I love theme parks, which is one reason I love living in Central Florida, but sometimes the crowds get to be a bit overwhelming. That’s why I’ve always loved Discovery Cove, where attendance is limited and the experiences are much more personal. I’ve been going there for years, so I was thrilled to be invited to spend the day there recently. I’d already been thinking about booking a visit before the summer, so it was a perfect opportunity
Discovery Cove is between I-4 and International Drive on Central Florida Parkway, just down the road from SeaWorld. Parking is free, and you can see right away from the much smaller lot that you’re not in for a typical crowded theme park experience.
Depending on your arrival time, you might encounter a crowd to check in. The process is quite organized, and I got to meet Lucky the sloth to pass the time while waiting. Check-ins start at 7:15 a.m., and the park opens at 8 for breakfast, so I recommend an early arrival. That means a lower crowd and more options for your dolphin swim time if you’ve booked one.
I arrived around 7:40 a.m. got a 10:30 a.m. dolphin swim. My wait was pretty short, but the line built quickly behind me. Normally I recommend heading right to breakfast, but I was lucky enough to have a cabana reservation, so we headed there first to drop off our stuff before fueling for the day. The cabana was gorgeous! They’re located throughout the park, and we had one overlooking the dolphin pool so we got to watch the interactions all day. It was like live TV, only better.
Only sad thing was that we spent so little time in the cabana because there was so much to do. I brought my iPod, hoping for mpre quality hammock time, but closing time arrived before I knew it. At least I did get to kick back a bit with some wine, as you can see in the photo. But that’s getting ahead of the story…
On the way to the cabana, we stopped to pick up vests, which are required whenever you’re in the water. You can opt for a wet suit, but that’s more for colder days. Thankfully, even though it was early March, the temperature was flirting with 80 by the middle of the day so I was nice and comfy without stuffing my body into one of those suits.
Arriving early is also good so you don’t have to wait too long in the breakfast lines. I fueled up with a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, French toast sticks, and a danish. As with all meals and snacks, breakfast is included in your admission. The food is pretty basic, but that was fine with me since I was only interested in eating quickly to fuel up so I could start my day.
We had time to watch one of the early dolphin interactions from our cabana before heading over to the aviary. I like to go there early, when the birds are still hungry and therefore more likely to perch on your hands, arms, and even head as you offer them food. There are three rooms with different bird varieties, so don’t forget to visit them all. I had lots of birdie friends come down for food, and one even christened my shirt in the way that birds are so good at doing!
Already the morning was going too fast. It was already time for my dolphin swim, so I hurried to the meeting spot to see the safety video and learn how things would work. You’re split into groups of about 8 to 10 people and head into the designated area to meet your dolphin.
Our friend for the day was Akai, an older gentleman who has the distinction of being daddy to many SeaWorld dolphins. We had a chance to touch, pet, and even kiss him while the photographers documented the experience (the photos are a little pricey, but I recommend springing for them because it’s a priceless reminder of a special day). He was such a sweetheart, even if he did decide to single me out for some water spitting.
The Discovery Cove dolphins are never forced to perform, but Akai was cooperative and seemed to be relishing the attention and admiration. The big highlight was getting a dolphin ride where he pulled each of us through the water. Even if you’re not a swimmer, you can still do it as he’ll pull you in the shallow end of the pool if you prefer. The rest of the interaction takes place in a shallow enough spot where you can easily stand. Just watch out for the slippery rocks.
All too soon the dolphin swim was over. What a highlight! Truly the day couldn’t have gotten any better. I love aquatic creatures, which is why I have a SeaWorld annual pass and head over sometimes just to watch the dolphins and orcas in underwater viewing. Normally I’m separated from them by glass or a fence. It was a real treat to be right there in the water with a dolphin and to keep his tremendous power as I actually swam with him. If you’ve got kids, it’s a guaranteed thrill and a highlight for any vacation. Even if you’re an adult, I don’t think you can outgrow the excitement of a close-up dolphin encounter. Literally the only bad thing I can say about it is that it’s over way too soon (but then again, I don’t know if even hours playing with a dolphin would be enough).
My sadness at the dolphin swim being over was quickly forgotten in the whirlwind of trying to figure out what to do next. We luckily got to the restaurant before there was much of a lunch line, so we ate quickly since food wasn’t much of a priority in view of all the fun still ahead.
I love the freshwater area with the otters and marmosets, so of course I had to spend some time there. The otters were frolicking and playing, and the marmosets were out and interacting with their keeper, so I got to see plenty of both. There’s also a section with in-water lounge chairs nearby; I didn’t have much time to spare, but I grabbed a frozen pina colada (yep, adult beverages are included in the price, too) and sat for a quick spell.
Of course, I had to do the lazy river, too. It has some steep dropoffs, so use a life vest and/or swim noodle (both provided) if you need some assistance staying afloat. My favorite part is the section that goes right through the aviary, although I enjoy the cave, too. It’s pleasant and warm and most definitely lives up to the “lazy” name.
Alas, I had to give up the warmth if I wanted to snorkel in the reef, but there was no way I was going to miss swimming with the stingrays. They’re all over in the reef, along with a variety of colorful fish and a huge group of sharks eying you from behind their glass enclosure. Some of those rays are huge! Many are tame enough to be petted, and often they’re swim right to you. This is why Discovery Cove provides you with snorkel gear to use as part of your admission. There’s a deep snorkeling area, and you’ll see plenty even if you stay in the shallows.
My only regret is not getting to spend more time in the cabana, which was stocked with drinks and snacks and featured plenty of chairs and even a comfy hammock that looked so inviting for a “beach break.” Even if you don’t have your own private cabana, there are plenty of chairs all around the park, as well as some hammocks interspersed, so you’ll find your own little piece of Heaven. But now could I stay still for very long when so many fun activities were beckoning? I literally stayed in the reef until the bitter end and was left wondering just where more than nine hours had flown.
If you want to visit Discovery Cove, be sure to book your reservation in advance, especially for popular dates, and do not miss the dolphin swim. All the theme parks are fun, but this is such a different experience. No crowds or craziness, just a day of relaxation and exploration in an amazing animal world.