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Kids swimming with dolphins in Hawaii: worth the cost?

My son and I at Dolphin Quest Hawaii on the Big Island (photo courtesy Dolphin Quest)There are a wealth of family-friendly activities on Hawaii’s Big Island, in part because it is, well, pretty doggone big.

If you want beaches, mountains, volcanoes, jungles or towns, it’s all there….and don’t miss the annual Parker Ranch Rodeo coming up on July 4.  Yes, a rodeo on a ranch in Hawaii. I told you they have everything!

One well-known activity is a dolphin encounter at the Big Island Dolphin Quest facility located inside the sprawling Hilton Waikoloa Village resort (we’re talking 62 acres and 1,240 rooms) on the Big Island.

You can also arrange encounters with wild dolphins through companies like Dolphin Journeys, but of course this means finding native spinner dolphins in the ocean.  There is no guarantee you’ll have an encounter of any significant length with wild creatures. Hey, you’re in their “house” on that one.

My son and I participated in a Dolphin Quest Encounter Deluxe during the So Much More Hawaii blogger’s press trip.  As guests of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, I did not have to pay for the experience (although I did pay for some photos and a video) but at a regular cost of about $260/person with tax included, I spent a lot of time in the waters of the Waikoloa lagoon thinking, “is this moment worth $520 plus souvenirs?”

I know, I know, “experiences of a lifetime” are supposed to be priceless.

On some levels, that is quite true.

On others, it is just a marketer’s way to get you to whip out the wallet and justify extravagance.

What about this particular dolphin experience?  Well, it depends.

The experience was very well-run by the Dolphin Quest staff. We learned a ton about dolphins, their habitats and habits, and the education/research work that Dolphin Quest does on behalf of their Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (yes, Atlantic dolphins in a resort lagoon in the Pacific. They are fed Atlantic food as well.  I leave it to my readers to mull the ecological ramifications and geographic cognitive dissonance.)

My nine-year-old son and I had plenty of time in the lagoon water with a small group, getting close to the dolphins and learning their names, their quirks and their cleverness.  The trainers obviously know their charges very well and care for them a great deal.

If my son had come home and announced an immediate intent to become a marine biologist, I’d be all over the “spend whatever it takes when it’s priceless” philosophy, but he didn’t.  He enjoyed himself, he thought it was very cool, but he mostly wanted to go swim in the Waikoloa resort’s quite phenomenal pool after our dolphin moment.

So, here are my thoughts on such dolphin encounters….

If you’ve budgeted for this and have the cash available and this is really important to you AND really important to your child, then go ahead.

If you sorta like dolphins (and who doesn’t?) then you can still see and hear them just fine simply by staying at the resort and walking around the lagoon. Ask for a room near the dolphins, and you can hear them whistle and click and splash all you want.  A footbridge crosses over the lagoon; my son and I stood and enjoyed their antics for quite awhile without paying a cent.

The point of this post is not to be a travel killjoy or budget weenie, but to let you know that, hey, it’s OK to say “No, thanks” to big outlays of money for fantasy-ish experiences.

If your kids mostly want to go hang out by the swimming pool, those moments may bring priceless travel memories as well.