I recently took a trip to Hawaii’s marvelously diverse Big Island, and swam with 12—yes, 12—dolphins (hey, I only smooched one) with the Dolphin Quest at Waikoloa Village. I’d recommend the close-up encounter to any kid (old, like me, or young).
By design, this is no "dolphin show." The creators wanted an education and research focused alternative to that hooplah. The dolphins are gentle but amazingly responsive, and you’ll learn a little along the way. The general manager explained to us that no one “rides” the dolphins there. Their dorsal fin is made of cartilage similar our noses, so she explains to the kids, would YOU want someone hanging off your nose looking for a free ride? Another misconception to clear up: unless you’re really a zip of a swimmer, you don’t swim with the dolphins, they swim with you—That is, when they slow from their normal speed of up to 25 m.p.h.