January brings cooler temperatures to Florida’s coastal waters, triggering a manatee migration into the warmer waters of the rivers. And that’s good news for visitors eager to get a glimpse of these gentle giants in their natural habitat, not just as random individuals, but in their hundreds. Over the years, a celebration grew up around this annual phenomenon, and for the past 33 years The Florida Manatee Festival, presented by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, has delighted tourists and locals alike.
Although manatees can be spotted in many of the Sunshine State’s rivers, the prime location to view them is Crystal River, so named for its startlingly clear water, ideal for observing marine life. Year-round, tours offer Swim with Manatees experiences (see our Up Close With Florida’s Gentle Giants blog for the full, unforgettable adventure), but during the festival it’s land-based viewing-only in the premium spots of Three Sisters Springs and King’s Bay.
According to the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, “more than 20,000 people each year flock to Historic Downtown Crystal River, making The Florida Manatee Festival consistently chosen as one of the Best of the Best Festivals by the readers of the Citrus County Chronicle,” which gives you an idea of how popular this event is. And at just $5 per adult (12 and under are free!) it’s a serious bargain for a non-theme park day.
Let’s take a look at what the festival includes:
Food: Because there’s always food at a festival. Choose from a selection of 38 vendors at the Beer & Wine Garden, two food courts and International Alley, featuring food trucks, trailers and booths with specialities like Bangkok Style Thai, Old World Crepes and Riviera Mexican Cuisine.
Snack on popcorn (salty), kettle corn (sweet), pretzels, ice cream, honey puffs, candy floss and donuts; find heartier fare, such as tacos, ‘tube steaks’ (hotdogs) and pizza; or go for a meal, including seafood, fish, sandwiches, burgers, rice bowls and more.
Music: There are no fewer than 23 live bands, musicians, and dance troupes performing on four stages (King’s Bay Park Waterfront Stage, King’s Bay Park Bandshell, Park Gazebo Stage and the Heritage House stage) over the course of the weekend, with musical styles to appeal to everyone. And they’re all free with festival admission.
Entertainment: Along with wildlife-spotting, the festival includes a Kid Zone featuring crafts, games and face painting, and an Adventure Zone with rock-climbing wall, bouncy castles, VR racing, trampoline activities and even a hilarious experience where guests can climb into a gigantic plastic bubble and roll around on a pool!
Manatee Boat Tours: It is possible to get out on the water to see the manatees, through organised pontoon boat tours offered by captains from the Manatee Eco Tourism Association, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. While you will see the manatees up close, as they are curious creatures who show an interest in boaters, no boat will ever chase down or harass the animals. It’s up to them to make the choice on how close they get to your pontoon.
Tours run from 9.30 a.m. until 4.30 p.m. on Saturday (18 Jan) and until 3.30 pm on Sunday (19 Jan). They last for 30 minutes, and cost $10 per adult, $5 for ages 6-12. Under 5s are free. The pick-up point for the trip to King’s Bay is from the City Pier at the end of N.E. Third Street.
New for 2020 is the Heritage House Hippie Village, with 30 vendors including Pattican! Gypsy Wagons, The Joy of Henna By Masami, Healthy Hempies, Hippie Chick Cheesecake and Medicine Wind Bamboo Flutes. Also find a drumming circle and gypsy music here, as well as hoop dancers, belly dancers, poi (tethered weights) throwing and didgeridoo players.
Car fanatic? Relive America’s 1960s and ʼ70s with a trip down memory lane as you view Volkswagen cars from those classic decades. And, if you really want to get into the groove, don’t be shy about dressing full-on hippie, bead necklaces and all.
Crystal River’s community rallies around its manatees in an effort to protect them with a strong conservation message and stringent rules and restrictions when it comes to encounters, and if you’re looking for more information about these marvellous creatures you’ll find local vendors (such as Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, The Friends of Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, Save The Manatee Club, Friends of Crystal River State Park and Florida Department of Wildlife Protection) ready to provide educational materials and answer your questions. They would be delighted to speak with you!
The Florida Manatee Festival takes place on January 18 and 19, 2020, but if you’re not visiting on those days, don’t worry; although the festival’s other entertainment only runs for two days, manatees still congregate in the river during the cooler months, so those who are here from December through March have an excellent chance of seeing them in large numbers. Have an especially cool day during your stay? Head to Crystal River! Visiting in summer and just hoping to spot a handful of manatees? Head to Crystal River!
To reach the festival itself, visitors board a free bus to Three Sisters Springs, from a pick-up point on the corner of N.W. 1st Avenue and N.E. 5th Street in downtown Crystal River (the city, in this case, as opposed to the actual river of the same name). Buses run continuously all weekend. Take note, the last bus departs for the springs at 3.30 p.m. on Saturday and at 2.30 p.m. on Sunday.
From the Walt Disney World area, take Highway 429 north to the Florida Turnpike, head west to Exit 307, and west again on FL-44. Proceed all the way to Crystal River Street in Crystal River. We wish you a memorable viewing!