Discovery Cove: Swimming With Dolphins is Centerpiece of Extraordinary New Interactive Park
By Karen Rubin
Discovery Cove almost defies description: this is not a theme park, though everything has been artfully created, in effect, bringing the ocean and sand beach to Central Florida; not an adventure park, though it provides a safe adventure in the form of an encounter with "wild" animals; and not a waterpark, though water is the essence. The closest description is an "interactive experiential park," a place that carefully recreates the exotic experience and adventure which you would otherwise have to travel considerable distance. But the distinctiveness about Discovery Cove was clear from the way we felt at the end of the day: as exhilarated and pampered as if we had spent a day at a spa.
A sister-company to SeaWorld, Discovery Cove turned a patch of Orlando scrub into a tropical paradise, an oasis of calm in the frenetic theme park capital of the world , a kind of fantasy island. This is good-for-you-kind of fun where you can swim with dolphins, snorkel among thousands of tropical fish, have an exotic bird perch on your finger, actually lounge around on powdery white sand beach, and leave with your family feeling like you have shared a truly unforgettable experience.
The extraordinary feeling of restfulness and calm comes because Discovery Cove accommodates just 1,000 people a day (compared to several hundred thousand at the bigger parks in the neighborhood), coupled with the fact there is a staff ratio of one for every five guests. That means that everywhere you look, there are lifeguards, people in the water making sure no one inadvertently man-handles a stingray or pokes a dolphin in the eye. It also means that there is always someone near at hand to answer whatever questions pop into your head about the magnificent creatures you now share the water with, so fascinating points of information come up matter-of-factly. It also means that there are people constantly sweeping the sand from the manicured walkways or constantly replenishing the supply of plush towels in the shower room.
What Discovery Cove does in an extraordinary way is to provide an adventure in a controlled, safe way, creating a new level of understanding, appreciation and respect for marine mammals and sealife and their importance to the ecological balance.
In a destination known for its mega-attractions, Discovery Cove offers an intimate scale, a completely pleasurable environment where families, particularly multi-generational ones, can delight in extraordinary, even life-changing experiences that forge lifelong memories.
A Very Different Place
We immediately sensed we were entering a different kind of experience as we walked through the door of the enormous thatch roof "hut," where we were greeted with a handler holding a sloth (we could pet it), ushered to a desk where we were processed with a photo I.D., then lead in a small group for a bit of a guided tour, which includes a stop for a family photo by one of the staff photographers (this marvelous souvenir is provided at no cost at the end of the day).
Indeed, everything we needed throughout the day is provided (including parking), a great distinction about Discovery Cove from other themeparks, including SeaWorld, which contributes to the feeling of being pampered. We stop off to pick up our snorkel gear, and vest, or if desired, a wetsuit (this would come in handy on the rare day in Orlando when the temperature was unusually cool), then directed to a locker area (the locker is ours to use for the entire day, which comes in handy) in time for us to change for our scheduled dolphin swim. We were also pointed to where there is an ample supply of special chemical-free sunscreen (the commercial kinds are hazardous to the protective layer on dolphins and fish).
Discovery Cove offers a dream-come-true of having an in-the-water, interactive experience with dolphins, and seeing first-hand how remarkable these marine mammals are. When you book your reservations for the park (which can close out two months in advance because of the limited number accommodated), you will be assigned a specific time for your dolphin swim.
For most, this will be the centerpiece of the day, and even if not all the family members participate in this aspect, there is great fun and excitement in watching the interaction from the beach.
The Discovery Cove swimming-with-the-dolphins experience was the best I have encountered so far, though you should know that you are actually in the water with the dolphin for about 40 to 45 minutes, following a 10-15 minute orientation (we are play-toys to the dolphins who really enjoy the experience and stimulation of us being in the water with them). The orientation is part and parcel of a total environment that is focused on the well being of the marine animals, rather than our entertainment.
We are divided up into small groups (pods) to interact with a particular dolphin, one of 27 at Discovery Cove (including a newborn). Children need to be at least six years old to participate in the swim. You do not have to be a very good swimmer to do the dolphin swim because you are not swimming all that much, you only need to feel comfortable in the water. You get to touch the dolphin and use positive reinforcement techniques to reward a particularly behavior. Our 12-year-old got to make Diego, a three-year old bottlenose dolphin, mimic a sneeze, our 16-year old tried the positive reinforcement technique of splashing water into its mouth (it is a pleasant sensation for the dolphin), and another guest used a hand sign to signal Diego to "talk." The highlight for all of us was the "swim"--a brief but thrilling experience in which you hold onto the dolphin's fins and dash through the water toward the shore.
