When you are visiting Orlando, there are so many theme parks and attractions to choose from and with typically only 14 days to fit everything in, it can be a difficult decision to decide which attractions to choose.
Whilst Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are often the main parks that families add to their itinerary, I’m going to share our experience at what is often referred to as the hidden gem in Orlando – Discovery Cove.
We have been visiting Orlando with the kids since 2009 and have always overlooked Discovery Cove for the lure of the theme parks, but this summer we finally decided to visit Discovery Cove and it was one of the most memorable experiences we have had in Orlando.
If you are looking for a really relaxing experience away from the hustle and bustle of the busy theme parks, then this Discovery Cove review is for you.
Arrival and Check-In
From the moment we pulled into this luxury day resort we truly felt like we were on holiday while we were on holiday. The best way to describe Discovery Cove, is once we parked our car (which was free with lots of spaces available) and stepped into the gorgeous thatched-roof lobby it was as if we had been transported to the most picturesque tropical island rather than being in central Florida.
Much like a luxury holiday resort, we had to check into Discovery Cove at the registration desks at the gorgeous lobby on arrival. Discovery Cove opens at 7.00 am and I would recommend arriving as early as possible to get your day started as soon as possible.
Check-in was really fast and efficient and we soon had our lanyards with the girls so excited to explore what Discovery Cove had to offer. We were led through the idyllic tropical pathways that weave around the property, walking past lush plants, gorgeous waterfalls, lagoons, tropical birds and white sand beaches. The tropical music that is piped through the park really sets the scene, giving off South Pacific vibes.
As first impressions go this really was breathtaking, we were all taken aback by just how beautiful Discovery Cove was – perhaps I was expecting something similar to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park where we were a few days earlier, but this place is on a totally different level.
Discovery Cove also restrict the number of tickets sold each day at 1,300 to this little piece of paradise, so we found that there was plenty of space for everyone which added a far more relaxing and luxury feel to the day, and just what we needed after busy days in theme parks.
It’s an all inclusive resort
Discovery Cove is also an all-inclusive property so once we stepped inside all of our food (breakfast and lunch), drinks (non-alcoholic and alcoholic) along with all day snacks are all included in the price, so I thought this was really good value.
Theme parks in Orlando are really expensive once you step inside, ($4 on water, $20 on pizza etc) – costs can add up quickly – and what I loved about Discovery Cove is that all of this is included in your entrance ticket.
Everything is taken care of here, included in your entrance fee are lockers, changing rooms, wet suits ,life jackets, snorkels, towels, floats, even marine friendly suncream – literally all you need to bring here are your tickets, ID if you are over 18 and your swimming costumes.
There are also upgrades that you can add onto your experience which includes having the space of your own cabana, an underwater walking tour of the marine life at Discovery Cove while wearing a dive helmet to its signature experience, being able to swim with dolphins.
Breakfast at Discovery Cove
We started our day with breakfast (served at the Laguana Grill between 7:30 – 10:30) which set us up perfectly for our day ahead.
There was a wide range of breakfast items on offer in this buffet selection ranging from hot cooked items such as eggs, bacon and sausages to fresh fruit, waffles and pastries and cereals. Hot drinks, fresh juices and milk are also available.
As we were leaving breakfast we encountered the “Flamingo Walk” where the resident flamingos go for their daily stroll along the beach as we were on the way to our cabana. We could hear them well before they came into view and being able to see these Caribbean flamingos so close as they walked past us was really special and the warm up act to our adventures to come in this tropical paradise.
After settling into our cabana, which is well worth the upgrade for private space and levels of service we were eager to explore what Discovery Cove had to offer. The highlight of the day and what we were most looking forward to, was our pre-booked dolphin experience in the afternoon so we had the morning to relax and have fun.
We collected our complimentary snorkels, swim vests (or wetsuits) which are needed for the some of the water attractions here and excitedly headed to the river.
Wind Away River
Wind Away River is really something else, calling it a lazy river doesn’t do it justice. This was a tropical themed river, which has been so beautifully designed it blends into the surroundings of the park, as if it’s crystal clear waterways have always been here.
