Ruth Brindle and her family discover the delights of Discovery Cove, SeaWorld and Aquatica
NOTHING quite prepares you for the magic moment you meet a dolphin up close and personal.
Because these creatures are so revered and loved it is an emotional experience and you could find yourself fighting back tears – of joy.
This was how I and my family felt as we stood waist deep in the cool waters of a Discovery Cove lagoon in Orlando, waiting to say hello to Yoko.
The two trainers guiding us through our experience, Gina and Shelley, quietly kept an eye on their beautiful charge while allowing us to touch her, swim with her and learn all about her.
She, in turn, seemed happy to have the attention, and soaked up the adoration.
Yoko’s sheer, awesome muscle power was evident as she towed me along before I gave her a grateful kiss.
She is one of many offspring sired by veteran Capricorn, now over 50-years-old, one of the oldest dolphins in this fabulous park which is home to a large community of well-cared-for dolphins all born in captivity.
I’ve been travelling to Florida’s fun capital for many years and this park remains one of my favourite places to visit and chill out between days of full-on theme park action.
The numbers visiting each day are limited, so it never feels crowded. There’s a beach, loungers and all the equipment you’ll need to enjoy the multiple water-based fun – snorkelling on the fish-packed reef with rays gently winging their way below you, floating around the lazy river or swimming with dolphins.
The aviary also gives you the chance to feed exotic birds and enjoy interactions with animals including a sloth or a honey bear and other small mammals. And for those looking for another exciting experience there’s SeaVenture. I’ve tried this ‘walk’ underwater with what looks like an upside down fishbowl on my head for breathing purposes and it’s fantastic fun. My nerves before descending below the surface were soon dispelled as I carefully examined some sea creatures along the way.
If you want to make your day an even more classy affair you can hire a private cabana, in true celebrity style, complete with refrigerated drinks cabinet, hammock, table and chairs, toys for the kids and lots of privacy, not to mention a host to top up your supplies and guide you through your day. Our invaluable buddy for our stay was Debbie, originally from England, who couldn’t have been more helpful with my four-year-old granddaughter who was too young to do the dolphin swim, but was happy making sandcastles.
Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive experience, so you have unlimited snacks and drinks and ice creams and a complimentary breakfast and lunch buffet. No need to carry money around, which, after all, would be a bit awkward in your swim gear!
At the end of our adventure we were reluctant to leave and contemplated hiding behind a bush as the gates close. But there is always lots more to look forward to at both SeaWorld and its water park Aquatica.
And while SeaWorld is often a more laid-back park with lots of time to wander at your own pace, it still has thrill rides and the newest, opened in June, is now the tallest, fastest and longest hypercoaster in town.
Mako loops and winds its way along a mile of track at 73mph emulating the movements of one of the fastest and deadliest sharks on the planet. At its highest it is 200 ft above ground, so there is no shortage of scream-making possibilities and “near weightless air time”.
The park also has the big rides Manta, Kraken and the flume ride Journey to Atlantis for those adrenaline junkies among us.
But the big draw here for us and many others is the chance to meet some of the most fascinating sea creatures in the world, from tiny fish to sharks and whales. A good way of doing this and with a fascinating insight into the extensive animal rescue work that the vast organisation does year-round, is to take a 75-minute Behind The Scenes Tour.
We glimpsed injured and sick sea turtles and manatees that had been injured by boat propellers, who were being cared for with a hope to return them to the wild. Up to now the organisation has rescued 28,000 animals in danger over the last 50 years and has now committed nearly £40 million to conservation of marine life over the next five years.
But it was a true privilege and the highlight of our tour, to enjoy a meet and greet with a penguin. Safe in the arms of his keeper we were able to gently stroke the gorgeous creature’s feathers. Did you know they have 100 feathers per square inch? All our group were duly respectful and calm, even the youngsters.
But if you’re more of a penguin fan, you can take a behind the scenes tour of one of SeaWorld’s most popular attractions Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.
In the Shamu Stadium we were treated to a display of awesome power from the killer whales – magnificent creatures who, it was evident by the packed stadium, are much loved. This will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld, which has introduced 400 million visitors to these magical mammals and increased awareness of their plight in the oceans. As the majority of the SeaWorld killer whales were not born in the wild, they will live out their days at parks and facilities, but we will be able to enjoy seeing and learning about them in more natural settings in future. The changes will come into action from 2019 in Orlando.
Just across the road the Aquatica water park is a great place to either start the day or cool off, relax and have fun at the end of a busy day in a laid-back Caribbean atmosphere. It’s a beautifully set out park that continues to be really popular with families.
There are still animal encounters to enjoy here too. After riding the waves in Cutback Cove or Big Surf Shores you can nip over to watch the small, nimble Commerson’s Dolphins at Dolphin Plunge as thrill riders slide through the water in the background.
Other animal interactions, including with the giant African Spurred Tortoise, give this water park added attraction for young ones especially.
Of course, there are several big water slides and adventures here, but the crown for the highest in Orlando now goes to Aqiatica’s Ihu’s Breakaway Falls where you stand in a pod eight stories high before the floor literally gives way beneath you as you plunge at great speed downward along the tunnels.
Both at SeaWorld and Aquatica it is well worth investing in Quick Queue tickets to cut down on wait times for big rides and slides!
The best value ticket for visiting SeaWorld Parks in Florida is the 3-Park SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Ticketor the Discovery Cove Ultimate Package.
The 3-Park SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Ticket offers 14 days unlimited entry to three parks for the price of two – SeaWorld Orlando, Aquatica Orlando AND Busch Gardens Tampa – when guests book and visit before 31 December 2016. Prices start from £96 per adult and £92 per child.
The Discovery Cove Ultimate Package includes one day reservation at Discovery Cove (with 30 minute dolphin swim experience, all meals, snacks and beverages) plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica Orlando – offering customers more savings and flexibility for their Florida holiday. Prices start from £159 per person.
Customers with a 3-Park SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Ticket or a Discovery Cove Ultimate Package also get free parking at all parks for 14 consecutive days, meaning that they can come and go as they please.
For further information about SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment in Florida or to book tickets visit www.seaworldparks.co.uk
America As You Like It (www.americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299) offers a seven night holiday to Orlando, including return flights from Gatwick to Orlando on Virgin Atlantic, seven days fully inclusive compact car hire and seven nights self-catering in a three bedroom home with private pool in Kissimmee from £860 per adult and £425 per child, based on two adults and two children (two-11 years) travelling.