You are not allowed to take in a camera; the waterproof one-shots, for example, might inadvertently be dropped and could be swallowed, but one of the staff photographers is snapping the most precious moments with a Nikon D-1 digital. When you leave the water, you are taken to a bank of Mac computers where you can instantly see the downloaded pictures, which are available for purchase (a 5 by 7 is $15.99, and there are packages). I did not mind this or see it as commercialism; rather, I saw it as part of the service. If you consider that this is like hiring a personal photographer, and the fact that you can easily shoot a whole roll of 36 and only get one fabulous picture of your child kissing a dolphin, the cost is very reasonable, and we delightedly snapped up the package of three five-by-sevens, plus a fourth image as two wallets and a snowglobe, for $59.99. (By the end of the day, when we went to pick up our photos, I could not resist and bought a fourth image, of our 12-year old going "nose to bottlenose," at $15.99, which was ready within two minutes.)
While the dolphin swim might be the climax for the visit, in fact, the rest of the day proved just as exciting, especially for our 12-year old, who overcame his trepidation about being in the same water, and so close, with "wild" fish and stingrays. Overcoming this trepidation was a major accomplishment for him and he now looks forward to future snorkeling experiences.
"Discovery" Cove is aptly named. Like a Japanese garden, the park is laid out in such a way that there is a sense of "discovery" at every turn (yet nothing is more than a short walk away). You never know what you will see. Even the 1,600-foot "lazy river" of fresh water, provides for a sense of discovery even without fish (who only live in the salt water). Here, as we were snorkeling, we would come upon "archeological" treasures, and swam with the current through a waterfall and mist into the aviary, looking like a tropical rainforest. Here, you can scramble up, snorkel gear and all, onto the shore where there are dozens of unusual species of birds (you can borrow a photo description of all the species, but there are many guides on hand to describe the birds). Visitors can feed the birds, which often fly down to perch on a finger or a shoulder.
Our waterproof one-shot cameras came in handy during our snorkeling. There are places that are shallow and the nooks and crannies of the "coral reef" lure massive numbers of tropical fish. At one point, it seemed as if there were a wall of fish, who in a second, darted madly away. There are also sections that are separated by an invisible plexiglass, where you can see barracuda, and a separate area where you can see shark as if you are peering through an opening in a wreck.
All through the day, handlers come out and feed the fish, in various sections, so you can see this behavior, and even help feed them. We took up handfuls of shrimp to toss to the fish.
There is a separate pool loaded with stingrays, whose stingers have been removed (nonsurgically, so not to stress the animal, but by clipping much as you clip your nails), and who have been raised to be comfortable with people. They may well swim by and brush your leg, or pick up their "wings" to fit through a rail.
The ray pool, like most of the park, has been designed to be accessible to guests with disabilities. There are specially designed wheelchairs available that can move across the sandy beaches and into the shallow water (available upon request). A special area at the Dolphin Lagoon is available for guests who can't enter the water, to get up close and touch the dolphins. The sting ray pool is accessible by a special ramp.
By now, between our dolphin swim and our snorkeling, we had spent several hours in the water (which is temperature controlled at between 78 to 85 degrees), before we realized how long we had been swimming, and decided to take our break and have lunch. A magnificent and elaborate lunch (included) was served in a patio setting, just steps from the beach. To add to the relaxed atmosphere, guests can go in for lunch any time between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Indeed, everything about Discovery Cove is upscale, enormously tasteful, even artful, as a luxury resort.
After lunch, we went for a stroll into the aviary, then back into the water for more snorkeling. By the late afternoon (Discovery Cove closes at 5:30 p.m.), most everyone had cleared out, and we had the snorkeling pool to ourselves. It is advisable to get to the park as early as possible (it opens at 9 a.m.), in order to take full advantage of having a "day at the beach."
Come with your own swimsuit, and if you like, water socks or pool shoes; bring hat, sunglasses and cover up or dry clothes, but leave jewelry at home. Whatever you forgot, it's likely available for sale at the kiosk, including waterproof one-shot cameras. There is also a very fine gift shop, with upscale and high quality merchandise.
On the surface, the pricing at Discovery Cove, may seem hefty, but there is excellent value in the all-inclusive program-absolutely everything that you will need for the day is covered, from parking, to an savory lunch, use of all snorkeling gear, wetsuit, beach towel, and even a family photo to commemorate the day. In addition, your photo I.D. is a pass for seven consecutive days of unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando (even if you visit SeaWorld just once, as we did, it was worth it; just use your photo ID as a ticket and walk in without waiting on the ticket line). The price of $179 plus tax includes the dolphin swim experience; $89 plus tax if you don't want to do the dolphin swim.