By ATD’s Florida Experts, Susan and Simon Veness
When you think of Discovery Cove, the “tropical paradise” park in Orlando, you probably think of dolphins, and rightly so. Their dolphin interaction programme is a stand-out addition to any Central Florida visit. But there are other finned and furred residents, and we know you’ll want to meet them...
We recently spent the day at Discovery Cove, and made it our mission to meet its lesser-known residents and their handlers. Come along with us as we explore the park’s OTHER animal encounters, and hear about them from the people who know them best.
Freshwater Oasis: Gina spends her days with the small animals that inhabit Freshwater Oasis, and she introduced us to her little kinkajou friend. “His name is Loki, just like the god of mischief, which he does live up to. He’s low key, laid back during the day, but kinkajous are active at night. That’s when he gets into his mischief, bouncing all over his habitat. We sometimes put hibiscus in his habitat for enrichment, and it was supposed to be something to eat, but in the morning we come in and it’s just shreds, like party confetti. During the day he’s cute, he’s cuddled up, he’s sleeping, but at night you come in and they’re jumping at the mesh of their habitat, they’re running across the ceiling, they’re hanging from their limbs; all over the place. A completely different animal.”
Loki had his head tucked firmly under Gina’s elbow as she held him, but he peeked out occasionally and was happy for a little stroke on the back. We asked what she hopes guests take away from Discovery Cove’s small animal encounters: “Whenever I bring Animal Ambassadors out I want guests to have a connection with them. To remember they met a crazy little monkey, or they met the slowest moving animal in the world, or they met an anteater that has a fourteen inch tongue. I want them to remember something about the animal because when they remember something about them and they walk away knowing more about them and where they’re from, they’re more apt to want to take care of that environment. If they know there are more little guys like Loki who are losing their tree in the rainforest, they want to take care of it. That’s exactly the reason I do what I do.”
The delightful otter family is nearby, and you’re going to want to spend time watching their antics, too, both on land and from one of the water trails along Windaway River. If you arrive at the right time, as we did, you might even be able to help feed them by dropping little fish through a tube outside their habitat. Gina showed us how to do it, and told us about the family that lives there.
“Eloy, one of the males, has a little black mustache—a little Charlie Chaplain mustache—is the opportunist. So when no one else is around he’s like, ‘I’ll take all the food’. This one, Phoenix, is the one with the biggest appetite. Usually, if he’s hungry he’ll try to push everyone out of the way. Mari is the quite, meek one, but she now runs the two of them. But she still has her quiet personality, too.”
Gina also takes care of Lucky, a Linnaeus two-toed sloth, and Dillon, Trace, Clay and Clementine, armadillos who live at Discovery Cove. Lucky was happily—if slowly—munching on treats, but wasn’t too busy to give us a quick smile when we met him!
Explorer’s Aviary: Stacie makes people happy all day by handing out little cups of diced fruits and vegetables for guests to feed the aviary’s residents, but she has the responsibility of making sure the birds are happy and well cared for, too. We asked her to tell us about her charges.
“Our aviary is divided into three sections, with different birds in each section, divided by size or by need of habitat. For example, one section has a river in it so wading and swimming birds are in that area. When guests come through they can feed the majority of birds, but we also have birds that eat mice or fish, and we take care of them, but guests can watch and learn about them.”
Besides the fantastic feeling you get when a bird lands on your hand and eats from your cup, what does Stacie think is special about the aviary? “Guests get a kick out of birds like the Speckled Mouse Bird because they’re a very social species, so you’ll see them feeding each other, stealing food from each other’s mouth, and sleeping all together in a group piled up in a big ball when it’s cool. In summer they’ll fly down to the ground and dig in the dirt, dust-bathing, using the dirt to cool them down. If you feed them you see them up close, but if you stay in here it’s amazing what you’ll see. We’ve got birds building nests, courting, looking for good nesting areas, seeking attention from people or other birds. Sitting back and watching, you can learn so much.”
The Grand Reef: We met up with Shannon, who told us about the Grand Reef’s fish and sharks. “The stingrays are the big hit. Our largest ray has close to a six-foot wingspan and she weighs over two hundred pounds. Her name is Spotty. She’s an impressive animal to see, and we have others that are almost as big as her. And the rays aren’t afraid to approach you. They’re happy to come up and give you a little touch as they go past, and they’re perfectly safe. There are no barbs on our animals. We do trim them, just as you would trim your dog’s claws, and we even use the same tool. It’s a quick and easy process for them.”
What if a guest is a bit timid about swimming with the rays? “One of the great things about our reef is that it’s multi-leveled, so those that are looking for a little more adventure can go into the deeper areas, those who are timid can stay in the shallows, or you can go up onto the bridges that are completely out of the water and still view all of the animals from above.”
And for those who want more interaction with them? Shannon told us about a feature many guests miss: “If you do want to get up-close we do feedings during the day that the guests are a huge part of. We feed them at the beginning of the day, so guests can come here first thing, in the 8am-8.30am time frame. Cownose rays are fed around 12:30pm, southern rays are fed around 3pm.”
“Believe it or not,” she added, “there is a lot of personality in the rays. We have one ray in particular, called Splash, who seems to seek out interaction. She’ll come by and just give you a pat.”
We then turned to the sharks, who we had seen being fed with long poles, and asked if that was something guests could see each day. Shannon told us, “Because sharks are cold blooded animals and have efficient digestive systems they don’t need to be fed every day. To maintain a proper body weight and keep them healthy we feed them three times a week, and that’s usually in the middle of the day. We have also trained them to allow us to hold them while we’re swimming any guest that’s at the glass window can see them face-to-face. We can hold their tail up to the mesh above the glass and guests can touch their fin. We do that every day around 1pm.
“When you see someone in the water holding them and feeding them, it immediately dispels that myth that sharks are dangerous, aggressive animals. You see that sharks are trainable, and they’re quite content. They want the fish we’re feeding them; they don’t want our fingers. One of our goals is dispelling those myths. Sharks maintain a nice healthy ocean by eating the dead, dying, wounded and diseased animals out there that’s what keeps our oceans healthy for us to enjoy as well.”
Her comment, combined with Gina’s and Stacie’s, brought home Discovery Cove’s less-obvious purpose. Yes, it’s a tropical paradise that feels a thousand miles away from the theme-park hubbub. Yes, it’s an exclusive experience that will truly make memories for a lifetime. But it’s also a place where guests can learn about nature in a very hands-on, interactive way. When you’re that up-close with an animal, you can’t help but love it, and when you love something, you protect it. So kick back, relax and soak up the fantastic atmosphere when you visit, and be sure to carve a few minutes out of your day to meet all of the fascinating animals that make Discovery Cove their home.
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