Smack dab in the middle between Miami and Key West, is Islamorada, home to Theater of the Sea. We recently made our own journey through the Florida Keys, where dolphin encounters are a quintessential activity. In planning this trip, I was on a mission to find the facility that provides the best environment for the animals themselves, but is also great for kids. Theater of the Sea came up time and time again. Now that I’ve been there, I know why. We had a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences in the Keys, but our visit to Theater of the Sea was definitely a favorite.
First of all, we owe a huge thank you to Theater of the Sea for hosting us! Though we received tickets in exchange for a review, as always, the opinions expressed are all my own.
As the name suggests, Theater of the Sea is a marine life park where people can go to see and learn about these fascinating animals. But it’s so much more than that! Every day it takes millions of gallons of real ocean water pumped into former rock quarries, to form the lagoons at Theater of the Sea. They are home to numerous rescued, non-releasable animals who get to live out their lives in a habitat as close as possible to their natural setting. Many of them perform in shows, but always by choice. They all appear to be delighted to provide as much education as entertainment to their human visitors. Or maybe they just really like the abundance of fish. Either way, it’s easy to see the joy in their body language with every jump, splash, or wave.
Theater of the Sea is worth visiting even if you only have a few hours, but, like us, you could easily stay the entire day. They have non-stop shows, and tons of animal interactions to choose from. Besides the entertainment, the park grounds are absolutely gorgeous with the tropical plants and orchids everywhere you turn. When you’re ready to relax, have a drink at the lagoon-side beach while the kids swim with the colorful parrotfish.
My hope is that our experience at Theater of the Sea can help you make the most of your visit as well.
Theater of the Sea has some fantastic animal shows. You can easily go just to see the shows and have an absolute blast. With every production, we were completely in awe. It’s not just what the animals are capable of learning, but also what many of them have been rescued from, and how they have been rehabilitated.
There is a printed show schedule at check-in (also available online), but there’s no need to pick and choose which shows you want to see. Believe me, you want to see them all! You simply pick up with one program, and you’ll be fine for the rest. Each show doesn’t start until the last one has ended, and they guide you through the park to where you need to be.
Our advice is to arrive by 9:30 am to start with the first show of the day. With smaller crowds you can easily get a great spot for every show. Once you’ve seen them all, you have plenty of time for animal interactions!
Could you visit Theater of the Sea without doing any animal interactions? Absolutely! But if you have the opportunity to swim with dolphins, paint with a sea lion, or have a macaw fly to you, it feels a shame not to take it!
As I said earlier, I found Theater of the Sea when I was looking specifically for the best place in the Keys to do a dolphin encounter with my kids. Then when I saw all the options, and the discounts they offer for multiple interactions, I got a little carried away and booked us for several other animal encounters!
One of the huge draws for Theater of the Sea was the ability for BOTH of our kids to have a dolphin encounter. Harper is 9 and a better swimmer than I am. Hudson is 4 and says he doesn’t need to take swimming lessons, he just won’t go to the pool. At Theater of the Sea, there were different dolphin interactions that both our kids could do.
Harper and Daddy did the dolphin swim. The highlights for them were the dorsal pull and foot push, which are exactly like they sound! Hudson and Mommy got to wade with the dolphins. We got to give them different commands, like splashing, and for them to bring us a present. We were both given leaves, by the way. So sweet! We all got to rub on the dolphins, “hold” them, and give them kisses, among other fun activities that also make GREAT photos!
Another highlight of this visit for the kids was getting to paint with a sea lion. This is a great activity for anyone who isn’t looking to get in the water with the animals, but still wants an up-close interaction with them. Plus it’s good for anyone ages 3 and up! The kids each picked out some colors for Wilbur the sea lion to use, and he created them each a masterpiece. In between colors, they both got to give him several commands and we all laughed the entire time! I loved watching him get his brushstrokes (and whisker strokes) just right, and now we have these paintings to remind us of that day. Plus we got more great photo opportunities, like some sweet kisses!
Maybe they’re not necessarily marine animals, but the birds at Theater of the Sea shouldn’t be overlooked. I got to do this interaction myself! To begin, I was given 2 bowls of food to hold, and suddenly lorikeets were everywhere. At one point there were 3 birds squabbling on top of my head! Next, I got my own painting from Maya, the blue and gold Macaw. She was very precise with her color placement and it was amazing to watch a bird with a paintbrush! Finally, I got to have 2 other macaws, Razzle and Skittles, fly together from one end of their enclosure to the other, where they landed on my outstretched arms. We did it a couple of times to get the best shots, but somehow I still couldn’t keep my eyes open. It was quite an experience!
No outside food or drinks are allowed at Theater of the Sea, but once you smell what they’re cooking at Papa’s Grill, you’ll want to order one of everything! They have traditional grill items, as well as some local favorites, and everything is made to order. There is also a snack shack down by the lagoon-side beach for all the drinks and snacks your heart (or your children) desires. We tried several different food items the grill had to offer, and after chowing down every bite we were too full to have dinner that night!
Tips and Reminders
Get there at opening
I mentioned this one before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Be there when they open, see all the shows with minimal crowds, then do your semi-private animal encounters later.
This one may not apply in the hotter months, but we visited in February. We were pretty hot outside the water, but it was definitely cold once you got in. Wetsuits made the water so much more bearable and the interactions more fun. One guy who didn’t have a wetsuit, nearly had a wardrobe malfunction as the dolphins were pulling him across the lagoon (eek!), so it’s possible a wetsuit is a good idea year-round. If you’re unsure, the staff is very helpful and you can rent a wetsuit from there.
Wear only reef-safe sunscreen
For every activity where you’ll get into the water, they will ask that you only use reef-safe sunscreen. Really, this is the case everywhere in the Keys, considering they have the 3rd largest reef in the world and the only one in the US. It needs to be protected! But so do the animals, and so do you. Reef-safe, animal-safe, people-safe sunscreens are usually the non-nano zinc-based mineral sunscreens, but a safe bet is if they aren’t labeled reef-safe, it’s quite possible they aren’t. If you’re unsure, check with Theater of the Sea staff and they will gladly tell you whether your sunscreen is good to go.
Don’t forget to tip
Though they don’t request tips or give you any “friendly reminders” like many places, trainers at Theater of the Sea do accept tips. You can easily tip them personally after your time is up. But sometimes it is difficult when you’re sopping wet, and don’t have your wallet on hand. The easiest way to tip is to remember your trainers’ names. That way you can leave a tip at the end of your day at the photo counter as you leave. If you forget, they’ll gladly help you figure out who you were with.
How does it compare to Sea World?
It doesn’t! Sea World is a chain of large, very commercialized parks with animal shows, yes, but also rollercoasters and characters and games, and whatever else you expect from a theme park. We love Sea World too, but Theater of the Sea is different.
Theater of the Sea is much smaller, and therefore so much more intimate and memorable. I felt like the shows were actually more technical at Theater of the Sea, in what the animals and their trainers were able to do together. Some of the things they did we would never see at Sea World. Not in a dangerous way, but it was as if the trainers had a deeper, trusting relationship with the animals. There are no rides, or anything else big and flashy. At Theater of the Sea, they have kept the main thing the main thing: the animals.
There is an endless supply of sites to see and activities to take part in all throughout the Florida Keys, but Theater of the Sea should top everyone’s list!
Stay tuned for more highlights and travel suggestions from Miami through Key West!