Orlando’s Discovery Cove
Posted on March 5, 2019
By Paris Wolfe
Swimming bores me. Or it did until I got to Discovery Cove in Orlando.
Part of SeaWorld Parks, Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive day resort where guests swim with dolphins, snorkel with tropical fish, hand-feed exotic birds and relax on sugar-sand beaches. The entry fee covers wetsuits, towels, meals, beverages and all the watery fun.
From the grand entrance to optional private cabanas, the setting is indulgent and calming. It stays that way all day because the 35-acre resort limits guest admission to 1,300 people per day. Reservations are required.
The tropical landscape reminded my partner of a Mexican coastal resort minus the swim-up bar (though spirited beverages are available at nearby snack bars). Whatever your reference, Discovery Cove swimming holes are nothing like your community’s concrete rectangle.
After a few diving-board tricks, the rectangles bore me. I just don’t know what to do in the water. Discovery Cove is anything but boring.
The thoughtfully constructed Grand Reef experience, for example, is a 2.5-acre salt-water environment with 7,000 fish representing 150 species. In its shallows, youngsters chase colorful fish among the sand and rocks. In the deeper water, more-experienced swimmers snorkel among fish and rays, including a 200-pound southern stingray with a 5-foot wingspan.
The freshwater Wind-away River meanders through different environments, such as an island beach, a dense tropical forest and an underwater cave. Those who swim under a waterfall emerge in the free-flight aviary, home to more than 250 exotic birds.
In the Freshwater Oasis, sparkling springs invite guests to relax under a rainforest canopy. This experience, like most here, is easily accessible to people with disabilities.
Wetsuits — or at least wetsuit vests — are required for most activities and are provided shortly after check-in. And that marks, perhaps, my biggest hesitation: borrowing a wetsuit. Reassured that they’re sanitary, I squeezed into one. (If you can’t get past that concern, wet suits are available for purchase at the entry gift shop.) With everyone snug in the black body-hugging suits, self-consciousness drops away after a few minutes.
The highlight of our day was swimming with Luna and Soleil, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Trainers Gina McDaniel and Scott DeJesus led our group of eight guests — a family of four from Minnesota, a 20-something couple from Wisconsin and us — into waist-deep, 75-degree water. As we lined up, McDaniel used hand signals to direct Luna to swim past us for a warmup back rub. Her warm skin felt smooth and a bit rubbery — like the white of a peeled hard boiled egg — as I expected.
After getting to know Luna, each person took a turn swimming into deeper waters. There, they treaded water on Luna’s left side before grasping her dorsal fin for a 21-foot tow back to the group.
Between rides, McDaniel occasionally tossed ice cubes and a variety of fresh, seasonal fish to Luna. The rewards are part of her daily diet — 16 pounds of fresh fish.
After using her powerful tail to tow us through the salt water, Luna traded places with Soleil, and DeJesus took over. Each dolphin is close to an assigned trainer and more comfortable with different interactions. During Soleil’s turn, Discovery Cove’s professional photographers went click-crazy. Following hand signals, Soleil posed for kisses — more like mouth bumps — and belly rubs.
Personal cameras are not allowed. Professional photos are available for purchase after the dolphin experience.
When personal interactions ended, the dolphins showed off jumps, flips and other tricks we’d previously seen at SeaWorld of Ohio before it closed about 20 years ago. The promised 30-minute experience ran overtime with its leisurely approach.
Between aquatic experiences, we enjoyed the all-inclusive concessions and café serving breakfast, lunch and snacks. For an extra fee, daybeds and private cabana spaces are available.
Discovery Cove has changed my mind about swimming.
Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida may be Orlando’s most visible attractions, but several more exist. Discovery Cove is one that offers an uncrowded day resort nearby, yet it’s far from the madding crowds. Add it to your itinerary.
Discovery Cove: 6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando, 407-513-4600, discoverycove.com.