Orlando in the beginning of December is just right; the crowds are small, if any, and the weather is warm but not stifling hot, so a dip in the hotel pool is fine in the heat of the day but the evening is made of cool breezes and walks in the bright colorful lights of a variety of attractions. With my twelve year old daughter and twenty year old son in tow, I visited Discovery Cove, Universal Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios Florida last weekend with an excursion to Downtown Disney provided by friends who live in the nearby town of Celebration.
We spent four nights at the hoppin’ Nickelodeon Resort, which is close to all of the theme parks but somehow very tricky to find when returning from the day’s activities. Most of the 130 miles I drove in my rented Nissan from Budget Rent-a-Car, which seems to pride itself on hidden fees (I did not appreciate the ‘I Gotcha’ look from the man at the Budget counter in the Orlando airport as I complained about the fuel fees, which will supposedly be sent back to me in the form of a check since I presented a receipt showing I purchased gas to refill the tank on the way back to the airport – although the tank was clearly full) were from ‘scenic routes,’ or time lost driving around and around trying to get back on the highway in the right direction (“Is it east now? West? Is there a reason why I have kids in the car if you guys can’t navigate while I dodge the cars that keep cutting me off?”).
The Nick hotel has a fantastic water slide and pool area with a full staff of lifeguards along with outdoor dining, including a bar. Poolside entertainment includes slime-oriented game shows with audience participation a la the television network, which was performed by very enthusiastic employees who genuinely seemed to enjoy their work. The character breakfast in the Nicktoon Café included a large buffet along with dancing, singing, and personal attention from Blue from Blue’s Clues, SpongeBob Squarepants, Squidward, Dora the Explorer, and Patrick Starfish. Our server, Kecia, was quick with a refill but not overbearing – we had plenty of time to eat and laugh with the characters and take photos. One of the pools was closed for the season so that it could be converted into an ice slide, which was great fun for all ages, and was a clever contrast to the warmer afternoons at the regular pool and water slides only a building away. The only drawback to the Nick was the lousy Internet connection; don’t expect to be able to check your email, post to Facebook, or play World of Warcraft while in your room without an excruciating lag, which of course, makes online gaming nearly impossible.
Discovery Cove is a paradise that feels like a tropical island in the midst of touristy clutter, with golden sandy beaches, clear warm water, and lush plants and flowers. Walking deeper into the beautiful scenery, you find it hard to believe that it is all man-made. The all-inclusive day, which can include a dolphin swim or an underwater adventure (for an extra fee) is, indeed, all-inclusive. There are no hidden fees and no surprises, from the large lockers to the unlimited towels to the breakfast and lunch buffets and believe it or not, endless snacks and drinks (including beer and cocktails) in the several concession areas throughout the park. Reservations are required and the number of guests is limited, so the park is not crowded and hassled, which results in a calmer atmosphere and employees who seem truly pleased that you are there.
Every employee we encountered was smiling, attentive, focused – from the food service employees to the restroom and locker attendants, to the animal trainers (who were also very caring towards the animals, explaining how they did not force them to interact but asked for our patience and understanding with them as well) and the lifeguards. My twelve year old went on the dolphin swim, as her older brother had when he was her age during our first visit to Discovery Cove, and the photos I took show a beaming smile on her face throughout the experience. The three of us went on the SeaVenture, which is an underwater tour that is very safe and accompanied by several divers who watched our every move to be sure we were able to breathe and were comfortable with the event. It is a short tour in a small controlled area, with a close up look at sharks through a clear divider (one of the divers wrote ‘shark bait’ on a board and had us hold it in front of us so she could take a photo, which was available for purchase along with several others we took underwater), swooping rays that brushed against our heads, and colorful fish that flickered around us.
The swimming areas are shallow and full of cow-nosed rays and large southern rays, which are stingrays but, as one trainer explained, have their barbs trimmed on a regular basis so are safe. They are very comfortable with people and do not swim away from you as you pet them, but rather glide through the water as if they are flying gently around, circling you, fearless and graceful. There are bright fish in the pool with the rays, and like the rays, go about their business as if people are as natural in the water as the striking coral that grows around them, allowing them to dart in and out, as if they are playing together. There is a huge lazy river that flows through the aviary and is designed like a river in a South American rainforest, with brilliant plants and trees, bright flowers, and an array of ‘artifacts’ along the bottom, such as large golden pots and statues. The river is deep in some areas, but yellow swimming noodles are provided, which are much better than tubes or rafts that one finds in most water parks but are nowhere in Discovery Cove. This keeps the river from becoming cluttered, and the gentle current, which is almost nonexistent in most areas, offers a relaxing, unhurried experience under the warm sun.
