As a former scuba magazine editor, I have logged hundreds of tropical dives, but none since becoming a mother. Holding hands with my 9-year-old daughter as we snorkeled across the Grand Reef at Discovery Cove was as though I had traveled back in time with her to some of my favorite dive sites all rolled into one.
The sand-filled gulley carpeted with dinner-table-size southern stingrays reminded me of an unforgettable night dive off Ambergris Caye in Belize. Hovering over a stone outcropping in a deep hole, we studied all the fish in their riotous colors clinging to the nooks and crannies; I was transported to the easy, shallow diving off Cayman Brac where the reefs are loaded with brilliant life.
Ailigh is a bold, curious, aqua-assertive kid, but she sure did shriek when a cownose stingray's wing grazed her leg as it swept past us. She bolted to a standing position to regain her composure while I assured her that the barbs had been removed from all the rays and that nothing in this lagoon would hurt her. Though our dolphin interaction an hour earlier possessed its own magic of simply being near the magnetic and majestic mammals, our snorkeling experience turned out to be the big surprise of our first visit to SeaWorld Orlando's nature-inspired oasis that has been welcoming guests since 2000.
We've lived in Orlando since 2005 and have been to SeaWorld dozens of times, but we had never been to Discovery Cove. The park offers an all-inclusive experience that caps the number of daily guests at 1,300 and uses the same dynamic-pricing model employed by the airlines, meaning the price goes up or down depending on how many tickets are sold. Starting at about $200 per person, the cost is generally more than we're prepared to spend as locals who aren't "on vacation."
I was recently invited by Discovery Cove to come and experience the all-inclusive day resort and dolphin swim and to try Animal Trek, the park's new 90-minute small-group, exclusive-access upgrade (from $79 per person). My daughter was included, and we each got to bring a friend, too. Since Discovery Cove check-in and breakfast begins at 7:15 each morning, we spent the previous night at the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld Resort, an Official Hotel of SeaWorld (more about the hotel below).
Animal Trek is offered just twice per day for a maximum of 12 people per group. We were enjoying our snorkeling so much that we had run late. Lunch would have to wait, but we were grateful for a grab-and-go snack (all meals and snacks are included in admission) as we changed gears and readied ourselves for our next adventure. It wasn't even noon and we'd already interacted in the water with a bottlenose dolphin and swam with stingrays and tropical fish.
Discovery Cove offers a handful of upgrades that must be booked in advance, including Ray Feeding (begins before the park opens), Swim With the Sharks (added last year) and Trainer for a Day (maximum one-on-one time with dolphins). I was surprised to learn how limited each activity is: It's capped at 12 to 24 guests per day, depending on the activity.
Animal Trek granted our group exclusive access to the small bird aviary where a pair of military macaws (named for their olive green and red plumage) posed on our arms for photos, and we could feed the small birds as long (and as much) as we wanted until the birds lost interest.
Afterwards, we waded chest-deep into the Freshwater Oasis and into a cave where the Asian small-clawed otters reside, separated from guests by thick glass. The girls loved looking at them underwater through their masks. Our trainer supplied us with shrimp and trout to drop through a trap door down a chute where the otters greedily waited with their heads pushed in to the opening on the other. The website Zoonation.org recently named it the No. 1 interactive otter exhibit in the world.
Next up were three separate "backstage" visits: with a rescued screech owl named Owly who measures just nine inches tall, a three-banded armadillo named Clementine who presents herself rolled in a complete ball, and Louie, one of a pair of two-toed sloths who live at Discovery Cove. The sloths are the headline attraction at Animal Trek, but as the trainer explained, there's no guarantee that guests will meet one. That's entirely up to the sloths: If one doesn't climb onto a trainer when it's time to visit, then an anteater or a kinkajou will be selected instead. The 90-minute Animal Trek ended at 1:30, leaving us plenty of time for a sit-down lunch and the afternoon to relax in and around the warm Freshwater Oasis.
Just about everything you need during your visit is covered in the admission price: self-parking, a wetsuit, mask and snorkel (each guest receives a new snorkel to keep), animal-safe sunscreen, lockers, towels, breakfast and lunch each with plenty of choices -- snacks that include smoothies and warm pretzels, beverages and wine and domestic beers. There is an alcohol package upgrade that includes cocktails and a wider beer selection. Admission even includes 14 days of unlimited visits to SeaWorld and Aquatica.
The one notable exception is a photo package. You can't take anything with you for the dolphin swim, so park photographers capture every interaction, and those pictures are hard to leave behind. Your clients should expect to pay about $200 per group for a Photo Key that includes all the digital files from their day.
We finished our day with several trips around the Wind-Away River whose banks are lined with lush, varied tropical plants and towering palms; one section passes through the aviary and another through a cave that felt like we were in a Yucatan cenote. A steel-pan soundtrack evokes memories of vacations past.
We were the last ones out of the water.
WHERE TO STAY
We enjoyed a girls-only slumber party the night before at the DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld Resort, an Official Hotel of SeaWorld. The property unveiled a massive meetings space expansion to a total of more than 100,000 square feet earlier this year, which included a refresh of the grounds and all 1,020 guestrooms (rates start at $99 per night).
A standard Queen Room at the Doubletree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld Resort.
While there is a central tower whose rooms have balconies, most of the guestrooms have an outside entrance in one of 18 two- and three-story buildings. Ours was gardenview and very quiet. Buildings 9, 10 and 11 are beside the Lagoon Pool and include refrigerators and microwaves. A $20 daily resort fee includes self-parking and WiFi. Guests can park near the building to which they are assigned. Pets weighing less than 25 pounds are welcome too.
We explored the beautifully landscaped grounds, switching between the adult pool with the waterfall and bar and the family pool with music and games. We played ping pong outdoors beneath a thatched-roof pavilion and followed that up with minigolf. At night, we exchanged dinner reservations at Laguna, the main restaurant, for burgers by the pool, ordered from the Barefoot Bar. Because many guests are attending conferences, amenities stay open late.
My friend and I caught up that night beside a large gas fireplace at one end of the Veranda outside of the Palms Conference Center while the girls took advantage of the large AstroTurf lawn for games.
Our only regret is that we didn't return to the DoubleTree after Discovery Cove to ride out our vacation bliss.