Catching a Wave at Typhoon Lagoon

by Jeffrey Kontur, AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the June 17, 2008 Issue #456 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Remember that old Beach Boys refrain? "Catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world"? Now just close your eyes for a moment and imagine that the world on top of which you're sitting happens to be Walt Disney World.

Finding out that even in land-locked Orlando you can catch a wave and take surfing lessons from certified instructors had me singing that song for several weeks before my recent trip.

Initially, I balked at the $140 price tag. After a few days spent thinking about it however, I came to consider these points:

-- Although I live near the ocean, when else will I really get the chance to surf? Delaware doesn't exactly have a happening surf culture.
-- Where else can I get all the gear plus lessons for $140? A surfboard alone can cost five times that much.
-- The lessons are given in Disney's wave pool at the Typhoon Lagoon water park and provide one thing the ocean will never offer: guaranteed waves. You know there will be a wave of surfing size about every 95 seconds. Even better, the water is dead calm between waves, making it easier to get into position for the next one.
-- The water is also temperature-controlled (usually about 70-80 degrees F) and doesn't have nasty surprises like jellyfish and sharks.

Eventually, I talked myself into it.

Naturally, the reservation agents at Disney were helpful and made signing up both easy and pleasant. They gave me all the standard warnings about needing to be a strong swimmer and signing a liability waiver. They also advised me that, because of the early start time (the surfing starts at 6:45 a.m. -- 5:45 a.m. during the peak summer months when the water parks have morning Extra Magic Hours) the Disney transportation system will not yet have begun its day, so surfers must provide their own transportation to the park.

As with every Disney interaction, the woman on the phone was cheerful and only too happy to answer just about every question I could possibly come up with. My wife and daughter were allowed to tag along for free to cheer me on (or, more accurately, laugh when I wiped out). Cameras and even video cameras are welcome. All I needed to bring were a swimsuit and a towel (and the aforementioned $140). Disney would provide everything else necessary. In fact, outside surfboards are not permitted. The reservationist also took my cell phone number and hotel information so someone could call me in the event of a weather-related cancellation.

I was excited. Since I called about two months before our vacation, I had plenty of time to annoy myself and everyone around me with constant refrains of surf music.

The big day was actually Day 7 of a nine-day stay. In hindsight, I recommend you try to go earlier in your vacation. Nine days at Disney is awesome but by Day 7 I was already sunburnt and sore from all the walking.

Even though no one ever gets enough sleep at Disney, on the big day I was up at the crack of dawn and raring to go. We arrived at Typhoon Lagoon about 6:40. In front of me was a blended family in which the father and five of the kids were all taking lessons together. Yes, kids can take surfing lessons. In fact, most of the ones in my class were better than the adults. However there is no discount and they need parental permission.

Lessons are given by the experts at the Cocoa Beach Surfing School, which also operates under the name Ron Jon Surfing School and has real ocean classes in addition to the WDW classes (in Cocoa Beach, of course). The surf school provides three instructors and Disney provides three lifeguards so expect a highly personalized experience.

During my lesson, the least experienced of my instructors had been surfing for "only" 18 years. (Though I guess she made up for it by being a former world champion.) These are people who know what they're doing and can get you up and running, so to speak, in no time flat. They are hands-on, sometimes quite literally, and will show you exactly what you're doing right and what you can do better when the next wave hits. In about 95 seconds.

I came in expecting big, breaking curls that would throw me on my keister. I was fully prepared for that. What I was not prepared for was that Typhoon Lagoon's wave pool offers surfers the luxury of two different sized waves. The big wave is what everyone thinks of when they think of surfing. It reaches a height of about six feet before it begins to break. Even then it actually keeps growing to nearly ten feet. The little wave maxes out at around three feet.

During each release of the waves there is always one of each type of wave and surfers can choose which they prefer. Disney reportedly guarantees each student four rounds of surfing. (A round is two releases of the waves.) I asked about this but no one seemed to really know the precise terms of the guarantee. According to those I spoke with, in all the time surfing lessons have been offered at Typhoon Lagoon, they've never had a class start and not complete. If your class is cancelled (usually due to weather, though once it happened due to accidental over chlorination of the pool), you will be contacted and given the option of a refund or reschedule if another date is available.

The lessons take place in 7-9 foot deep water and there is a tremendous amount of swimming involved. In fact, some might be taken by surprise at how physically demanding surfing can be. Students surf one round, then circle back to the end of the line. You will have barely caught your breath when it's already time to get back in the water.

For our class, Disney provided two Photopass photographers. After writing down all our names and swimsuit colors, they positioned themselves with one on each side of the pool. Both photographed every surfer. So even if you forget your camera or can't get the family up early enough to come watch, you can still have pictures. You then have the option of purchasing the photos either at the park or online from the comfort of your home up to 30 days after you leave.

Special bonus if you're making a day of it: surfing lessons end about 15 minutes before the park officially opens to the public. Disney does make you leave and come back in (since you don't have to be a Disney guest or have park tickets to take the surfing lessons) but you can claim the choicest beach chairs and leave your stuff there to secure them. You'll also be at or near the front of the line when the park opens.

So how did my lessons go? I opted to ride the big waves. I think the instructors were impressed that, even after wiping out on each attempt, I still kept coming back for the big waves. It wasn't until the very last round that I decided to sample the little wave.

What I learned from riding the small wave, too late for me as it turned out, is that I was rushing things. I had it stuck in my head that as soon as the wave started to lift my board (and me with it), I had to quickly get into position and get on my feet. What I discovered from riding the little wave -- and this would apply equally well to the big wave or even to ocean waves -- is that the wave will carry you and your surfboard no matter whether you're sitting, standing, laying down or dancing the cha-cha. The buoyancy doesn't change. Knowing that, I realized I could spend as much time as I needed to get upright.

On my very last ride of the day, I bet I spent a full 10 seconds getting to my feet. I stood, I stayed up and it turned out to be the most perfect wave I surfed all day.

If surfing lessons interest you, call 407-WDW-PLAY (407-939-7529). Due to the small class sizes (surf lessons are strictly limited to 12 students), surfing classes generally fill up at least 30 days in advance so call early.

For more advanced surfers, Disney occasionally offers a separate package with customizable waves that can even be made to break left, right, in V or inverted-V formation. These and other private surfing event packages can be arranged by calling 407-WDW-SURF (407-939-7873).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Jeffrey Kontur is a freelance travel writer/photographer based in northern Delaware. He has had photos picked up by Wild West magazine and several online news and travel sources including Schmap.com and NowPublic.com.

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RELATED LINKS:

Wandering the World -- Surf School Edition: http://allears.net/tp/wander/wander.htm

Typhoon Lagoon Surf School: http://allears.net/btp/surf.htm


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.