Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dealing with Dolphins

I have swam with dolphins in Cancun, hugged them in Curacao and been shoved off a ramp by a fun loving one in Playa del Carmen. Now, in Discovery Cove, I was going to get the chance to kiss a dolphin.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” asked the little girl standing next to my 13 year old daughter Nia. “They’ve just been eating fish.”

I didn’t tell her I’d probably kissed worse.

Though it’s considered a theme park, Discovery Cove, which is part of SeaWorld Orlando, is totally upscale from the price of the tickets (a double gasp $279 with dolphin swim; $179 without) to the upscale Caribbean resort feel that starts at the lobby entrance where you check in. The idea, it seems, is exclusivity – only a 1000 people are allowed in each day – and soft adventure. There’s snorkeling in the Coral Reef and Ray Lagoon filled with colorful schools of fish and rays in shades of red to black with polka dots. In an out of the way channel sharks can be seen darting dangerously forward. Not to worry, they can’t get past the glass wall. The lagoon offers the ultimate in snorkeling – no waves, no murky water and all the sea creatures are herded together for great photo ops.

Just steps away, along a sandy path shaded by palms and past the Lazy River which loops through part of the cove’s 30 acres, is the Dolphin Lagoon. Here Nia and I learn simple dolphin training signals, one of which is to extend our right arms straight out from our sides. This is the equivalent to hitchhikers sticking out a thumb and within seconds, our dolphins are beside us. Hooking our hands over their dorsal fins, we scoot along with them, heading quickly towards shore. As for the kiss, it was more like a light touch of lips to bill without a fishy taste at all.

Just across the street from Discovery Cove, SeaWorld was a must stop since Nia is crazy about animals. We got there around lunch time and so headed to Sharks Underwater Grill. In its grotto like atmosphere, large expanses of glass form the only barrier between diners and sharks, barracudas and a myriad of fish contained in a 660,000 gallon aquarium. We order burgers (no fish please, we don’t want to make our dining companions mad) and eat them under the watchful eyes of hundreds of fish.

Refreshed, we walk to the 2600 seat Whale and Dolphin Theatre where we have tickets to see “Blue Horizons,” one of several over the top shows at SeaWorld. The set was designed by Stanley Meyer who also did Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast” and it surrounds a 900,000 gallon tank. There’s always something happening here -- dolphins flip into the air, acrobats dressed in vividly colored bird like plumage bungee jump from heights of 40 feet while others shoot up from water jets and still more elaborately costumed dancers (some even have wings) balance on the noses of false whales who rise from the water.

Nia can’t resist rides and though Journey to Atlantis with its 60-foot drop looks way too scary for me, she joins the line for this combination rail and water ride. Her next ride is Kraken, which was, at least when we were there, the only floor-less roller coaster in Orlando. She doesn’t mind her feet dangling in the air and decides to take a second trip. For my sake, she then agrees to riding a flamingo paddle boat.

We’ve enjoyed the water shows so much that we decide to take in Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba (we’re told that’s a French phrase meaning to party). Located at Downtown Disney West Side, it’s typical – and awe inspiring -- Cirque fare with I-can’t-believe-they-can-do-that acrobatics, dance routines, juggling, gymnastics and performance art which includes dancers wrapping yards of silky cloth mummy-like around their bodies and then, after ascending to nose bleed heights, letting the cloth unfurl and their bodies hurl down to earth.

Whenever I’m in Florida, I like to search for what I call Old Florida, the mom and pop type tourist stops rather than the corporate behemoths of Disney and the like. Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve that was founded in 1949 and is still owned by the same family, fit the bill nicely. From its slightly tacky entrance through the open mouth of a concrete gator head to the Gator Jumparoo show where some of the largest gators in the world jump four to five feet out of the water to grab chicken from their trainers’ hand, Gatorland has a real feel to it and the people who work there seem to love their gators (though they also respect their power too). The board walk leading through the preserve where all sort of birds colonize and gators snooze in the water, their eyes half closed and ever on the alert in case you fall in, is a paean to Florida and how it used to be.

Leaving the gators behind, we return to the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn where we are staying. There’s just time for a dip in one of the two huge pools with their multiple slides, climbing nets and water jets and a trip to the 3000 square foot arcade where Nia played games. Then it’s off to bed. We’ve been here for several days and still there is so much more to do.

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