The aviary is full of birds from all over the world and a helpful card with pictures helps you identify the ones you encounter during your visit. Some are friendly (the speckled mouse bird from Africa pulled at my hair, pecked my daughter’s ears, and sat in the palms of our hands, clearly at ease with people) and some are more cautious; again, the trainers are very respectful of the animals’ personalities and natural inclinations and do not force any of them to interact, which makes visitors feel more comfortable about the park in general. The animals are healthy, well-cared for, and watching the trainers and employees interact with them, you know that they genuinely regard the animals with respect and affection. This is what makes Discovery Cove a spectacular place to visit; the employees. From the moment you arrive to the time you leave the park, the employees take every care to ensure your visit is wonderful. All-inclusive means all-inclusive – the only time you need to pull out your wallet is to pay for photos at the end of the day or to purchase souvenirs. No surprises. The day is full of excitement during some activities, such as the dolphin swim or SeaVenture, but balanced with relaxing moments swimming with rays and fish or gliding through the lazy river. The entire time you feel welcome among the employees and the animals, surrounded by visitors from all parts of the world; we met families from South Africa, England, France, Australia, and Jamaica, with the voices of several foreign languages and accented English highlighting the squeels of dolphins and laughter of children. Our second visit will not be our last.
On Saturday night, we were treated by friends from Celebration to a night out in Downtown Disney, highlighted by dinner at T-Rex, a terrifically fun restaurant with animatronic dinosaurs and delicious food (especially the shrimp!). The whole area was packed with people visiting this outdoor mall of restaurants and shops, from Disney to glass-blowing, Legos to chocolates, bath soaps to jewelry. This is a shopper’s paradise. Of particular interest was the giant Maleficent (in black and purple dragon form) built of Legos, just outside the store where my daughter and her friend would have stayed happily playing in the Lego bins for hours if we had not redirected them to the World of Disney store. Parking is free at Downtown Disney; bring your credit card and be prepared to press your way through the crowds, but not without the rewards of unique purchases and rare sights.
We visited Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida on our last day, one that began with few people and short lines and ended with packed streets and the bright lights and vibrant music of the Macy’s Holiday Parade. Both parks have something for all ages and fear factors, from the gentle excitement of the Caro-Seuss-el and One Fish rides in Seuss Landing to the pteradon flyers in Jurassic Park to the Incredible Hulk coaster at Marvel Super Hero Island and the coasters in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter . The Flight of the Hippogriff was perfect for my daughter, a beginning coaster aficionado, and a butterbeer from the nearby stand (with the longest lines of any attraction in both parks) was a sweet ending to an excursion through this beautifully crafted fantasy land inspired by Rowling’s book and film series.
Toon Lagoon features old fashioned comics like your granddad used to read, including familiar favorites like Beetle Bailey and Popeye, and Barney and Curious George have their own play areas to delight young visitors. A horror make-up demonstration offers an inside look at Hollywood behind the scenes, and the animal actors show, starring dogs, birds, cats, pigs that have starred in films such as Hotel for Dogs, Men in Black II, Babe, and Revenge of the Mummy, is a fun and informative look at how our furry and feathery friends polish their craft for the big screen. The street performers offer entertainment between attractions, the most notable a break dancing group, Street Breakz, which dazzles with humor, acrobatics and stunts, old-school ‘80s dance style. We stopped for lunch at the NASCAR Grille on the Citywalk strip, which was packed with a variety of dining choices including Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, Margaritaville, NBA City, and the Hard Rock Café Orlando, the world’s largest HRC.
The park closed at seven, but not before the crowds along the streets of Universal Studios huddled together to watch and listen to the spectacular sights and sounds of the Macy’s Holiday Parade, which included local high school marching bands, giant floating balloons, dancers, and park characters. The sun slid beyond the horizon as the parade glided through the park, finishing with a smiling Santa waving to the crowds. The long walk to the parking deck on tired, blistered feet did nothing to dampen the high from our ten hour day of exploring, riding, and snacking – my daughter, with her T-Rex hat pulled over her head, fell asleep in the back seat, smiling as I, very predictably, drove in circles trying to find my way back to the Nick Hotel.