I am often asked by travel clients about add-on experiences in the Orlando area during their Walt Disney World vacation. While I think that Walt Disney World can occupy an entire vacation on its own, sometimes repeat visitors want to venture outside the bubble to experience more of the attractions that Central Florida has to offer. I think that Discovery Cove is one of the best compliments to a Walt Disney World in that it offers a full day of relaxation akin to being at an all-inclusive resort on a Caribbean island. In fact, my oldest son kept saying as we walked around to get our bearings that he felt like he was on Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay. Not only is the setting beautiful, but the service at Discovery Cove is top notch.
On our last vacation to Orlando my family spent a full day at Discovery Cove, and we can’t wait to go back. It was our first trip as a family but my husband and I went by ourselves for anniversary last spring.
The biggest hurdle to a day at Discovery Cove is normally the price tag, because it is a bit steep. But, when you consider everything that is included the value is definitely there. Prices vary by season, and you can select to do the Dolphin Swim Package, or just the Day Resort Package. With either one you get all day access to the resort (yes, it is more of a resort than a theme park or water park of any type). This includes an unlimited buffet breakfast and buffet lunch, snacks and drinks throughout the day (including beer, wine & frozen alcoholic beverages for those 21 and over), towels, lockers, and all of the experiences. The only difference with the Dolphin Swim package is that you also get the interactive dolphin experience with a small group. The only things not included are your photo packages and souvenirs should you choose to get them. As a bonus, you get admission to Sea World and Aquatica—unlimited—for 14 days surrounding your Discovery Cove experience (you can use it before you visit Discovery Cove which means that is day 1). Considering all of this, it is really a nice package.
Discovery Cove opens around 7:15am for check-ins and it is good to arrive as early as possible to get your Dolphin Swim scheduled (that takes place onsite at checkin), and so that you can make the most of your day. When we were there they closed at 5:30 and we stayed for every moment we could.
After checking in a staff member gives you a basic orientation and drops you off at the Laguna Grill for breakfast. They have a nice selection of hot breakfast foods along with other grab & go items. Remember you can go back more than once, so you can have first and second breakfast if you were so inclined.
Once you’ve eaten (if you are there early) they are probably getting close to opening up all of beaches so you can go get your wet suit or vest (required in all of the water areas for safety), your snorkel and mask (the snorkel is yours to keep, but you return the mask), and your towels for the day. There are abundant chairs throughout so you can choose if you want to be close to the Wind Away River, the Grand Reef, or on one of the dolphin beaches. You really can’t go wrong.
Discovery Cove offers so much to do—it appealed to everyone in my family from my 5 year old to my 18 year old, and the parents too.
The Grand Reef offers snorkeling among tropical fish and rays. The water here is a bit chilly for the fish, but it is a beautiful experience and a great introduction to snorkeling without being out in the open ocean or having to visit the Caribbean. There is an area where you can snorkel up to a glass window with sharks inside if you want to take a safer “walk on the wild side.”
On the other side of the park (but really not that far) is the Wind Away River which really feels like one of the rivers in the Caribbean that offer tubing. It is wide, long, and so beautifully landscaped you’ll want to go on it again and again. It even flows through the Aviary which you can visit by exiting the River or by walking in on land. In the Aviary you are given a cup of food to feed the birds (if you wish), and they will land on your hand to eat. If you are more timid you can just look at the beautiful species or feed those that may walk up to you on the ground.
The entrance to the Wind Away River also serves as a pool of sorts for the park as well. And there is an amazing shallow area with seating in the water where you can sit and relax, enjoy a drink if you wish.
One other area with animals to enjoy is the Freshwater Oasis. Here you can swim up (or snorkel up) to a glass window with playful otters on the other side. They can also be viewed from above from the land side. Also in this area is an island where Marmoset monkeys live separated from the swimmers.
There are three water areas with beaches where the dolphin interactions take place. It is fun to sit here and watch the interactions and also the dolphins swimming and jumping between interactions, but you can’t enter the water to swim outside of the interaction with the group.
As far as safety, there are lifeguards at every body of water—all along the river. They provide substantial noodles for the Wind Away River and life vests for children (and adults who are not comfortable swimmers). Many of the areas are fairly shallow depths, except certain parts of the Wind Away River and many areas of the Grand Reef for snorkeling.
Although you could visit Discovery Cove for your admission price only and have a marvelous time, they do offer a few upgrades you might want to consider purchasing for your day.
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For activities they have a Trainer for the Day program for a more in depth experience with the dolphins. At the Grand Reef they offer a Seaventure experience to walk on the bottom of the reef wearing the breathing apparatus. While we did not try this out, I’ve heard good reviews from colleagues who have. The add-on that we did splurge for this trip was the private cabana. Again, I feel like this was a good value for us because of the inclusions and convenience. With three kids ages 18, 13 and 5, two of whom are redheads who burn easily I was looking at the convenience of having a secured, reserved spot in the shade for the day. It ended up being so much better than that. We had a table and chairs, lounge chairs, our own “private” beach area near the Grand Reef in front of our cabana, towels there for us, a refrigerator with bottled drinks, a locker, and a selection of snacks. Plus our own attendant who would bring us more of what we wanted. He even met us after the dolphin swim with towels and took us over to the photo viewing kiosk. And at the end of the day he picked up our photo package rather than us having to go wait in line to do it. It was so wonderful being waited on! All of this alone made it worth it to me, it was so relaxing and easy on me as the mom. But, the price also includes the full photo package, so we got the DVD of our swim, the CD of images taken during the dolphin swim and throughout the day, a photo album, prints including a poster, a frame, and a couple of gifts—I’m sure these will vary but they photo inclusions alone were valued at most of the total cabana price. However, the VERY best part of having the cabana package was the surprise during the dolphin swim. You are able to order a personalized buoy to be delivered to one member of your party during the swim. I surprised my 18 year old who is going off to college in the fall with the name of his school and class year—he loved it. And just so other family members don’t feel left out you can add additional buoys to your package for an additional cost. Only one can be delivered in the water by the dolphin, but our cabana attendant delivered the other 2 as we got out of the water. I can’t say enough good things about the experience with the cabana and the value for what we paid.
Both of our experiences at Discovery Cove were outstanding. From the activities to the relaxation, the service level to the beauty of the landscape it is an amazing add-on or main destination for a central Florida vacation. It fits well into a couple’s vacation (perfect for a honeymoon couple, or even a proposal—have the dolphin ask with the buoy!), as well as a family vacation. We are saving our pennies so we can go back!