Shark Reef Snorkeling at Walt Disney World

by Joel Simon

Kelly and Andrew Nelson had just arrived from Indiana. This was their first visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. They didn't come here to snorkel but, since the opportunity exists, they elected to try it. Although both are comfortable in the water, this was their introduction to snorkeling. Naturally, they were a bit anxious.

They checked the fit of each other's masks, put snorkels in their mouths and entered the underwater realm holding hands. Scarcely six feet beneath them, a four foot Leopard Shark gracefully slid into view. And then another shark glided by, even closer, and then another. Kelly's breathing almost stopped. When they remembered where they were, they relaxed and became tantalized by inquisitive French Angelfish, Blue Parrotfish, schools of small Yellow Grunts and a bevy of striped Sergeant Majors.

Andrew and Kelly were floating in shallow, crystal clear water amid dazzling colors and myriad reef fish. Although it felt and tasted like the sea, there was no surge, no current and no waves. In fact, they were in a totally protected environment, absolutely ideal for novice snorkelers of all ages.

They were immersed in Shark Reef, one of Walt Disney World's greatest attractions; 362,000 gallons of salt water brimming with Caribbean reef fish and enthusiastic snorkelers.

This facility is just one component of a 56 acre tropical water park called Typhoon Lagoon. In addition to snorkeling with sharks, the park features a variety of entertaining water-oriented activities. Castaway Creek allows guests to hop onto inner tubes and float through a misty rain forest and a hidden grotto. Towering Mt. Mayday, a manmade 95 foot peak capped precariously with a shipwreck, is interlaced with several dynamic water slides. And the two and a half acre Typhoon Lagoon, flanked with sandy beaches, entices guests to frolic in three foot waves generated by an ingenious device.

Walt Disney Imagineer Randy Bright explains, 'Upon entering Typhoon Lagoon, guests find themselves in a ramshackle, tin-roofed island village landscaped with cargo, surfboards and other marine wreckage left by the great storm.'

However, where much of the theme park's attractions have been created by the Disney team's imagination, in Shark Reef, the fish, rays and sharks are quite real. According to Kym Murphy, Bright's co-executive producer, 'We've created the most elaborate snorkeling facility of its kind in the world, where snorkelers can swim just inches away from fantastic creatures of the Caribbean.'

As with all Disney attractions, the safety, education and comfort of guests is paramount. To ensure these standards in the water sport activities, Disney formed an alliance with the dive industry's oldest training agency, the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). With its familiar motto 'Dive safety through education,' NAUI has proved the perfect Disney partner to guarantee these mutual goals.

According to NAUI president Jim Bram, the relationship between the two organizations can be traced to one individual: long-time Disney employee and NAUI instructor Wayne Mitchell. After many active years in the dive industry, Wayne began working with Disney in 1971. He is now its Senior Safety Administrator and, through the years with Disney Imagineers, has created the safety infrastructure that supports all the water oriented activities.

I had the opportunity to meet Wayne during my visit. After brief introductions, the story of Typhoon Lagoon's creation unfolded.

'Although I may have been a catalyst in building our water park, all Disney projects are team efforts,' said Wayne, with his customary modesty. 'All our endeavors, both physical and administrative, are a complex joining of many diverse elements and, with Typhoon Lagoon, we had to learn through experience. Initially, all this land was basically swamp. Long before the Environmental Protection Agency mandated environmental impact reports, we contracted our own to ensure that our goals could be accomplished without adverse effects....It took years of work to effectively transform a bog to the lively, landscaped complex you see today.'

Wayne explained that the learning process extended into the water as well as the land. 'You'll notice that while the fish are quite real, the aquatic decor is not. It took us many months to determine how best to fabricate what nature had spent eons designing. All our corals, sponges and other invertebrates are carefully reproduced in fiberglass and then colored with nontoxic paint. By limiting the biology, we are better able to focus nutrient levels specifically needed to keep the fish and the snorkelers healthy.

