When my son, Ben, had to choose between visiting Discovery Cove or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay during a trip to Orlando in May, it was a no-brainer.
Although the opportunity to come face-to-face with the exotic creatures of Africa during the Serengeti Safari at Busch Gardens was tempting, there was no way he was going to miss the chance to swim with dolphins.
And so, on the second full day of our Orlando visit, we put on our swimsuits and packed a waterproof camera for the short ride from the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld to Discovery Cove, one of several Anheuser-Busch Adventure Parks.
Discovery Cove, which opened in 2000, is an all-inclusive park where guests have the opportunity to swim with dolphins, southern and cownose rays, brilliantly colored tropical fish, barracuda and sharks.
There are more than 250 exotic birds in a free-flight aviary.
The park has rocky lagoons surrounded by lush landscaping, coral reefs, tropical rivers, a resort-style pool complete with waterfalls, and pristine beaches.
Reservations are required, and daily attendance is limited to 1,000 guests, ensuring that there are no crowds.
We were greeted at a check-in desk and given ID tags to be worn around our necks at all times. Printed on our tags were a park map, our names and our assigned dolphin-swim time: 2:45 p.m. Even though we had several hours to kill before our dolphin swim, it wasn't hard to find something else to do.
But let me back up a minute. The admission prices might seem a bit daunting - $159 plus tax each for those who wish to explore Discovery Cove but not participate in the dolphin swim; $259 plus tax each for those wishing to include the 30-minute swim. Another package, Trainer for a Day, starts at $459 plus tax. Prices vary somewhat seasonally.
Your admission includes the dolphin swim (if you purchase that package); unlimited access to swim and snorkeling areas and the aviary; a continental breakfast and lunch; all snacks and beverages, including various Anheuser-Busch products; use of snorkel gear, swim vest, towel, sunscreen, locker and beach chairs; parking; plus a pass for seven consecutive days of unlimited admission to either SeaWorld Orlando or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
The dolphin-swim experience and Trainer for a Day program require that guests be at least 6 years old.
Our first stop was the wet suit cabana, where Ben slipped into his swim vest and I ... well, let's just say it took me a bit longer to get my full suit on. Wet suits are required to be worn each time you're in the water. We stored our sunglasses, jewelry, clothes and souvenir money in a locker and headed for the Coral Reef. The water seemed very cold to me. The temperature of the Dolphin Pools, Stingray Lagoon and Coral Reef remains at 77 degrees F year-round. (The fresh water Resort Pool and Tropical River are maintained at 86 degrees F; much more to my liking.)
We followed schools of tropical fish and saw beautiful coral, but never saw any barracuda or sharks, which are housed behind clear acrylic partitions. Come to think of it, I never even saw the partitions.
When we found a spot to exit the Coral Reef, cross a sandy path and enter the Tropical River, it felt like we had stepped into a giant hot tub.
Guests can snorkle in the Tropical River, which meanders through most of Discovery Cove and passes through different environments - a sunny island beach, a dense tropical forest and an underwater cave. Swimmers going under a waterfall emerge inside the aviary.
Although there are no fish in the Tropical River, there's plenty to see on the river bottom - colored rocks, pottery, statues and even a cannon.
Because the park limits the number of guests each day, we didn't feel crowded by other swimmers, and sometimes had large areas to explore alone.
We had lunch outside the Laguna Grill, which serves a choice of about six or eight different lunches.
When it came time to join our group for the dolphin swim, we gathered at the Starfish Cabana to meet our trainer and watch a short video of dos and don'ts.
Having to wade back into the 77-degree water was challenging - especially on an overcast day - and a few children in our group had chattering teeth. But Jenny made it worth the discomfort.
Four groups of six to eight visitors wade into shallow water to become acquainted with their dolphin - ours was Jenny. You're encouraged to rub the dolphins, and hug and kiss them.
It's a very controlled situation, with two trainers in the water with each group (not to mention three other park employees per group taking digital pictures and video) at all times. You stand where the trainers say to stand, say what they tell you to say, and mimic their hand motion instructions to the animal.
The trainers are very protective of the dolphins, and the bond between them is evident.
After spending time in shallow water, kissing and rubbing Jenny and having our picture made with her, we swam one at a time into deeper water. We were shown how to place one arm around Jenny's dorsal fin for a tow back to the group.
When our 30-minute session was over, we were promptly escorted by more park employees to the photo cabana, where we viewed our pictures on flat screens and were given the opportunity to purchase them.
The park doesn't close until 5:30 p.m., so we visited the aviary after our dolphin swim. We walked there, not knowing at the time that you can access the aviary through the Tropical River.
Inside the aviary, Ben spent most of his time attempting to convince birds to swoop down, land on his arm and eat from a small cup of food he held.
By 5 p.m, we were tired, waterlogged and ready to catch the shuttle back to the hotel.
Our day at Discovery Cove reminds me of the MasterCard commercials.
Day at Discovery Cove: $259 each.
Picture of my son tenderly kissing Jenny the dolphin's nose: priceless.