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Imagine a relaxing, tropical paradise where you can dive in with the dolphins, snorkel with the sharks, visit an island of marmosets, and walk through a rainbow of fish fins. Located in Orlando, Florida, Discovery Cove is more than just a water park, but an all-inclusive oasis where you can find it all. Check out one TravelingDad’s list of all the things you need to know (and two things you didn’t know) about this animal lover’s dream.
“I liked it better than Disney,” my 14-year old son, John, proclaimed shortly after we left our packed day at Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida (an extension of SeaWorld).
For you to understand the gravitas of my son’s feedback, you first should understand just how much we love Walt Disney. We’re Disney Vacation Club members, take Disney cruises regularly, and are season ticket holders at Disney World. So, when my son says “I liked Discovery Cove more than Disney World,” that’s saying something, people!
John is quite the animal lover, and the up-close-and-personal animal encounters trumped even the best theme parks we’d been to in the past.
TravelingMom Tip: Check out these fun things to do in Orlando with kids.
More than a Water Park
Don’t call it a water park. This all-inclusive experience instead offers a reef and a river in the place of a ride.
However, you can ride a dolphin in the dolphin swim add-on! I didn’t know if was possible to fall in love with a dolphin so quickly, yet I did.
There is no splash zone, but there’s snorkeling and sharks. You even get to keep the snorkel at the end of the day.
When Discovery Cove Orlando promises an all-inclusive day resort, it’s true. From the wetsuit to the sunscreen specially formulated not to harm the animals, you really need to bring nothing except your ID, and maybe a credit card if you want to add on any other experiences like the premium drink package that you might have skipped ahead of time.
TravelingMom Tip: If you want a more traditional water park experience, SeaWorld Orlando offers Aquatica with 14+ attractions, the tallest duel racing waterslide in the world, and the first water park in the world designated as a Certified Autism Center.
Sensational SeaVenture at SeaWorld Orlando
There’s something fishy going on on the sea floor of the Grand Reef at Discovery Cove. And that’s exactly how it should be.
SeaVenture is your chance to “swim with the fishes,” but not like the gangsters of old envisioned.
In this case, you’ll be fully immersed, surrounded, and in awe of your surroundings as you engage in an underwater walking tour for 20 minutes. This is thanks to a 75-pound dive helmet that you wear. It creates an air pocket for you to breathe while you lose yourself in this new world. Don’t worry, once you’re under water, the 75 pounds of headgear only feels like 10 pounds.
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You have your own personal guide the entire 20 minutes, and ours did an excellent job.
Communicating Under Water
Before we entered the water, we were required to go through a safety briefing where we learned essential sign language:
- Everything is OK. Use the OK symbol (thumb and pointer making a circle with your other 3 fingers straight up), not the thumbs-up!
- GET ME OUTTA HERE! This is when you use the thumbs-up sign. Our guide said that when they see that, your experience ends immediately. So don’t get the two confused (which my son almost did twice).
Speaking of doing something dumb, one of the hand signals you may see is a hand with all fingers straight up and together. You may have used this in your regular day, to indicate that you’d like someone to stop doing something. This works underwater as well.
However, when one of SeaWorld Orlando divers showed me that sign because he wanted to pass, I was so excited that I thought he wanted a high-five instead. I had no idea what was happening for at least 30 seconds. Eventually my brain kicked in.
Swimming with Sharks. Sort Of.
Even if there weren’t amazing fish surrounding you (there were), or there wasn’t an 8-foot-tall, 21-foot long panoramic window that’s separating you from dozens of sharks (there is), the experience of walking around under water was profound. There’s nothing like it.
But let’s get back to the fish. Your first stop is at the aforementioned panoramic window where you can get mere feet from blacktip reef, zebra, and even a hammerhead shark!
I actually let out a scream that may or may-not have been quite high pitched when I saw the hammerhead shark. When I pointed it out to my son his eyes were as huge as I imagine mine were. What a special treat that was!
All Those Fish!
After we left the shark tank viewing area, we moved onto a tropical fish extravaganza. The diver guides break-out a little trick to get you truly surrounded by fish here, where they take out some food and start swirling it all around you.
The fish go pretty crazy for this, and before you know it, you’re enveloped in a rainbow of fins, frantically feeding and flitting in front of your face.
