We just got back from a few days in Kissimmee with my husband’s parents, who own a time-share there. This was our fourth trip there since my daughter was 3 (and turning 13 next month). To be honest, we are not big fans of Disney, though we’ve taken our daughter to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, as well as Legoland and SeaWorld twice.
I wondered beforehand what we could do to spice up this trip and landed on a Swim with the Manatees tour in Crystal River, which is an hour and 40 minutes northwest of Kissimmee. Technically, it’s now the offseason for seeing them in the area, since the majority head out to the Gulf when the water warms up in the spring. But, I learned there are some manatees that have become year-round residents, especially mothers with babies born in the past several months. So we headed out the door one morning at 5 am, with low expectations, but still hopeful.
We were not disappointed! The 3-hour tour begins with a video and then everyone gets fitted for a wet suit. Then you’re driven down the road to a small bay where you get on a boat and head out to nearby springs and canals. We were taken to three different locations, where we put on snorkels and masks and climbed down a short ladder into the water. Each time we were fortunate to see a few manatees. Being in the water with these massive creatures will take your breath away the first time you put your face in the water and see it gliding by, just inches away. But you quickly learn that they are incredibly docile and sweet and in no time, you’re feeling relaxed and looking for the next one. We even saw a couple of babies, and unlike with bears, there’s no worry in being near a mother with baby!
The water is typically not that deep and the wet suits, in addition to the pool noodle each person gets, keep you floating on the surface. The goal is for everyone to simply float on their stomachs, and wait for the gentle giants to swim by. Sometimes they rest on the bottom, then they come up to the surface periodically for air. They also like to eat algae and plant material off of seawalls, docks and boats.
There are many tour companies in the Crystal River area, but we chose River Ventures, based on reviews and their #1 Trip Advisor rating. The guides were great and best of all, they try to keep the groups small, so it’s easier for everyone to get time with the manatees. Other tour companies we saw seemed to pack in a lot more people on their boats, which created a lot more noise and crowds in the water. At the end of the tour, you can buy a pictures and videos that the guide takes on your tour. Definitely worth it to have some pics from a bucket list adventure!
The next time your in Florida, consider skipping the beach and theme parks for a day to get out in nature and have a unique and memorable experience!