|At Stingray City in Grand Cayman, visitors can touch, feed and swim with stingrays of different sizes.|
Among the growing niche markets identified in Travel Agent’s May 7 cover story (http://www.travelagentcentral.com/niche-special-needs-travel/scratch-that-niche) are family travel and edu-tourism. These are neatly tied together in the growing realm of attractions that allow human-animal interaction, especially aquatic ones, which also give a nod to another niche, ecotourism.
Perhaps no family-friendly (read: short flight time) destination has a higher concentration of such activities as Grand Cayman. At Stingray City, widely considered the island’s most popular attraction, clients can feed and touch stingrays of different sizes and swim with them. The shallow Stingray City Sandbar is a fun place and is suitable for everyone. Families may be surrounded by more than two dozen “tame” Atlantic Southern stingrays that enjoy the company of humans. The stingrays swim freely with humans in a kid-friendly depth of only three feet.
We suggest booking a three-hour tour, which includes snorkeling at the Stingray City Sandbar; the Barrier Reef, where clients can snorkel among a wide variety of coral formations and beautiful tropical fish; and the Coral Gardens, where they are treated to some more beautiful marine life. Boats are equipped with shade, bathrooms (essential when traveling with children), snorkeling equipment, life/snorkel vests, fruit punch, water and an ice-chest. Tickets for adults are $44.44 and those for children ages four to 11 are $27.50; it’s free for children three years and younger. (Note: These and all other prices quoted below are subject to change.)
Another great option for families heading to Grand Cayman is Cayman Turtle Farm, which opened in 1968. Tickets for the farm, home to turtles and their little ones, are $30 for adults (12 and older) and $20 for children (four to 11 years old).
If there’s a budding oceanographer in the family or if parents wish to sneak in a little education disguised as fun, “Ambassadors of the Environment” at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is just the ticket. Custom-designed for the resort by Jean-Michel Cousteau and his Ocean Futures Society, the program focuses on the natural and cultural heritage of the Cayman Islands and the Caribbean Sea with outdoor and underwater eco-excursions.
Kids can also have fun learning in the 3,000-square-foot Ambassadors Lab, which has a simulated reef, an inter-active mural, video microscopes, digital cameras, computers, and arts and crafts supplies. (Note: Ambassadors of the Environment will close temporarily on August 31 and reopen November 2.)
Swimming With Dolphins
From the Flipper TV series of the 1960s to Dolphin Tale, one of 2011’s surprise hit movies, dolphins have always had star power. It is no surprise then how interactive dolphin experiences have grown over the last few decades. A recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive for the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums found that 78 percent of Americans with children in the household would like to swim with dolphins. Such adventures can also be part of a Grand Cayman vacation.
Dolphin Discovery is the largest facility of its kind in the Caribbean. Here, families can choose to observe at these beautiful and intelligent aquatic mammals from a dry, comfortable spot—or get a little wet and swim with them. Dolphin Swim Adventure is open daily; prices for adults are $129, while prices for children are $109. Dolphin Discovery also has eight locations in Mexico.
|“Dolphin Encounters” allows young visitors at Clearwater Marine Aquarium to participate in training and feeding sessions.|
Another easy-to-reach island, Grand Bahama, is home to the Dolphin Experience at UNEXSO. Its Sanctuary Bay is a natural nine-acre lagoon, home to 14 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, where kids 55 inches or taller can participate in a highly interactive program.
After a brief educational talk from one of the well-trained staff, up to six people at once can swim with dolphins while plunging underwater to play or race them above surface. Approximate time in the water with the dolphins is 20 to 25 minutes. Children under 12 years of age must be accompanied by a participating parent or legal guardian. Price for all participants is $169; observers pay $82.
Just across the water at ultra-family-friendly Atlantis Paradise Island, the resort’s Dolphin Cay offers vacationers the opportunity to share in the playful shallow-water antics of these charismatic creatures. One of the world’s largest and most sophisticated marine habitats and dolphin rescue-rehabilitation facilities, Dolphin Cay has 14 acres and 6.6 million gallons of crystal clear seawater where guests can swim with dolphins.
Dolphin Cay is one of Disney Cruise Line’s excursion options, as is Blue Lagoon Island, which has been offering its interactive “Dolphin Encounters” since 1989. Many of Disney’s Caribbean cruises also call at the tiny Bahamian isle of Castaway Cay where, among other adventures, guests young and old can wade with, snorkel among and even feed the more than 40 rays that inhabit Stingray Lagoon.
Even closer to home, Florida has a number of opportunities for kid-dolphin interaction and other aquatic fun. For example, clients swim with a dolphin and snorkel with stingrays and tropical fish at Discovery Cove Orlando and, at the attraction’s new Freshwater Oasis, they can wade or float and go practically face-to-face with playful otters and curious marmosets. Only a thousand visitors a day are admitted, so lines are relatively short—but reservations are a must. Prices start at $199 per person and include the dolphin swim, food and drinks, and unlimited admission to either SeaWorld or SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park or Busch Gardens Tampa Bay for two weeks. (Point out to your clients that SeaWorld daily admission alone is $81.99 for adults.)
At Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA; www.seewinter.com), Winter—the star of Dolphin Tale who learned to swim wearing a prosthetic tail after losing her own in a crab trap—is the main attraction, but only part of the fun. “Wade With Dolphins” allows participants to get up close and personal with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, while the 30-minute “Dolphin Encounters” program puts kids side by side with one of the aquarium’s professionals during training and feeding sessions. Included is a 15-minute behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium, including the rehabilitation areas.
Speaking of behind the scenes, the facility’s newest attraction “Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure” in the nearby Harborview Center is both fun and educational and includes rebuilt scenes, movie images and a variety of props from Dolphin Tale. Guests can purchase tickets on location or at aquarium. Admission is $9.95 for children 12 and under, while the special combination ticket to both attractions is $19.95.
A number of hotel packages can be found on the CMA website. Many offer special family discounts, and all provide a portion of the proceeds from your clients’ stays to help build Winter’s new home—a $12 million expansion that will provide more space for the many sea creatures that are rehabilitated and cared for at CMA.