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Photo TR: Discovery Cove 'The Grand Reef' Grand Opening


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So today I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to represent Theme Park Review at the grand opening of The Grand Reef at Discovery Cove in Orlando. For those of you that don't know, Discovery Cove is a "boutique park" featuring an all-inclusive admission (save for a few offerings) with the included experiences being the attraction of the park. No rides. No shows. Just a lush park with some beautiful animals, some amazing reefs, a wonderful lazy river, a very large aviary and unlimited food and drinks included with your admission! The park is known for its signature offering, a "swim with the dolphins" experience, but that wasn't why we were invited to the park. The park's capacity is limited to preserve the intimate feel of the experience as well, lending credence to the isolated environment that truly feels like nothing else found in Orlando, let alone the continental United States.

 

The Grand Reef is a new experience built on a previously-undeveloped expansion pad featuring sting rays, tropical fish and even some sharks. The Reef is built with different levels to accommodate for the different guests. The shores of this walk-in pool are friendly for the younger guests and are a common place for the sting rays to be fed en mass. Deeper in are some crevices and "coral" reefs (artificial coral is used in the reef) where the many fish populate and at the bottom are some of the larger rays.

 

Another section of The Grand Reef is segmented by thick, curved panels of glass, separating the guest from the tank with the sharks. This tank will soon be used for a new offering known as SeaVenture, a dry-for-wet diving experience that requires no certification to enjoy. This offering, while requiring a separate fee, is not yet ready for guests, but is expected to open within the next month or so.

 

Having never been to Discovery Cove, I took some time to explore the park as a whole, and I loved everything that I saw. The place is a relaxation paradise, but has plenty for the active guest to enjoy. I practically swam the entire park and then went back to walk it again twice over in the three plus hours that I was there.

 

Oh, and if I have to make one recommendation for a special treat offered at the park's many snack bars, get yourself a lemon slushie. You'll thank me later...

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Inside of the main lobby, guests are greeted by a warm and spacious entrance. From the minute you enter the property's main gates from the road, you feel like you are a VIP.

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I want this for my room.

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Included with your guest badge (yes, the print one out for every guest) is a mini map of the entire park. Notice the plot on the right says "2012 Future Experience." This was the original salt water reef that opened with the park and closed yesterday in preparation for the opening of The Grand Reef.

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This time around, mine says more than just "Participant."

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We were escorted back to The Grand Reef, but not before passing the old saltwater reef which is now closed.

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Seriously, it is like we've been transported to islands. We aren't in Florida anymore.

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The park's architecture seems to draw influence from the Polynesian cultures, including the wood frames, triangular designs and thatched roofs.

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All guests are required to wear wetsuits or neoprene vests during their time in the water.

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And of course, there are fluffy, fluffy bunnies filled with medicine and goo, which are included in your admission.

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Some awesome little showers in the park...

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Welcome home...

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You've arrived!

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The barnacled posts mark the barrier between the shark tank and the rest of The Grand Reef. The shark reef will play host to SeaVenture starting soon.

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Shallows and depths are spread throughout the reef without any pattern or rhyme. The variability of the aquatic landscape just makes it all feel so much more real.

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This area of the shallows is popular with guests as the stingrays tend to congregate, waiting for their feeding time.

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The Grand Reef has bridges and pathways intertwined with the area to allow for some great photo ops (I'll get to those soon) and access to the SeaVenture tank.

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I forgot my milestone paper sign... Darn! No photoshop caption contest for this photo!

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Larry, this is for you.

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You stay classy, Discovery Cove.

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Another neat idea, they actually offer a visual guide for the fish in The Grand Reef that you can strap to your wrist while swimming.

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Fishy, fish, fish, fish, fish.

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One of the private cabanas that can be rented for the day.

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Discovery Cove's signature experience allows guests to swim with the dolphins.

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I'm sure I'll try this out next time!

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Back to why we're here...

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There's a running joke playing against me with this photo, but I dare not say it aloud.

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Manta?

 

Wrong park.

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You can actually tell the elevation change by looking at the tint of the water's color.

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One of the smaller cabanas available for rent along the beach of The Grand Reef.

