I’ve never been very good at “once in a lifetime” experiences. One year, I booked a special “photo caravan” at a local wild animal park for an extravagant amount of money, believing it would be a “once in a lifetime” adventure. We ended up going back every year until we moved away from Southern California. The first time we visited Disney World, I sold it to Max as a “once in a lifetime” trip. We went back on vacation several times before I retired and ultimately ended up turning our whole “lifetime” on its head by actually moving to within an hour’s drive of this “once in a lifetime” destination. Now, we go about once a month.
A few years ago, I cajoled a good friend of mine to go with me on a dolphin encounter at Sea Life Park in Honolulu. She agreed with my exhortations that it would be a “once in a lifetime” experience. We had a wonderful time.
Given my track record and lack of credibility with the whole “once in a lifetime” thing, it should come as no surprise that I recently succumbed to temptation and spent a day at Discovery Cove.
Discovery Cove is an “all inclusive” day resort owned by Sea World. It is a reservation-only experience. They limit the number of people allowed in each day so that crowd-traumatized tourists can experience all the park has to offer without waiting in lines or fighting the masses for towels. To be honest, I think that limited capacity thing can be a pretty big draw for someone who has spent an entire vacation wedged between bodies and strollers waiting in line for the bathroom at Disney or Universal.
For one not-so-low (actually, a pretty darn high) price, a guest gets access to a lazy river, animal encounters, a simulated ocean snorkeling pool complete with artificial coral reef and assorted very real aquatic creatures, a wading stream that meanders past otters and marmosets, the most beautiful walk-through and float-through aviaries you have ever seen, and several beaches for relaxing. The price of admission also includes towels, lounge chairs, lockers, showers, dolphin-friendly sunscreen, all meals, snacks, soft drinks, beer, and wine. For a slightly higher admission fee, you can also swim with the dolphins- hence the need for dolphin-friendly sunscreen.
When I lived in Southern California, the Sea World park in San Diego had dolphin encounter opportunities for visitors. The encounters were limited to just a few people a day and were hugely expensive. Also, the facilities at Sea World are geared for animals being in the water and people being on dry land watching the animals. Their dolphin encounter seemed kind of awkward. It was sort of like the people swimming with the dolphins were on display as part of the exhibit. While 8 or 10 people donned wetsuits and waded into a small pool with a dolphin, other fully dressed park visitors stood by the side of the pool to watch. It just seemed a bit weird to me. Still, I was one of those passersby watching. In a way, despite the awkwardness and the logistical issues (like what did you do once the 20-minute dolphin experience was over and you were standing around in a sopping wet bathing suit for the rest of the day?), I was envious.
When I heard about Discovery Cove, I thought I might take the plunge. Literally. Still, I wrestled with the decision for a long time. It just seemed so frivolous and decadent. It is an expensive proposition. Finally, I decided to stop telling myself no. I made my reservation, including my dolphin swim. I spent the entire day indulging myself in Discovery. And loved every minute of it.
I arrived early. The staff scheduled me for the first dolphin encounter group of the day. I went to the breakfast buffet and wandered around the park a little bit until my marine mammal rendezvous. Then it was dolphin time! We spent some time touching and playing with our dolphin, Kaolani. Then, it was time for the swim. As I waited for my turn, I became more and more excited. I watched the other participants in delight, as Kaolani whooshed her way back to us, towing a grinning visitor in her wake. When it was my chance, I swam out to the trainer in the deeper section of the pool. I treaded water while watching Kaolani gracefully return from shore to take me on my ride. I grabbed her dorsal fin and left flipper and let her pull me through the water. I was dolphin surfing! It was fabulous. I felt like I was in a movie. I felt very accomplished and brave and free and sort of primal. There was something about the buoyancy and weightlessness of the experience that somehow lightened my heart, freeing it from much of the care and worry it has been hording.
After my dolphin dive, my first thought was that I could easily have done that all day long. My next thought was dismay because the dolphin encounter, which I expected to be the highlight of the day, was over. Now what?
What, indeed. Actually, a lot of what. I went to the reef experience next. Donning snorkel and mask (also included in the price of admission), I went exploring. I snorkeled with huge schools of silvery fish. I saw Doryfish the size of dinner plates. I reached out and touched stealthful rays. The massiveness of some of the rays amazed me. They were the size of shipwrecked chests of drawers on the bottom of the fake ocean. I swam up to the glass barrier separating the reef swimming area from the shark enclosure and watched the sharks feed beneath the surface of the water. As fish swelled around me, I couldn’t stop giggling underwater from sheer giddiness.
Next, I ambled over to the freshwater portion of the park. I waded down the oasis stream. I saw otters at play in the same river where I was playing, separated only by a glass partition. Next, I realized I was wading through a moat surrounding an island of monkeys… marmosets, to be exact. It was as if I had happened on a cloister of tiny nuns in their black and white habits as they scurried off to sing the Hours. Next, I picked up an industrial strength pool noodle and floated down the lazy river. As I drifted under waterfalls, I reveled in how much fun it was to feel the water crashing over me. I floated past exotic, beautiful, and curious birds in the aviaries. It was so relaxing, I went around a second time. I was glad I did. On my second pass through, some trainers appeared randomly on the side of the river with a couple of “animal ambassadors.” I interrupted my journey, got out of the river, and introduced myself to the anteater and kinkajou. For those of you who don’t know and don’t want to bother googling, a kinkajou is a small mammal that has the face of a pug puppy, the body of a weasel, and the tail of a monkey. She was very appealing for a creature made out of God’s spare parts!
I spent some time at Serenity Bay, the mouth of the lazy river. I lounged and sunned myself and observed people. I went back to the reef and snorkeled some more. I interspersed my trips into the depths with episodes on the shore in a lounge chair, reading and dreaming.
The service at Discovery Bay was remarkable. The shower, locker, and dressing facilities were practical and easily available all around the park. There were multiple stations to reapply sunscreen. There were plenty of lounge chairs located wherever I happened to decide to lounge. The staff was more than helpful. If you asked someone where something was, he or she not only told you, but walked you over to your destination. Staff members appeared at random intervals at different places in the park to offer tips on how to get the best interaction with the animals, answer questions about the creatures you were viewing, and share their “animal ambassadors.” The staff seemed less like theme park workers and more like delightful little surprises for your personal benefit. Throughout the day, I helped myself to meals, snacks, and drinks from the convenient kiosks distributed throughout the park.
When I finally decided to go peruse the merchandise in the souvenir shop, I was shocked to notice it was already after 4:00pm. It had been a wonderful day. What had originally seemed like a shockingly exorbitant price of admission now seemed a terrific value. It was truly a memorable “once in a lifetime” experience.
And we all know what that means for me.
Next week, I’ll tell you what I learned from my day at Discovery Cove. In the meantime, what do you think? Do you have any “once in a lifetime” experiences that turned into regular events? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a swimmingly good day!