Who doesn’t love a manatee? These big, slow-moving mammals are as much a symbol of Florida as oranges and palm trees. 2023 saw manatees affected by red tide blooms, the hurricanes that hit the state (high water can send manatees to places that, when water recedes, endangers them) and of course by their only known enemy, humans. Education on the West Indian manatee is key to helping keep these gentle mammals surviving. One fun way to learn more about manatee, and see them live in the wild, is to head up to Crystal River to learn from the experts at the Florida Manatee Festival, which takes place in mid-January in Crystal River.
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Why Manatees At Crystal River?
Located on the west coast of Florida, about 1 hour northwest of Tampa, Crystal River is located on a spring-fed river that draws in manatees when the weather gets colder. At a constant temperature around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the springs draw in manatees who can’t control their body temperature in the Gulf of Mexico during the winter months. A huge draw for manatees during the season, Crystal River is also the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with manatees. Seeing manatees in the wild is a huge draw for residents and visitors alike. And the manatee festival at Crystal River is a great place to do that.
Listen To Live Music
Three outdoor stages host live music at the 2024 Florida Manatee Festival. From rockabilly, tribute bands, acoustic and local groups, there’s something for everyone.
View Manatees From Land
Located across the highway from the manatee festival is Three Sisters Springs. A part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refugee, Three Sisters has a boardwalk that allows visitors to safely observe the animals and plants hat call the refugee home. Manatees love to gather in Three Sisters Springs, so it’s a wonderful way to watch them at a safe distance. There are also vendors set up at Three Sisters, including manatee protection groups that can educate you on why we need to protect this threatened species.
Not accessible to cars, except for handicapped parking, during the Florida Manatee Festival, there’s trolley service to and from the festival. Normally there is a cost associated for the trolley service, the service is free during the manatee festival. Note that the wait can be long to get back and forth during the festival, so plan accordingly.
View Manatees From Water
Want to get a little closer to the manatees hanging out in Crystal River? Take a ride on a pontoon or take a guided kayak tour to see the manatees from the water. To take the pontoon ride, purchase tickets ($10 for adults, $5 for children ages 5 to 12) at the boat dock in King’s Bay Park. The pontoon tours start at 9:30am and last about 30 minutes. Tickets can only be purchased the day of the festival at the dock.
There are also guided kayak tours that the Florida Manatee Festival is hosting. For 1 hour, you’ll paddle your way through King’s Bay to see manatees right at their own level. We did this last year and it was amazing how close we got to the manatees. It was impossible not to see any while you were out there. Tickets are limited and can be purchased in advance on the manatee festival’s website. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who has never kayaked or isn’t comfortable in one – it can get windy out there and when it does, it’s hard to maneuver the vessel.
Visit A Variety of Vendors
One of the many unique things to do at the Florida Manatee Festival is to visit the craft vendor booths. While many festivals have vendors, the Manatee Festival has specific rules about their craft vendors. All the work must be handmade in the US and at least half of the work is unique. That means no mass produced shirts, books or food. Which gives visitors plenty of opportunities to see unique items made without mechanical means.
Don’t worry if you’re looking for some other kinds of items that don’t fit in the craft vendor’s category. There are also fine art, food and beer & wine vendors to help round out the event.
Dates and Location For Florida Manatee Festival 2024
The 2024 Florida Manatee Festival takes place Saturday, January 13th and Sunday, January 14th. Located in downtown Crystal River, off US Hwy 19, there is limited parking that allows you to park and walk to the festival. Free festival parking and shuttle service is available at the Crystal River High School (note that this year there will be no shuttles to the festival from the mall like there was in previous years). Admission to the Florida Manatee Festival is $10 for adults and free for children ages 12 and under.
If coming in from out of town, there is plenty of places to stay in Crystal River, including hotels and home rentals.
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