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February 26, 2015

Ways you can interact with SeaWorld's dolphins now that public feedings have been discontinued

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SeaWorld Orlando announced this week that it has closed its popular dolphin feedings to the public. Our family, along with many others, will miss this rare -- and affordable -- opportunity to interact with dolphins.

Readers of this blog might recall that I began going to SeaWorld Orlando and writing about my family's experiences there because of my daughter's interest in learning about dolphins. Going to the dolphin feedings was one of the first things we did, and it became a regular stop on our visits. My then-seven-year-old daughter was in awe of the friendly dolphins, and being able to get so close to them was a dream come true for her.

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Because the dolphins obviously had learned they would be fed, they were not shy about approaching the visitors along the wall. For the price of a tray of fish -- $7 - each guest could feed, pet and take photos with the dolphins. In the three years since our first dolphin feeding, we have tried a variety of dolphin experiences in Florida. They all have been amazing, but none are as inexpensive as the now-discontinued dolphin feedings.

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Still, there continue to be experiences to interact with dolphins at SeaWorld parks - just not as many opportunities to feed the mammals without the direct supervision of a trainer. Visitors can book new Dolphin Encounter packages that start March 3 and will take place at the same location adjacent to Dolphin Cove. The packages, which will start at $15, will allow each participant to pet a dolphin with a trainer's assistance. A $30 package also includes one 6 x 8 professional photo. Both Dolphin Encounters last 10 minutes and include an educational overview. The new packages are similar to what is offered at SeaWorld's other parks in San Antonio and San Diego.

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In addition, SeaWorld Orlando continues to offer its Dolphins Up-Close Tour. When we experienced the tour a couple years ago, it included learning how to scatter-feed the mother and baby dolphins in the nursery. This is a different technique than what was used at the feedings at Dolphin Cove, where visitors drop a single fish into a dolphin's open mouth. (Each tray contained four fish.) Scatter-feeding means tossing handfuls of fish into the water and is intended to teach dolphins how to hunt for food, as they would in the wild. During the tour, we also visited Dolphin Cove, where a trainer taught our family to communicate with the dolphins with hand signals, and we were able to take photos. The regular price of the Dolphins Up-Close Tour is $59 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9. Prices may vary with the season, however.

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SeaWorld Orlando also has a sister park -- Discovery Cove -- dedicated to dolphin interactions. The park is known for its unique dolphin swims, which allow guests to be towed a short distance by a dolphin. Before that happens, though, a small group of visitors stands in the lagoon and learns about dolphins and interacts with one of the mammals assigned to them. The interactions don't focus on feeding the animals, however. I visited Discovery Cove last month, and we spent the time before the swim petting various parts of the dolphin and learning some of the signals used by the trainers. Although a few of the people in our group were asked if they'd like to give the dolphin a fish, it didn't seem as if that was a planned part of the experience. And, honestly, that was fine with me. It was far more memorable for me to be standing in the water next to dolphin, touching it, and then to swim with it than to feed it. (You can read about my experience at Discovery Cove and the dolphin swim on previous blogs.)

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And I suspect other SeaWorld and Discovery Cove visitors will feel the same way. It's disappointing that the public feedings are no longer available, but the new Dolphin Encounters still allow visitors to touch and interact with the dolphins. And I've seen firsthand with my daughter, who surely will be a future marine biologist, how such interactions can inspire conservation in a new generation.



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February 10, 2015

Swim with dolphins at SeaWorld's Discovery Cove

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Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive theme park in Orlando that is part of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. As far as local theme parks go, it's relatively new, having opened in 2000. (By comparison, SeaWorld is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.) In its short history, though, Discovery Cove has become synonymous with dolphins, and its layout literally is built around guest interactions with dolphins.

Certainly Florida offers many opportunities for visitors to get up close with bottlenose dolphins, but what sets Discovery Cove apart is its dolphin swim. Other locations allow guests to get in the water to pet and feed dolphins, but Discovery Cove makes it possible for guests to hold onto a dolphin's dorsal and pectoral fins and "swim" through the water. For my elementary-school-age daughter, this was a dream come true.

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Here's how it works. When guests check in at Discovery Cove in the morning, they are assigned times and locations for their dolphin interactions, which take place in one of the three pods of Dolphin Lagoon in the center of the park. A few minutes before that time, they are asked to go to the corresponding cabanas for the Sand Dollar, Seahorse and Starfish pods. There they fill out waivers and see a short video presentation about dolphins. A trainer also goes over what happens in the lagoon and answers any questions.

