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The Orlando Alternative – SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

By Jeff and Stephanie Sylva

Visitors to Orlando will find a great alternative to the usual Disney vacation by taking in SeaWorld’s exciting theme parks. During our recent visit to Orlando we enjoyed three fun-filled, entertaining days at SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Discovery Cove – SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s wonderful mix of up-close animal encounters, exciting attractions and rides, and wonderful performances. With the variety of attractions at the SeaWorld Parks everyone will find something to enjoy, whether it be a close encounter with exciting sea life, high-flying roller coasters and water slides, entertaining animal shows, or simply relaxing on a tropical beach. And with the opening of The Grand Reef at Discovery Cove in June, Sea World’s Discovery Cove is even more exciting than ever.

Thrilling Rides and Exotic Fish

Manta dips a wing at Sea World Orlando.

SeaWorld is a great park for families because it offers such a variety of attractions. For those seeking the thrills of roller coasters, SeaWorld has two terrific ones. The newer one, Manta, incorporates all the best of SeaWorld amusements – fascinating aquarium exhibits and an exhilarating “flying” roller coaster.

SeaWorld’s other coaster, Kraken – themed after a mythological underwater beast – is Orlando’s only floorless roller coaster. Other rides include Journey to Atlantis, a water-coaster, and Wild Artic, a motion-based flight over the frozen North.

Entertaining Shows

Blue Horizons – Sea World’s exciting dolphin show

As much as we may like thrilling rides, what we liked most of all about SeaWorld were its shows. The schedule includes five shows, four of which feature animals. Our favorite show was “Blue Horizons”, a spectacular showcase of dolphins, false killer whales, exotic birds, with a cast of world-class divers and aerialists. “One Ocean” is the park’s signature show featuring SeaWorld’s family of killer whales. Families will love the other shows as well, particularly the comedy of “Clyde and Seamore Take Pirate Island,” and “Pets Ahoy!”, where a menagerie of cats, dogs, birds, rats, skunks, pot-belly pigs, and other animals keep the audience laughing and amazed.

Other animal attractions include “Key West at SeaWorld,” where visitors feed and touch dolphins and stingrays; “Shark Encounter,” a walk-through aquarium; and “Pacific Point Preserve,” home to a group of cavorting California sea lions and harbor seals. “Dolphin Nursery” is home to dolphin mothers and their newborn calves; “Penguin  Encounter” houses over 200 playful penguins and puffins;  and “Manatee Rescue,” an American Zoological Association award-winning exhibit, features manatees rescued by SeaWorld’s animal rescue team.

SeaWorld’s interactive programs offer some unique opportunities. Participants in the Beluga Interactive Program suit up and enter the chilly 55 degree water for a shallow-water encounter with the majestic white Beluga whales. Participants must be at least 10 years old. The Marine Mammal Keeper Experience allows anyone 13 or older to work side-by-side with a marine mammal expert caring for dolphins, sea lions, manatees and beluga whales. Other “up-close” experiences include ones with sea lions, dolphins, or penguins. Visit the SeaWorld website for more information.

A Little Bit of the South Seas in Orlando

We spent our second day in Orlando at SeaWorld’s water park, Aquatica, and enjoyed a day of exciting water slides, raucous river rides, and relaxing beaches amid the park’s South Seas-inspired flora. With 36 slides in a variety of shapes and sizes, six rivers and lagoons, and more than 80,000 square feet of sandy beaches, Aquatica is a park that will give the family a full day of watery fun. The water in all of the pools and slides is kept at a comfortable 84 degrees.

One thing in particular that we liked about the water rides at Aquatica is that most of the rides use a raft, tube or other flotation device; and we never had to wait for one, as plenty were available. A large supply of life vests is also available in a number of locations throughout the park. The vests were great for hanging out in the park’s two wave pools. The side-by-side pools (Aquatica is the only water park to have side-by-side wave pools), Big Surf Shores and Cutback Cove, each produce a different wave experience.

Thrilling Water Rides

While our favorite water ride was the exciting river rapids of Roa’s Rapids (we probably spent well over an hour racing along in the rushing waters), we think many will find Aquatica’s newest water ride, Omaka Rocka, their favorite, as it is also quite thrilling. Using tubes, riders speed down flumes into massive funnels, sliding high up one side and then the other, creating a sensation much like one gets in a half-pipe – only this is on a water tube.

A variety of other exciting rides will keep the whole family busy all day. For smaller family members, Kata’s Kookaburra Cove is filled with fountains, rides, and slides designed for those under 48 inches tall. Even children too young to walk can enjoy sliding with Mom and Dad in specially designed rafts.

The Dolphin Plunge at Aquatica

As much as we loved our days at Sea World and Aquatica, our most enjoyable day was spent at the all-inclusive tropical retreat of Discovery Cove. We spent a truly wonderful day swimming with a dolphin during our dolphin-encounter, wading in a pool of sting rays, snorkeling a beautiful tropical reef, hand-feeding exotic birds, and floating in a meandering waterway. Although we had picked out a couple of comfortable lounges shaded by some palm trees, we never really had the time to enjoy relaxing on Discovery Cove’s beautiful tropical beach. We were just too busy enjoying all that this exclusive theme park has to offer; however, we did take the time to enjoy a quick breakfast and a tasty luncheon, as all food, snacks, and beverages including wine and beer are included in the admission price.

Many Included Amenities

Visitors may initially balk at the rather pricey admission; but when you consider what is included, as well as the unique opportunity to swim and interact with a dolphin, you will find that a day at Discovery Cove will be a great experience. We were impressed with everything about the park – the beauty and cleanliness of the grounds and shower/changing areas, the attentive and friendly staff, and the many included amenities.

Admission includes the reserved dolphin-swim interaction, unlimited access to all of the Cove’s attractions, food and beverage service throughout the day, all swim gear (mask, snorkel, and swim vest or wet suit), towel, locker, dolphin-friendly sunscreen, all-day parking, a photo portrait of your entire group upon entry to the park, and a pass for 14 consecutive days of unlimited admission to either Sea World or Aquatica in Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. (This pass can be upgraded to include all three parks.)

The writers enjoy their Dolphin Encounter.

Advanced reservations for Discovery Cove are required because of the scheduling of the dolphin encounters. Daily attendance is limited to approximately 1,000 guests, so there is no overcrowding. Discovery Cove also offers some extra attractions like the Trainer-for-a-Day package, limited to only 24 visitors a day, and a number of unique Special Occasion packages such as a watery delivery of a wedding proposal and ring by a dolphin.

More Underwater Adventures

The summer of 2011 added new excitement to Discovery Cove as The Grand Reef opened in June. Visitors experience an array of sea life, snorkeling and swimming among thousands of exotic fish and graceful rays. Swimmers explore a variety of canyons inspired by reefs from around the world.

Ever want to swim with sharks? Well, you can at The Grand Reef – well, sort of. Swimmers will be able to swim right up to some of the reef habitats that include a variety of reef sharks and venomous fish like the lionfish – safely placed behind massive panoramic windows.

For those who don’t snorkel but yearn for an exciting underwater experience, they can try The Grand Reef’s underwater walking tour, SeaVenture. Participants, even non-swimmers, can don a special diving helmet, descend a ladder, and proceed to walk about on the reef floor marveling at an incredible underwater world of sea life.

If You Go:

Children must be at least 6 years old to swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove, and children 6-12 must be accompanied by a paying adult for the dolphin encounter and trainer-for-a-day program.

For more information:

  • SeaWorld or Aquatica: 1-888-800-5447
  • Discovery Cove: 1-877-557-7404