Tuesday 30 June 2015

Swimming with dolphins at Discovery Cove, Orlando

I'm not sure if you'll have noticed that we had the most amazing holiday recently (I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it, ahem). Florida, sunshine state, Orlando, centre of thrills and entertainment.

There's so much to tell that I haven't really known where to start, but I thought it was about time I did, before it all became a very distant memory. If you're not in the mood for happy, sunny photos, look away now. Two weeks of excitement, and happiness, spending time with family and managing to relax just a little. I'm hoping to write a few separate posts to cover most of the experiences we had, but I decided to start with the BEST day ever. 
Discovery Cove is one of four parks owned by SeaWorld Parks and is very different to the other fast-paced experiences you will find in Orlando.
It is billed on their website as a 'one-of-a-kind experience' and we definitely agree with that. We swam with dolphins, watched otters whilst swimming in tropical warm water, mooched along the lazy river, saw exotic birds close up and snorkelled with shoals of fish, rays and sharks (which were luckily behind some very thick glass)! 
There was a small queue to sign in and register when we arrived at about 9.30am. You can arrive from 7.15am and presumably avoid a queue, but despite the girls being up early, it's always a struggle to get out for us. It was a lovely environment to wait in though, and friendly staff, so no hardship. We were given an early slot of 10.15am to swim with the dolphins, which seemed a shame as we missed the opportunity to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on site. Mental note made to get up earlier next time - all food and drink for the day is included in the entry price so it didn't seem fair to miss out on any! I'm sure we could have requested a different time if we'd have realised; as it was we were very excited and keen to get on and meet the dolphins.

We'd been unsure beforehand whether Sasha would enjoy swimming with dolphins; children are allowed to take part from the age of 6, and Sasha was 7, but with hindsight we made the right decision not to book for her. The dolphin session involved standing in cold water listening to information and watching the dolphins before a swim (pull!) with them, and Sasha would have struggled to stay still and focused for so long. So she went off with daddy and Bampi for a snorkel with fish instead while Nana, Tamsin and I turned up for the main event.

After picking up our swim vests, snorkel and mask, we were sent to watch a short instructional video with details of what to expect from our encounter. Safety rules were stressed such as no jewellery (apparently it really distracts the dolphins). Then we waded out just above waist deep in a cold water cove (hence the name) with a group of about 10 others. Four groups were in the cove at any one time, and one trainer and a dolphin was 'assigned' to each group.  
We were talked through lots of information about dolphins generally, and specifics about our particular dolphin, such as the fact that they all have individual tail patterns, a bit like a fingerprint. 
We were allowed to gently stroke the dolphin after being told never to touch the blowhole (which is very sensitive). They are highly trained and could do things like whistle on demand if we pointed our fingers in a certain way, or wave flippers at us if we waved to them. So cute! A couple of the dolphins showed off their jumping abilities, which was an amazing sight.
Next we got our chance to 'swim' with the dolphin, which basically meant swimming out into slightly deeper water, then grabbing the dolphin's fin as it approached and being pulled back to the shallow area. For younger visitors, there was no need to swim out further and tread water; the dolphins would still do a pick up and 'pull' from the shallow area. Finally there was chance to kiss our new friend. The wide smile on our eldest girl's face is a sight that will be etched in my memory. A very special treat for three generations!
The rest of the day was just not long enough; so much to do and see that we'd have liked to stay longer. We snorkelled in the Grand Reef where lots of tropical fish swam freely between our legs, and we watched the manta rays swishing past very close by at feeding time. 
We meandered around the lazy river, jumping out to view all the exotic birds in the aviary, and we pootled about in the very warm water pool where we also spotted otters and marmosets. Lunch was delicious and plentiful, and the whole day was the most relaxed I have felt in a long while.

We took an underwater camera with us too, which I'd recommend; not the easiest to use and as you'd expect the snaps are not the best quality, but the girls had such fun playing with it in the water. 

It's not a cheap day out but it is a very special one. You can choose a day resort ticket without the dolphin experience, although my advice is you may regret it. Apart from all food and drink, you also get included in the cost an unlimited 14 day pass to Sea World, Aquatica (their waterpark), and Busch Gardens in Tampa. One of the many highlights about Discovery Cove is that attendance is restricted to around 1,300 guests, so it always feels calm and relaxed.

There may be many people who don't agree with animals in captivity at all, but what we saw here were well loved and cared for animals, with trainers who knew everything about them and treated them well. A totally magical day out for us, which we would highly recommend.

Disclaimer: we were given a reduction on ticket price in order to experience what Discovery Cove had to offer, with the hope that we would write an honest review of the park.