
Another main learning point of this program is conservation of marine mammals in the wild. We learned about the manatees being held there as well - the two resident manatees are being rehabilitated and there is hope they will be released back into the wild this summer.
Maybe the rest of this should be what I perceive people would ask about the program and my answers:
Will I be able to swim with the dolphins? The answer is no. But I believe what you get is far better than swimming with the dolphins. In-the-water time has been expanded and I think we were in the Living Seas tank for close to 45 minutes. The session is limited to 8 participants. That gives a dolphin to 4 people. There were 6 people the day I was there, so we had 3 people per dolphin and expanded time.
Will I need to be able to swim? No. You will be in waist-high water at the top of the pavilion. You are provided wetsuits and watersocks. You must bring your own bathing suit to be worn under the wetsuit. They assured us that if you happened to go over the edge you were standing on (and it was a good-sized ledge, probably 15 feet), the wetsuit would keep you from sinking. I did not want to test this theory.
Will I have to admit to the Living Seas staff and my fellow participants what size wetsuit I need or what I weigh? No. This was a major concern of mine, too. The staff is very, very good at sizing you up and providing a wet suit in the locker room for you (all bagged up with your watersocks). My personal opinion, the sizes they have are Small-Tight, Large-Tight, and Extra Large-Tight. The only size they ask is your shoe size for the watersocks.
You are provided a locker in the locker room where you can lock up your valuables. They also provide soap and shampoo to use after being in the water.
If we're not swimming with the dolphins, what the heck are we going to do? There is group interaction with your 2-3 other partners where you all handle the dolphin at the same time with the trainer. You are given some common sense ground rules: do not put your hand inside the dolphin's mouth (they have a lot of sharp, pointy teeth); do not make jabbing movements towards their eyes, do not let your hand wander too far down their bellies into the "don't touch me there" area. You also sign a waiver about possible injuries - as pointed out, these are 500-pound animals whose idea of playing is jumping and body-slamming each other at record speeds. The handler keeps a close eye on her charges (human and otherwise) and will stop interaction if either party is not doing what they need to be doing.
The handlers explain that basically what you're doing is replicating what a vet does when called in: laying them on their backs, checking their fins, looking inside their mouths, feeling for pulses, etc. It keeps them used to strangers handling them. You also go through different commands for training - circling, waving, whistling, jumping, and the ever-impressive scooting across the pool raised up on their tails (That's a sure crowd-pleaser!)
Then it comes down to this. You are told to squat down in the water and the 500-lb. dolphin is placed in your arms and the rest of the world fades away. You're holding 500-lbs. of muscle covered with wet rubber, wearing a smiley face. You don't hear anything in that huge tank. You get to hold them, rub them, talk to them. If you're lucky (and all of us were), the dolphins were very good at humoring us. Though mine (Bob), decided he was doing what my cat does to me sometimes, holding me off a little at a distance with a fin.
Personal Note: When asked who wants to go first, lag behind. Let the others take their turn first; because by the time it's your turn, your fellow participants will still be asking questions so your personal time with the dolphin will be longer because the handler is busy answering them.
Can I bring my children?, I'm pregnant, can I attend? I believe the age limit on this experience is 18. I have heard parents signing waivers for children who are 16 or 17. Call in advance if you have children under 18, but small children will NOT be allowed. Pregnant women are not allowed to attend because there may be danger of getting bumped by the dolphin's snout, etc.
Will I feel out of place if I go by myself? While I had a better time when I went with my daughter and friends, everyone I encountered was enthusiastic, friendly and you could tell they love what they do. Being a single in a group of two couples and another single, I did not feel out of place at all.
What do I get for my money? For me, it was more than I expected. After the program, you are given a Dolphins in Depth t-shirt and a video taped of your experience. All of the proceeds that you pay for your experience go to a Marine Wildlife Conservation Fund.
There is a mid-program break in a break room with soft drinks, coffee, tea and hot chocolate. After we were cleaned up after the program, we met again in the break room to discuss what we had learned and to fill out survey forms. Our t-shirts and videos were waiting for us there, too. We were encouraged to take more soft drinks with us because it'd beat having to pay Epcot prices for a can of Coke.
I only have so much Disney time and so much Disney money, is this program worth giving up almost 4 hours of my vacation?
Other Tour Reviews:
Disney's Hollywood Studios