Once that 15-minute segment is completed, the small group of guests heads to the lagoon. Our group had nine participants, two trainers, a photographer and videographer. Talk about feeling special!

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Our trainer talked with us about how and where to touch dolphins before we were introduced to Thelma, an older bottlenose dolphin who is one of the matriarchs at Discovery Cove. Then she appeared and we were able to pet her multiple times, feed her a fish (if we wanted to), and give her some simple hand signals and see her respond. Throughout the interaction, our knowledgeable trainers shared a lot of information about the mammals.

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Then, it was time for the highlight of our 30 minutes with Thelma - the actual swim. Most people chose the deep-water swim, which required us to swim a short distance and tread water for a few seconds next to one of the trainers. When Thelma appeared, the trainer reminded each of us where to put our hands and then we were off! Thelma towed each of us back to where we could stand in the lagoon. She did all the work on the gentle ride. (Participants just hold on; they don't actually have to swim.) If the deep-water swim not something you would like to do, the dolphins will do the same tow in the shallow water so you never have to tread water. Honestly, though, the treading water does not last long at all.

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Throughout the interaction, we posed for photos with Thelma. We each were shown how to "kiss" her for the photographer. Plus Thelma posed (tail up, mouth open in a "smile") for family and individual shots. In addition, the photographer captured stills from each person's swim. And the videographer recorded the entire session. All the images and video are available to purchase as part of a photo package or as a la carte products. Be aware that participants are not allowed to take personal cameras in the water, but other members of your party are welcome to capture images from the shore.

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Things to know before your dolphin swim:

** To participate in the dolphin swim, you must be at least 6 years old. Children ages 6 to 12 must be accompanied by a paying adult who also is participating in the dolphin experience.
** Do not worry about whether the dolphin will be able to pull you. We were told Thelma weighs 600 pounds and can pull more than twice her weight.
** Guests are asked to wear wetsuits, which are complimentary and come in enough sizes to fit everyone.
** Jewelry is restricted to what trainers are permitted to wear: A tight-fitting watch and wedding and engagement rings. Guests are asked to remove earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc. In my opinion, it's better to just leave those at home, but if you forget, you can always stash them in your complimentary locker.
** You also may wear a hat, glasses or sunglasses. This was of particular concern to me because everyone in my family needs glasses for more than just reading. Know that your head does not go under water at any time during the dolphin interaction - unless you choose to put it there! I wore my prescription sunglasses the entire time and was fine. My daughter chose to wear her glasses out into the water so she could see the trainer during the interaction, but took them off during the swim and photos.
** Dolphin swim times are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. Check-in begins at 7:15 a.m. and the park opens at 8 a.m. so get there early if you'd like your dolphin experience to be early in the day.

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As amazing as the dolphin swim is, that's only a small part of your day at Discovery Cove. My next blog will bring you details about everything else you can do there!

DISCLAIMER: My first visit to Discovery Cove was at my own expense, and I was a media guest for my second visit. This did not affect my review. My opinions are my own.



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September 7, 2013

Discovery Cove deal gives Florida residents more time at SeaWorld and Aquatica

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This week, Discovery Cove announced a Florida-resident deal that really is a great value. My family took advantage of this offer last year, and we think it was worth every penny.

Through the end of the year, Florida residents can book the Dolphin Swim Day for $219 per person. That's about half the price during peak times, such as the summer, when visitors from out of state pay as much as $399 per person. What also makes this Florida-resident deal so sweet is that it includes unlimited admission to SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica water park through Jan. 31, 2014, after your day at Discovery Cove.

We spent our day at Discovery Cove in late September for our children's birthdays and then had four months to enjoy Aquatica and SeaWorld. This deal is a great way for locals to sample all the SeaWorld Orlando parks. Plus, the crowds are light, for the most part, which makes each experience all the more enjoyable. We were a little chilly swimming in January, but that didn't stop my 8-year-old and 10-year-old from diving right in and having a blast, that's for sure!

Here's a quick look at what $219 buys:

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Discovery Cove

Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive park, which means your ticket provides breakfast, lunch, snacks, drinks and alcoholic beverages; wetsuit and equipment for snorkeling; and lockers, towels and sunscreen. Discovery Cove only admits 1,300 guests per day, so the park is never overcrowded.

