Forget the mania and the jostling crowds of opening time at Orlando’s famous theme parks. A day at Discovery Cove begins in the park’s bright, inviting reception area, where animal ambassadors greet guests, and the animal handlers are eager to share information about their feathered or furry friends. Although opening time is 8 a.m., many guests arrive at 7.30 a.m., especially those who would like their dolphin swim early and want to maximise their time in the park. After a quick bag check, guests are directed toward a waiting receptionist who processes their information, assigns a dolphin encounter time, and issues an identification badge that serves as a passport into paradise.
Our recent media visit began at 8 a.m., with a 9.30 a.m. dolphin swim. After a quick meet-and-greet with the sloth who served as animal ambassador that morning, we were escorted by a guide into the park, where the first view overlooking the lazy river, white sand beaches, waterfalls and the lagoons beyond began our journey toward blissful relaxation. A winding pathway leading to waiting photographers was lined with babbling streams and lush landscaping, and the gentle breeze through stands of bamboo combined with bird-song to take our relaxation level up another notch.
Crossing a covered footbridge, we reached the photographers taking group pictures, and this is where Discovery Cove’s all-inclusive nature begins. Every group or family receives a free photograph as a remembrance of their day in the park. We were then escorted to our secluded cabana (an extra paid-for ‘perk’ for those who want maximum pampering and seclusion), where an incredibly comfortable hammock, table and chairs, sun loungers, locking cupboard, towels, animal-safe sunblock, small refrigerator stocked with cold beverages, and a basket filled with crisps and other light snacks awaited us, as well as a cheerful attendant who ensured our every need was met. Could there be a more luxurious way to while away the hours? We think not!
Once settled in, our group went directly to Laguna Grill for the breakfast buffet (all meals, drinks, and snacks are included in park admission), a nice mix of cooked breakfasts (eggs, sausage, ham and potatoes), cold cereal, pastries, fruit and yoghurt.
With an early Dolphin Swim Experience, our next move was to seek out wetsuits (our group chose full-length wetsuits instead of vests, as the lagoons are comfortable for dolphins but mildly chilly for humans), then we were off to the Sand Dollar Cabana for our pre-swim introduction. Waivers signed and short film viewed, we were escorted to the lagoon, where our trainers and dolphins were waiting. Aries was the first dolphin we interacted with, giving her hand signals indicating behaviours she then performed, and having plenty of time to stroke her back before her pod-mate Roxy gave each of us the ride of a lifetime. Some of our group opted for the ‘deep water swim’, paddling out beyond a drop-off and being towed back in by Roxy, while others chose the shallow water swim. Having done both, we can assure those who may not be confident in deeper water that the shallow water experience feels exactly the same, but with the added comfort of not having to tread water. Don’t be embarrassed to choose that option if it suits you best, and fear not: you aren’t missing out in any way!
We had a few hours to enjoy the park before our scheduled SeaVenture experience, so we headed directly to the free-flight Explorer’s Aviary, one of our favourite places in the park for its peaceful atmosphere and the ability to hand-feed the resident birds. There is nothing quite like the thrill of a bird landing on your hand (or your shoulder; or your head!), and with three separate aviaries to discover, we could easily spend hours enjoying them.
Lunch was calling, and our group reassembled at Laguna Grill, where the choices included burgers, salmon, chicken, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, pasta, kids meals, and plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and desserts. A cheeky lunchtime beer and wine are included, as are soft drinks, with options for special dietary needs as well.
The only thing we had energy for after lunch was a float in the warm waters and gentle currents of Wind-Away River, where those with more stamina can also enjoy a good snorkel. The river runs through caves, coves and grottos, and leads to the Freshwater Oasis, a pretty island that is home to the park’s mischievous (and hilarious!) otters and the resident marmosets. Island trails and an in-river cavern provide on-land and under-water viewing of the animals.
When our SeaVenture time arrived, we headed to the Grand Reef, where the underwater walking tour takes place. After a short introduction and instructions on using the dive helmets (“you can breath normally,” we were told) and hand signals, each participant was fitted with a helmet and descended a ladder to the reef floor. It’s an odd sensation, breathing underwater, and the shape of the mask causes slight distortion in your peripheral vision (“turn your shoulders when viewing something off to one side”), but we quickly adapted and spent the next 25 minutes revelling in the shark exhibit (don’t worry, they’re behind glass!), being surrounded by schools of fish, and having hands-on encounters with small sea-life (this time, an urchin and a horseshoe crab). Too soon, it was time to ascend, but it’s an experience that is never forgotten.
Because Simon can’t get enough of sea-life in its own environment, he spent a happy hour snorkelling in the Grand Reef, filled with coral reefs, colourful fish, and gentle, gliding rays, while Susan took full advantage of the cabana for a delightful nap, snoozing away the stresses of the day (frankly, there were none). Although we saved the Reef until late afternoon this time, it is ideal for the hottest part of the day, when the chilly water is immensely refreshing.
To cap off a perfect day, we parked ourselves on a couple of low loungers conveniently located in the warm waters of Serenity Bay, just steps away from a drinks and snack bar. With a lush alcoholic beverage in hand, it was a superb way to enjoy a final hour in the park, doing nothing more strenuous than soaking up the sun’s last rays.
Like Orlando’s other themed parks, Discovery Cove is entirely human-made. Unlike any other park, the sense of being a million miles away from it all is entirely encompassing. A holiday from your holiday, we cannot sing its praises enough.
Want to add Discovery Cove to your next visit to Orlando? Check out the options here.