In Orlando, Florida, there is a lesser-known attraction, and I hesitate to tell you lest it become even more popular. At the same time, it’s really too good to keep to myself. My husband declared Discovery Cove like Disney World, and I think he’s right. This is the best Sea World park. If Sea World animals and Disney’s excellence got married, this park would be their baby. Super friendly people are everywhere welcoming you and guiding you throughout the process. And you want for nothing. The more you learn and see pictures about Discovery Cove, the more it will be your next family destination.
Have you heard of this place? I sure hadn’t! Its sister park Sea World is known by everyone, but this one day resort paradise? Nope.
In full confession, this travel-mom messes up! I completely wrote down the day of reservation incorrectly. While the reservation was clearly for Thursday, this mom brain said Friday. Thankfully, the Discovery Cove staff efficiently switched our reservation the following morning in person – and it actually worked out better in the long run.
Before this trip, I had so many questions I couldn’t find the answers to and didn’t know what to expect for our day. I hope this guide keeps you from having the same concerns I did. It’s all here!
What is Discovery Cove?
Why Choose This Orlando Park?
What Do I Need to Bring and Wear?
What Does All Inclusive Food Mean?
Included Adventure Supplies?
What are The Sights?
What If I Have Little Kids or Am Not a Strong Swimmer?
When Should I Arrive?
When Does the Park Close?
Give Me All the Mom Tips
This Sounds Amazing… but Expensive?
Should I Add Upgrades?
A magical one day, all-inclusive resort location for dolphin encountering, relaxing, and snorkeling in a man-made lagoon with tropical fish and stingrays. It’s like a Cancun vacation without the travel price tag or passport requirements (or Covid test for 2021!). Located adjacent to Sea World’s water park Aquatica and traditional Sea World park, this park is amazing.
So many reasons. Choosing Discovery Cove over Sea World is like picking the Ritz Carlton over the La Quinta. Both are good and serve their purpose, but one is okay and one is top notch.
There are no lines. There is no line at the entrance or paid parking. Instead of a lengthy line waiting to get into the main doors, you will be escorted to your individual attendant. There are no extra fees for towel rental or locker rental, and the price includes the use of a wet suit, life jacket, snorkeling gear, and food. Yes, food! And most significantly, the number of guests each day is limited so the park will be less crowded to allow for a more elite experience.
Leave most of your stuff at home. Bring your ticket and ID to check in, your phone in your waterproof phone bag, and sunglasses for when you don’t have on goggles. You can wear your swimsuit under your wet suit, but honestly, we removed ours the entire time, so normal undergarments could be used. Don’t go buy a swimsuit just for this – use what you have. Leave everything else at home.
Your ticket includes an all you can eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks. This is good food too. Instead of the typical fast food type meals at amusement parks, think steak with churrasco sauce, jerk chicken with mango salsa, burgers, salads, desserts, and plenty of kids options. Arrive early to enjoy full hot breakfast with eggs, sausage, french toast, fruit, pastries, yogurt, and more.
There is one central, full-meal restaurant surrounded by plenty of outdoor tables. Unlike the long lines at the other parks, we hardly saw a line other apart from the adults getting their alcohol.
The multiple, self-serve snack bars throughout the park offer snacks and drinks without a line. You will not be required to do lots of walking to find snacks. Our family might have all had too many bags of chips, rice krispies, chocolate chip cookies, and soft pretzels. The drinks include sodas, icees, beer, and wine while other adult beverages are available for an additional daily cost. Don’t skip the lemonade icee. It was our favorite.
Breakfast starts at 7:30 and is served until 10:30. Get there early and enjoy. Lunch starts at 11 and lasts until 3:30. If you time it right, you could eat an early supper even. The snack and alcohol stations remain open until 5.
These are required to be worn in the water; they let the lifeguards know you aren’t just a rock floating in the reef! There are several wet suit options, and you have the option to get a different one if you change your mind. We all got full body suits and were glad we did. If you are prone to being cold, these would be a good option to keep you warmer in and out of the water.
Towels and shower
These changing rooms have full shower with shampoo, soap, and fresh white towels if you want to put on a full fresh change of clothes after your day of fun. It feels and looks like a changing room at a private gym.
After putting on your wet suit, look for the dispenser by the lockers. This is animal safe sunscreen. You are not allowed to bring in your own.
At the lazy river and reef entrances, there are floats which you can just use there or carry with you around the park.
Snorkel and Goggles
There is no need to bring these with you. Get your snorkels and masks from the wet suit supply hut if there aren’t any on your chair. The snorkels are yours for the day, but you get to keep the snorkel. Don’t forget to ask about getting your prescription goggles at the entrance. You won’t want to walk back later.
The Grand Reef
Save it for last because it’s the best! You snorkel in a huge aquarium with tropical fish, sting rays, guitar fish swimming all underneath you. There is even a shark area where you can watch them swimming under the water through glass, so it feels they are right there with you. Just so you know, they have had their barbs clipped and can’t hurt you! This was the busiest area of the park when we were there, but it’s so big that it’s spread out. I highly suggest using a life vest for snorkeling; it isn’t required, but it sure makes it easier and less tiring and less worrisome with your kids.
Go to the aviary early. The kids will want to get in the water first thing. However, once they get in the water, they won’t want to get out. And, as you will be feeding the birds (no additional charge, of course!), I figure they’re hungriest first thing in the morning. With a QR code, you can open the bird identification on your phone and figure out who your new friends are as they balance on your shoulder… or head. Of note: These birds are used to people and will get as close as possible on your head or arms. This is not the place for those with a hesitation near birds.
