ORLANDO, Fla. — SeaWorld patrons settle at socially distanced tables around midday, enjoying the chance to sit down, de-mask and enjoy the shade courtesy of the roof above. Servers, donning facial coverings, explain the virtual menu, take orders and distribute meals and beverages.
What seems to be an ordinary lunch transforms into an extraordinary dining experience when the water ripples and splashes over the edges of the nearby pool and children's shouts of "The orcas! The orcas!" fill the air as these massive creatures swim by.
While many experiences in Central Florida allow visitors to get up-close with animals or indulge in a decadent dining outing, few combine the two. SeaWorld Orlando's Dine with Orcas is one offering that unites both activities.
For those looking to dine with animals in the Orlando area, here are a few options.
Dine with Orcas
Guests can arrive early (around noon) to the Dine with Orcas experience — with the orca encounter beginning around 12:50 p.m.
Upon arrival, the meal starts with a salad. Visitors can choose from four meal options — I selected the salmon and my colleague chose the chicken during our visit — that come with a variety of tasty sides (rice, potatoes and vegetables). The culinary conclusion is a dessert platter consisting of bit-sized cheesecakes, cookies and mini-cupcakes.
The food part of this experience used to be a buffet but has switched to table service amid the coronavirus pandemic. For those worrying about value, don't fret, as the portions are generous.
The menu changes throughout the year as ingredients become seasonably available at the Dine with Orcas restaurant, SeaWorld Orlando's only sustainable venue, said Jock Williams, vice president of in-park revenue at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
But the biggest draw is killer whales. Once these huge dolphins swim into view, guests are treated to an about 15-minute informational session with animal care specialists who share facts (such as dorsal fins are unique to each whale) and demonstrate killer whale behaviors.
If you go: Dine with Orcas takes place at 12:30 p.m. daily at SeaWorld Orlando (7007 Sea World Drive in Orlando). Prices start at $29 for adults, $15 for ages 3-9, free for ages 2 and younger (Note: Guests must also pay SeaWorld admission to attend). 407-545-5550; seaworld.com/orlando/dining/dine-with-orcas
Take in exotic views as you gaze upon the Sunset Savanna while savoring African dishes with Indian influences at Sanaa at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.
On a recent visit, my companion and I were joined by an African crowned crane, who moseyed up to the wide, arched window next to our table to inspect our meal selections and show off its beautiful feathers.
If going for lunch or dinner, the Indian-style bread service is a must-try. Featuring five types of bread (traditional naan, garlic-ginger naan, spiced nine, onion kulcha and paneer paratha) plus nine accompaniments (cucumber raita, roasted red pepper hummus, mango chutney, tomato-date jam, tamarind chutney, coriander chutney, garlic pickle, red chile sambal and spicy jalapeno-lime pickle) for dipping, it's an ample appetizer at $18 that could feed at least five people.
After enjoying your meal, walk around from the ground level outdoors as well as the balconies above to take in more picturesque views. There are also savanna guides available to answer questions.
If you go: Sanaa is located at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge — Kidani Village, 3701 W. Osceola Parkway in Kissimmee. 407-938-7400; disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/animal-kingdom-villas-kidani/sanaa
Dine with Crusher
Quite possibly the most "Florida" dining adventure on this list, Wild Florida's Dine with Crusher experience allows guests to enjoy lunch inside the enclosure of 1,000-pound resident alligator Crusher.
"It's become a real popular attraction for people who are looking for something way more adventurous than the average person," said Wild Florida co-owner Sam Haught.
The offering has been around for about three years, when the attraction sought to differentiate itself.
"We really feel like pictures and looking at something is memorable, but when you interact and engage and get hands-on, it becomes unforgettable," Haught said.
The experience varies, as it's up to Crusher to participate. If he does, guests are treated to a 10- to 12-minute show in the water, where trainers demonstrate Crusher's behaviors — such as opening his mouth, lifting his head and staying still.
"He's kind of the world's greatest showman and loves to interact and participate," Haught said. "We believe in a method of rewarding and training appropriate behavior and that's a really good opportunity for the alligator to stimulate its mind ... "
If you go: Visitors must be at least 12 years old to participate in Dine with Crusher, offered once daily for up to four guests at Wild Florida, 3301 Lake Cypress Road in Kenansville. It costs $55 per person, which includes a Crusher burger, veggie burger or chicken tender sandwich with two sides and a drink. 407-957-3135; wildfloridairboats.com/book-animal-encounter-experiences
Coral Reef Restaurant
Coral Reef Restaurant at Epcot exudes an under-the-sea vibe, from panels in the lobby adorned with seashells harvested at a sustainable farm to jellyfish-shaped mood lighting, wavy design features and an aquarium filled with more than 60 species — including sharks, rays and turtles.
"Dining at the Coral Reef Restaurant gives guests a glimpse into one of North America's largest aquariums," Elise Chuisano, guest experience manager at Coral Reef Restaurant, said in an email. "The stadium-style seating and panoramic windows allow for a wonderful view of the aquarium from any table throughout the restaurant."
The marine theme extends to the banter of the staff — who encouraged us to "just keep swimming" en route to our table — and the largely seafood-based menu. I selected the light, refreshing Caesar salad ($10) as my appetizer and the delicious seared sustainable salmon atop the chef's seasonal risotto ($29) as my entrée.
Pro tip: Go to the restaurant when you arrive at Epcot to request an aquarium-view seat to get the best views.
If you go: Coral Reef Restaurant is located near The Seas with Nemo & Friends attraction at Epcot (200 Epcot Center Drive in Orlando). 407-939-3463; disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/epcot/coral-reef-restaurant
Safari Wilderness (10850 Moore Road in Lakeland) offers a sunset safari that brings guests up-close camels, lemurs, watusi cattle and more. Aboard the safari truck, there are opportunities to feed some of the animals. Visitors also stop at the treehouse in the middle of the preserve, where they can enjoy complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. This experience, which costs $160 per person, is only offered Friday and Saturday nights in June, July and August. For more information, call 813-382-2120 or visit safariwilderness.com/experiences/sunset-safari.
LunaSea Alpaca Farm (18810 Lone Dove Lane in Clermont) offers tours as well as group outings and parties, in which visitors can bring their own refreshments to enjoy on the patio near the female alpaca enclosure after embarking on the tour — which costs $15 for ages 12 and older, $10 for ages 3-11 and free for ages 2 and younger. Reservations are required. For more information, call 352-223-9457 or visit lunaseaalpacafarm.com.