Guests wade with stingrays (that have been debarbed), snorkel among exotic fish in a saltwater lagoon, feed tropical birds in a free-flight aviary, float down a lazy river and relax on white-sand beaches. The highlight of the day for many is, of course, a 30-minute interaction with dolphins that includes holding onto the dolphin's dorsal fin for a short swim. (Florida residents who do not want to participate in the dolphin interaction can purchase a Resort Day pass for $149 and get the current deal with SeaWorld and Aquatica.)

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Aquatica

SeaWorld's Aquatica water park is themed to feature sea animals, of course, and its centerpiece attraction is Dolphin Plunge, which takes riders through a tank of black-and-white Commerson's dolphins. There are a variety of tubes and slides, two family raft rides, a lazy river, body-surfing rapids, and two separate kids' play areas. As with SeaWorld, there is an all-day dining option in one of the three restaurants. (You can read more in my review.)

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SeaWorld Orlando

See SeaWorld's signature Shamu show, feed a dolphin, pet a stingray, brave some monster roller coasters or play in the kids' area all in a day at the Orlando theme park. The newest attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, opened in May and features the park's penguins and a ride. The South Pole area also houses a new restaurant, an exclusive Coca-Cola drink, and a gift shop.

Florida residents who opt for the Discovery Cove deal also can experience Halloween parties that include trick-or-treating and Christmas celebrations with amazing decorations and special shows at SeaWorld at no additional charge. This definitely is another selling point because Disney World and Universal Orlando both require separate tickets for holiday events.

Perhaps the only downside to the Discovery Cove deal is that parking is not included for SeaWorld or Aquatica. But the $14 charge is a small price to pay for all you're getting.

January 31, 2013

SeaWorld's Aquatica offers families water park fun with marine life

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Walt Disney World may have revolutionized themed water parks here in Orlando, but SeaWorld has created its own unique and kid-friendly version, too, that is equally as fun.

Over the last several months, my family and I have explored Aquatica, and we have been impressed with what it has to offer. Until recently, my experience with Orlando water parks primarily was limited to Disney World's Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.

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Dolphin Plunge

The wow-factor is similar at SeaWorld's park, but perhaps the most obvious difference is that Aquatica is themed to feature sea animals, of course, rather than a freak snowstorm in Florida or a tropical paradise left in the wake of a ravaging hurricane. A popular ride in the park is Dolphin Plunge, which is a steep tube slide through a tank where Commerson's dolphins swim and play. A tip for younger (and shorter) guests from team members: If you sit up when the slide goes through the tank, you will slow down and have a longer time to view the dolphins. My husband and I zoomed through the tank segment so quickly we got little more than a passing glance at the dolphins each time we experienced the ride.

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A Commerson's dolphin

Visitors who are not brave enough to take the plunge can see the dolphins from many other angles: at the water's surface, where daily training sessions are performed; an underwater viewing tank where guests can stand; and another view of the tank from the lazy river attraction. But note that if you choose the opposite path on the lazy river, Loggerhead Lane, you'll see a tank full of colorful fish instead.

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Loggerhead Lane

Want to see other wildlife? No problem here, because SeaWorld team members introduce guests to other exotic animals throughout the park, as well.

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Roa's Rapids

And while lazy rivers are a staple at water parks because of their widespread appeal for slow-moving relaxation, Aquatica offers a different take on a winding river with its fast-moving Roa's Rapids. In this attraction, visitors do not ride in tubes. Instead the experience can be almost like body surfing. The strong current propels guests forward whether they float or swim, bypassing islands and gushing geysers. Because of this, children shorter than 51 inches are required to wear a life vest. Roa's Rapids is one of our family's favorite attractions at Aquatica, and with multiple entry points, there is never a wait. The same is true of the park's side-by-side wave pools.

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Walkabout Waters

Like Disney's water parks, Aquatica has carved out play areas just for kids. At Kata's Kookaburra Cove, only those 48 inches and shorter may play. The miniature versions of popular rides give youngsters a thrill without parents having to worry about them being overrun by the older children. Kids of all ages, though, can play at Walkabout Waters, a 60-foot-tall play area where "rain" from buckets, fountains and blasters is continual.

Located next to Walkabout Waters are two family raft rides, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run. We found these rides to be quite a bit rougher than the family rides at Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. In addition to steeper banks and drops, these rides include dark tunnels. If your child is a daredevil, Walhalla Wave and HooRoo Run could be fun for the whole family. They're not gentle rides for timid parkgoers, though.

