kc7gr Posted May 3, 2006 Share Posted May 3, 2006 For those who may not be members of Theme Park Insider: I thought my impressions of Discovery Cove might be of interest. If I'm wrong, well, it won't be the first time (or the last). Enjoy (I hope). -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- I had the oppurtunity to explore Sea World’s Discovery Cove in November of 2002. I was fortunate enough to be traveling with my wife and two friends, which served to give me three different perspectives on the park besides my own. The short summary of the trip is that, although we shared some enjoyable experiences, we all came away from the park with very mixed (and not particularly positive) overall impressions. I realize that this may shock some of the board’s readers: How could one NOT have a Good Time at any Sea World park, let alone one that offered a swim-with-the-dolphins program? Believe me, it’s possible. In order to better understand what I’m about to describe, I’ll need to give you some context in the form of three points. First: This report is a compilation of opinions from everyone in my group, including myself. I was chosen as the de facto spokesperson by mutual agreement. Second: All four of us share a strong interest in animals, marine mammals in particular, to the point where we have all worked with such animals in a professional environment (albeit on a volunteer basis as trainers’ assistants). As such, we all have very strong and near-identical views about the responsibilities of any zoo or oceanarium, including unwritten ones, when it comes to how they present their charges to the public. Third: Sea World is not what they seem to be on the surface. I strongly recommend that ANY visitor to ANY of the Sea World parks, especially those who have come away with a nagging feeling that something is just plain wrong about the place, pick up and read a copy of “Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience” by Susan G. Davis, University of California Press. Contrary to what some may think on first impression, this book is not in any way a treatise on animal rights or the ethical issues of captive animals. It is, instead, a very detailed breakdown as to why Sea World behaves as they do. Susan Davis is a Professor of Communications as opposed to a zoologist, and it shows in her writing. That takes care of the preliminaries. Let’s get started on the details. -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Discovery Cove is Sea World’s attempt at providing its guests a more “interactive” experience with some of its animals. As far as the “interactive” part goes, they succeed and fail in equal amounts. The dolphin swim-with program is as much a colossal failure as the aviary is an over-the-top success. D-Cove is separate from the main park complex, and it requires a separate admission fee. Reservations are highly recommended, as daily attendance is capped at 1,000 visitors. The admission fee is dependent on what time of year you visit, as well as what you’d like to do. It varies from a low of $149 (plus tax) per person, simply for access to the aviary and river during the off-peak season (this price does NOT include a dolphin swim-with), to a high of $449 per person for the ‘Trainer for a Day’ package during the peak season. Details may be had at: http://www.discoverycove.com/vi_dcpackages_pricing.aspx The only additional perk to these prices is that they include either 7 or 14 days worth (depending on which package you choose) of unlimited admission to the main Sea World park. Besides the dolphin swim-with sessions, the park features artificial coral reefs, well-stocked with native (to the region) fish and rays, a float-through river complex complete with white-sand beaches and waterfalls, and the single most magnificent walk-through free-flight aviary it has ever been my pleasure to encounter. The river winds its way through the aviary as well, and there are water-level entrances to it if you don’t feel like going overland. You can literally swim right up to it, and even through it if you don’t mind going under a couple of small waterfalls. I have to add that watching the fish-eating diving birds from water level is a delight in itself. We all opted for the mid-range package, priced (in 2002) at $229 per person. This included a dolphin swim session, but none of us considered it to have been a good value for the dollar, as I’ll explain a little further on. In fact, I think we would all have asked for a refund, and left early, had it not been for the aviary. Once you arrive, you’ll check in at one of several concierge-like workstations in the main reception area. Your picture will be taken, and you will be issued a badge with your photo and imprinted details of which package you bought. You may also, if you wish, tie your credit card number to this badge, and use it instead of your actual card to make purchases within the park. If you bought a dolphin-swim package, you’ll be assigned a time and location for your session, and this information will also be imprinted on your badge. After you clear check-in, your next step is to select a wetsuit (the park provides them at no extra cost, and you will need them even in Orlando’s heat), and get changed. There are ample and clean changing room facilities provided for both genders. If you’re not sure of what size wetsuit to get, let the park staff help you select. They’re very good at it. My wife, for example, is