Dolphins in Depth: Tour Report

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I hugged a dolphin at Epcot. And you can too!

My family of frequent Walt Disney World visitors is always looking for new Disney activities. We were excited when my twin daughters recently turned 13 and thus became old enough for the entire family to experience the Dolphins in Depth tour at Epcot together. During the tour we got to go backstage, enter the giant Living Seas aquarium, and get some quality bonding time in with a real live dolphin.

Our first stop was the meeting area outside the gates of Epcot. We were greeted by two cast members who gave us a little welcome speech and had us sign boilerplate waivers. We introduced ourselves and met the other guests on the tour. There is a limit of eight guests per Dolphins in Depth experience. Our group included my family of five plus a mother and her two adult schoolteacher daughters. This made for a very manageable experience.

We also were told that we could not take any photos backstage (thus the lack of photos in this article) and that, for the safety of the aquarium sea life, we must remove any and all jewelry before embarking on the tour.

First page of the waiver for children.

This “remove all jewelry” thing almost ended up being a deal breaker for my family. We were happy to remove our necklaces, earrings, and watches. But I simply could not remove my wedding ring due to pesky post-pregnancy weight gain. (Um, yes, my “babies” are 13. Don’t judge.) I told the cast members that I hadn’t been able to take off the ring for years and demonstrated that the ring was absolutely not going to fall off into the tank. I was asked to try again inside using soap and conditioner as a lubricant. The fact that even with soap, I couldn’t get the ring off seemed to upset the staff. I had to suggest taping the ring around my finger as an added measure of protection. This seemed to satisfy them, but it really should not have been such a challenging scene. I can’t believe that I was the first person to take this tour who couldn’t get a ring off. This would not be the tour to take if you have other jewelry or piercings that cannot be removed or securely taped. If, for example, you’ve recently had your ears pierced and can’t take the studs out for several weeks, you should not sign up for this tour.

Once the formalities were covered, we were ushered into a backstage hallway where we learned about dolphin anatomy and had the opportunity to ask questions about the experience. I’ve been on half a dozen other backstage tours. While most do encourage guest interaction, I have to say the small size of this tour group made for a particularly personalized experience. It was very much like a conversation with the Epcot cast rather than a lecture. We felt free to ask questions at every point.

After the anatomy lesson, we entered a workroom the back of the aquarium tank. This was our first view of the actual dolphins. They were held in a gated area, about the size of large backyard swimming pool, off the main tank. We learned that there are four dolphins at Epcot and that they each have their own personalities and proclivities.

My first impression: These guys are BIG, much larger than I had expected.

After this introduction and a short video about how the dolphins are trained, we were lead into locker rooms. There are, obviously, separate locker rooms for men and women. We were instructed to take off all jewelry and hair accessories and leave them in a locker with our valuables, cameras, etc. We then gave the locker keys to a cast member who subsequently put those keys into a lock box. I felt confident that my gear was secure.

Still in our street clothing, we had a very brief stop at a catwalk-like area over the main tank. We got to see here how much water the dolphins really had to move in when they’re given room to roam.

We then went into the main on-stage Living Seas exhibit. I was a bit frustrated since we had just been told to leave our cameras behind, but we were in an on-stage zone where photography is allowed. Grrrr. Anyway, we had a reserved, front row, spot for the public dolphin training session. Here, and in many subsequent comments, we learned that there is no right or wrong in dolphin behavior. They make their own choices. Sometimes they perform as planned, other times they do not, and both situations are perfectly OK.

Following the public show, we went back into the locker room to change for the water experience. Cast members had placed a name tag on a second locker for each guest. In the locker was a wetsuit and water slippers. We had earlier told the cast members what our shoe size was, but no one asked about other sizes. They had just guessed about what would fit.

We had a few minutes to use the facilities and change. There are about half a dozen private changing areas with curtains within the main locker room, so if you’re more comfortable with a bit of privacy, that’s an option.

The women in the other family in our group had worn their swimsuits to Epcot under their clothing, so they just had to take off a layer and put on the wetsuits. My girls and I had to undress, put on swimsuits and then put the wetsuits over this. This was all easier said than done in the short amount of time allotted. The wetsuits were tight and we needed to help each other quite a bit to get things zipped in the proper places. If I had to do this again, I’d start with the swimsuits already on.

