Being as how EPCOT’s 30th Anniversary was just a few days ago, I thought this interview would be perfect! For those of you who remember The Seas before Nemo & Friends moved in, it used to be called The Living Seas, and as home to Seabase Alpha.
Today we chat with Aaron,who worked there in the mid-90s as Scientific Dive Intern. He’s got some great stories, great photos, and a fantastic video from INSIDE the Lockout Chamber! How cool is that?!
JEFF: How you did get into Disney to begin with? Any specific memory as a child that made you fall in love with it?
AARON: I have many memories of WDW. I grew up loving Disney. My mom made a big mistake when marrying my dad. He had never been to Disney. She wanted to do WDW as the honeymoon. She created a monster. Growing up as a kid outside of Chicago, we visited WDW at least once a year if not more… One of my first teeth, if not my first tooth, came out at O’hare airport on a trip to Disney. During high school, I interviewed with one of the local The Disney Stores (#368 Northbrook IL). The first question both the store manager and assistant manager asked me was did I want the job or did my dad want me to get the job so he could get my discount. My answer was, “Both.”
I actually got into scuba diving (and Ocean Engineering) because of Disney. When Disney opened Typhoon Lagoon, I spent so much time snorkeling at Shark Reef that when we got back to the hotel room, my back was sunburnt but my front was still white. I signed up for scuba classes after that trip.
JEFF: You told me earlier that you were a Scientific Dive Intern from June 1995 to Jan 1996. How did you land that position?
AARON: From repeated trips to The Living Seas, I knew they had various internships. I found the information on the dive internship and applied for the internship multiple times. One of my areas of study was Ocean Engineering, so it was related enough to make it through their typical filter even though most interns tended to be marine biology, biology, or behavior psychology students. Other requirements for the position including being an open water certified diver (lowest level of certification), being a junior or higher in a 4 year degree program and a GPA that I do not recall.
I did not get it the first time I applied, which turned out to be a good thing (although it hadn’t felt that way at the time). As a result of my failure in getting the internship the first time, I interned during the period in which they both beta tested and started EPCOT DiveQuest. One of the requirements for the EPCOT DiveQuest program is that the cast-members had to be certified DiveMasters or higher. I was already a DiveMaster so it worked out quite nicely and I was able continue working with the DiveQuest program after the internship ended (I was attending school at The Florida Institute of Technology which is about 67 miles/90 minutes away).
JEFF: Can you give me an overview of what that job entailed? What was a typical day there like?
AARON: As a Scientific Dive Intern, I was part of the dive team. At the time, Living Seas support consisted of the scientific dive team, aquarium team, marine mammal team, dolphin research team, chemistry, fish pathology, and life support teams (simplified description). The dive team members were the jack of all trades who assisted the other departments as needed and performed simple tank maintenance and guest interaction. We typically rotated roles/responsibilities in 30 or 60 minute increments. This could include being at the manatee module (feeding the manatees, recording how much they ate, talking about manatees with guests), doing guest interaction in the SeaBase or the Coral Reef restaurant, performing lock-out demonstrations, driving “Rover” around the tank (Rover was an ROV or Remotely Operated Vehicle), or doing dives in the main tank for fish feeds, demonstrations, or cleaning. Some days I would spend all 9 hours (including the 1 hour lunch break) in a wetsuit. Other days I might be in/out of the wetsuit 3 or 4 times, or I might not get wet at all. We would also be responsible for aquarium opening/closing. The opening responsibilities included filling/checking all emergency air (“pony”) bottles, testing all of the emergency alarm systems, and prepping scuba gear. We also were the tour guides for the Dolphin Exploration Education Program, the pre-cursor to Disney’s Dolphins In Depth. We would assist with food preparation and/or cleanup as well. Our food prep facility was cleaner than many restaurant kitchens (especially the ones you see on TV shows) and was entirely washed down every day. By entirely, I mean all counters, walls, floors, cabinets, etc… We prepared roughly 500 lbs of restaurant quality food every day. The manatees alone (we had 3 at the time) ate 60-80 heads of romaine lettuce each.
