Dr. Doolittle would be proud. A host of entertainment and aquatic venues across the United States now are allowing guests to personally connect with the wild animal kingdom through attractions featuring direct interaction.

In fact, one of the biggest waterpark projects of 2008, Aquatica SeaWorld?s Waterpark, scheduled to open in March, will combine up-close-and-personal animal experiences with a range of waterpark attractions, from high-thrill rides to serene beaches and lagoons. The park?s signature ride is set to be a clear tube slide that shoots riders through a pool of black-and-white Commerson?s dolphins.

?I think [interactivity with animals] is a trend, and it?s an extension of what?s been done already,? said Steve Dorand, vice president of design and exhibitry at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. ?There can, and I think there will be, a lot more of a fusion of zoos and theme parks. Right now, I?m familiar with several zoos considering implementing waterpark-like features.?

Other venues with interactive animal attractions include Aquaventure at Atlantis, Nassau, Bahamas, featuring Dolphin Cay, reportedly the largest such facility in the world; Disney?s Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando, Fla., featuring a Shark Reef where guests can swim with tropical fish and sharks; and Miami Seaquarium in Miami, which debuted Dolphin Harbor, an interactive pool, last summer.

?We?ve been allowing guests to get in the water with the dolphins for about 10 years in our Dolphin Odyssey, ?Swim with Flipper? program,? said Andrew Hertz, general manager of Miami Seaquarium. ?[In building the Dolphin Harbor attraction], we wanted to make it as accessible as possible. It?s a shallow-water encounter with a beach entry, and kids as young as 5 can participate. [So far], the response has been fantastic. We opened in July and by late summer, even with added capacity, we were completely booked.?

Dorand and Hertz believe that these interactive animal experiences can be positive for animals and people. ?There?s an amazing empathy that comes out of it, even just looking at the animals,? Dorand noted. ?By allowing people to touch wild animals in a safe, controlled environment, you can change someone?s life.?

Operators who set out to create this kind of life-changing experience should be aware of the risks involved in allowing guests to interact with animals. First, the United States Department of Agriculture regulates the handling of particular animals, and different states have different requirements. Secondly, it?s important to consider your guests? experience, Dorand said. ?When you say you?re going to let people touch something, everyone expects to be able to do this, and that comes at a price tag. Logistically, you have to figure out how to give everyone the same quality of experience,? he said, adding that one way operators can ?test the waters? with animal attractions is through some of the traveling exhibits.

Operators also need to be aware that another part of what makes these animal attractions so unique is the education component. Clearly, by combining education on the animals and animal conservation with a fun experience, these attractions can be another way to promote the wildlife protection message. ?People will pay to be entertained; they won?t pay to be educated,? Hertz said. ?In the future of our facility, I can?t imagine adding something new without an interactive component.?