Underwater adventures abound at Discovery Cove, SeaWorld Orlando’s year-round private tropical paradise

in SeaWorld, Theme Parks

Tucked away off of Orlando’s busy International Drive lies a hidden oasis called Discovery Cove, created by SeaWorld Orlando to provide visiting guests a private experience not found in any other water park.

SeaWorld Orlando’s main theme park offers Shamu shows and world-class rides. SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park is filled with the expected assortment of water slides, wave pools, and lazy rivers. But Discovery Cove at SeaWorld Orlando is completely unique, inviting only a limited number of guests (a maximum of only 1,000 each day) to experience water wildlife up-close.

I recently had a chance to enjoy a Dolphin Swim Day Resort Package at Discovery Cove for the first time and brought back plenty of fun underwater video (via of our newest gadget, a GoPro HD Hero), taking you on a swim through many of the park’s reefs, lagoons, and paths:

(I’m the guy with long hair you see grinning ear-to-ear, swimming with the dolphin in the video above.)

Discovery Cove Overview

Discover Cove truly offers what no other Orlando-area theme park can. While the price may be steeper than other parks (around $200 per person, depending on the time of year and experiences chosen), a day at Discovery Cove is filled with a number of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that remain as part of your cherished memories.

Arriving to Discovery Cove is not unlike showing up at a luxury hotel. Admission is even called “check-in,” and is housed in a lobby that could easily be confused for that of a hotel. And like a hotel, reservations are required to enjoy Discovery Cove and can be made at DiscoveryCove.com.

Discovery Cove check-in

Discovery Cove check-in

Two available day package types offered at Discovery Cove differ by whether or not guests want a chance to interact and swim with dolphins. All other signature experiences within Discovery Cove are included in both packages. These signature experiences include walking the palm tree-lined beaches alongside stunning lagoon views…

Discovery Cove

…snorkeling among hundreds of fish, rays, and other sea creatures in Tropical Reef…

Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove

…swimming around Serenity Bay (and exploring its waterfall-lined cave)…

Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove

…floating through seemingly endless tropical landscapes in Wind-away River…

Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove

…and feeding countless birds in Explorer’s Aviary.

Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove Signature Experiences

The surrounding world of Orlando disappears when enjoying Discovery Cove’s signature experiences. It’s one of the rare times I’ve visited an Orlando attraction and felt completely as if I were in another location entirely, likely one somewhere on a Caribbean island. All of these experiences are free to take in at your leisure, with no schedule to adhere to and no lines to wait in.

Fans of snorkeling might spend hours gliding through the Tropical Reef, making sure to spot every different kind of fish present (even including a few sharks safely kept behind a large underwater pane of glass). Bird lovers will marvel at the access and variety of birds inside Explorer’s Aviary, where guests are frequently turned into perches while the birds feast from small, handheld cups of food. And guests looking to get away from the wildlife for a while can hop into the Wind-away River, which has a gentle current that’s not quite strong enough to be called a “lazy river” but just powerful enough to help nudge you along. The freedom to do whatever, whatever is a welcome luxury in this park.

Dolphin Swim Experience at Discovery Cove

In addition to the signature experiences, the Dolphin Swim Experience is available to guests willing to pay the premium of around $70 – $100, allowing for roughly 30 minutes of sea time with the playful and friendly sea creatures. This is the only experience at Discovery Cove that occurs at a specific time, assigned to each paying guest upon check-in. After a brief instructional about what to do (and not to do) around the dolphins, guests are led in small groups out to a nearby lagoon where a trainer brings along one of the many dolphins that reside at Discovery Cove year-round.

Discovery Cove

In my group, we met Jenny, one of the oldest dolphins in the park and the first to give birth there. She acts as a mother to the bunch, quite literally. I learned that the dolphins at Discovery Cove live quite a bit longer than in the wild and are free to interact with guests, or not, as they place. They’re never forced, but instead are reinforced for good behaviors – but never scolded for bad ones.

The majority of the time spent during this experience involves the dolphin swimming back and forth in front of participating guests, available for petting (behind the blow hole only). Meanwhile trainers teach a bit about dolphins and answer any questions. Guests also pose one-on-one with the dolphins for Discovery Cove’s cameras.

In this area, guests are not allowed to bring cameras into the lagoon (for the dolphin’s safety), so Discovery Cove provides still and video photographers to capture every moment (available for purchase, of course, for an additional cost). I couldn’t resist getting the two photos above, and I suspect the same is true for many other guests.

After the petting and photo op, guests swim out to a 15-foot deep area of the lagoon and ride back to clinging the dolphin. This is easily the highlight of the Dolphin Swim Experience, hence its name. It lasts only around 10-15 seconds but is a must-do, at least once in your life.

Included in a day at Discovery Cove

Swimming around Discovery Cove requires all guests to wear either the park-provided wet suit or vest. I wore the wet suit for the Dolphin Swim Experience, knowing that the water temperature was somewhere in the 70s, and was happy I had it on.

Ricky Brigante at Discovery Cove

But after finishing that, I quickly switched to the less constricting vest, which was comfortable and offered a bit of extra buoyancy for easily floating around while snorkeling. (The vest is pictured below, modeled by my lovely wife, Michelle.)

Michelle Moss at Discovery Cove

Both are available in enough sizes to fit anyone comfortably. Plus, the water temperature of the Wind-away River and Serenity Bay is set somewhere in the 80s, which offers a chance to warm up after a much colder dip in the Tropical Reef or dolphin lagoons. (And if you’re wondering why I’m writing about Discovery Cove on one of the coldest days Orlando has seen in 2010, this is why. Even in 60-70 degree weather, the park is throughly enjoyable experience.)

Discovery Cove

Also included (read: free) in a day at Discovery Cove are parking, sunscreen, masks, snorkels, towels, showers (with Crabtree & Evelyn body wash, shampoo, and conditioner), lockers, changing facilities – and food/drinks! You won’t go hungry or thirsty while swimming around Discovery Cove, as lunch offers a variety of edible options (both healthy and not-so-healthy) and snack locations are common throughout the park. Lunchtime only runs for a few hours in the middle of the day, but you can get as much as you want during that time. For the rest of the day, snacks include potato chips, hot pretzels, cookies, sodas, and beer – yes, the beer is free and included as well.

Discovery Cove

So all you need to bring with you to Discovery Cove is your bathing suit, dry clothing to change into when leaving, your ID, and a credit card if you plan on purchasing anything (yes, there is a gift shop, of course).

Coming Soon to Discovery Cove: Grand Reef

Beginning in 2011, Discovery Cove will add another experience to the list: the Grand Reef. It will house even more up-close encounters with tropical fish, but this time adding SeaVenture, an underwater walking tour where guests wearing dive helmets can explore the deep blue world without having to come up for a breath.

If Discovery Cove had an annual pass available, I would buy one in an instant. But it’s because such a pass doesn’t exist that the experience is so incredibly enjoyable. With 1,000 or fewer guests in the park each day, there is more than enough room to stretch out, relax, swim, and take in the sights at your leisure. Discovery Cove is a guaranteed stress-free zone and while the price may be steep, it’s a luxury experience that all Orlando visitors must take the time to experience at least once.

You can start exploring and book your reservations at DiscoveryCove.com.

More photos from Discovery Cove at SeaWorld Orlando:

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