It is really hard to gaze into the huge saltwater aquarium at "The Seas" pavilion at Walt Disney World's Epcot without wishing mightily to jump in and swim with all those creatures.
In a place identified with wishes made upon stars, this one is easily granted.
For the past 13 years, Epcot DiveQuest has invited certified scuba divers to take the plunge in the 6.7-million-gallon tank, and they have been taking advantage of it in droves.
"It keeps very busy," program manager Barry Olson said. "Five days a week, three groups of 17 per night is capacity. We get a lot of repeat business."
It's no wonder. This aquarium is probably the only saltwater body in Florida where you will encounter 40 species of marine life in a 45-minute dive. There are no rough seas, no strong currents and the tank is only 27 feet deep. The only drawback is the constant 77-degree water temperature — relatively chilly for a South Florida diver, but spa conditions for fish, rays, turtles and sharks that hail from the Caribbean.
I made my third Disney dive in January right after the venue held its popular marathon weekend of running and fitness events. One of the 18 divers in our group, a woman from St. Louis, had just completed the " Goofy Challenge" — an appropriately named athletic achievement that involves running the half-marathon (13.1 miles) one day and the marathon (26.2 miles) the next.
"I'm here. Might as well do it all, right?" the woman said, shrugging nonchalantly.
She also didn't seem to mind the cool water temperature, but after running more than 39 miles in two days, she probably was impervious to all forms of physical discomfort.
Because the aquarium is a closed system, the DiveQuest staff prohibits divers from bringing their own equipment — except for masks — to eliminate outside sources of contamination. Each diver is given a shorty wet suit — full wet suits would be too hard to fit — plus all other gear: tanks, buoyancy compensator vests, weights and fins. For every four divers, there is one divemaster. Divers suit up at the edge of the tank and head down together.
If you expect the animals to be startled and react to your arrival in their underwater living room, you will be disappointed.
"They really don't care. They don't even really know you're there," Olson said.
He was right. In the first few moments of the dive, I swam by fierce-looking sand tiger sharks, a large Goliath grouper, Southern stingrays, cow-nose rays and a spotted eagle ray. They barely glanced at me and kept on about their fishy business.
Olson said the aquarium staff feeds the animals twice a day, and the creatures are accustomed to seeing divers performing maintenance in the tank. Some of the creatures have lived there 20 years.
I noticed one of the Goliaths, and several smaller fish looked as though the skin had peeled from their faces, leaving a discoloration. Olson identified the condition as head and lateral line disorder — sometimes seen in the wild but mostly in aquariums. He added the park's veterinary staff is treating the fish.
The gigantic and colorful "coral" pillars decorating the huge tank are actually fakes made of plaster and fiberglass. But that doesn't stop the fish from using them as habitat. Some feisty sergeant majors and triggerfish have laid eggs on the ersatz reefs, and defend them fiercely from all intruders. One of DiveQuest's videographers was bitten on the knuckle by an upset triggerfish, according to one of the divemasters. But the gray fish with the barbed dorsal fin refrained from harassing anyone during our dive.
Besides swimming with your favorite denizens of the deep, one of DiveQuest's strongest appeals is that participants become honorary Disney "cast members." They are urged to smile when crossing from the backstage dive prep area into the public pavilion and are encouraged to interact with visitors peering at them through acrylic windows into the tank.
I had fun with a couple sitting at a window-side table in the restaurant. Eating, drinking and talking, they were oblivious to the huge green turtle that slept on the other side of the glass.
I knelt down on the bottom next to the turtle, careful not to touch it, and waved to the couple. They waved back, so I pointed to the sleeping turtle and made rock-a-bye-baby motions with my arms. Goofy, I know. Oh well, it looked like they were laughing.
After 45 minutes of interacting with the marine life "on stage" and the audience of humans, one of the divemasters signaled it was time to go up. We ascended as a group and followed him to the side of the tank. We shed our dive gear, grabbed towels and got a brief backstage tour of holding tanks where the staff works with dolphins and manatees.
Olson told me later he and his Disney colleagues helped coordinate the relocation of numerous sea turtles from east-central Florida's frigid Indian River Lagoon to warmer ocean waters in South Florida during January's prolonged cold weather. Part of the money for that effort and others like it comes from the $175 admission fee for each DiveQuest customer. Olson estimates DiveQuest has contributed more than $14 million to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.
"We're just following Walt Disney's legacy," he said.
And it would seem like visiting scuba divers are more than happy to help.