The Freshwater Oasis at Discovery Cove Orlando
Shortly after we entered DIscovery Cove, we encountered the first exotic birds on the property, a couple of colorful and chill parrots that my son particularly enjoyed seeing.
We then learned about the free-flight aviary, where you can hand-feed (or…try to hand feed depending on how hungry they are or aren’t) a variety of birds. It wasn’t obvious to us where to get the food to use to try and feed the birds, but an employee was able to help us.
Once you have the food, it’s a matter of holding out your arms with food in your hands to see if any birds feel like actually eating at the time you’re there. It’s fun, and when they grab some food it’s especially satisfying. This didn’t happen for us very often however. Manage your expectations here.
From one part of the aviary, you can walk out a door, and be in the wind-away river in about 10 seconds. However, you will just miss getting any floatation device though if you enter here. We learned that the hard way.
Discovery Cove’s version of a “lazy river” is entirely unlike any I’d experienced before. The underwater terrain was constantly changing and we needed to pay attention; it’s really easy to scrape a foot, leg or arm if you aren’t careful. I found myself working a bit hard just to not have scraped knees.
I wouldn’t classify this as a lazy river. We did really enjoy it though, and when we came back to do it again later in the day, we had a floatation device, which made it much more relaxing.
Along the river, you’ll find no marine life, but you will still be able to see tropical birds as the river flows through a part of the Explorer’s Aviary.
Otters and Marmosets
In the same general area as the wind-away river and aviary, you’ll find a small otter enclosure, and an island that houses marmosets.
These adorably small monkeys were kind enough to poke their cute heads out of a treetop sling to say hello. The otter enclosure was disappointingly small, and we could see the otters a bit, they didn’t have much room to do anything too interesting.
Dolphin Swim Experience at Discovery Cove Orlando
I have loved a few mammals in my days here on planet earth, but none of them compared to Dot, the bottlenose dolphin that was kind enough (or hungry enough…) to work with us during our dolphin interaction.
If you’ve never hugged a dolphin, then you haven’t lived, my friend. It’s like hugging a cute Goodyear tire (their skin feels rubbery). I didn’t want to let go, but I did eventually, mainly for fear of getting thrown out.
This entire experience boils down to whether this 600-pound king of the ocean wants to let you ride along, or wants to let you hug them. The trainers even speak to this, that they’ll do what they want, when they want, and the trainers just work around it.
Dot was very accommodating though, and happily complied with all requests, each of them ending with more yummy fish for her tummy.
The lagoon consists of 3 separate areas, each of them typically with 3 different groups working with their own dolphin In the distance, you can see the trainers working with other dolphins that aren’t currently helping the trainers entertain the guests.
All-in-all, Discovery Cove Orlando has more than 40 bottlenose dolphins. It’s a pretty large area, especially considering that you’re in a large city in central Florida.
Your dolphin trainer for this experience will be your guide to interacting with your dolphin companion. They have a variety of hand signals they use to ask the dolphin to exhibit specific behaviors.
For example, one hand motion instructed Dot to use her blowhole to make a sound reminiscent of a fart. This got quite a few laughs. Did you know Dolphins could do that? You do now. You’re welcome.
You’ll have multiple opportunities to pet your new dolphin friend, and in the end, you’ll get your chance to ride the dolphin. Manage your expectations here. Don’t go picturing a saddle on a dolphin with you and Dot swimming off into the sunset.
You grab onto the dorsal fin and hold on tight as the dolphin effortlessly pulls you for a short ride. It’s far too brief, and worth the trip to Discovery Cove all by itself. Even if I had been pulled around for 10 minutes, it still would have been too brief.
The Private Cabana at Discovery Cove
My family was lucky enough to be hosted on this trip by Discovery Cove. With that, we were treated to a private cabana. Equipped with its own fridge, snacks, chairs, a hammock, shade, and a view of Dolphin Lagoon, it was a welcome place to rest and relax between the SeaVenture and the Dolphin Swim Experience.
It’s pricey, to be sure, but we absolutely loved it, and the next time we go (and we will definitely go back on our own dime), we’ll seriously consider it.
It’s that nice. Although there was no shortage of seating in a variety of other places in the resort, none of them offered the combination of privacy, comfort, and relaxation that the private cabana did.
