Islands of Adventure took the themed entertainment industry by storm, Discovery Cove debuted. IOA introduced the world to amazing new attractions like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Dueling Dragons, and Incredible Hulk, but the park itself followed the typical mold of theme parks that came before with an expansive circular design with paths wandering through a half dozen themed “islands.”Back in July 2000, a brand-new theme park opened in Orlando. Just a year after Universal’s
On the other hand, Discovery Cove offered a completely different type of theme park experience - one with limited admission, unique small group encounters, and devoid of traditional theme park or water park attractions and annual passes/memberships. At a time when you could walk through the gates of a traditional theme park for $50-75, the $150-200 Discovery Cove admission seemed prohibitive for my value-conscious and more thrill-focused family when the park first opened. However, the fact that the park is still successful over 20 years after its inception is a credit to its concept... and perhaps owed partially to shifting sentiments among Orlando visitors seeking more unique vacation experiences than what traditional theme parks can offer.
That is ultimately why we finally found ourselves in Discovery Cove last week. In general, a standard day at Discovery Cove (including the signature dolphin swim) runs between $200-$300, depending on the day, with various discounts offered throughout the year – though the Black Friday sale we took advantage of was the first time we had ever seen admission discounted more than 50%. Guests can also save on admission by purchasing a Day Resort Admission (does not include the dolphin swim), which puts the pricing closer to the cost of a single day admission to the Disney and Universal parks. However, like many unique and exclusive theme park experiences, Discovery Cove allows guests to purchase add-ons to make their visit even fancier, such as an upgraded beverage package, SeaVenture (a “snuba” tour through the Grand Reef), animal trek (private tour through the animal habitats), swim with sharks, flamingo mingle, ray feeding, private cabanas, photo package, and “trainer for a day.”
If you purchased even just a couple of the available upgrades, pricing could very easily swell above $500/person for a single day at a park usually open only from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm. A lot of these add-ons are similar to what SeaWorld/Busch Gardens parks have been offering for years, but when guests are already paying a premium to walk through Discovery Cove’s gates, these are clearly a way for the park to exploit deep-pocketed guests who are already paying double or triple what it would cost to visit a regular theme park.
At first glance, the cost to visit Discovery Cove can seem comparatively high in the Orlando market, but there is still value to be had from this seemingly elitist experience. Visiting Discovery Cove is very much like being at an all-inclusive island/beach resort with a very free-form atmosphere. Unless you sign up for one of the upcharge animal experiences, the only time-sensitive aspect of your day guests need to be concerned about is when their dolphin swim takes place, which is scheduled upon entry into the park. Aside from that approximately 45-to-60-minute block of time, the rest of the day can be spent however you please.
Another difference of Discovery Cove from a standard theme park is that your admission includes food and beverages throughout the day. There is one primary restaurant, Laguna Grill,
featuring two cafeteria-style service lines that provides breakfast items from 7:30-10:30 am and lunch items from 11:00am-3:30 pm. The food served at Laguna Grill is on par with what you would find at other SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, with plenty of options to satisfy a wide range of palates. I thought the breakfast was on par with a good hotel breakfast (French toast sticks, eggs, link sausage, waffles, yogurt, assorted fruit, etc.), while the lunch was above average compared to your typical theme park fare. (I had the grilled salmon plate, while my wife and son had the Brazilian-style flank steak plate.)
Aside from the centrally located Laguna Grill, Discovery Cove features three other snack/refreshment stands that also serve beer, wine, and mixed/frozen drinks. The stand closest to Laguna Grill serves pizza and frozen items (Icee and soft-serve ice cream) along with packaged snacks (chips, peanuts, Rice Krispie treats, etc.), while the two stands farthest from Laguna Grill serve only packaged snacks along with warmed pretzels and cookies. Domestic canned beer (Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, and Yuengling) and wine are complementary to all guests 21 and over, with additional beer selections (including draft beers from Kona Brewing and Cigar City), frozen cocktails, and a full bar available to guests paying for the upgraded beverage package ($40 on the day we visited). Guests choosing not to pay for the upgraded beverage package have the option to pay a la carte for the fancier drinks if you only want one or two nicer beverages (the break-even point appeared to be 3-4 drinks, depending on your preference given the menu prices posted). Ultimately, the experience is very much like a cruise or an all-inclusive resort where guests can eat and drink as much as they’d like throughout the day.
One of the issues we ran into was that since Zach and I attended Halloween Horror Nights until 2am the evening before, we ended up arriving to Discovery Cove shortly after 8am, which was after the park had already opened. That meant that by the time we arrived at Discovery Cove, the lines for breakfast at Laguna Grill were quite long (about 10-15 minutes). The other issue is that certain items at the refreshment stands were never restocked (soft serve ice cream, popular bagged snacks, and warm cookies). As with other theme parks, the early bird gets the worm, but it was a bit frustrating to wait in a slow-moving line to grab a breakfast that was comparable to what we could have grabbed at our hotel without waiting, and to see some desirable food items early in the day that were not available later in the day when we were actually hungry for those items.