More housekeeping: My girls and I all have fairly long hair. Anyone with chin-length hair or longer is required to have it pulled back when they’re in the tank. However, you can only use special biodegradable hair ties provided by Disney to do this. In my opinion, these ties are quite flimsy. If you have very long or very thick hair, ask for two or three of the special ties.

Then it was time for the tank. Each of the two families in our group had our own guide. We were led into a small dock-like area at the top of the main tank. This put us in the water about waist high.

We had more instruction and demonstrations about dolphin behavior, and then the trainer called a dolphin over to meet us. My family interacted with Calvin. First we were allowed to pet him in a specific way. I had never done anything like this before so and found it to be quite a moving experience. I won’t spoil everything, but I will say that we spent about 30-40 minutes actually in the water with the dolphins. We learned some of their commands, got to touch them several times, and had the opportunity to ask dozens of questions.

During the dolphin interaction, each guest on the tour has the opportunity to have a photo taken. Since my family had five members on the tour, we were allowed five photos. Instead of each taking individual shots, we opted for three solo shots of the girls. For my photo, I chose to have a picture of the the girls together with the dolphin. And my husband opted to have a shot taken with the entire family with the dolphin.

We were given printouts of the photos as we left. I have to say that the print quality was not super spectacular. They prints were slightly grainy and the redeye in the photos had haphazard touch-ups. But I suppose when you’re posing with a capricious 500 pound mammal, you can’t really complain.

After the water experience, we went back to the locker room to change. There are showers available, but not a lot of time. We did opt to rinse off for a second. Shampoo and body wash are provided in wall mounted dispensers. You should plan to bring your own hairbrush and whatever else you’ll need to facilitate a quick clean up.

The parting swag for the trip was a lightweight drawstring backpack. We ended up using these to corral our wet swimsuits, but I wish we had been provided (or had known to bring) a plastic bag for this purpose.

Back in clothing, we went to a classroom where we learned more about ecological impacts on dolphin habitats and filled out program evaluations.

At the end, we were ushered back outside the gates of Epcot. To get back inside the park, you have to go through the ticket turnstiles.

The question you are no doubt asking now is, “Is it worth it?” As usual, the answer is, “It depends.” For my family, this certainly was worth it. We had never done any marine mammal interaction before and my daughters had never been backstage at Epcot, so those aspects of the event were thrilling for them. My often cranky husband LOVED interacting with the dolphin, and if he’s happy, I’m happy. However, if you’ve done other dolphin interaction while on a cruise or if you’re planning to have dolphin experiences at SeaWorld, the fairly steep pricing of this may give you pause. You may want to do a bit of comparison shopping before taking the plunge.

Here are the details you need to plan your tour

  • Age requirement: All guests must be at least 13 years old.
  • Cost: The current price is $194.00 per person. As Disney Vacation Club members, we received a 15% discount. ALWAYS ask about discounts when booking any Disney tour.
  • When is it offered: M-F at 9:45 a.m. We initially tried to book this tour for Christmas Day, but it was not offered then. Holidays may be blocked out.
  • Maximum party size: This tour can only accommodate 8 people per day.
  • To book: Call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687)
  • Theme park tickets are not required.

So folks, have you done the Dolphins in Depth tour? What did you think? Is this something you have on your bucket list? What questions do you have about the experience? Let us know in the comments below.

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Posted on February 7, 2013

15 Responses to “Dolphins in Depth: Tour Report”

  • by Heather Louise on February 7, 2013, at 11:28 am EST

    As usual Erin, fantastic article. I truly hope in the future to visit WDW often enough to need to look for other experiences around the parks. Some day :)

    • I’ve been reading the comments concerning dolphin hunting and captivity. I haven’t seen The Cove, but I did read about it. Why are humans so cruel? The other Races were here long before Humankind. But humans would readily slaughter thousands of so many great Races and species, enslave them, and try to find some justification for it.

  • Great article! What a neat thing for your family to do!

    (How on earth did they train the dolphin to smile!?? Disney magic, I guess!)

    • You need to do a quick google search on the “truth behind the dolphin smile” and/or watch The Cove. Sad, but true. We all need to be educated on this issue – I didn’t even know myself until a few weeks ago.

  • I assume you’ve got your tongue firmly planted in your cheek. :-)
    Dolphins always look like they’re smiling.