As interns, we were expected to complete our AAUS (American Academy of Underwater Sciences) Science Diver certification. In order to achieve that, we needed a minimum 50 hours of practical training (10 hours each of Fish Feeding, Dolphin Research Sessions, Surface Supplied Diving, Underwater Equipment, and Remote Operated Vehicle operation), 24 hours of cross-utilization (8 with the Aquarium team, 8 with the marine mammal team, 4 with chemistry, 2 with life support, and 2 with pathobiology), and 26 hours of course work (10 hours of field trips, 10 hours for a report, 5 hours for Seabase Challenge presentations, and 1 hour of Fish ID).
The Surface Supplied Diving training included a custom designed course that allowed us to learn to use commercial dive equipment such as Superlight 17 commercial dive helmets. “Superlight” is something I would describe only in comparison to older style dive helmets. Out of the water, they weigh over 20 lbs and it is all supported on your shoulder. Normally this is something that you would do through a 6 month long commercial dive school. There were multiple training dives. During the 3rd dive we had to disassemble and reassemble a 24 piece pipe puzzle. Dive 4 was a zero visibility dive. Rather than mucking up the aquarium, they put a layer of duct tape over our faceplate and we had to do the puzzle again. We were situated right in front of the ride windows, so my faceplate would keep going from dark grey to light grey as guests took photos. The reassembly of the pipe puzzle was timed, and I set a new record despite their turning off my air supply. However, one of the other interns (DruAnn) also set a new record that was better than mine…
As the EPCOT DiveQuest program started up, we (the interns) were frequently helping run it, as it was very manpower intensive (7 cast member for 5 hours per night to handle 16 guests for 3 hours in 2 groups of 8), and Disney was trying to ramp up a new team. For DiveQuest, those of us who were DiveMasters or higher could take the DiveMaster and/or safety diver position while the others helped in the Video Editor, Greeter (dry tour guide) or videographer roles.
The most common practical joke at the time was for a diver coming out of the tank to go and hug a dry (clothed) co-worker. My dad did not appreciate that when I did it to him when he visited.
JEFF: After that, you were an Animal Care Specialist (aka DiveMaster) with the EPCOT DiveQuest program. I assume this was full time position, as opposed to your internship? Can you tell me about this job and what it entailed?
AARON: Actually, the interns were considered full-time/salaried. We worked 9 hours per day, 5 days a week (1 hour of lunch being included in the 9 hours). Per Disney job classifications, the DiveQuest Divemasters were titled as Animal Care Specialists. In reality, the position specifically required the divers to be DiveMasters or above, and other than occasionally helping the other teams, mostly involved the DiveQuest program or helping with tank maintenance and lockout demonstrations. This was a part-time job for all of us (except the team manager) as shifts were 5 hours per evening and we were considered Casual Regular (hourly).
JEFF: Can you explain to the readers a little bit about the lockout chamber? What was its function? Why the heck was it so cool to watch?!
AARON: Lockout chambers serve the same type of function on submarines/ships that airlocks do on spacecraft. They allow a diver to get into/out of the vessel without flooding the entire ship. Normally, they are not 30 foot tubes of acrylic. A diver in the tank could swim the tube while it was flooded, and allowing the assistant outside the chamber to empty it, allowing them to exit into the air filled Seabase Alpha (as it was themed then) without flooding it. To enter the tank, the tube would be drained allowing a diver to enter, and then the tube would be flooded allowing the diver to exit. The lockout chamber was primarily intended for show purposes and almost all main tank diving starts from the dive platform on top of the ITM (In Tank Module) at the top of the aquarium.
The lockout chamber door opens inward into the tube, so if the tube is flooded, the water pressure holds the door shut. As a practical joke, you could fill the tube only half-way so the door was held shut by the water pressure and the diver was trapped since they couldn’t swim to the top nor open the door.
As for coolness, I always think it is cool to see a scuba diver. When I was interning at Disney, after having been dive certified for 5 years at that point, my parents (and sisters) were finally able to see me underwater. They had always been watching me walk down into the lake and seeing me come out 20-60 minutes later prior to that point.