The river takes you past rainforests, rocky terrain, sandy beaches, beautiful waterfalls and through gorgeous underwater caves. There are so many hidden things to see and do here, from seeing marmoset monkeys on their private island to getting up close to otters to having exotic birds fly overhead as you float through the huge aviary section.
It was so relaxing as we did the full circuit which takes around 30 minutes and the girls were in their element, constantly swimming and snorkling as we travelled around the river.
This set the scene for the day, once the girls had their first water experience they spent the majority of their time in the lagoons and rivers here in Discovery Cove, they absolutely adored it here. River levels in the river range from 3ft to over 8ft deep so you need to ensure that you have a life jacket or swim noodles if you are not a strong swimmer.
Tip – I would recommend bringing water shoes with you to Discovery Cove which will not only protect your feet from the heat on the pathways and sand but also against the rocks in the wind away river and at the Dolphin Lagoon.
As a parent what was reassuring was that at all water locations around Discovery Cove there were lots of lifeguards on duty.
I was surprised by just how much there is to see and do here, it really is a tropical paradise with beaches and huge lagoons to explore and chill.
The Grand Reef
The Grand Reef was a really unique experience and a definite favourite with the girls, the coral reef lagoon that Discovery Cove have created here is nothing short of spectacular, it’s the closest thing you’ll get to actually diving in the sea.
The kids spent hours here snorkelling next to thousands of tropical fish and rays in the crystal clear salt waters and just watching them learning about and experiencing the marine life here is worth the entrance fee alone – a highlight for them were the huge rays which swim past your legs.
For the best photos take a GoPro or waterproof pouch for your phone. We left our waterproof case at our hotel but they are also available at the store here which also had lots of really nice Discovery Cove merchandise. As you would expect the waterproof cases were overpriced at $30 but this was an experience that we didn’t want to miss out taking photos of and it was great being able to take photos of the fish under water.
What I really liked about the Grand Reef was that you don’t need to be a strong swimmer to enjoy this, many of its areas are shallow enough to allow everyone to experience these stunning sea creatures close up. If you are feeling braver and a stronger swimmer, deeper in the reef you can also have the opportunity to swim alongside sharp-toothed reef sharks.
The beauty of Discovery Cove is that you can do as much or as little as you please, if you want 100% relaxation then there were so many sun loungers available on the white sandy beaches to playful swing seats at the bars to just chill out and enjoy the day here. For more privacy and space you can also reserve day beds or cabanas.
Our private cabana (which needs to be booked in advance starting from $199) overlooking the dolphin pool was amazing, watching the dolphins leaping in their lagoon as we relaxed on the hammock was really something else.
The cabanas here are really spacious with all the home comforts for a relaxing stay including sunbeds, table and chairs, storage locker and having the convenience of a private selection of drinks from our mini fridge. They also come with your own cabana host, who was on hand to help with any questions we had and ensuring our drinks fridge was stocked and that we had a plentiful supply of fresh towels.
Another highlight was the little treasure chest that was on our table filled with treats and snacks.
However, you don’t need a cabana to enjoy these treats, all visitors have unlimited drinks and snacks and because Discovery Cove kept the girls so busy I don’t think they spent more than 30 minutes in the cabana, they were having so much fun but my husband and I loved it in here, it was the perfect way to recharge your batteries after days in theme parks.
Meeting the Animals
We spent our morning exploring the reefs, rivers and lagoons here but also encountered some of the animals as we walked around Discovery Cove – the anteater and sloth were my personal favourites.
Lunch at Discovery Cove
Lunch is served at the Laguana Grill (11.00 – 3.30 pm) and much like breakfast there was a buffet selection of meals available, from fresh seafood and burgers to freshly made salads and wraps.
You could also get lunch at Hibiscus Hideaway, which was our favourite serving up freshly made BBQ chicken and margarita pizzas which were delicious. Another highlight here were the ice creams available including the famous dole whip!
