ORLANDO — People come to Orlando’s theme parks looking for a range of experiences from space travel to safaris to superheroic adventures. The one thing they probably don’t come for, especially during school vacation week, is sustained peace and quiet. But that’s a key part of what Discovery Cove delivers with its Sea-Venture experience.
Discovery Cove is a SeaWorld sister resort (another sibling is Aquatica) where the illusion being sold is “natural tropical paradise and marine wildlife sanctuary meets back-to-basics water park.” The grounds are lush and manicured to rival the grand hotels of Hawaii. There’s a lazy river that winds around a good portion of the park’s 30 acres, including through an aviary where, when visited on foot, birds will eat out of your hand if you like (and nip at your clothing if they like). There are sandy beaches and saltwater dolphin pools where you can commune and swim with the resident bottle-nosed Flippers. And when you just need a break, there are places to sip all manner of drinks, in or out of the water, and munch on ample breakfast, lunch, and snack items that come as part of the admission fee.
SeaVenture, which opened in 2011, is a controlled diving experience that was designed to give guests a sense of what it’s like to be on the floor of the ocean, surrounded by tropical flora and fauna. It takes place in a 12-foot-deep corner of the 2.5-acre Grand Reef section of the park, which contains about 10,000 sea creatures, including 125 species of fish, rays, and sharks. You pay $59 per person for a guided tour that spends about 20-25 minutes underwater and involves donning a helmet equipped with its own air supply. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you choose a wetsuit — either a shorts-and-T-top onesie or just a sleeveless vest. Discovery Cove’s humans-only pools are kept at a toasty 85-88 degrees. But the pools where you can mingle with marine life, including the Dolphin Lagoon and Grand Reef, dip to 72-75 degrees. Wear the onesie, even if it’s about as flattering and fragrant as a beer cozy.
The wetsuit is actually the least of your wardrobe challenges. That aforementioned diving helmet, a cross between the kind of old-school thing seen in “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and something more suited for 21st-century space exploration, will have you looking like a character out of the “Adventure Time” cartoon series. Our party of six contained one 10-year-old (the minimum age allowed for this attraction), and she also needed a special buoy attached to her 72-pound helmet to help balance out the weight. Luckily, she thought it was a cool accessory.
Before entering the diving pool you must complete a brief orientation that includes a video. You’re taught how to relieve ear pressure as you descend by ladder, and you’re asked to remember a small number of basic hand signals to communicate with park personnel under water. Your guide also carries a small erasable message board that he uses to ask questions and narrate what you’re experiencing. (“Want to touch some critters?” “That’s a butterflyfish.”)
There’s no miked communication. Inside your helmet all that you hear is a constant whooshhhhh of air (this is good) and the occasional glug glug of bubbles whenever your head strays too far from level (not good). It’s a bit unnerving, but it’s also fantastic. While those who are licensed to scuba dive may not be impressed, this is new, mostly welcome adventure territory for the rest of us. That is, unless you’re claustrophobic, which was the issue for one member of our group. She bravely made it as far as the bottom of the entry ladder — twice — but ultimately gave the “take me up” signal and stayed up, uncomforted by a series of hand rails that divers can cling to as they gingerly make their way around the pool.
As the rest of us set off on our gravity-challenged walk, slowly completing the small loop that forms the complete tour, we were encouraged to pause often — to peer through an underwater window at the sharks hanging out in an adjoining pool, to take in the many fish swarming all around us, and to shoot plenty of (purchasable) photographs with cameras provided to document the moment. Though SeaVenture feels exclusive and contained, it’s part of the same reef system that teems with park-goers snorkeling and wading among the thousands of colorful fish and gliding rays. We knew that was the scene we’d be rejoining when our helmets came off; we were in no hurry.
Discovery Cove limits daily admission to about 1,000, which probably makes it the least crowded pool in Orlando. Even so, I wasn’t eager to say goodbye to my headgear, or the sense of faux solitude it offered. I hung out underwater for as long as they let me. Then I climbed back up the ladder, just 12 feet, and — whoosh — the sounds of everyday life returned.Continued...