The Disney cast member staring at me has puffy cheeks and bulging eyes. His hardened, thick lips move his mouth open and closed as he inspects me with a look of indifference.
But I’m not intimidated; in fact, I’m intrigued. It’s not every day that you come face-to-face with a Goliath grouper, especially one that spends his days entertaining visitors at Disney World.
My new marine friend is part of Epcot’s Living Seas, said to be the world’s largest saltwater aquarium. The 6 million-gallon (22 million liter) tank is home to more than 65 species of marine life, including rays, sharks and some 2,000 fish.
Each year, millions of visitors stream past the well-done exhibit at the Orlando-based theme park, exclaiming over sea turtles and pointing out sharks, but very few experience this micro-world beneath the surface of the water.
I just happen to be one of the lucky ones taking part in Disney’s DiveQuest, a little-known program that allows certified divers to don a tank and dive into this aquatic world.
All my family and I had to bring to the experience were our swimsuits and dive-certification cards. Disney did the rest. Upon arrival, we were fitted with top-of-the-line wet suits and dive gear. Then our dive master, Justin Delude, gave our small dive group (kept to a maximum of 12 divers) an orientation on the kinds of sea life we would be viewing.
Then finally, it was time to get into the water. Though my family and I had earned our dive certifications back in our land-locked home state of Colorado, this was to be our very first “sea” dive — and we couldn’t wait to jump in.
“DiveQuest is a great place for beginning divers,” Delude had told us as we donned our tanks and readied to step into the water. “There is no current to contend with, and no visibility or weather problems.”
Delude was right. For my daughters, aged 11 and 14, the dive seemed a perfect introduction to the world of diving. Even experienced divers enjoy DiveQuest, though. With the diverse array of marine life in the 27-foot-deep (8.23 m) tank, divers see more in one dive than one would see during multiple ocean dives.
We can’t help but be thrilled as we explore the tank. At first, we follow our dive master as he points out certain marine life or formations around the tank. Then we head out to explore on our own. The Goliath grouper, just inches from my mask, looks at me for almost a minute before moving on. Then a huge sea turtle floats gracefully past, and a school of large gray fish swirl in circles below our feet.
While the sea life is amazing, that’s only half of the fun. At DiveQuest, you’re not only in the exhibit, youare the exhibit.
Land-based visitors can see the aquarium and divers from the Coral Reef Restaurant, which has large viewing windows. Other guests visit the Living Seas exhibit, which offers a seven-minute theater presentation and then “hydrolators,” which take guests to a simulated ocean floor to view the marine life.
My youngest daughter quickly discovers the viewers on the other side of the glass. She swims down in front of one little boy, placing her hands near his on the window. Several other little viewers take notice, and soon my daughter is performing somersaults and other aerobic tricks for the young audience on the other side of her own little aquatic stage.
One of the other divers has family sitting at a booth in the Coral Reef Restaurant, and they take pictures of him and wave. DiveQuest offers the rare opportunity for divers to share the experience with non-diving family members.
As with most Disney experiences, there is a photographer on hand to capture our day on film. Underwater videographer Jim Wilhelm motions for us to gather together for an underwater family photo, and then films us as we discover Disney’s marine realm.
DiveQuest is different from other Disney World attractions in that it is a non-profit organization. All profits from DiveQuest go to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, an organization that studies and works to help protect the world’s wildlife and ecosystems. The organization supports everything from new elephant habitats in Africa to the rehabilitation of orphan chimpanzees in the Congo. Knowing that our dive fee is helping to preserve nature’s bounty is another plus to our dive experience.
As I hover weightlessly in the water, an 8-foot (2.4 m) Sand Tiger shark saunters past just two feet in front of us. Its long body is lean and muscular, but he eyes us with disinterest and then moves on.
“Did you see that?” I pantomime to my daughter, eyes wide with excitement. It’s then that I learn another little-known fact of diving: It’s hard to keep a regulator in your mouth when it’s covered with a big, wide grin.
If You Go
DiveQuest offers two dives per day (4:30 and 5:30 p.m.), and groups are small, a maximum of 12 divers. All equipment, including wet suit, is provided. (Divers may bring their own mask, if desired.) Minimum age is 10.
Proof of dive certification is required. The total dive experience is 2.5 hours, including a one-hour orientation and 40 minutes in the water. Cost is US$ 175. Reservation and pre-payment is required.