Swimming with Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins at Discovery Cove
Inspired by a large number of requests for dolphin swims, as well as the success of the original Dolphin Interaction Program, SeaWorld created Discovery Cove in 2000. This intimate sub-park is a welcome departure from the hustle and bustle of other Orlando parks; the relaxed pace here could be the overstimulated family’s ticket back to mental health. With a focus on personal service and one-on-one animal encounters, Discovery Cove admits only 1,200 guests per day. The park is also an all-inclusive experience, so once you enter, you don’t need to open your wallet; provided are all meals, snacks, and beverages, plus all animal interactions and swim gear, even parking and a pass to SeaWorld and Aquatica. The tranquil setting and unobtrusive theming make this park unique for Central Florida. Why, there are only two gift shops! And you don’t even have to walk through them to get out!
The main draw at Discovery Cove is the chance to swim with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, from among the 45 here. The 30-minute dolphin swim experience is open to visitors ages 6 and older who are comfortable in the water. The experience begins with an orientation led by trainers and an opportunity for participants to ask questions before entering the Dolphin Lagoon. Next, groups of six to eight guests wade into shallow water for an introduction to one of the dolphins in its habitat. Though this is not an inexpensive endeavor, the singular nature of the experience cannot be overstated. The dolphins are playful, friendly, and frankly amazing to be around. This is as hands-on as it gets. Be aware that you’re dealing with a powerful, mischievous animal in its element, so don’t be surprised if you get splashed, squirted, or even affectionately bonked with a flipper or fluke. The trainers are always in control, though, so there is nothing to fear. Overall, if this is to your taste at all, it’s not to be missed. Authors’ rating? Five stars, if you forget the outrageously inflated prices for souvenir photos and videos; budget to be extorted if you want visual evidence of your experience.
Discovery Cove—A Welcome Departure from the Hustle and Bustle of Other Orlando Parks
SeaWorld added The Grand Reef in June 2011. The Grand Reef is a pool—holding almost a million gallons of salt water—and surrounding sandy beaches covering nearly 2 1⁄2 acres. In the water are about 10,000 animals, including roughly 125 species of fish, rays, and sharks. Grand Reef guests can wander over bridges to tiny islands, relax on the beach, and simply wade around to observe the fish and 90 pieces of coral from above the surface.
Other exhibit areas at Discovery Cove include the Explorer’s Aviary and the Freshwater Oasis. You can snorkel or swim in the Grand Reef, the habitat for thousands of exotic fish and dozens of rays. In the aviary, you can touch and feed gorgeous tropical birds. The Freshwater Oasis is a freshwater pool in which you can swim or wade. It is stocked with marmosets (small monkeys) and, though not in the water with you, charming Asian small-clawed otters—they only grow to 11 pounds, so they look like miniature otters. The park is threaded by the freshwater Wind-Away River, in which you can float or swim to all these areas. Pleasant beaches, with hammocks, lounges, and chairs, serve as pathways connecting the attractions.
Guests at Discovery Cove need not be exceptional swimmers—the water is shallow and so heavily salted that it’s very difficult not to float. Watchful lifeguards are omnipresent. You’ll need to wear your swimsuit and pool shoes as well as a cover-up. On rare days when it’s too cold to swim in Orlando, guests are provided with wet suits. The park also supplies masks and snorkels, and you get to keep the snorkel (after all, nobody wants to reuse those). Discovery Cove provides fish-friendly sunscreen: Guests may not use their own sunscreen. You must also remove all watches and jewelry (except wedding bands), as they might end up getting swallowed by the animals if you lose them. Free lockers enable you to stow everything you need to put away, all day. Comfortable, clean, well-appointed bathrooms and showers are also provided.
The all-inclusive Discovery Cove package does not come cheap but includes unlimited admission to SeaWorld® and Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark™ in Orlando for 14 consecutive days around the date of your reservation.
For more exciting things to see and do in Orlando and Central Florida, check out Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, & the Best of Central Florida by Bob Sehlinger and Seth Kubersky.
Discovery Cove photo credits
By Michael Lowin [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (Discovery Cove: swimming with dolphins and Discovery Cove: Wind-away river)
By Eric from USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons (Discovery Cove: Bird in aviary)