Diving in Epcot - Disney DiveQuest!
When you almost exclusively dive in the cold waters of Monterey, any trip to someplace warm feels like an opportunity to get your SCUBA on. While Florida has no shortage of great outdoor dive sites, our recent visit to Walt Disney World had us land-locked in central Orlando so we had to get creative! Luckily for us, Disney offers a SCUBA diving experience as part of the Epcot park, where certified divers can get a behind-the-glass look at the 5.7 million gallon aquarium and swim with over 1,000 different species of sea critters.
I had done a similar form of this dive some 15 years ago, where my sister and I used a hookah-style air delivery system "dive" instead of tanks, so I was excited to get the full experience as a certified diver and return to the pavilion for another trip into the aquarium. The tour, which is a separate admission from the park and includes a short backstage trip through the facility, culminated in a 46 minute dive in the tank's 27ft deep ecosystem that houses turtles, rays, and a number of different fish species.
The experience began at 4:30pm on a day that we hadn't purchased separate Epcot tickets. After security and bag checks at the entrance of the park, we went over to Guest Services and met up with the group. Our guide gave us a quick briefing of what we could expect with our dive, then went around and recorded our t-shirt sizes, shoe sizes, checked our certification cards, and guessed our wetsuit sizes. After doing this for the group of 16, she handed her clipboard over to a different cast member and we went off through an employee entrance to the back of the aquarium compound. While Disney got our dive gear ready for us behind the scenes, we got to see the manatee tanks and the kitchen area where food for the sea creatures is prepared. After signing liability forms, we headed down to the locker rooms to prepare for the dive itself!
In the locker rooms, we had towels and wetsuits waiting for us in a locker that had our name on the door. We got changed into our 2.5mm "shorties" and put all of our stuff away - the only personal gear that DiveQuest permits are masks and wrist computers. Jewelry, hair ties with metal elements, and Magic Bands were not allowed in the tank with us.
With our wetsuits on, we walked out through the manatee exhibit and the guest area over to a set of spiral stairs that lead to the top of the center of the aquarium. At the top of the tank, all of our gear was lined up, assembled, and ready for us. The gear that they provided were all Scuba Pro brand and appeared to be relatively good quality - better than rentals that I've gotten from dive shops in the past, at least! Because of the shallow depth of the aquarium tank and the unlimited air refills that were offered to us for our dive, the gear was assembled without a back up secondary stage / octo. The overall kit felt light as a result - we were also diving with 63cf tanks instead of 80s.
I was pleasantly surprised that they offered prescription masks in -2 to -5 strength prescriptions. I dove with a -2 mask, which was stronger than my usual prescription but the lowest they offered, and it was great to see everything clearly and sharply in focus compared to the blur I usually have with my own mask! I didn't have any issues with fogging or leaks, but my dive buddy did with the mask they provided him, so if you're particular about your mask and do this experience, I'd recommend bringing it along with you.
The gear was assembled on a large, gently sloped platform in the center of the tank and we stood in the waist-deep water to put our BCDs on. When we were settled in all our gear, we were told to inflate the BCDs and head out to where one of our three dive masters would be waiting for us in the water with a buoy. As a group, we descended down to about 20 feet and did a short tour around the tank as a group, then got to branch off and meet our friends at the tank viewing area to get pictures with them.
The dive itself is an incredibly easy one - the water is a warm 77°F / 25°C and the maximum tank depth is 27ft, though the dive instructors asked that we stay five feet above the bottom at all times to avoid the paths that the sharks in the tank take. You can easily see across the tank, so visibility isn't a problem, and many of our diving companions were either newly certified or returning to diving after a long hiatus.
With aquarium dives, you're guaranteed to see specific types of sea life, which is awesome in its own right but doesn't have quite the same satisfaction of seeing something out in the wild. That said, there are a number of things that you get to see during a dive like this one that you might not be able to see elsewhere, like sharks and turtles at the same time. One of my favorite parts was approaching a massive ray in the tank - it was longer than I am tall, and it was awe-inspiring to swim up to where it was resting and get a sense of the true scale.
The tank at Epcot is separated into two components, where one side houses the dolphins. We didn't get to dive with the dolphins, but we did get a sneak peak at their enclosure when we left the tank after our dive was completed.
During the dive, Zach and I buddied up and went around the tank a few times slowly, taking time to stop and wave at other guests who were looking at the exhibit from the other side. Unfortunately, photos and videos behind the scenes aren't permitted and we weren't allowed to bring cameras into the tank, though the experience did offer a $35 video for purchase that had a few shots of us from under the water.
At $179 per person, DiveQuest isn't cheap (though they do include a t-shirt or hat as a souvenir) but it's a memorable dive and if you're the kind of person who enjoys seeing the behind-the-scenes of theme parks or a big Disney fan, it's a dive worth doing. Non-certified swimmers can do a similar snorkeling version of the tour for $145. Despite the cost, our group was still fairly large - at times, the tank felt almost a bit crowded and it would have been better with a smaller group.
After the dive, we watched our dive video and were offered water and hot chocolate. Zach asked a few questions about the camera and housing that they used for our dive and we were given our t-shirts and a few other stickers/pins. They released us out into the park after the dive, which was unexpected since we hadn't paid for a separate admission that day, but it meant that we got to catch the IllumiNations show one last time before it was replaced with a new show. All in all, it was a fantastic afternoon easy dive full of Disney magic, and I would definitely recommend it!
A special thanks to our friend Paul for taking the photos of us in the tank during our dive that you see in this post!