JEFF: Why did you drop to a Casual Temp in 2001, if you don’t mind my asking?
AARON: I graduated from college in 1998 and dropped to Casual Temp upon accepting a job offer in Austin, Texas. I maintained CT status through 2001 when I was pink slipped due to the downturn. I officially received a letter saying I was no longer considered employed because I had not met the CT requirement of working 1 day each 6 months when the reality was that I had tried to schedule shifts that would have kept me up to date and was told not to bother as all DiveQuest CTs were being let go.
JEFF: You mentioned that you were in the main tank, too. What did you do in there? Was there a show that went along with being in there with Scuba Mickey?
AARON: There were a number of tasks that could occur during main tank dives. We could go in for the fish feeds, to scrub the “coral” of algae build-up, to clean the windows, to help with research, to interact with guests through the windows (a particular favorite), or for the DiveQuest program.
We could also help Mickey dive. At the time, Mickey did not perform a show. He would typically swim to the restaurant or VIP lounge with a sign to commemorate a particular event. In the internships prior to mine, the interns got more opportunities to dive with Mickey as the EPCOT character breakfast was at the Coral Reef restaurant and he would dive frequently for that. It got switched to the Land pavilion shortly prior to my internship, and Mickey started diving for special events only.
JEFF: As a side question to that, just how did Scuba Mickey work?! Was it a special suit? I assume they had their air INSIDE the suit…I would hope!
AARON: If you Google for scuba Mickey pictures, most of them are frontal shots not side view, but if you find any side view pictures, you will see Mickey wears a scuba cylinder just like any other diver. His scuba tank is painted to match his wetsuit, and his regulator (breathing device) is adapted to fit his uniquely shaped mouthed. Because of the regulator adaption, it is hard to get the regulator in and out of his mouth. Thus his scuba cylinders use J-valves instead of K-valves. J-valves are an older type of tank valve that are no longer in common use. J-valves have a lever that reserves 500 psi (1/6 of the tank) as an emergency supply. If he were to “run out of air”, he can pull the lever, and the last 1/6 of the tank is released. J-valves were very common in diving in the 60’s-80’s before reliable pressure gauges were in common use. They were decreasing in the frequency of usage in the 90’s.
One of the general rules in scuba diving is that you always dive with a buddy. Mickey actually dives with two buddies because whereas his buddy could rescue Mickey if it was needed, Mickey can’t easily rescue his buddy, so you have a buddy for the buddy. The secondary buddy needs to be a certified Rescue diver or higher. The primary buddy needs additional special training, and needs to be a certified DiveMaster or higher.
JEFF: Any times you can think of that you went out of your way to make a guest’s visit more magical? Any marriage proposals?
AARON: Well, it was always fun being picked for the special event dives. A guest could make an arrangement for divers to bring a sign (and/or other items) down to the VIP lounge or the Coral Reef Restaurant. These signs were typically birthday wishes, anniversary greetings and — most fun of all — marriage proposals. Typically, at the scheduled time, a dive team would go down toward the restaurant, and the one of the Coral Reef servers or host/hostesses would be near the table with a small indicator to make sure we made it to the correct table. When I was not picked (managers rotated who got to do the dive), I would try to find other ways to help out such as video taping the event from either side (dry or wet) of the windows.
One time I carried the sign and ring for one of the divers who was doing the DiveQuest program. His (soon to be) fiancé was not dive certified, and we helped him propose through the window. When the dive was over, I offered to go get her and bring her back to see him but he refused. Apparently, they had been talking about the possibility of getting married and she had one rule for him: propose privately. Instead I helped him propose in front of about 8 divers and 20-40 people in the ITM… After the proposal, she ran to use the payphones to let her parents know and discovered that they already knew he was going to propose. Fortunately, she was happier about the proposal than unhappy about the manner of its delivery.
Another time, I happened to know that a college friend was going to be eating at the Coral Reef with her family, and I created the largest sign every delivered (at that point in time, anyway; no clue if my record has been beaten) by spray painting a king size bed sheet (I made sure to find a non-toxic paint).
