This week I am in Orlando. One thing I want to say right off the bat is that there is more to Orlando than Disney. As a matter of fact, one of the best tourist experiences I have ever had is now Discovery Cove. This park is part of the same group as Busch Gardens, which has a park in Tampa Bay, about an hour and a half from Orlando. This group also owns Sea World, which has a resort just down the street from Discovery Cove. The thing that sets Discovery Cove apart from Sea World or any other mere theme park is that it is a very hands-on experience. They limit admission to the park, and when you check in, you will barely have spoken your name before they have all of your reservation information pulled up. You are issued a photo tag that gets you access to all parts of the park, along with all food and drink for the day. This being owned by Anheuser Busch, that includes beer and assorted other alcoholic beverages. Get there early, and take advantage of the included breakfast and coffee.
The park is relatively small, but with the small number of tourists allowed in, you will feel like the place is deserted most of the time. They keep it to 1000 guests a day, but on the day we went it seemed more like 300. Like Sea World, this park offers a variety of sea life to explore, as well as a decent-sized aviary with many hungry tropical birds to interact with. The bird food is included, so you never feel like you are being nickel and dimed to death. Visit the aviary first, so you don't have to get in the cold water yet, and the birds are still hungry. They will swoop down and eat while perched on your arm. There are toucans, parrots, kookaburras, and all sorts of birds I'd never heard of.
Snorkelling/swimming is the main attraction at this park, including a dolphin swim. Essentially, you spend the day killing time waiting for your dolphin swim to come up, but there is plenty to do while you are there. When you first arrive (no pressure, after breakfast) you are issued a diving mask and a snorkel, which you get to keep. It is a technically excellent snorkel; it has a one-way valve on the bottom to release trapped water from the pipe. You are also issued a wetsuit for the day, which can be long, short, or just a vest. During your free time, you can snorkel in two main areas, apart from the dolphin pools. One is the tropical river, the other is the sealife snorkel area called the coral reef. Even with all the swimming, this is still a perfectly good destination in the winter. Most of the water is heated, and the Dolphin and coral reef water is not that cold, especially in a wetsuit. This is not the arctic water of beluga whales or killer whales.
The tropical river is a sort of artifical freshwater river that loops throughout the park, made to look natural with a rocky riverbed and sunken artifacts throughout. However, it is at least eighty degrees and probably lightly chlorinated, so it is a fine place to spend most of your time if it is a little chilly out. The river isn't totally devoid of life, though. It loops through the aviary, and the birds are kept in by way of two waterfalls at each end. On another part of the river is a wider area with a white-sand beach and lounge chairs. Of course snack bars are nearby to keep up the flow of free food and beer.
Once you get tired of swimming in circles, there is a coral reef with some more cool ideas. First, it is salt water lagoon kept at normal tropical temperatures, and stocked with all kinds of tropical life, including gigantic stingrays. Swimming next to a herd of those, after the Steve Irwin incident, was quite the added adventure. Several of these rays had no less than a six foot wingspan, and it is really cool to watch them swim right beside you. There are all sorts of tropical fish, including barracudas and sharks. At first, it seems like they are all in the same pool you are swimming in, for an even greater thrill. There is a kind of permanent sunken ship with holes in it, and that is where you view the more ferocious sealife. But when you reach your hand through the hole, it appears that the glass wall you thought must be there keeping back the sharks is missing. It's an interesting, pool-clearing kind of effect.
Soon the time arrives to swim with the dolphins. You get in the water with a small group, and your group is assigned a trainer and a dolphin. At first, this seems a little weird, because you don't have the one-on-one experience, but the groups are kept below ten, and the overall experience is not bad with that many people. At the end, you each get to individually be towed in by the dolphin, and that was a really weird, different, unique experience. Believe it or not, you can pretty much spend the entire day at this resort, and you will be entertained the whole time. A lot of the time is self-directed and really low key, so you should bring a book to read by the beach and expect to spend more time relaxing than you ever would at some place like Disney.
Included in the price of admission is a seven-day pass to either Sea World or Busch Gardens. For an extra $30, you can go to both places. This would be a trip all in itself normally, but even if your are coming to Orlando to do the Disney thing, I would still recommend Discovery Cove as a relaxing day in the middle of your week to not spend the whole day walking around and stressing about fast pass ride times.
Monday, March 05, 2007