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It really is a pretty big addition for Discovery Cove!

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They did an amazing job with the colors of the reef, making it a visually inviting experience for even the non-swimmer.

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You really are swimming with the rays. Sheer awesome!

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It's a little hard to tell, but this is a glass barrier separating the shark section of the reef.

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The net meets the top of the glass barrier and the glass itself is angled so as to flow and transition better with the rest of the reef.

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One thing I love about The Grand Reef (and the rest of the park for that matter) is that they've scattered different ruins and stonework in the tanks, the river and the surrounding environment.

 

It all just adds to the realism of the park.

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They even have a spotted ray here!

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At first glance, would you jump to the conclusion that this is a ladder?

 

Thanks to the theming, I didn't.

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The Grand Reef is truly one of the most beautiful settings SeaWorld has ever created!

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"Look at all those humans in the human tank!"

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In a very clever move, the park's gift shops sell books for those planning on reading while relaxing on the park's beaches.

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Over at the park's main eatery, there is an entertainment venue for daily performances.

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It's five o'clock somewhere.

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Even the path work in the park is impressive!

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The Enchanted Tiki Bridge!

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Very kind.

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I want to be sponsored by Starfish!

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Another look at the walled off area leading to the old saltwater reef.

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It's time to start!

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I dove in and immediately recreated the opening title sequence for Finding Nemo.

Edited by jedimaster1227
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(Continued)

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There are plenty of tropical fish in the reef that swim amidst the various coral blooms.

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I see you... You spotted ray, you!

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You barely notice that there's a barrier here!

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The guide rail on the side will be used by the SeaVenture guests as they walk along the bottom of the reef.

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The Grand Reef offers amazing views, even from the middle of the water.

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It all just works so well!

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From the looks of it, I either approve or had a smudge on the side of my goggles that I just couldn't wait to clean.

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They had at least five of the larger rays in the reef as well. Swimming with these was definitely an experience!

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Have you ever swam with a school of fish? I have, and it is fun, albeit a little stressful trying to keep up.

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I was soon engulfed by a swarm of sting rays.

 

No really, a ton of them flew right past me as I was taking pictures.

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See?

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Looks pretty real, right?

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The area has a few waterfalls, which add a little flair to the otherwise peaceful reef.

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Now it is time for my tribute to Dave.

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Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

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This time, it's really personal!

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I'm not sure how I got this photo from inside of the shark tank, but I'm glad to say I survived.

 

 

 

Okay people, I took it from the other side of the barrier... Don't worry yourself!

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"The shark still looks fake!"

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Maximum Sharkage? Approved!

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Another look at the shark section from above.

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It really does work well for the guests!

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Sharkocalypse!

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Employees were testing the SeaVenture experience while we were there...

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To give you an idea of what the system looks like.

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I think they're still working out the mechanics of the system, but it should be a great experience once it is online!

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Like I mentioned earlier, they colored the reef beautifully!

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A ray decided to slide into my photo...

 

Ride the Flying Ray!

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Lemon slushie!!!

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The River, the park's lazy river is blended quite organically into the park's layout.

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It also has elevation changes from deep to shallow that make it feel even more real.

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Time to visit the Aviary!

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What have we here?

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This one just posed for us while we took photos...

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The River runs under and around the Aviary, which is nice.

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Then this guy just strolled down the path, ignoring us as if we were normal to him.

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But he did let us take some glamor shots!

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The Aviary is divided into sections, each heavily themed and filled with birds.

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You can feed the birds in the Aviary, all food included in your admission!

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There's been a breach in the raptor containment area. Evacuate! Evacuate!

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One of the caves in the Aviary had amethyst in the roof.

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Back! Back! Under the falls!

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This was another cool-looking bird...

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We nose a thing or two about noses.

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Hidden along the side of The River.

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I tried recreating that iconic moment from The Little Mermaid. I failed.

 

I also failed to flatter myself in this image.

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Here's a look at the old saltwater reef from The River.

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Can't keep my hands, my hands, my hands out the cookie jar.

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The River passes through a neat little cave.

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The area just looks magnificent!

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And I close with the good stuff... Lemon slushies!

