Travel review: Florida’s Discovery Cove - a welcome respite from the crowds

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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While Disney may be Florida’s main draw, Discovery Cove provides a welcome respite from the crowds says Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Ask any young girl to describe her dream holiday and chances are it won’t be long before a trip to Disney and swimming with dolphins get a mention.

As a parent, the latter sounds like a much more relaxing option, plus there’s less glitter and reduced chance of tantrums. So when we found ourselves in Orlando Florida, a day at Discovery Cove was a no brainer.

The truth was, while our two daughters (aged 11 and eight) were, incredibly excited by the idea of swimming with these beautiful and graceful mammals, they weren’t quite as excited as I was – there is something magical about dolphins that continues to enchant us even in adulthood. Plus, we got complimentary cocktails with the tickets, which didn’t hurt.

Discovery Cove is a paradise of rocky lagoons surrounded by lush landscaping, tropical reefs and winding rivers, complete with waterfalls and pristine white beaches. This is somewhere to unwind, explore, and because of its 1,300-person capacity, get away from the crowds (and the queues) for a day. Even if you didn’t want to take part in the main attraction – the dolphin swim – you’d still benefit from a sense of relaxation worth paying for. An island metropolis, filled with pools and private beaches, you’d be almost forgiven for letting the kids do the adventurous stuff while you laid back with a good book and a cold beer.

But, when given the opportunity of a lifetime to swim with some of the world’s friendliest creatures (and pretend to be an extra on Splash), why wouldn’t you? So despite the tranquillity of the place, we were restless and itching to begin the main attraction of the day.

The dolphin swim is a 30-minute experience which begins after a short orientation on dolphin communication and behaviour, and various dos and don’ts. Then, accompanied by a trainer, guests become acquainted with their dolphin through hugs, kisses and rubdowns.

There were eight of us and our little group was briefed on what to expect before wading out in the chilly lagoon in the hot Florida sun to meet two breathtaking dolphins, Thelma and Kyla.

These bottlenoses are beautiful. Grey blue, hugely intelligent, with a high-pitched squeak and a cheeky streak, our family was entranced.

We are introduced slowly and encouraged to give them hugs and rubs. In the words of my eight-year-old, their skin feels like “peeled, hard-boiled egg”, and yet she was still delighted. There were somersaults at the end, before a ‘dorsal tow’, as one by one, Thelma and Kyla led us back to shore. It’s the park’s signature interaction, and it was brilliant.

And to top it all, we were witness to one heck of a marriage proposal. A fellow guest, with the help of a super-smart dolphin and a life-buoy displaying the words “will you marry me”. It was picture perfect, and she said yes – who could say no to a proposal like that?

It’s not just dolphins who call Discovery Cove home. You could try SeaVenture, an underwater walking tour where, with a dive helmet, you can get up close to unique sea life, velvety rays, and vast schools of tropical fish. There are also sharks – thankfully separated by a 21-ft-long panoramic window. For the ultra-brave there’s also a chance to swim with the sharks. After a long period of consultation that lasted all of two minutes, I decided that wasn’t for me, but for adventurers I imagine it’s an experience not be missed.

Something more sedate, and a real highlight for us was the wind-away river and a glide through the tropical waters past sandy beaches, a dense rainforest, beneath the rocky terrain of cascading waterfalls, and through an underwater cave. It comes with an obligatory rubber ring, but that doesn’t detract from the glamour. You felt a million miles from the hectic pace of your typical day in Orlando. We also loved the spectacular grand reef, full of discoveries to be made along the water’s edge or by a little bridge to tiny islands and hidden grottos.

All this adventuring, of course, left us very hungry. Luckily, the grub was included with entry. There was something for everyone from a stellar choice of burgers and club sandwiches, to a healthier option of fresh grilled fish, or summer salads. The children’s menu went down a storm – how could it not, with plenty of American classics like hot dogs, fries, and mac’ and cheese.

The joys of a Discovery Cove ticket don’t stop at the end of the day. The price includes two-week park entry to both Seaworld and its waterpark, Aquatica, giving you guaranteed extra days of holiday fun at one of Orlando’s most famous theme parks for no extra cost. We had a great time exploring the marine life at Seaworld and I braved Manta, an incredible rollercoaster that replicates the movements of sting-rays.

But most importantly, our trip to Discovery Cove created memories to last a lifetime. Next time, I’m coming back for the sharks.

GETTING THERE

Pre-purchasing your theme park tickets provides the best value for money. The Discovery Cove Ultimate package includes a full day at Discovery Cove, a 30-minute dolphin swim and 14 consecutive days unlimited admission to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica with free parking at all theme parks – offering customers more savings and flexibility for their Florida holiday. Prices start from £178 per person.

For further information about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment in Florida or to book tickets visit seaworldparks.co.uk