Walt Disney World has many backstage tours. Most of the tours that I have experienced I found doing once was enough. I enjoyed them, but not enough to pay to do it more than one time. My exception to that is the Aquatour in the Living Seas Pavilion at Epcot.
Although the beginning of the tour is similar each time, the experience of snorkeling with over 65 species of marine life varies every time. It’s beautiful and amazing to swim with these sea creatures.
The first cool thing about the Aquatour is that park admission is NOT required, unlike most other tours at Walt Disney World. The 2.5 hour tour starts at 12:30 PM and is available Tuesday through Saturday. You meet up with your guide by the package pick up area in the front of the park at 12:15, and you enter the tour area through a back door. Before you actually start, the guide will be sure everyone is present and will check the proper size for everyone’s wetsuit and flippers. He or she will also check your photo ID and make sure you are not wearing jewelry (when you book they tell you to bring ID, not to wear jewelry and to bring a bathing suit. Additionally, you are informed that no photos are allowed backstage).
Now it’s time for the tour! Before you actually go into the building you pass through an outdoor backstage area where the water from the fish tanks inside the Living Seas is filtered. The guide explains the entire aquarium is completely filtered 4 times per day, which is pretty amazing considering that in total the tanks hold almost 6 MILLION gallons of water. The filters are nothing like what you’d see in a home aquarium. They are huge and there are quite a number of them.
Once you enter the building you walk up a set of steps (there is an elevator if you cannot manage stairs) and you emerge on the second floor of the Living Seas in the room where you can observe Manatees. At the time we arrived a Cast Member was giving a talk about Manatees and how the two that are currently there came to be residents. One was injured by a motor boat and its tail was almost completely sheared off, it cannot paddle properly to live in the wild. The other was found as an orphan. They tried to release it a number of times and each time it would not eat and become quite thin. They realized it never learned how to hunt for food because it was orphaned so young and never had the chance to observe other manatee’s behavior. So it was decided this manatee would live at Epcot, otherwise it would die in the wild.
Next, we were brought to the fish “cafeteria.” We were told that the fish eat food that is fit for human consumption and that diets vary from species to species and even within species. Some of the food (lettuce and other veggies) fed to the fish is grown in the Land Pavilion’s greenhouses, I thought that was cool. They said some of the fish are very choosy about what they eat and how it is fed to them. There is a big white board on the wall with the names of each of the larger fish (there are too many tiny fish to name each one) and what that fish eats as well as the preferred way to feed each fish.
The refrigerator that holds the food is huge, as you can imagine. We were not allowed inside the fridge, but we got to peek in. One quick aside: The first time I did the tour I had a very knowledgeable guide. This last time the guide was clearly new. When anyone asked questions he, for the most part, directed the question to another Cast Member (who I assume was there to observe and assist the new guide). It was nicer to have the more experienced guide, but in no way did the newer guide ruin the experience, any questions he couldn’t answered were handled just fine by the cast member who was assisting.
Next we were led into a room where we all signed waivers saying we would not hold Disney responsible if we were injured while snorkeling, and also stating we were not to touch any of the marine life that we came in contact with. The guide spoke about this as well. If any of the marine life come to you and touch you that’s fine, but you cannot reach out and pet any of them. Next it was time to prepare to go into the tank and snorkel, the moment we all had been eagerly awaiting.
Naturally there are separate locker rooms for males and females to change in. Everyone is assigned a locker and when you enter you clearly see your name taped onto the locker that is yours.
Inside the locker will be your wetsuit, a towel and, to take home as a souvenir, a string backpack. They tell you to leave the towel there for later after you shower; there are plenty of towels by the tanks if you need one when you get out of the water. I was with my daughter Sarah, we each had our own locker. We changed and went outside to wait for the entire group to assemble.
As we exited the guide took the keys to our lockers and put them away for safekeeping. Each key was numbered, so it’s important to remember what number you were assigned.
And now the “piece de resistance”—snorkeling time! Each of us entered the water via a ladder and were instructed to turn our backs to the cast members there to assist us. We were helped into a vest with a pressure gauge attached as well as a mouthpiece/respirator to breathe into underwater. The vest has an air tank on the back. Once we had our vests on we put on our flippers, which tighten very easily with pull tabs connected to each flipper. At this point, everyone gets their picture taken, another souvenir that is included in the tour and then we were given face masks to keep our eyes and nose out of the water. When everyone had their equipment on we were then told to put the mouthpiece in and each of us were checked to be sure it was working properly. Then off we went!
It takes a little getting used to the first time you snorkel, because psychologically you “feel” like you can’t breathe—after all you normally can’t underwater! But once you relax you get used to it and you can really enjoy yourself. The respirators work great and you can breathe easily. When my daughter and I first got in a sea turtle swam right over to us! We also saw manta rays, (harmless) sharks, tons of colorful species of fish and other marine life. A fun thing is to go over to the viewing area where guests are outside looking into the tank. Everyone loves to wave to you and it was awesome waving back.
They told us before we got in the water to keep an eye on our pressure gauges to be sure we don’t run out of air. Once it hits 500 you go back to get another canister with air. But not to worry—this is not a dive, it is snorkeling, and you are not able to go down more than a foot or so. Worst case scenario you could just raise your head and you would be breathing “normal” air. I had to change my tank once during the 45 minutes we had in the water. It is so very beautiful and relaxing snorkeling with these gorgeous creatures, and you feel safe because it’s not an ocean and all the fish in the tank are people friendly. The time flies by, and before you know it they tap you to let you know your time snorkeling is over.
We all wrapped ourselves in dry towels and headed off to the locker room. On the way we stopped for a while to observe a trainer working with four dolphins. I don’t think you see this each time, as I didn’t see it when I did the tour in 2011. It was a real bonus watching the trainer put the dolphins through their routines. The best was seeing all four jumping high in the air and then landing back in the water with a huge splash. Very cool indeed.
The locker room is quite clean and has showers for all. The showers come complete with shampoo, conditioner and body wash. They are quite large, with a bench to sit on (where the water cannot reach), to comfortably put on your dry clothes and footwear. Afterwards there are plenty of hairdryers as well as a wringer to get most of the water out of your wet bathing suit. We waited in a hallway for the rest of the group, and at that time we received our souvenir photos. I loved the way the one of my daughter and me came out, they use a really good quality camera. The guide led us out the way we came in and the tour was over. We were sad to go, it was so much fun.
The Aquatour currently costs $145 per person, and, as noted earlier, is available Tuesday through Saturday from 12:30 until 3:00. There is a 15% discount for Annual Pass Holders, DVC members and Disney Visa Card holders. When you book the trip at 407 WDW TOUR they will take your credit card to hold your reservation. Be sure to cancel within 48 hours if you change your mind, otherwise you will not get a refund. This tour is for guests ages 8 and up, anyone under 12 must be accompanied by an adult. A percentage of the fee for the tour goes to the Disney Conservation Fund, helping wildlife throughout the world.