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Taumata Racer

There also are many different types of water slides for those with varying degrees of bravery. On Taumata Racer, guests lie on mats and fly through dark tunnels and then down a very steep hill. My 8-year-old daughter and I love this one. It's much faster than the Tobaggan Racers at Blizzard Beach, and I definitely had the sensation of my stomach dropping when my mat did. My 10-year-old son is a big fan of Omaka Rocka, which sends inner tube riders up half-pipe funnels backward and forward.

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Omaka Rocka

The food at Aquatica is similar to what is served in SeaWorld restaurants. Waterstone Grill serves burgers, sandwiches and salads; Mango Market offers favorites such as pizza, chicken tenders and French fries, plus so grab-and-go selections; and Banana Beach is an all-day buffet. Family picnics are available seasonally. Alcohol and Coca-Cola products are sold at Aquatica.

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Waterstone Grill

Of course, lockers and beach towels are available for rental. And sunblock and souvenirs are well-stocked, too.

Mickey and Co. certainly know a lot about making waves of magic at Disney World's two water parks, but the park that is home to Shamu also knows how to make a fun splash, as well.


January 5, 2013

SeaWorld Orlando's Just For Kids festival begins Jan. 12

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SeaWorld Orlando kicks off its Just For Kids festival for the second year on Jan. 12. For four consecutive Saturdays, the theme park is offering families special entertainment and discounts on some of its popular animal experiences -- and many of the offerings are included with regular park admission.

Children (and their parents) can hear concerts by some of today's popular kids' performers, a couple of whom you've probably seen in the past during Disney Channel's morning programming for its youngest viewers. The performers include:

** Jan. 12 -- Imagination Movers
** Jan. 19 -- Laurie Berkner
** Jan. 26 -- Choo-Choo Soul
** Feb. 2 -- Kratt Brothers

Concerts are at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the Nautilus Theater, and tickets will be distributed across from the venue beginning each Saturday at 9 a.m. on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no additional charge for these tickets.

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Want a guaranteed seat for the music? Then book the Shamu & Friends character breakfast at the Terrace Garden Buffet restaurant. The 9 a.m. meal guarantees admission to the 2 p.m. concert, and the 11 a.m. breakfast saves you a spot at the 4 p.m. concert.

During the breakfast, families will have meet-and-greets with SeaWorld characters and will receive a 6 x 8 family photo.

The menu, which is subject to change, includes baked ham, scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon, sausage, French toast sticks, Belgium waffles, seasonal fresh fruit, breakfast pastries, yogurt, cereal, milk, juices, coffee, and assorted Coca-Cola products.

Reservations are required for the Shamu & Friends character meal, and children younger than 2 are free but require reservation. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children ages 3 to 9.

Younger kids might also enjoy Elmo's VIP character breakfast. The popular red muppet brings one of his Sesame Street friends to a full-service breakfast -- with much the same menu as the Shamu meal -- at Sharks Underwater Grill. This breakfast also comes with character meet-and-greets, a 6 x 8 family photo, VIP seating for the 11 a.m. concert, and complimentary valet parking. Tickets are $49 for adults and $39 for children ages 3 to 9.

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For my family, though, the best benefit of the Just for Kids festival is the discount on the animal encounters. For the Dolphins Up-Close, Sea Lions Up-Close, Behind-the-Scenes and Family Fun tours, one child is free with each paid adult. On these tours, guests younger than 18 must be accompanied by an adult. That savings can add up quicker than a orca can eat a pail of fish.

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Regular readers of my blog may know that my 8-year-old daughter is in love with dolphins and aspires to train them, so the Dolphins Up-Close Tour is a perfect activity for us. (You can read about our experiences on my previous post.)

In addition to concerts and tours, SeaWorld is hosting fun zones on Just For Kids days:

** New this year is Elmo Rocks!, a concert with Cookie Monster, Zoe, Abby Cadabby, Bert and Ernie at Seafire Inn.

** The Lakeside Patio becomes Shamu's Party Zone, which features a family-friendly DJ, games and character appearances.

** An Ocean Adventure program takes young guests to four Sea Star locations in the park for educational activities. Kids can collect cards and stamps at each location and then redeem them for a prize.

SeaWorld Orlando pass members receive additional discounts during the festival, such as 20 percent off dining in all cafeteria-style restaurants and merchandise in the gift stores. Admission to SeaWorld is $89 for adults and $81 for children ages 3 to 9 with a Fun Card, which allows admission all year long.


July 28, 2012

Meet SeaWorld Orlando's amazing dolphins

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Dolphins, dolphins and more dolphins! If you or someone in your family just cannot get enough of these adorable mammals, SeaWorld Orlando has a number of dolphin experiences to fill your entire day.