Another thing we would do is play games through the windows. I would go down to the restaurant with a sign saying “May I join you?” and when they gestured me to join them, I would pull plasticware out of a pocket in my gear. We had erasable slates and would write messages to people such as “In case of fire, break glass!” We would also go down and try to get people to do the wave across the restaurant or try and get people to do the Macarena.
Yet another game was a variation of patty cake. I would go to the windows and place my hands against them and encourage a child to put his hands opposite mine. I would then move my hands up, down, etc… After a couple of moves, I would cross my arms to flip my right and left hands. Kids did not always realize I had crossed my hands, so I would try to make it very obvious. Once the kid finally crossed their arms, I would uncross mine… by flipping upside down and hovering upside down. Kids would typically have one of several reactions:
1) Cross their arms and look at me like I had cheated
2) Have their parents hold them upside down
3) Flip over so they were arched over backwards against the window
One day after leaving the Main Street Barbershop, I ran into a family with a small child who was crying because she had lost her autograph book. I went into the Emporium, got a new one for her, and signed it.
JEFF: Any other fun stories that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!
AARON: I have plenty of stories over the years. Some of them are now prohibited such as cannonballing from the rafters into the tank (you always wanted to look down before jumping, as hitting a shark would be a bad idea).
One male friend managed to get bitten between the legs by our female spotted eagle ray (fortunately, it only got the wetsuit). Our videographer had the camera pointed in the wrong direction to capture it, but we kept watching AFV hoping someone in the ITM had caught it and turned it in.
With Disney being known for the quality of the illusions, there were times people weren’t always sure if the divers and fish were real or animatronics. Sometimes we tried to skew the vision by sitting/standing in front of the windows and performing the same motion over and over again. This had interesting effects. A guest came up to me and another intern at Lockout and apologized to her for his rudeness through the window. He had ignored a diver trying to interact with him because he thought it was an animatronic until we did the Lockout presentation.
I had a friend in the attractions department (the folks getting you on and off the sea cabs). She was at ride unload when a man and woman came up to her. The woman said “I know the fish are real, but what is the water made of?” My friend replied “Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.” The woman punched the man in the shoulder (we presume they were married), and said “See, I told you it was fake!”
We would also spend time hanging out at the windows above the ride tunnel (before they were closed off for the Nemo ride). So many guests never looked up at the windows above them. Those who did sometimes jumped when they saw the divers above them.
One time I ended up escorting a family from the Living Seas to EPCOT First Aid (behind the Odyssey). Walking across the park in a full 7 mm wetsuit in 100+ degree heat is a fairly good way to get overheated. On the way back I stopped at a beverage cart and requested a cup of ice. When the Cast Member gave it to me, I poured the entire cup of ice down into the front of my wetsuit. It felt great, and watching her jaw bounce off the floor was great. Especially after I handed the cup back to her and said Thank You.
JEFF: Do you still work in the field now? And if so, doing what?
AARON: It really depends on what you mean by in the field. I studied ocean engineering and electrical engineering in college, and the internship was (somewhat) related to the Ocean Engineering degree. I am now a LabVIEW freelance programmer (LabVIEW is a graphical programming language). So from the degree view I am working in fields related to Electrical Engineering, which was not directly related to my internship. However, from the point of view of being a DiveMaster with the DiveQuest program, then I am still actively involved in diving at a supervisory dive level. I am a DiveMaster assisting with classes as Scubaland Adventures (www.scubaland.com) in Austin, Texas and a crew member on Fling Charters (www.flingcharters.com), a live-aboard dive boat that takes divers to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/).
Thanks so much for sharing with us, Aaron!
Be sure to check out some of Aaron’s underwater photography at his website as well.
And be sure to check back every week to read more directly From The Mouth Of The Mouse!
If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [email protected]. I’d love to hear from you!
You can read older columns of From The Mouth Of The Mouse here!
Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.
Jeff also writes a MiceChat column titled The 626. We invite you to check it out!
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/ftmotm
SUBSCRIBE TO US ON ITUNES: iTunes – Podcasts – From The Mouth Of The Mouse by Jeff Heimbuch
FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: www.twitter.com/jeffheimbuch
FRIEND ME ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/jeffheimbuch