Last summer, my 14-year-old son asked if we could do a dive in an aquarium such as the Tennessee Aquarium or Georgia Aquarium for his birthday. My wife and I have been fortunate that he prefers experiences over things when it comes to birthday and Christmas requests. This was not that strange of a request for us since he and I are both rated Master SCUBA Divers. However, I quickly learned that the only aquarium in the Southeast that still allows SCUBA diving is the Georgia Aquarium. Unfortunately, it is very costly for just one dive and is popular enough that signing up involves a long waiting list.
We had pretty much given up on being able to do an aquarium dive until a serendipitous introduction that occurred during a dive trip off Anna Maria Island, Florida. My son had tagged along with me on this trip while I was assisting our local dive shop with an open water certification class. On the last day of the trip we had the adult son of two of our students join us so that he could dive with his parents. During the introductions, I learned that he was employed as a full-time diver with Disney World\’s Epcot at the Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavilion.
I told him about the difficulty in finding an aquarium that still allows dive tours, and that I had even researched their location. He informed me that they still allowed dive tours and conducted at least two daily. He took the time to explain to me how to make the reservations and I was surprised to learn that I could easily do it through the main Disney reservations phone number by asking to book a Disney DiveQuest tour. The Epcot DiveQuest experience allows SCUBA-certified guests to swim in the giant saltwater tank at the Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion.
When I called the number, it took less than five minutes to “buy the tickets,” and we were properly instructed on where to meet on the day of our dive along with what we were allowed to bring inside. I also learned that it is possible to book the dive without having a park admission ticket for Epcot. Since we were vacationing in Orlando soon, I made our reservations on the day my family would be visiting Epcot.
On the day of the dive, my son and I separated from the rest of our family, so that we would have time to cross Epcot to meet at the designated location. The sign-in process was quick and effortless. We were asked about shoe size and whether my son would prefer a full wet suit or a “Shorty” (one without sleeves and legs). Sorry, adults, they only have shorties for the grown ups.
The small group was then led into the “cast only” entrance to The Seas. We were given a tour of the “backstage” area of the facility which included the dolphin exhibit and the manatees exhibit. We were also shown the kitchen area where meals for the aquatic wildlife were prepared. Then we were led to a briefing room and instructed on where to go to change into our wetsuits and dive boots. The best part about this dive was that we could not bring our own dive gear with us which helped us with transportation and with not having to clean our gear afterwards. Personal masks are allowed, but we opted to use ones belonging to Epcot.
We were instructed to go into the locker room and look for the locker with our name on it. Inside the locker was a wetsuit, dive boots, and a towel. I was surprised to learn that while we were signing in, a cast member who is very knowledgeable about fitting wetsuits had covertly sized us up and matched us to the proper size. The gear assigned to my son and me fit perfectly; the DiveQuest personnel take great pride in being able to do this.
We were led to an area above the main exhibit where our BCDs, masks, and fins were waiting for us by the edge of the water. The staff gave us our safety briefing and instructed us on the schedule for the 40-minute dive. We were told to follow our Divemaster for the first ten minutes on an underwater tour. During this time, a professional underwater photographer/videographer would be shooting videos and taking photographs of us. Once the ten minutes were up, we were allowed complete access to the underwater exhibit and were instructed to try to found our families on the other side of the glass so that the videographer could shoot footage of us with the dry members of our family.
This was one of my favorite moments of the dive. I actually had to hunt for my family and the other family travelling with us, but I found them after a couple of minutes. We were also instructed to wave and be friendly to anyone else on the other side of the glass since were now volunteer Cast Members for Disney. Interacting with those inside the glass was exciting to me. Seeing the look of admiration on the face of my 8-year-old son through the glass as he gazed at his big brother and me was well worth the cost of this experience. Trust me, I will be duplicating this experience for him when he is old enough to be SCUBA certified.
The exhibit itself is modeled after a Caribbean Coral Reef inside the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium and contains over 6,000 sea creatures. The underwater environment has excellent visibility and no currents so you will have astounding views of sea turtles, angelfish, dolphins, rays, and sharks. Yes, I said sharks. I have almost two hundred dives on my dive log, but I had never had the opportunity to swim with a Hammerhead shark or a Sandtiger shark until this dive. The type and number of sea creatures available to interact with would have required over 20 dives in the ocean to match this encounter with no guarantee of sighting any of the them.
Another amenity offered during this experience is a professional video. Remember the videographer from earlier? Footage is quickly provided to an editing crew and the staff will have a completed video of your experience with footage of your group ready for your viewing by the time you change back into clothes and return to the briefing room. I was still partially wet and drinkng hot chocolate while watching us on the video! For a small price, you can purchase a copy which is provided to you on a unique USB stick. Go ahead and buy it. You will definitely want it later.
I highly recommend this dive experience for any certified diver. You could make this your first dive after your open water certification, but I recommend a little more experience so that you will be more comfortable and able to fully enjoy your 40 minutes under water. It is well worth the expense and can be added to your full park experience or planned as a separate vacation experience. Their equipment is well maintained, and it is awesome to have a dive trip with “concierge” dive equipment preparation. Dive gear can be heavy, and this was the only dive I have been on where someone else took my gear to the water’s edge for me.
Some information for you if you heed my recommendation and want to dive the Seas with Nemo and Friends:
Friends or family members are not allowed behind the scenes for this tour. However, they can view your dive through any of the 56 giant acrylic windows at The Seas with Nemo & Friends! The best location for friends and family to view your dive is from the upstairs viewport in the tunnel of the Living Seas Pavilion, approximately one hour after your tour begins. Park admission is required for Guests wishing to view divers.
All Guests must be SCUBA-certified and 10 years of age or older to participate. Guests 10 to 12 years of age must be accompanied by a paying adult (18 years of age or older). You will need to provide proof of certification, such as a C-card or verification from a certifying agency.
All diving equipment is provided. Personal diving equipment is not permitted though you may bring your own dive mask. Please bring a swimsuit.
No cameras, video equipment or cell phones may be used while backstage. Photography is allowed and encouraged in non-backstage areas.
No jewelry of any kind other than a watch is allowed in the aquarium.
Please check in at the Main Entrance of Epcot 15 minutes prior to the start of your experience. You will forfeit the entire price of your tour if you no-show or cancel within 2 days of your reservation.
Guest Blogger, Bryan Clanton, is a Georgia high school teacher who spent 14 years in local, state, and Federal law enforcement.
He holds the PADI Master SCUBA Diver rating and the Professional designation of PADI Divemaster. His son, Brandon holds dive certifications up to PADI Rescue Diver and also holds the PADI rating of Master SCUBA Diver.