For the better part of the last two decades, Orlando has done an impressive job of emerging from Mickey Mouse’s shadow. Those who live in and around the City Beautiful know that homegrown chefs and artists have ushered in a new era of creativity and progress that have made this booming city arguably the best place to live in the Sunshine State. Orlando certainly has developed into something far greater than the home of rollercoasters and teacup rides.
But that doesn’t mean the town’s tourism roots are drying up. In fact, now more than ever, Orlando is the most popular destination in the United States, and we’d be fools to think that’s because of local treasures like Mead Botanical Gardens or Valkyrie Donuts. Theme parks will always inspire families to make the Griswoldian trek from all over the country, just so they can meet Goofy before standing in line for two hours to soar through Pandora.
It would be a mistake, though, to reduce the theme park region to thrilling rides, outlet malls and Dole Whips, considering the area’s most distinct and unexpected treasure isn’t much more than a stone’s throw from SeaWorld. For 20 years, Discovery Cove has served as not only one of the only all-inclusive resort experiences in the state, but also one of its most unique wedding venues.
That’s right—there is romance to be found in the heart of tourism country.
It Starts with a Love Story
Our tour guide, Todd, was the kind of delightful personality you’d want on every vacation. I wish I could have him join me on trips in hologram form, like Altered Carbon’s Poe, popping in and out to offer fun tidbits and fast facts about marine life, local weather and the availability of shredded pork BBQ sandwiches at the on-site restaurant. But one story in particular really portrayed just how special Discovery Cove is to some people.
On the same weekend that I visited with my wife and son, another family was at Discovery Cove for an annual vacation that has been occurring for almost as long as the park has been open. This family, Todd told us, is as special to Discovery Cove as the park is to the family, because these people hold the rare distinction of having celebrated all of their most special and romantic moments at Discovery Cove.
The father and mother were married and spent their honeymoon there, and soon after it became the destination for their anniversaries. First, second, fifth, 10th—year after year they returned to this special place. When they had kids, it became a family affair, and eventually, our guide explained, their oldest child would get married at Discovery Cove, too. Now, I don’t know if that last part was true or not, but Todd already had us hook, line and sinker with his storytelling.
With this simple tale of a family that flies from England to Orlando each year to celebrate love and life, we could suddenly see how Discovery Cove was so much different than the rest of the parks in the area.
This Isn’t an Ordinary All-inclusive
Arriving at Discovery Cove’s check-in center felt a lot like I’d been teleported to a far-off, remote island, even though we had just taken the same I4 exit as SeaWorld. It’s far more authentically tropical than, say, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and that’s mostly because it doesn’t feel like you’re at a theme park resort, since here your view isn’t obscured by towers and rooms.
While you cannot simply walk from your room to Dolphin Lagoon or the lazy river, the local hotel options are ample. Discovery Cove and SeaWorld partner with 11 local hotels bearing familiar names, including Hiltons of the Doubletree, Garden Inn and Grand Vacations varieties. So, with a quick and convenient shuttle ride to the welcome center, a day’s or weekend’s worth of family or romantic fun begins.
Choose Your Own Adventures
Make no mistake—the residents of Dolphin Lagoon are Discovery Cove’s biggest stars, but you’ll hardly spend the whole day feeding them and waiting for them to do back flips. What might surprise you most upon leaving the welcome center and following the walkways—surrounded by beautiful, lush forestry—is the quality of “beach” that greets you inside.
Yes, this is a theme park located in the middle of Orlando, approximately an hour away from the closest real beach. But with sand at your toes and cool water rolling up to your lounge chairs from waves—created by people excitedly entering and leaving the wind-away river—and, of course, the radiating Florida sun, it won’t be long before you forget that you are in the middle of Orlando.
Now, if your priority is to catch some rays and sip cocktails with your toes in the water, you’re covered. But think bigger, because this place is hiding some truly unique amenities that you won’t find at many other resorts, in Florida, the Caribbean or beyond.
The thing I loved most, however, wasn’t an amenity as much as it’s a policy. See, Todd let me in on a little secret (I’m not sure it’s much of a secret, but I like to pretend that I’m privy to inside information)—the reason that Discovery Cove seemed so different than any theme park in Orlando is that there’s a hard cap for capacity. This place isn’t herding visitors in for the sake of maximizing the almighty dollar. Instead, Discovery Cove maximizes the comfort and convenience. Maybe it’s my age or the impatience of fatherhood speaking, but the ability to float throughout the wind-away river without touching a random stranger… my goodness, that was incredible.
And I am a huge sucker for a good lazy river. There’s another prominent resort in Orlando, as well as one in the Bahamas, that my family visits for annual staycations, and while I spend plenty of time in those lazy rivers, they don’t hold a candle to Discovery Cove’s wind-away river because of the aforementioned space and the friendly wildlife. In addition to waterfalls and well-maintained trees and flora, this river takes you through a freshwater oasis that is home to otters, marmosets and colorful birds.
You can meet the birds in the Explorer’s Aviary, but the real treat is the “backstage” tour, where you get to handle the birds and even an adorable sloth that gives hugs like an old grandmother. There are a lot of treats, too—from the all-inclusive food and drinks and the extremely private cabanas to the comfortable Serenity Bay and joy of swimming and snorkeling with the marine life in the Grand Reef.
That was actually my favorite part, taking the Seaventure tour through the reef and handling some of the more docile creatures while allowing the fish to tickle my arms and legs while I desperately reminded myself that “I’m good” is the A-OK sign, and not thumbs up. (I desperately need to get back to dive training.)
But It’s All about the Romance
Going back to Todd’s story about the family that keeps coming back, I listened more than I spoke, but when he mentioned that the couple can wed using the Dolphin Lagoon as a backdrop, I asked, jokingly (but also with a little sincerity), “Do the dolphins get a front row seat since they’re giving up their home for the whole morning?” He didn’t laugh because, he told me, the dolphins are part of the ceremony. They can be part of the engagement, too, if that’s what the question popper desires.
If it’s possible, Discovery Cove will do it. If you want a dolphin to deliver the ring to your beloved significant other as you ask the ultimate question, it can be done. If you want two dolphins to leap from the water as you share your first kiss as a married couple, it can be done, and they’ll even form a heart behind you so the photo from that moment will blow all of your friends’ wedding photos away.
The morning I visited, I was invited to lurk in the shadows of a wedding reception that was taking place that afternoon, as the ceremony already took place, bright and early. (I declined, partially out of respect for privacy and also for my desire to hug a sloth.) That’s the thing—the wedding crew at Discovery Cove doesn’t mess around. Even if the parties had a late night and need a forklift to get them out of bed and into their suits and dresses, it will happen. This isn’t a venue that puts everything into scenery and little else into ensuring the couple a magical day. If it is requested, planning assistance is available, and the park’s team will perform to the best of its abilities.
Whether you’re eloping with a small squad or bringing the entire fam (and then some) for a full-day experience that features private dolphin swims and feeding time with the birds, Discovery Cove does romance as well as any venue you’ll visit in the months or even years leading up to your big day. And I cannot stress this enough—not a single one of your dream venues will offer anything as cool as Seaventure. So, don’t be afraid to say, “I do,” to both the person of your dreams and to hanging out with nurse sharks.