How I wish more people could afford to enjoy Discovery Cove, Orlando’s most civilized and relaxing theme park. The most expensive park in town (prices shift by the season) is a chill, all-inclusive experience. Only around 1,000 people a day are admitted, guaranteeing this faux tropical idyll is not marred by a single queue (except maybe for the high-quality catered lunch). Admission lanyards include breakfast, equipment rental, sunscreen, beer if you’re of age, and unlimited lunch—a good one, too, with options such as fresh grilled tilapia (a fish that drew the short straw at SeaWorld, I guess).
Discovery Cove, in fact, is essentially a free-range playground. When you arrive, first thing in the morning, you’re greeted under a vaulted atrium more redolent of a five-star island resort than a theme park. Coffee is poured, and once you’re checked in you’re set loose to do as you wish. Wade from perfect white sand into Serenity Bay, feed fresh fruit to the houseguests at the Explorer’s Aviary for tropical birds, snorkel with barbless rays over the trenches of The Grand Reef, swim to habitats for monkeys in the Freshwater Oasis, or float down the slow-floating Wind-Away River, which passes through waterfalls into the aviary, preventing the birds from escaping. Animal handlers introduce visitors to land creatures, too, like sloths and a flock of chattering flamingoes.
Many guests elect to simply kick back on a lounger (there are plenty) on incredibly silky sand (imported, of course) at the natural-looking pool. It feels far more like a stay on a private tropical island than a slice of Orlando touristdom, and a day here slips away as quickly as your stress. Since everyone wears free wetsuits or vests, there’s no body shame or sunburned shoulders. When it’s your turn—if you’ve paid extra—head to the Dolphin Lagoon, where small groups of about eight (ages 6 and up)wade into the chilly water and meet one of the pod. Like children, dolphins have distinct personalities and must be paired to people the trainers think they’ll enjoy being with—but many of these dolphins are docile and friendly, having dwelled at SeaWorld for decades. Here, the mostly hand-reared animals peer at you with a logician’s eye while your trainer shows you basic hand signals. The climax of the 30-minute interaction is the moment when you grasp two of the creature’s fins and it swims, you in tow, for about 30 feet. Naturally, a photographer is on hand so if you want images or video, you’ll pay for that, too, pushing a day to over $400.
Other add-on experiences: a shallow-water Shark Swim ($129); animal one-on-ones ($79); Ray Feeding ($59); and SeaVenture (from $49, minimum age 10), which places an air helmet on your head and brings you underwater to walk along the floor of the Grand Reef. Really, though, even a quiet day here is sublime.