That was the beauty of Discovery Cove, along with the dining options mentioned above there were quick service stations and bars across the park serving drinks, freshly made cookies and pretzels, crisps and more – even the fussiest eaters are catered for here. If you wanted to go back for seconds or even thirds you were able to throughout the day.
After lunch we returned to our cabana to relax until it was time for the undoubted highlight of the day, our swim with the dolphins.
Swimming with Dolphins
Discovery Cove is most famous for its dolphin swim experiences and this was our highlight of the day. It’s the first time that we have had the chance to get so close to these magnificent animals and the excitement in Holly’s face was priceless, this was one of the main things that she wanted to experience during our trip to Orlando.
During our morning check-in, we were given a time and meeting point for our 30 minute dolphin swim and organised into small groups of 6-8, so it’s a really intimate experience. Two of the Discovery Cove trainers took us through the parks conservation and rescue efforts along with a safety talk of what to expect when we got up close to the dolphins.
The dolphin lagoon just like the rest of Discovery Cove was a really special experience, as we stepped into the water, our trainers were so knowledgeable and answered any questions we had.
They explained about their bottlenose dolphins and how they communicate, habits, diet and behaviour which was really educational for us all. One interesting thing that we learnt during the interaction is that bottlenose dolphins shed their skin once every two hours to help them swim better.
Then came our introduction to our first bottlenose dolphin Astra, one of the oldest dolphins at Discovery Cove. Each of us had one-on-one time with Astra, and being able to get so close and even have a kiss was really special.
This was just the start, next up another bottlenose dolphin, Marea came to say hello and to take us on a ride with her across the lagoon pool in this incredible dolphin experience. Being carried across the water, holding onto the Marea was such a surreal experience that we will never forget.
This is the only part of Discovery Cove that you can’t take a camera into but all of these moments are captured by a photographer which although are expensive, the photos are worth it to preserve the memories of such a unique experience.
We spent the rest of the afternoon revisiting some of our favourite areas of Discovery Cove, with the girls making a beeline back to the Grand Reef for more snorkeling with the fish and rays.
We did manage to coax the girls out of the water to explore the huge aviary which is full of tropical birds which you can feed from your hand. Complimentary bird-food cups can be found at a few different tables around the aviary and if you are lucky, and for the best chance for this to happen visit early in the day, birds often land on your hands which makes the experience even more special.
We found Freshwater Oasis with its rainforest canopy late in the day as a stop off from the Wind Away River. That’s what I loved about Discovery Cove as a first timer, there seemed to be something new to see and explore around every corner.
Here there were rocks to play on, seating areas in the water and more importantly we were able to see the playful otters and little marmosets on their private island at the centre of this jungle oasis.
Next up was the warm waters of Serenity Bay, the perfect place to swim in their 85-degree tropical pool, before getting some drinks and snacks at the Blue Bamboo bar.
We all loved Discovery Cove and the day went so fast that by late afternoon we just had enough time for one last circuit of the lazy river, before the park closed at 5pm. We are never the last ones to leave a theme park, but we enjoyed our day here so much I think once we left the showers and got changed we were one of the last of the 1,300 people to leave this amazing experience.
Our visit to Discovery Cove is one of the best things we have done as a family in Orlando, not only was it educational and fun it was also so relaxing – something I never thought I’d say about visiting a park in Orlando.
We got to experience so much in just one day, from swimming in the stunning crystal clear waters of the wind away river, interacting with dolphins to swimming and snorkelling in a reef filled with rays, fish, and even sharks (behind a glass). From swimming with rays and dolphins to floating along the lazy river or relaxing on the white sand beaches this was paradise right in the middle of Orlando.
If you have never been to Discovery Cove I would definitely consider adding it to your itinerary for your next trip.
Ready to Book
For UK customers one of the best tickets available is the Discovery Cove Ultimate Package from FloridaTix . This includes your visit 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. Prices start from £180 per person or £234 with the dolphin swim.
For more information on Discovery Cove and the range of experiences on offer it’s well worth visiting the official Discovery Cove website