Your Family's Gotta Try This: The Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key
By Julie Landry Laviolette
There are no glitzy shows, packed stadiums or scripted performances at the unassuming Dolphin Research Center, nestled in the heart of the Florida Keys.
Instead, this family-friendly, pet-friendly destination offers a laid-back stop with interactive activities for all ages – from tots to adults – ranging from swimming with a dolphin to a splash playground to helping a dolphin paint your very own souvenir T-shirt.
There’s plenty of shade and enough dolphin performances throughout the day to keep you and the kids entertained during your visit.
Here's what you need to know:
About the Dolphin Research Center
Around since 1984, the not-for-profit Dolphin Research Center is a compact, easily-walkable and accessible destination lined with palm trees and Tiki Hut-covered paths with bench seating. The center is set on the Gulf of Mexico, with saltwater lagoons carved out of tranquil Florida Bay. The small lagoons are home to 27 dolphins and three sea lions, and serve as an intimate setting to watch trainers do short, entertaining programs with the dolphins.
There is also a splash playground, a Veteran’s Garden with a peaceful path looping around a waterfall, a Dolphin Theater for indoor sessions, an aviary for rescued birds and a small tortoise habitat.
The center is in Grassy Key in the middle keys, about an hour from Key Largo and about an hour and 20 minutes from Key West. It is about two hours from Miami International Airport and up to three hours from Fort Lauderdale International Airport.
Plan to spend at least a couple of hours, but there is enough to do to make a half-day or even a full day of it.
Seeing dolphins in action
There’s a trainer-led program about every hour, so you and the kids will have plenty of opportunities to see dolphins do flips, play with toys, “talk” and even pretend like they’re sharks (which is hilarious.)
Programs change every day depending on the dolphins’ needs, so you might see a dance party, play time or a trainer giving out vitamins or fresh water. The trainers are enthusiastic, friendly and do a good job of keeping programs fun for all ages.
Even if you don’t watch every program or participate in an interactive activity with the dolphins yourself (more on that below), or even if the baby needs a nap in his stroller, there is plenty of dolphin action to see. That is the beauty of the Dolphin Research Center.
From a quiet bench under the shady Tiki Huts that line the lagoons, you can see dolphins swimming just a few feet away or look over at the floating docks where interactive activities are taking place. Dolphins are pretty social, so you might see some playing together on their own or stopping by to get a good look at you or to “talk.” Signs under the huts tell you a little about each dolphin and how to tell them apart, so you can call to them by name.
There are several dolphin experiences available with varying prices. They range from 5- to 10-minute sessions to all-day immersive adventures. There is something for every age – from babies to adults. Here is some info on each:
Family Dolphin Splash
This activity for groups of up to 10 is a good option for families with young children and babies. In it, you stand on a submerged platform and a trainer guides you through playtime with the dolphins for about 20 to 25 minutes. You may toss a ball or a hula hoop to your dolphin friends and you could get splashed! Kids ages 3 and younger must be held on an adult's hip for this activity. Children 4 to 7 must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Meet the Dolphins
Available for children ages 1 and older, this five-minute program from the floating dock lets you pet a dolphin’s back as he swims by and even shake “hands.” Children ages 1 to 7 must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Play with a Dolphin
Available for children 4 years and up, this 20- to 25-minute program from the floating dock gives you a trainer-led playtime with toys and activities. Children ages 4 to 7 must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Paint with a Dolphin
Available for ages 3 and older, this 10-minute program from the floating dock has you creating a unique art piece. In it, a souvenir T-shirt is attached to a board, and you'll hold it or a canvas panel over the water for a dolphin to paint with special non-toxic colors. Children ages 3 to 7 must be assisted by an adult. (Paint with a Dolphin also can be added on to other experiences.)
Available for ages 5 and older, this 20- to 25-minute in-water program includes structured activities with dolphins, including a handshake and a swim, where dolphins will pull you through the water with their dorsal fins. Children ages 5 to 7 must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Available for ages 5 and older, this half-day experience, about four hours, gets you up close and personal with the dolphin and sea lion family. The experience includes Paint with a Dolphin, Dolphin Encounter and training sessions. Children ages 5 to 9 must be accompanied by a participating adult.
Available for ages 10 and older, this half-day program, about four hours, will have you joining the research team on the docks and boardwalks to collect data. It includes a Dolphin Encounter swim.
Ultimate Trainer for the Day
Available for ages 10 and older, this full-day program will have you shadowing trainers all day during an intensive interactive adventure. It includes entering the Fish House and learning how to prepare individual diets for the animals, learning trainer hand signals and participating in training sessions. It also includes the Dolphin Encounter, Paint with a Dolphin and Play with the Dolphin.
Expectant mothers are not allowed to participate in in-water experiences for safety reasons. If you are pregnant and want to participate in an interactive experience on a floating dock, check the individual activity’s requirements and contact the Dolphin Research Center before booking at 305-289-0002 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A professional photographer is available to shoot many of the sessions. Digital photo packages are available to purchase. If you bring your own camera for an in-water activity, it must be waterproof or be held in a waterproof bag that is attached to you.
If it rains
Passing showers can be common in the Florida Keys. If it rains, the show must go on and programming will continue. If there is thunder and lightning, programming and interactive activities may be delayed or rescheduled.
Kids can work off some energy and cool off in the splash playground, which shoots out jets and streams of water and activates recordings of dolphin, manatee and whale sounds.
You can bring well-behaved, leashed pets.
Eating and drinking
You can bring your own snacks, lunch, water and non-alcoholic drinks. Coolers are fine and there are outdoor picnic tables on the grounds. A concessionaire sells breakfast sandwiches in the morning and casual lunch fare like sandwiches, burgers, wraps, hot dogs and ice cream. A kids’ menu offers grilled cheese, quesadillas and chicken fingers. Cold and hot tea and coffee, Gatorade, soda and lemonade also are sold. There is a water fountain at the center.
What to bring
Dress comfortably for the outdoors – the Florida Keys can be warm year-round. Depending on whether you plan to get in the water for an activity, you may want to bring:
- Sun block (reef-safe sunscreen not required)
- Sun hat
- Swim shirts
- Water shoes
- Bug spray
- Change of clothes and a towel
- A waterproof camera or a camera in a waterproof bag that attaches to you
There are restrooms inside the visitor’s center and a restroom/bathhouse on the grounds. The bathhouse includes a diaper changing table and shower stalls.
Ramps lead up to the visitor center, which has accessible restrooms and loaner wheelchairs. Most of the facility is covered by low grass and concrete sidewalks. One alleyway between lagoons has pavers. The bathhouse has an accessible shower with handrails and a seat.
If you want to do an experience in the water, there is an aqualift chair that can lower and raise someone with mobility challenges to and from the water. To make arrangements for an interactive program for someone with special needs, email email@example.com or call 305-289-1121, extension 232. The Dolphin Research Center has worked with the Make-A-Wish program and the Wounded Warrior Project.
You can buy souvenirs ranging from T-shirts to stickers and mugs in the gift shop, which is on your way out as you exit. You also can find bug spray and reef-safe sunscreen.