In addition to the complementary food and beverages, guests are provided reef-safe sunscreen, towels, wetsuits/vests (required to be worn during the dolphin swim), and masks/snorkels. The park also features a very nice shower/changing facility complete with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash dispensers. This was a great feature for us since we were driving home after our day at Discovery Cove, so taking a warm shower and changing into dry clothes at the end of the day was nice before driving 12 hours back to the DC area.
Discovery Cove is divided into three main attraction areas in a somewhat linear layout centered around the park’s entrance, Laguna Grill, and the signature dolphin swim habitat. One side of the park has a freshwater lazy river that winds through various animal habitats, including an aviary, otter enclosure, and an island habitat populated with marmosets.
Unlike lazy rivers you’d find at your local water park, this one is very natural looking with undulating depths and rocks that make it really feel like you’re floating down a real tropical river.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this more natural look and feel. One is that the constantly changing river depth and randomly textured bottom can mean that it’s easy to stub your toe or scrape your foot on the bottom. The other is that the current around the river is very slow and inconsistent, which makes it difficult to sit back and float down the river, as it would probably take an hour or more to completely circumvent the course. In addition to floating through the aviary, guests can also walk through the habitat and feed the birds with cups provided near the various entrances.
This is very similar to other aviary experiences offered at other SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks, but the food cups are complementary (though first-come, first-served during specific feeding times), and there is a larger variety of birds than what you’d find at other parks.
On the opposite side of the park from the lazy river is the Grand Reef, a stunning salt-water habitat stocked with thousands of tropical fish including numerous species of rays. Guests are able to explore this massive and very natural looking habitat using provided masks and snorkels. There are areas in the Grand Reef suitable for guests of all swimming abilities, with plenty of shallow areas from the little ones and a deeper trench that runs down the center of the habitat for more experienced snorkelers to explore.
Having just recently snorkeled in Hawaii, I feel the Grand Reef captures the essence of an excellent ocean snorkeling experience, and the ability to explore at your leisure made it superior to my previous artificial snorkeling experience at Typhoon Lagoon (the now-closed Shark Reef experience). The variety of fish in the habitat is incredible, and the rays are so accustomed to guests swimming with them that you can swim right up to them.
Adjacent to the Grand Reef is a shark tank that guests can view from walkways above the habitat or from underwater windows in the Grand Reef. While guests can pay extra to physically swim in the shark habitat, it was still pretty cool to swim in the Grand Reef and view the sharks through the underwater windows.
The centerpiece of Discovery Cove is the dolphin habitat, which is very natural looking, like many of the other guest areas around the park. While guests can explore other areas of the park at their own pace, you can enter this habitat only during your scheduled encounter. The dolphin swim area can accommodate well over 50 guests (in groups of 10-12, accompanied by a trainer, photographer... and dolphin) at a time, but the design allows from a very intimate experience.
After checking in at a designated cabana and watching a brief safety video, guests are arranged in their groups and led into the habitat where they stand in about 3-foot-deep water (kept chilly by human standards for the comfort of the dolphins). The trainer then arranges guests in a line while introducing the dolphin and guiding them past each guest for a series of touch encounters. The trainers possess a wealth of knowledge about the dolphins and will tell you tons of cool information about your companion. For our encounter, we worked with Roxie, who interestingly came to Discovery Cove from SeaWorld Ohio, so my wife and I probably saw her perform at the now-defunct park over two decades ago.
We have been close to dolphins before at various tank-style habitats, but never close enough to touch them in such a realistic environment, so it was amazing, yet humbling, to be so close to one of these amazing creatures. After guests get a chance to touch their dolphin, they are brought one at a time into a deeper area of the lagoon for their swimming encounter. While the dolphin does all the swimming and the encounter is a bit short (about 10 yards), it was still a memorable and pretty awe-inspiring experience. After everyone in the group takes their turn, guests get a final opportunity to pose for a photo with their dolphin, and the trainer signals the dolphin to perform some acrobatic feats in the deeper water at the center of the lagoon.
Aside from wanting more time to interact with our dolphin, the biggest drawback of the experience is that you cannot bring any cameras (or any other loose articles – including jewelry) into the habitat, so the only ways to get photos of your dolphin swim is to purchase the park’s photo package or to have a guest in your party that does not participate in the dolphin swim who can take photos from the shore. While I understand providing a safe environment for the experience is important, Discovery Cove does take advantage of this policy with extremely high prices for photos of this unique interaction.
Despite the slight flaws and the surprisingly expensive upcharges, Discovery Cove still provides guests a unique experience that is well worth an admission price that far exceeds any other theme park in Orlando (unless you consider the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser a theme park). The experience brings a sample of the tropical islands to Central Florida and allows guests to have an enjoyable and relaxing day that is a far departure from the planning, lines, and stress typically associated with a visit to most other theme parks.
Discovery Cove is beautiful, with unique attractions and experiences that simply cannot be found elsewhere in the United States. We ultimately approached our visit to Discovery Cove as a day of decompression and relaxing after touring parks open-to-close for the prior five days, and I think that is the aspect of this park that represents a possible future of theme parks, if more concepts like this can support limited guest capacities offset by significantly higher admission prices. While I think it would be incredibly difficult and risky for a theme park to pattern their operations around Discovery Cove, it would certainly be an interesting experiment to see if a popular park with abundant thrill rides and unique experiences could be successful with an operational model similar to Discovery Cove.
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