very hard to fit for such, and she had no trouble at all. Next step: Roam the park! You’re on your own until it’s time to report for your dolphin swim. What I would suggest is that you pin down where it is you’re supposed to go for said swim, and then simply indulge your sense of exploration for a while. The park is not very large, but it is very detailed. Follow your gut and have fun. THE BIG MOMENT (or not): IN WITH THE DOLPHINS I really feel the need to give you a heads-up on something. The pre-swim briefing is less about briefing you on the dolphins, and how to conduct yourself around them, than it is about showing you a plasticized “feel-good” video presentation that goes to great lengths to trumpet how great a place Sea World really is. To put it another way: Certainly pay attention to what the training staff tells you about the animals, but also keep a cynical eye out for shameless self-promotion. I absolutely guarantee you that the “briefing” will include a lecture on why you should never try to interact with wild dolphins. Sea World, as a whole, demonizes this practice far more than it deserves. Let me diverge on that topic for a moment. It is indeed against U.S. federal law, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, to deliberately harass any wild marine mammal. To any rational mind (and to the letter of the law), the term “harass” in this context brings up images of chasing the critters with boats or jet-skis, trying to hold on to them while they’re swimming, feeding them, or doing other similarly stupid things. While I absolutely agree with Sea World in saying that one should never, under any conditions, try to feed wild dolphins, or do any of the other stupid things listed above, I could not disagree more with the idea that you shouldn’t allow direct interaction to take place. Heck, you may not be able to avoid it under some conditions! You see, dolphins are smart. Very smart. High intelligence breeds curiosity. If you’re swimming out in the ocean, and one or more wild dolphins see you and get curious, and then decide to approach you and try to play, there’s not Thing One that any oceanarium, government agency, or wayward cop can do about it. The problem is that our government chooses not to recognize this fact. If you’re out in the ocean off, say, the Florida Keys, having a high old time with a couple of dolphins that just happened to show up, you could very easily be cited or arrested by the Florida Marine Patrol for “harassing” the animals. No consideration is given to the fact that the animals may very well be the ones doing the “harassing.” Is there risk in interacting with wild dolphins? Of course there is! They’re wild animals, not a household pet. If you do something that a dolphin perceives as harmful to them, they will defend themselves, and you could easily get hurt – badly – as a result. HOWEVER – With that said, dolphins are not generally mean-spirited, as many past wild encounters have clearly demonstrated. Yes, there have been incidents, but from what I’ve read they’ve been universally due to the human involved doing something stupid, like jamming a Popsicle stick into a dolphin’s blowhole. As a final point: Consider that stories and legends of interaction between humans and dolphins – wild dolphins – go back for thousands of years. Can you think of any logical reason why there would suddenly be a real problem after all that time and all those encounters? If you want a good example of how successful interaction with wild dolphins can be, just Google for “Monkey Mia, West Australia.” I think the real reason Sea World, and our government, don’t like the idea of people interacting freely with the wild critters is because it would be bad for their business model in the long term. Anyway, back to the subject at hand. You’ll get your lecture, you’ll see the video, and off you’ll go with five other people (group size is limited to six per trainer per session) to meet your assigned trainer and the dolphin involved. The trainer will give you a bit more briefing, check for questions, and then move you all out into chest-deep water (you’ll be standing on a rock ledge almost the whole time). The trainer will then introduce you to the dolphin involved. There will follow several minutes of mutual touching, and then some directed behaviors, the nature of which will depend largely on the trainer and dolphin involved. You’ll probably get a brief (but very slow) dorsal-fin tow out of it, perhaps a demonstration of high-speed swimming on the part of the dolphin, etc. Oh, one thing: You will be under videotaping and still photography during the entire session, so you may want to think twice about doing anything your friends or relatives will razz you for later (this assumes that you choose to purchase a tape copy of your encounter. If you do, be aware that it will be Macrovision copy-protected). Your total time in water is a little less than 20 minutes, and there is NO free-swim time at all with the animals for anyone (“free-swim” refers to a condition where it’s just you and the dolphin, doing what you want to do albeit under ongoing trainer supervision). That alone was enough to get my dander up, especially when compared against my recent experience at a far-superior swim-with program in Mexico. And guess what? That’s it! You’re all herded out of the pool, no matter if the dolphin(s) involved want to continue to play, and then comes Sea World’s favorite