'With the creation of Typhoon Lagoon, new safety issues were also generated. Disney prides itself on four fundamental operating standards: safety, cleanliness, show quality and guest satisfaction. We knew Typhoon Lagoon would be an attraction with great potential for education, quality and satisfaction. But, to ensure guest safety, we had to develop a core of qualified staff, and we began training our employees. We now have more than 200 NAUI certified divers on the property.'

I was staggered by this figure and asked what they all did. Wayne explained that in the Walt Disney World complex there are seven separate water systems, all with their respective needs. 'Divers do an extensive range of tasks here. They maintain more than 66 miles of canals and 770 acres of lakes, and clean the hulls of literally hundreds of boats. For example, every morning divers scrub algae from the coral structures in Shark Reef. Additionally, we have one of the state's best search and rescue teams. Although they are fully able to retrieve people, most often it's toys, eyeglasses, rings or other accidentally dropped personal items. Even though many of the waterways and lakes have very limited visibility and mud bottoms, our success rate is 98 percent.'

Wayne Mitchell, Jim Bram and Ken Murdock, Walt Disney World's Director of Corporate Alliances, agree that NAUI is instrumental in the success of the park's watersports. Says Ken, 'We are excited about the opportunity to associate the Shark Reef experience with one of the most respected names in diving.' As the official sponsor of Shark Reef, NAUI provides recommendations on equipment and safety standards and broadens the educational component overall. Jim Bram echoes Wayne's comments regarding the team approach, 'All the staff at Disney has been very receptive to new ideas....The Disney team is thoroughly professional and offers a very positive working environment.'

One creative idea that has become reality is the invitation to NAUI instructors to use Shark Reef for class check-out dives. The facility is often used in this way by NAUI instructors based in Florida but was recently utilized by a NAUI class that came all the way from Germany. To make reservations for class, instructors should contact Michael Putz at (407) 560-4092. Visiting NAUI class students receive a discount on their Walt Disney World admission ticket as an added courtesy.

Careful planning and implementation show in every aspect of the Shark Reef experience. Hundreds of people from all over the world are introduced to the joys of snorkeling each day. Many had never snorkeled before. Others would never venture into 'shark infested' waters outside of the conscientious safety infrastructure of Walt Disney World.

The following day, at Wayne's suggestion, I went through the Shark Reef activities from start to finish. After entering the complex, guests can utilize changing areas and lockers for safe keeping of personal items. Once at Shark Reef, masks, snorkels and sleeveless wetsuits are obtained. Fins aren't needed. After getting equipment, guests proceed to the pool's large entry area. While some people prefer to walk over a bridge, most take advantage of the tunnel created by the overturned steel hull of an old ship. In this passageway, guests can look through portholes beneath the water's surface, viewing other snorkelers among the fish. I chose this route, lingering near some rusty old gauges while watching the dynamic scene. This is where I met Andrew and Kelly. They stood beside me, mesmerized at the view. At the end of the corridor, a series of steps took us to a broad waterfall and the wide shallow steps used for entry.

The snorkeling instructor gave us some simple instructions: refrain from touching the fish, stay relaxed in the water while slowly swimming to the exit stairs and make sure masks and snorkels are properly in place. At the 'go-ahead' sign, we were off, sliding into the refreshing water and floating among schools of French Grunts, Blue Tangs and Sergeant Majors.

I was one of the last of our group to leave the water. Just behind me, Andrew and Kelly emerged on the steps, still holding hands. 'All my life I've been scared to death of sharks, I just never thought I'd be brave enough to do this!' Kelly exclaimed. As we walked to the freshwater shower, they asked me if it was dangerous to do this in the ocean. I told them it wasn't, in fact it was great fun, but that some additional training would allow them to be more comfortable.

'Where can we take some lessons?' they asked. 'Give NAUI a call,' I answered. 'That's the best place to start.'

To obtain further information on NAUI's many educational tools, diving and snorkeling instruction, and affiliated stores and resorts, call (800) 553- 6284 or visit the Web site at http://www. naui. org.