What comes to mind when you picture Discovery Cove? Dolphins, right? Most people will book a day at Discovery Cove with the plan of meeting – and possibly swimming – with a dolphin. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the team do it so beautifully, I’d argue that if you’re going to swim with a dolphin at all, this is the only place to do it.
But there is so much more than dolphins to Discovery Cove. We recently spent a glorious family day in this Orlando paradise as part of our trip to Florida with SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and were blown away by some of the experiences we had. Here’s what we never expected to be doing at Discovery Cove.
Our trip to Florida was paid for by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, and I have been paid for creating my own content about our holiday.
5 Things that might surprise you about Discovery Cove
1. You can walk underwater!
When I saw the pictures of SeaVenture I couldn’t imagine how it was going to feel. Basically, you wear a huge helmet reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau’s, then descend a pool ladder until your feet touch the sandy floor. You’re about 3 metres down, and once you ‘land’ you realise why the helmet felt so heavy as they lowered it onto your head. It stops you from floating back up again!
I’ll admit to feeling quite nervous. The helmet isn’t attached to your wetsuit, which means you essentially have your head in a bubble of air that is in direct contact with the water around you. How was that water going to stay out of my face?! It’s actually a little bit magic. Imagine an upturned glass pushed vertically into a bath of water. As long as you keep it steady, the pressure of the air keeps the water out, and it’s exactly the same with the SeaVenture helmets. Each helmet has an air pipe attached to the top, leading to an air tank outside the water. Air is constantly pumped into the helmet, so that you breathe easily, with no water around your head. If you tilt forwards, the water will rise towards your face, but keep your head level, and you’re in a constant air bubble all of your own. I was even able to equalise the pressure in my ears as I descended, by pushing my hand inside my helmet to pinch my nose. Pretty soon I even forgot about it as I started to notice how close we were to the incredible fish and rays in the reef.
Once you get used to the ‘walking on the moon’ sensation (think small, slow bounces!) you really start to have fun. I knew that there was a team above water making sure our air supply was good, and there were also two qualified divers in the water with us, making sure we were safe. So I focused on what there was around me. The walk takes you past the shark pool, where you get a close up view of these magnificent creatures – thankfully through a strong glass wall!
Our guide led us through the reef, stopping to write learning points – and jokes for the kids – on a little white board. We’d all learned the hand signals in our safety briefing, so there was lots of ‘OK’ to show that we’d understood. What we really needed was a signal for ‘OH MY GOD HOW COOL!’ as he placed urchins and starfish into our hands to examine close up.
I’m told the walk lasted 20 minutes, but it went by in flash of stroking rays, and marvelling at colours as fish flocked around me to feed on the shrimp right in front of our eyes. If you’re going to Discovery Cove, definitely book SeaVenture. I’d say it’s every bit as thrilling as the dolphin experience, and well worth giving up an hour on the beach for.
2. You might become a tropical bird perch
We each had different things we loved the most at Discovery Cove, but without a doubt, the place where we all laughed the most was Explorer’s Aviary. Home to hundreds of colourful birds, this is where you’ll stand with a little cup of feed, and wait for the birds to notice you. You won’t have to wait long – they know you have treats, and they’re very interested in visiting the buffet!
We were very lucky to have visited Discovery Cove previously, when Evan was too young to swim with the dolphins – he’s always been gutted about that, which was why we wanted to go back – but when we saw this photograph I just had to overlay the one we took of him when we were there 6 years ago!
It really is the most special feeling to have these stunning creatures not only land on your arm (or head!) but to actually take food from your hands as they fly past. And more magical still to see the faces of your children as these colourful birds allow them to be so close. Take your time here; your visit to the aviary isn’t scheduled, and apart from SeaVenture and the dolphin encounter, your time is your own at Discovery Cove, so it’s worth hanging out in the aviary for a while to see who might decide you’d be a good perch!
3. Come face-to-face with a sloth
Have you ever looked at those adorable pictures on Instagram and Pinterest of cute baby animals? My kids are obsessed with them, especially sloths. Well, meeting them in person is way better! This is Louis, not a baby, but a 17 year old sloth, who is every bit as cute as a labrador puppy in a tutu, but much more exciting. We were lucky enough to be invited behind the scenes to meet Louis, who looked like he was cuddling – but was basically climbing – his handler as he munched on mango and papaya. Discovery Cove also have an anteater you can meet if you book one of their VIP animal interactions, which include feeding otters, rays and sharks.
Evan is the biggest animal lover in our family, and is obsessed with David Attenborough’s filming. Whether he’ll be a creator, or work directly with animals is up for debate here, but I do know that if he were to go back to Discovery Cove for another visit, it would be to become a Trainer for a Day and get hands on experience with feeding and caring for the animals there. On our visit we took the opportunity to ask lots of questions of the trainers, and it became clear just how beautifully cared for all these animals are, and how much they’re loved by the staff who work with them. I think he went home rather envious of the dream job!
4. Stroke a Stingray
You’ll be given a mask and snorkel along with your wetsuit when you first check in to Discovery Cove. This is so that you can snorkel The Grand Reef, where you’ll see brightly coloured fish, and lots of rays. Whilst you’re not allowed to touch the fish – staff explained that it damages the protective coating on their scales – you are positively encouraged to touch the giant stingrays. In fact, you probably won’t be able to avoid doing so – they’re as keen to check you out as you are them.