part: You’re compelled to attend a post-swim “debriefing” which consists of parking you in front of a computer monitor so that the park can do nothing more than bombard you with advertising for swim-related merchandise. You can purchase photos of your encounter in a number of different formats, including a full video, and the prices are... well, ‘inflated’ is a good starting point. You will also, for reasons unknown, be offered the opportunity to purchase (of all things) a commemorative snow-globe. This from a park in Florida. Go figure. DISCOVERY COVE’S SAVING GRACE Remember earlier on I mentioned an aviary? A magnificent, exquisitely-designed walk-through/swim-through aviary? I think, had we all known what kind of a ripoff the alleged dolphin “swim” was, we would have chosen to pay a lot less and just settled for the aviary and the river swim. The first thing you’re confronted with when you walk through the enclosure’s entrance is lush greenery, waterfalls, and a broad wooden bridge across the swim-through river. The next thing likely to cross your awareness is at least one staff member pushing around what looks like an ice cream cart. Said staffer will greet you, and invite you to take part in feeding the featherheads. Once you accept one or two containers of whatever they’re giving the birds that day, you will likely find that you’ve suddenly become a perch for at least twenty-some-odd sun conures. These are a variety of small parrot, brightly colored predominantly in orange with red highlights. Nearly all the birds in the place have been hand-raised, are hand-tame (at least where food is concerned), and there’s enough variety to satisfy any bird-lover. In fact, the aviary itself is divided into three sections according to the average size of the birds. The ‘Small’ section holds critters like finches, sparrows, and hummingbirds. The ‘Medium’ area holds the sun conures, fish-eating diving birds (the name of which I don’t recall), gray-plumaged guinea fowl with the most gorgeous metallic-blue iridescent crests you’ve ever seen, and several others which I didn’t get a good look at. Last but not least, the ‘Large’ section holds crows, at least one toucan, at least one turaco, and other similarly large birds. I had the distinct pleasure of feeding (and getting to hold) the turaco (this is a HEAVY bird!), and also discovering how gentle and timid toucans, for all their intimidating-looking beak, really are. A word of warning: Feeding the crows (named Russel and Cheryl, of course) is fun, but know that their preferred snack is mealworms. Live mealworms. For those who may not know, mealworms are the larval stage of the mealworm beetle, a member of the family of darkwing beetles. The staffer on duty will happily hand you as many of the little buggers as you can hold (and the crows will make them disappear in short order), but I would not recommend letting them do so if you’re the least bit squeamish. Why? Easy! They’re alive, remember? They squirm like mad! They’ll work their way right out of your hand if you’re not careful. Holding them didn’t bother me at all (I’ve handled plenty worse), but a couple of teenagers who were watching me where whispering things to each other along the lines of ‘Eww, gross!’ IN SUMMARY... Discovery Cove makes for a pricey stop. Our trip was a nice visit overall, but the real winner was their aviary. I cannot, in good conscience, recommend D-Cove’s version of a dolphin swim to ANYone, not even people who have never seen a dolphin before in their lives. The sessions are far too heavily polluted with Sea World propaganda and advertising, and are a poor value for the dollar. In other words: If you’re going to visit Discovery Cove, go for the aviary and the river swimming. You’ll pay less, and (I think) have a better time. So you still want to swim with dolphins? An admirable goal, and a fun one. Unfortunately, the best possible swim-with dolphin experiences cannot be found within United States boundaries, thanks to how badly our government has botched the regulations for them. Unless you’re lucky enough to be having regular contact with one or more wild dolphins (and for God’s sake, KEEP IT TO YOURSELF if you are), getting a truly worthwhile swim-with experience will require a trip to at least southeastern Mexico, specifically to either of two breathtaking nature parks near the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, called Xcaret and Xel Ha. You can find details on them at these links. http://www.xcaret.com/ http://www.xelha.com.mx/default.asp?com_id=0&idioma=1 If your budget or time will not allow a run to Mexico, and you still want to do a dolphin swim, you would do very well indeed to visit the Dolphin Research Center in the Keys (Grassy Key), and/or Theater of the Sea just a bit north in Islamorada. Web sites as follows. http://www.dolphins.org/ (DRC) http://www.theaterofthesea.com/ Either place will give you a much more honest and, IMO, rewarding experience with the animals than Sea World could ever come up with, and you won’t get blasted with anywhere near the same degree of advertising. As if that’s not enough to convince you, both facilities are natural seawater, as opposed to the concrete-and-false-coral environment that Sea World provides. I’m always open for questions. Please feel free to E-mail or post. Thanks for reading. Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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