My almost-8-year-old daughter's love of dolphins prompted our family to purchase SeaWorld passes this year, and we have been exploring all the ways in which she can get close to her favorite animals. Here is a little bit of what we have learned from our visits.

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Blue Horizons

Blue Horizons, the show where you see dolphins and their trainers perform amazing feats together and individually, is a fun show for all ages. The performance, which happens multiple times each day, also features tropical birds and ariel acrobats that fly toward the audience. There really are no bad seats in Whale & Dolphin Theater, but if you want a center spot, be sure to line up at least 30 minutes early, especially with the summer crowds. Also, know that employees will be walking through the stands selling snacks and drinks, so there's little need to stand in a line elsewhere -- unless you want to refill your soda mug.

Finally, if your child is a little starstruck by the human performers and would like to meet them, you're in luck. They usually line both sides of the walkways leading out of the stadium and are happy to pose for photos and talk with guests.

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Dolphin Cove

To meet some of the park's dolphins, guests can head to adjacent Dolphin Cove, where they can choose from three experiences. There's an underwater viewing area for this large dolphin pool, plus two interactive areas on the surface. On the far side of Dolphin Cove, guests can see the dolphins as they swim by and possibly pet them if they stop. In our experience, this doesn't happen often because these smart animals know they will be fed on the other side of the pool.

Dolphin feedings that are open to guests usually take place five times per day on the gated side of Dolphin Cove. Because of the limited space and popularity of these interactions, queues can form as much as an hour before the event, so plan accordingly. (Unfortunately, most of this line is in the sun, so at least grab a drink to keep hydrated.) Each guest entering the feeding area MUST purchase a tray of fish for $7 ($6 for annual passholders). There are no exceptions to this rule -- even if you just want to take photos of your kids petting the dolphins. Our solution is to purchase four trays and give each child two so their experience lasts longer and we have more opportunities to videotape and capture images.

Even with double the fish, the feeding goes by quickly. The dolphins will swim right up to the edge of the pool and open their mouths, waiting for the fish, not unlike dogs begging for food. Guests are instructed to pet them under the chin as they drop the food in. My daughter never gets tired of doing this, even though she finds the dead fish gross. Sometimes when she's feeding I manage to sneak in a friendly pat -- no fish for me, thanks!

During the dolphin feedings, SeaWorld photographers will stand on the opposite side of the pool and take photos, which you can view immediately afterward. We haven't had much luck with the professional photos but we have managed to take quite a few memorable shots on our own. When the group feeding is finished, guests are directed to the hand-washing station to clean up.

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Dolphin Nursery

A short walk from Dolphin Cove, guests will find the Dolphin Nursery, an area for pregnant dolphins, mothers and babies to bond without interference from the males of their species. This is a smaller dolphin pool, but the view from the sides is quite good. SeaWorld Orlando recently announced that mom dolphin Starkey gave birth to a baby on June 30, and both can be seen in the nursery.

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Dolphins Up Close Tour

If you want to interact with the moms and babies, it's time to sign up for the Dolphins Up Close Tour. This experience begins at the nursery where guests learn how SeaWorld cares for dolphins and then they participate in a scatter feed. The technique of dropping fish all over an area of the pool at the same time mimics feeding in the wild and helps teach baby dolphins to hunt for food. Trainers then guide the older dolphins through a few tricks for the viewers.

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Next, the group walks to the gated area of Dolphin Cove for the most exciting part of the tour -- some one-on-one time with a dolphin and a trainer who will teach participating guests basic hand signals. My kids were thrilled when our dolphin responded to their motions. They also had plenty of time to pet the dolphin and we got some great photos.

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My family participated in the Dolphins Up Close Tour at the beginning of the year during the Just For Kids festival, when children were free with a paid adult. Normally tickets for the tour are $50 for an adult and $30 for a child ages 3 to 9.

Other dolphin experiences

We are planning to go to two other SeaWorld Orlando properties this year for dolphin experiences, and I'll be bringing you the details on what to expect if you are planning similar trips. We're heading to Discovery Cove, where both kids will swim with the dolphins for their birthdays, and Aquatica, where we plan to slide right by all those smiling creatures when we're playing at the water park.

If you're going to be visiting Walt Disney World, there are a couple of dolphin programs there, as well.

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About dolphins

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the dolphins category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Dine With Shamu is the previous category.

Empire of the Penguin is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.