These fish are playful and curious about their fellow pool guests, and will swim up close and flap their wings at you as if inviting you to play tag. Jason was so excited that we lost him a couple of times as he followed the rays around the reef.
If you have younger children you can still snorkel everywhere in the reef. Evan was 5 the last time we went, and I remember holding his hand to lead him around through the coral – the wetsuit keeps you quite buoyant, but for extra reassurance Discovery Cove will also give you a buoyancy jacket for non-swimmers. And if your children are nervous about going too deep they can still get close to the fish as you wade in the shallow water, plus there are little rock pools where some of the younger rays and sharks are enclosed for feeding and interactions – we saw some small rays being trained to find their own food by swimming up a tiny ramp!
5. Swim behind a waterfall
You will definitely want your wetsuit, whatever the weather. The rays and dolphins swim in quite cool water, and you’ll be in there for a good while as you explore the reef, and visit the sharks. But when you start to feel chilly Discovery Cove’s Serenity Bay is the place to head for. It wasn’t a hot day when we were there, and although we were so excited about swimming with the animals that we barely noticed the water temperature, we definitely needed to warm up once we came out.
Serenity Bay’s crystal clear blue waters are kept at a temperature of 85°F (30°C) so it’s like sliding into a warm bath. This was where we really started to chill out and just play together, before drifting into the equally warm lazy flowing waters of Wind-Away River. Hanging out behind the pretty waterfall was the perfect antidote to our flight the day before, and I’d definitely recommend doing Discovery Cove on your first day in Orlando, to relax and get your holiday off to a fantastic start.
Wind-Away River travels right through the aviary, so you’ll get a reprise on the tropical birds from a new angle, and you may even be joined in the water by some of them! Then stretch out on a sun-lounger on the pristine beach, or in a hammock, with a frozen cocktail (the kids were made up to find slushie mocktails on tap too) and just soak up the sun.
The rush of swimming with a dolphin
I could not leave this post without writing about the dolphins – this is, after all, why you’ll book in the first place, although you could certainly fill your day at Discovery Cove quite easily without ever meeting one!
When you imagine swimming with a dolphin, you picture yourself riding on its back in the waves, right? Well, it’s not like that at all, but swimming with the dolphins at Discovery Cove is such a thrill, nonetheless. First of all, the actual swim is just a small part of a wonderful experience of being up close with one of these magnificent creatures. In fact, I’d say my favourite part was feeding ice cubes to our dolphin as we learned all about her, and how she uses her body.
In groups of up to 9 people you’ll stand waist deep in the water as your trainer calls your dolphin to you. You’ll get to examine her up close, and stroke her skin as she glides slowly past. Did you know that a dolphin sheds a layer of skin every two hours? We literally felt it exfoliating in our hands – like little bits of pencil eraser coming off as we stroked her! You’ll each have a chance to feed and ‘kiss’ your dolphin, before swimming out to a second trainer, who will set you up to swim back to shore with her. I was really unsure about how this would work, but the dolphins know exactly what to do. The trainer told me to hold the dolphin’s dorsal fin with one hand, then take hold of her flipper with the other; the instant she felt me connect with both she just took off back to our group, depositing me gently back where I started. Seeing the look on my kids’ faces as they raced through the water towards me was such a privilege, and a moment I’ll remember forever.
Children need to be age 6 or over to swim with a dolphin (mostly because they’re powerful animals). But don’t worry, if you have younger children they can watch with a member of the team at Discovery Cove while you swim, then join you in the water for a photograph, where they get to stroke and feed your dolphin too.
Food and drink at Discovery Cove
Food is included at Discovery Cove, from a delicious cooked breakfast bright and early before the park gets going, to a huge choice of main meals and tempting desserts at lunchtime. Alcoholic drinks and cocktails are also included, and slushies and soft drinks are on tap whenever you want them. But that’s not all. As you wander the park you can pick up fresh pretzels and muffins to snack on any time you want, and something actually quite magical happens after midday, when the hot cookies come out. I was posting to Instagram and Twitter about what a lovely day we were having, when I started to get messages from both friends, and strangers: “Did you get the warm cookies?” “You MUST try the warm cookies!” and so on. I tried the warm cookies. I won’t tell you how good they are, but I’m betting you can guess!
I’ve never needed an excuse to lounge on a beach with a frozen piña colada, so before our day came to an end Jason and I took the opportunity to chill out with a drink in the shallow water and relive all the magical things we’d done, while the kids went off to do the lazy river again. Nothing lazy about my two on a day like this!
Our trip to Florida was paid for by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, and I have been paid for my time in writing this review. However, everything I’ve written is my own opinion, and we had the most wonderful day. You can find out more about Discovery Cove, and book by visiting the website.
Where to go next?
If you’re planning a Florida trip:
- Watch our video of the thrills at Aquatica waterpark
- See all our photos of the animals and coaster action at Busch Gardens.
- See our family review of SeaWorld Orlando.
- What to do at Aquatica – all our pictures and review.
- All the POV action from our rollercoaster rides at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld.
- See where we thought the best animal interactions in Florida were, in this video.