  • Have always loved your blog posts, Erin. I recently commented favourably on your blog about asked for vegan food in France at Epcot. I have to say, though, that keeping highly intelligent and social Dolphins in captivity for the amusement of humans, even in a place as nice as Disney is problematic for me from a humane point of view. Watch The Cove a documentary that won an academy award. Prior to watching it, my family swam with Dolphins, too.

  • Thank you for letting me live vicariously through you! This looks so wonderful, I just can’t imagine that my family would ever be able to spend almost $1,000 just for this one experience. But my youngest is just 2 yrs, so maybe we will have graduated from ‘value’ side of Disney by the time he’s 13 :)

  • I enjoyed your detailed report, Erin. Reading your comments about how open the cast members were to your group’s questions, I was reminded of a question that I have long had about that attraction.

    The EPCOT dolphins are housed indoors, under a roof and appear to be blocked off from sunshine and fresh air. What are the long term negative effects, if any, to a dolphin living in an artificial environment lacking sunshine? Was this subject addressed on your tour?

    Bottlenose dolphins are found in sunny locations like Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Australia. The EPCOT dolphins live in Florida but never see sunshine.

    Think of what it would be like if we had to live indoors and could never go outside, or even look out a window.

    Making matters worse, water clarity issues and filtration problems have reportedly caused unscheduled shutdowns at The Seas. (I’ve noticed that sometimes the water is cloudy at The Seas—not clear like at other large aquariums.)

    Each year, The Walt Disney Co. donates money to fund conservation efforts and to help animals around the world through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

    I’d like to see Disney spend some of that money to aid four of its own—-Calvin, Khyber, Ranier, and Malabar.

    I’d like to see Disney safely remove the four dolphins from the park and relocate them to a seapen—-or to an area where they can at last swim in ocean water and soak up that Florida sunshine.

    • Yes…I am so disappointed to learn that Disney has dolphins in captivity. Just recently found out about the truth behind captivity and how horrible a life it truly is for the poor beautiful creatures…all for human entertainment. I just hope Disney gets smart and releases these animals to a seapen for rehab at a minimum…before they start receiving the backlash that SeaWorld is now getting.

  • Thanks for the review! I’m going on this tour in about a week and a half. Very excited! The pointers were great and I will wear my swimsuit under my clothes and bring a hairbrush.

  • I wonder if you have ever watched “The Cove” or even seen recent news reports on the mass dolphin slaughters in Taiji, Japan? I don’t think you wrote this blog with cruelty in mind, but if you understood how many dolphins are slaughtered horrifically for each captive dolphin you might think back on your memorable experience differently. These mammals are highly intelligent, and are not on this earth for our entertainment. I urge you to learn more and then share your knowledge with your followers. Respectfully, Clare.

  • I’ve always been a big fan of yours. Keep up the great work!

    However, I also would like you to know that these dolphins are brutally captured in the wild. The good looking ones are sold to marine parks for shows or ‘swim with dolphins’ programs and the rest of the pod is brutally killed.

    Yes, I am a Disney fan and I go to Disney World every year. In fact, I’ve also done their “Dive Quest” in EPCOT several times. I remember one of their employees told me that they separated a dolphin from the rest because it was not co-operative. I saw the dolphin “floating” miserably all by himself in a small tank in dim lights. In the wild, he would be swimming happily with his family.

    Of course, I didn’t know anything about dolphins capture back then.

    Anyway, I hope this shed some light about ‘swimming with dolphins’ in captivity. And, no, dolphins do not “smile”. It’s what comes natural to them.

  • Hi Erin, thanks for the article. My spouse Tom and I treated friends of ours (from Amsterdam)two teenage kids to a week at Disney in Feb 2014. We thought this would be a real treat for us all and it was. Mostly.
    While the time in the water with the dolphins was really quite amazing and yes, emotional, we felt for the price the rest of the time doing ‘classroom’ was too long. More time in the water would have been preferable, even if the educational portion was a smart addition.
    Ultimately, it was thrilling and moving to wrap your arms around such an animal, and for me it was the #1 thing we did. For the kids, it was further down the list, #2 and #4. The kids both liked Rockin’ Roller Coaster more! Sure it was expensive but it was a priceless addition to an already amazing week and I’d pay to do it again in a heartbeat!