 

Seriously though, get out to Discovery Cove and come visit The Grand Reef! The new area and the park overall is spectacular and unlike anything else I've been to.

 

Thanks again to Discovery Cove for having me!

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Awesome pictures Adam. That place looks amazing and I can't wait to experience it. The lemon slushies look so freaking delicious.

 

Awesome underwater pictures!

 

Jimmy "We need water in Arizona right now!" Bo

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I am incredibly jealous of you! I have always wanted to go and reading this trip report only re-energized me. I checked out the website and it is quite expensive to go (Packages start at $199!) but there seems to be a ton of stuff included. You get tickets to one of the other parks in the area (Aquatica, SeaWorld, BGT) included. Food (including breakfast, lunch, snacks, and BEER!) is also included along with all the gear and sunscreen you need. Parking is included and most of the adventures you saw him doing. The dolphin swim is extra which is kind of bunk, but I guess they probably want to reduce the numbers of people with the dolphins.

 

After seeing this trip report, Discovery Cove is officially on my Bucket List.

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^You also have to be a certain age to swim with the dolphins so this gives families with different age children the chance to still at least go to the park instead of having a set age to even enter the place.

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How was the water temperature?

 

The Grand Reef was definitely a little chilly at first, but you get used to it within minutes of being in the water. It was cold compared to a heated pool, but normal for an animal tank, like you'd reach into at SeaWorld.

 

As for the rest of the park, The River is heated and I'd probably say the water was closer to 82 degrees... Needless to say, we spent a good deal of time there!

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Amazing report, I've always wanted to know what this place was like and now I only want to get there even more so. My aquatic animal enthusiast side is wondering though, was the spotted eagle ray in the main reef or was it secluded in the shark tank? If it was actually in the main reef consider my ticket bought!

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I know swimming with the sting rays is a relatively safe thing to do but isn't there still a risk of something bad happening or someone accidentally stepping one one and scaring it?

 

Also is the shark tank part of Sea Venture walk or is that sectioned off from that part and the rest or the reef?

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Really enjoy your reports Adam!

 

My wife and I went to DC last summer. Man, what a beautiful park! I can't wait to go back and check out the Grand Reef. I would say the hilight for me was feeding the stingrays.

 

I'll have to try one of those lemon slushies when I return. I thought the food was very good as well. The beer being included with the admission is nice too!

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Thanks for the great report Adam! Your report was the first hit I found (through a Dutch forum) while searching for The Grand Reef reviews.

 

This does make the wait for our September trip, in which we will visit Discovery Cove, even harder however

 

Cheers,

Dajatje

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My wife and I went there last september before the expansion and just loved it!!! We would definatly go back. A note on the Larger cabana's.. Those are the meeting spots for groups of guests to gather for the dolphin swim. You have printed time on your ID badge and you meet there before going into the dolphin pools. It is also is where you get to sign the dreaded liability waver!!! One of the best days of our honeymoon!!!

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I'm glad to see this place expanding. I visited Discovery Cove a couple years ago and had an amazing experience but the whole time I was there it felt a little like something was missing, or if another attraction were there the place would feel more like a full days experience. I mean after 3 hours in the reef and an hour in the lazy river hour in aviary and a 30 minute dolphin interaction it's barley past noon and you've already experienced the entire park. I wish they had maybe a couple of water slides, or a ropes course/zip line attraction of some type but maybe the addition of the second reef will give the place a more complete feel.

 

Does anyone know what they are planning to do with the old existing reef? I think it's pretty much common knowledge that the reason for building the new Grad Reef was that the existing one was leaking salt water into the under ground aquifer below the park for years resulting in a lot of fines from various government and environmental regulators. At one point I had heard they were planning on converting it into a fresh water reef exhibit but have not heard anything else about that since the addition of the new grand Reef.

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Great report Adam,

 

I wish I had time to go there when I was in orlando last week. I have only been there once when it first opened (i think i was like 15 or 16) and it was such a great experience swimming with the dolphins, definitely something ill never forget. I usually get down to Daytona/Orlando at least once a year to visit family and I will def make it a point to hit this up next time.

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