July 23, 2014

getaways

The Best in Florida Aquariums

Chris Sherman | 8/1/2009
Florida Aquarium
The Coral Reef Dive Show at The Florida Aquarium

By theme park standards, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is small and in the midst of perpetual reconstruction from its former life as a water treatment plant. Its star attraction is an orphan dolphin with an artificial tailfin named Winter.

The rehabilitation doesn’t hamper Winter or his aquarium, which this summer swarms with hundreds of children and adults. The hallways, observation windows and tank-side seats are jammed daily with crowds up 50% from last year.

It helps that Clearwater’s ticket price is only $11, yet aquariums of all sizes and prices across Florida are prime destinations for “staycations’’ in this lousiest of off-seasons. ?

Aquarium-goers do much more than watch Bottlenose dolphins jump through Hula Hoops. For $85 to $300, humans can now walk into the pool to pet dolphins and ogle other fish, go deeper for a swim and dolphin ride, help a dolphin paint a picture or shadow a dolphin trainer or shark biologists.

These encounters, “immersions’’ and backstage visits are for limited numbers and often sell out.

Among the attractions are:

  • Marineland. The mother of Florida aquariums has showcased dolphins since tourists drove 1938 Fords. When it reopened in 2007 it still had Nellie, now 56 (a record), but the park had been redesigned especially for interaction.
  • Orlando’s Sea World. It now has two parks that are wet and full of wildlife in lagoons, pools and rapids. At Aquatica, swimmers tube and float through waters filled with tuxedoed Commerson’s dolphins and loggerhead turtles. The priciest is all-inclusive Discovery Cove, where you can pet parrots, explore coral reefs, swim among tropical fish, and, yes, party with dolphins. (The new Manta coaster even dives into the waters.)
  • EPCOT. Certified scuba divers can get inside the massive tank at The Seas with Nemo & Friends (a massive revamping of The Living Seas pavilion).
  • Typhoon Lagoon. You can snorkel in Shark Reef.
  • Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Uncertified neophytes can take 30-minute dives in the Coral Reef.
  • Miami Seaquarium. Founded in 1955 and still the home of Flipper shows, sea lions and killer whales, the attraction now has Dolphin Harbor, with shallow and deep water. Visitors are invited to kiss, hug, dance with and rub the mammals.
  • Theatre of the Seas in Islamorada. Opened in 1946, it has expanded the cast to allow guests to swim with sea lions and stingrays as well.

For all the new showmanship, many marine parks have boosted the science and educational quotient of visits. Clearwater, Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, the Pier in St. Petersburg and the Florida Aquarium all have boats and eco-tours to take summer campers to waters neither glassed-in nor man-made.

Despite Florida’s ample natural waterscapes and continued challenges from animal rights activists, aquariums are more numerous than zoos in Florida, and their popularity keeps growing.

The strange underwater environment with its amazing creatures, friendly and lethal, is “the next-best thing to outer space,” as Andrew Hertz of Seaquarium says.

Tags: Dining & Travel, Environment

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