Swim with sharks, dolphins, stingrays at hidden paradise

ORLANDO — Smooch dolphins, swim with stingrays and snorkel with thousands of fish: Guests can do it all at Discovery Cove.

"Discovery Cove, to me, is a piece of Heaven, right here on Earth, in the heart of Orlando," Discovery Cove's Abe Lopez told wsbtv.com's Nelson Hicks.

Discovery Cove is a day resort that operates opposite of what visitors to Orlando typically encounter. It's not a crazy, packed amusement park with heart-pounding roller coasters and long lines. In fact, a line of flamingos making their way through the park was the only line we saw all day at the resort. Discovery Cove is something quite different.

"There's something to do for all the thrill-seekers here," Lopez said. "From swimming with the sharks, swimming with dolphins, for those that are just looking for some rest and relaxation, grab a hammock and have at it."

To start the day at Discovery Cove, plunge into the Grand Reef. There, guests can pet a stingray, join a school of fish or sit and see what swims by.

Guests can dive a little deeper into the depths of Discovery Cove with Seaventure, an underwater experience anyone can do. No scuba certification is needed. With special helmets, guests explore the reef's floor for 20 minutes, experience a fish feeding frenzy and more.

"(Guests are) going to see anything from tangs to grunts to lookdowns to the 51 rays that live here in the environment," Discovery Cove's supervisor of aquariums, Mike Dech, said. "We have southern stingrays, black-blotched rays and we have guitar fish as well."

Next up, spend some time with Discovery Cove's most popular residents.

"We have so many of our guests that come here and say, 'This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience' or they want to check it off of their bucket list," dolphin trainer Lauren Whiting said.

Over 40 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins call Discvoery Cove's Dolphin Lagoon home. Jump in and let the dolphin trainers teach you about these fascinating creatures.

"We provide our guests with 30 minutes of an amazing experience with one of the most magical creatures on the planet," Whiting said. "You come in here, and we get to do kisses and pictures, and probably everyone's favorite part is getting to do a ride."

Feeling a bit brave? There's a shark swim experience, too.

"That is my favorite experience here at Discovery Cove because that gives our park guests the opportunity to actually get into the water with our 19 sharks that we have here," Dech said.

What else is there to see and do at Discovery Cove? Meet hundreds of birds in Explorer's Aviary, swim next to sea otters and marmosets at the Freshwater Oasis or kick back and relax and sail the soothing currents of the Wind-Away River.

"Not only are you having fun, are you seeing animals, but you're learning about the animals and learning how we can all be better global citizens and protect these animals," Lopez said. "So you're seeing them here and actually saving them (in the wild)."

Did we mention it's all-inclusive?

"Look, I'm a dad and I have three young children, and we're used to going to theme parks and the kids saying, 'Can I have this? I want that. I wanna buy this. I want to eat that,' Lopez said. "And you're like, 'Kids, we can't.' Well you know what, you can at Discovery Cove."

Breakfast, lunch, snacks and drinks, including adult beverages, are included.

Here's another thing to make a trip to Discovery Cove enjoyable: The park caps the number of guests each day so even in the middle of peak season, everyone has room to roam.

"I think a lot of people think of Orlando as lots of these great big theme parks, and we do have those here, but I think of Discovery Cove as something completely different then the rest of the theme parks," Whiting said. "We're more like a resort, an all-inclusive experience where you get once-in-a-lifetime interactions, not just with our dolphins, but with a variety of different species of animals."