Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida

Usually, mouse ears and princess castles are the first things that come to mind when you talk about Orlando, Fla. – not dolphins. The family friendly city packs in plenty of attractions, and yet a true beach isn't one of them. Located more toward the center of the state, 56 miles from Daytona Beach to the east and 106 miles from St. Petersburg in the southwest, Orlando is landlocked. But at Discovery Cove, you can step into a perfect beach setting, full of sea life, tropical birds, waterfalls – and dolphins!

Corral reefs

True to its name, you feel like you're getting to explore the tropics, from corral reefs to lagoons to underwater caves, without having to travel to each of those places – they're all contained within Discovery Cove's 30-acre park (which is a SeaWorld attraction).

The park is divided almost in two. On one side, there's a beach that leads to the water where the dolphins are located, appropriately called the dolphin lagoon – and on the other, you'll find the tropical reef, a winding river and the aviary.

Since my 7-year-old daughter had never snorkeled, she wanted to go to the tropic reef first. It took both of us a few minutes to adjust to the idea that the fish were swimming all around us. As we went farther into the water to have a closer look, we were surprised to find sharks swimming nearby. Not to worry: They're separated from the tropical reef, but you can still see them through the clear, acrylic partitions. Still, my daughter and I felt like we were quite the brave explorers when we dove down to look at the reef and eyed a shark along the way!

Aviary fun

Even though the 10,000-plus tropical fish are the highlight of the park, my daughter seemed content just hanging out in the aviary. We stumbled into it making our way along the river. The free-flying birds seemed to welcome guests. It probably helps that there are small cups and food available, so that you can coax the birds into coming close.

My daughter could have stayed there, cup in hand, all day as various birds stopped by. A curious peacock even made its way over to where we were standing and then spread its feathers (unfortunately I couldn't get my camera out fast enough to snap a picture!), but my daughter will always remember the experience.

Swimming with dolphins

Of course, the highlight for most visitors is having a chance to swim with a dolphin. If you choose this as part of your visit, you'll be given a time to make your way to the lagoon area when you check in. In groups of six to eight, a trainer will teach you more about dolphins, answer questions and give you a chance to interact with a dolphin.

Children ages 6 and older can take part. I found that the trainer was very patient with my daughter, who was excited to meet a dolphin until she actually went into the water with it – and then, she just wanted to race right back out! In the end, though, the trainer worked with both of us to make her comfortable enough to go for a ride with the dolphin.

What to bring

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive attraction, meaning you won't need to worry about bringing food, towels, shampoo, snorkels or even sunscreen. Check in for the park begins at 8 a.m., although it doesn't open until 9 a.m. (it closes at 5:30 p.m.). When you enter, there is a light breakfast available. Lunch is served between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., but there are snack areas throughout the park with plentiful kid-friendly goodies.

Also, when you enter the park, you'll receive a wetsuit, snorkel and mask – along with a locker where you can stow all your gear (you get to keep the snorkel). The locker/shower areas are stocked with shampoo, lotion and sunscreen. So really, once you've entered the park you won't have to worry about toting anything along (even cash), except of course your camera.

Making the most out of your experience

Although you won't find steamy temperatures, if you visit the park during the off-season, you will be able to get deeper discounts than at other times of the year. As of 2011, these rates start at $199. And if you choose not to do the dolphin experience you can save even more – rates start at $129. You'll need to call for specific pricing details and reservations are required, especially since the park only admits around 1,000 people a day to avoid overcrowding.

While the park admission prices might sound steep, you can make your money go farther by using your pass at other Orlando attractions. With your Discovery Cove pass, you have unlimited access to either SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica (the city's newest water park) or Busch Gardens Tampa for 14 days. So really, your ticket buys your day in Discovery Cove – along with a few days at another area park.

Overall, I thought Discovery Cove gave our family a taste of the tropics without having to travel that far. I'm not much of a snorkeler, and I've never been scuba diving, but this gave me and my daughter a chance to try it out – with plenty of lifeguards and staff on hand, so that we could ask questions about the fish we were seeing or how to get our masks to fit just right.


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