This is the way to see the otters, but it just was our least favorite place as the water doesn’t really move. It’s okay to avoid it. This was a very calm area if you need to get away from people or just want to relax in the water.
This is a lengthy lazy river and a deeper one than I’ve ever seen. There are optional floats available at the start of the river. Some of us chose to just wear the life jackets that are available near the entrance. This river takes you through the bird sanctuary, and you can even get off here and go through part of the birds. At the end of the river is a fun cave and waterfall as it ends at Serenity Bay. Prepare to stay on this river for a while. Take your snorkels and let the kids get a bit of practice before they get in the Reef. Warning: you will get your head wet as you go through the barrier for the aviary.
Plan for this ahead of time! You will get an assigned time for your family to have an introductory video and directions before you head to the lagoon in the middle of the park. There will be several stations with different dolphins all interacting at the same time. With your small group, you will get to meet the dolphins and let them get used to you. The photographer will take your picture as you ride briefly in the water while holding their dorsal fin and get close up one-on-one. The trainers will answer all your questions and let you know exactly what to expect. There are age restrictions due to the depth of the water, so check this as it isn’t just a suggestion. Prepare yourself to pay more than a hundred dollars for these pictures.
There is still plenty to do! Serenity Bay is shallow water along a beach with a waterfall and cave to explore. Directly across from this is an area with chairs in the water to sit and enjoy drinks and food. The Wind-Away River could easily be done on a float. To go interact with the animals at the Aviary, you don’t even have to get in the water but just walk through. Even at the Reef, a large portion is a wade-in area and the animals come right up in there. You can experience rays and sharks without ever getting fully in the water.
Go early! Breakfast starts at 7:30. We arrived at 7 and walked right in without a wait.
When you arrive, your group with be directed to your personal attendant who takes your information, prints your badges, tells you what to do, and shows you the map – as much personal attention as you want. This is also where you are assigned a time for your reserved animal encounters. If they don’t offer you a map, ask for one. They’re waterproof.
Follow the tiki-torch lit trail through the jungle to be directed to the lockers available at that time. There you will get a properly sized wet suit or vest, swim masks, snorkel, and even animal-safe sunscreen. Change in the fully equipped bathroom and put your clean clothes in the provided locker.
The water access and concessions close at 5. Feel free to stay until then! Now is the time for you to go back to the restroom, take a shower with their included shampoo and body wash, dry off with their provided towel, and return your wet suit. The goggles will be returned at the exit; feel free to keep your snorkel.
Don’t worry if you still haven’t made it to the gift shop or to select your dolphin pictures. They stay open until the last guests are gone.
- Make sure your team knows that the zipper to the wet suit goes in the back. Or prepare to laugh at your husband. Hypothetically, of course.
- Invest in a wet case for your phone. It works excellently!
- Get a larger size for the wet suit than they recommend. You’ll regret squeezing in the smaller one just because of size labelling. Just do it and have a better day.
- Don’t forget to reapply the sunscreen. Even with the wet suit and reapplication twice, our arms still got pretty red. The SPF on the animal-safe sunscreen isn’t super high. With your arms extended snorkeling for hours, make sure you apply to those forearms.
- Get your snorkels and masks from the wet suit supply hut if there aren’t any on your beach chair.
- Don’t hesitate to grab your beach chairs and put your stuff down to claim your area. Our favorite attraction was the reef, so we chose chairs in this area for our spot. It worked great because there’s also a snack bar right there.
- Feel free to change to a locker closer to your “spot” if you end up far from your locker. It’s just a key that you leave in the locker. The park will have no idea you have moved. Granted, we kept most of our stuff at our chair with no concern.
- Leave your refillable mugs at home. It’s less to carry and there are disposable cups everywhere.
- If booking a dolphin swim, consider doing half your party at a different time. That way, you can trade picture taking (which they do allow!) instead of buying the very expensive photo package of your time with the dolphins.
- Potty breaks. Tight wet suits. Discuss your plan with your family. I’ll leave your plan up to you. 🙂
Did you look at the cost and freak out?! Ok. But, trust me, it’s worth it.
Discovery Cove is not a last minute day trip but needs to be planned long in advance to get the best prices. Look for Good Friday deals in November and plan ahead! When we booked our trip, we saved hundreds of dollars booking Black Friday, the cost was not much more to get full admission to the other three Sea World parks for 14 days, and the dolphin excursion was half price.
Think about how you don’t have to pay for parking or a locker or food or snacks or haul all that stuff around. And it’s magical. I suggest you talk to a travel agent about getting a good deal. If you need one, please contact my friends at K&R Travel Connect.
Honestly, this trip is so amazing (and expensive!) as it is, so I wouldn’t worry about adding anything unless you just have your heart in it. We stayed busy from opening to close and could have spent hours more even without extra perks.
Day beds are available throughout the park and have covered lounge chairs, a personal refrigerator, and privacy. These would be ideal if you have a not-fully participating member of the group or babies and toddlers who need a rest. Personally, we hardly sat in our regular chair.
Animal encounters include dolphins in the cove, feeding a variety of animals, or private tour behind the scenes. It appeared to us that the dolphin encounter was very popular and stayed booked all day. Don’t wait to try to add these to your itinerary on the day of your stay at Discovery Cove.