Discovery Cove Food and Drinks
It’s a good idea to arrive early when you visit Discovery Cove. I say that because I like to take full advantage of the money being spent for an all-inclusive experience — the full service breakfast buffet, lunch buffet, and unlimited drinks.
The breakfast selection was pretty good, with eggs, fruit, yogurts, pastries, and french toast sticks. It was all pretty tasty, except the french toast sticks. Those needed plenty of syrup.
Lunch was where the Laguna Grill restaurant really shined. My daughter had the pulled pork, which she said was very good and juicy. I had the Grilled Jerk Chicken which came with island-style rice, fire-roasted vegetables and mango salsa. The mango salsa and jerk chicken went really well together.
The only downside to lunch was that the pulled pork was so juicy that it soaked through the bun. That was easily solved though by walking up to the buffet and asking for a new one.
Premium Drink Package at Discovery Cove…Should you?
This is really a question you need to answer for yourself. Purchasing the premium drink package allows you access to:
- Selection of signature cocktails
- Fully stocked liquor bar
- Selection of craft & domestic beers
- Red and white wine
At $40 a person, and tropical-resort style pricing, it’s not too difficult to justify this upgrade if you enjoy knocking back a few. By your 4th drink, it has paid for itself.
Discovery Cove doesn’t close until 5, which gives you plenty of time to drink responsibly, but get value for your upgrade. If you decide to splurge on the cabana, I think it’s even more worth it. Take advantage of the relaxing cabana, and recuperate from your snorkeling in the Grand Reef. J
TravelingMom Tip: Just remember to hydrate too! Water is your friend! Just ask Dot the Dolphin 🙂
Two Things you Didn’t Know about Discovery Cove
The Red Floatie
I know that’s a clickbait title, but you truly may not know these two things:
1. During our second time through the winding river, my daughter noticed one floatie that was red, among all the other blue floaties. It was buried a bit in the stack, and she asked the lifeguard if she could have it.
He said sure…but he passed on a warning. He said that if she took the red floatie, she would get extra attention from every single lifeguard. She didn’t quite know what she signed up for when she agreed.
From the moment she accepted and started floating along, every lifeguard started pointing at her in various ways. And they would continue pointing at her, from the moment they spotted the red floatie, until the moment she left their site.
And by the time she left one lifeguard’s site, another lifeguard was in range, already pointing at her.
This caused quite a lot of a laughter within the family, enjoying the variety of ways a lifeguard could find to point, and we also had a fun reason to interact with the lifeguards.
They weren’t actually pointing at my daughter. They were pointing at the floatie. It’s a way that the resort devised to help keep lifeguards extra alert. We really enjoyed this fun unadvertised “experience,” and you might too.
Secret Dolphin Lagoon Window
Near the end of the day, when I was getting quite sad that we had to go, I asked a staff member what hidden treasure she might know about the park that most people miss. She knew just the secret to share.
On the left edge of the Starfish Lagoon (If you’re standing on the beach, looking at the 3 lagoons, it’s the one on your far left), you’ll find a small sandy beach pathway that’s completely ordinary looking. No signs point to this little area, which is quite a shame.
As you walk down the path, you’ll find a walkway that winds a couple of times, and you’ll soon be at a viewing window and right along the edge of the lagoon. There, if you’re lucky like my daughter and I were, a dolphin or two will come swimming by the glass.
Not all kids are old enough to enjoy the dolphin experience, and this is a wonderful way for them to see the dolphins up close. Just be careful, it is a bit of a splash zone if the dolphins decide to have a little fun with you!
Discovery Cove Orlando Location, Pricing
Location: 6000 discovery cove way, Orlando, FL 32821
Cancellations: Consult the Discovery Cove cancellation website at all times to see the available cancellation and rebooking options. At the time of my stay, cancellations and full refunds were available at 31+ days prior to your stay.
So, Is Discovery Cove Worth the Money?
I keep going back to how immersed I felt when I was there. Having just driven through traffic on I-4 westbound, and knowing what a large city Orlando, Florida is, I’m surprised by how quickly all of that stress melted away.
This tropical oasis of a resort does more than just give you a taste of sea life in the city. It relaxes your body and calms your mind, leaving you with memories of tropical rivers, exotic birds, and a dalliance with a dolphin.
SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment really knocked it out of the park with this place, and I definitely feel like it’s worth the money. I know we’ll be going back, and I can’t wait.