The Best Places to See Manatees Near Orlando

Kids will delight at the sight of these aquatic giants. Photo by Charlotte Blanton
Kids will delight at the sight of these aquatic giants. Photo by Charlotte Blanton

Winter months are the best time for manatee spotting in Central Florida. When the weather is cold and water temperatures drop below 68 degrees, these warm-blooded mammals congregate in freshwater springs, which remain at a constant 72 degrees year-round. Mid-November through March are ideal months to spot these gentle giants, so read on for the best places to see manatees within a few hours of Orlando.

Looking for more ideas for seasonal fun?  Check out these 25 things to do with Orlando kids this winter. For additional opportunities to spot Florida wildlife, see our list of local drive-thru safaris and wildlife drives.

Please keep your family and others safe by always wearing masks and maintaining social distancing measures. If an event or location appears too crowded, try using the “nearby” search feature on our event calendar to find something else to do. 

If you are uneasy about going out in public, consider a Poppins@home class. Options include dance, architecture, movies, and more. 

These gentle giants love the warm waters of Central Florida. Photo by David Schrichte/Save the Manatee Club

Best Places to View Manatees Near Orlando  

Blue Spring State Park—Orange City

Located north of Orlando, this state park is one of the largest winter safe havens for manatees in the state and a designated manatee refuge. Visitors can view manatees from a boardwalk that runs one-third of a mile from the St. Johns River to the headspring. The manatee count has grown significantly over the years, with upwardsof 500 manatees today. In addition to manatee sightings, visitors can enjoy a guided river boat cruise, a hike along the 4.5-mile Pine Island Trail, or rent a canoe or kayak to explore the river.  There is also a playground, several picnic facilities, a gift shop, and concession area. The park often reaches capacity quickly during the winter months, especially on the weekends, so plan to arrive early.

Covid-19 protocols: Visitors are expected to maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet apart.  Capacity is limited.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park​—Homosassa

This wildlife park makes for a great day trip from Orlando. Manatees can be viewed either in the park’s underwater “fishbowl” observatory at the headspring or through a pavilion overlooking Blue Water, an area where wild manatees congregate before entering the spring. Multiple daily programs are also offered to educate visitors about manatees and the park’s role as a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned manatees. In addition to manatees, other animals that call the park home include the endangered Florida panther, red wolves, black bears, Key deer, bobcats, alligators, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity.

Covid-19 protocols: The wildlife walk and above-deck area of the underwater observatory are open. The visitor center, trams, boats, reptile house, discovery center, and below-deck area of the underwater observatory are closed. Programs are not offered at this time. The gift shop and café are open with reduced capacity. Visitors must maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet.

Hunter Springs Park—Crystal River

Located near Three Sisters Springs, this city park is easily accessible and includes a spring that feeds into Crystal River.  It is a great spot to see manatees in the colder months. There is a small circular boardwalk that allows for prime manatee viewing, as well as a small beach area, playground, kayak launch, and picnic areas.  The trolley to and from Three Sisters Springs also provides access to Hunter Springs Park.

Covid-19 protocols: Please follow CDC guidelines including social distancing and wearing a mask.  No gatherings of 50 or more allowed at this time.

RELATED: Six Family-Friendly Boat Trips in the Orlando Area  

The aptly named Manatee Springs State Park offers great viewing possibilities. Photo courtesy of Friends of Manatee Springs State Park

Manatee Springs State Park—Chiefland

This spring is a bit of a drive (about 2.5 hours from Orlando), but lives up to its name, with manatees traveling from the Suwannee River into the spring area during cold months. The park also offers more than 8 miles of hiking trails. Manatee viewing is available along the boardwalk that runs from the spring to the river, and along some of the nature trails. There is a playground for kids, onsite canoe and kayak rentals, bicycle rentals, and campsites as well.

Covid-19 protocols: Visitors must maintain a social distance of at least 6 feet.

Mary McLeod Bethune Beach Park—New Smyrna Beach

While this is not a spring like the other locations described here, the intracoastal riverside area of this beachfront park offers a great opportunity to see manatees year round, as well as dolphins and pelicans. Other amenities at the park include tennis courts, basketball courts, a playground, and fishing pier. Visitors can also rent a kayak to see manatees up close.

Covid-19 protocols: Large gatherings are discouraged.  Face coverings are recommended when social distancing cannot be maintained.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge—Titusville

This popular wildlife refuge has a dedicated manatee observation deck that is handicapped-accessible. The refuge waters are a safe place for manatees year round and offer plenty of food for them.

Note: The Manatee Observation Deck is currently closed for maintenance and repairs. Add it to your to-do list and keep checking the Merritt Island NWR website for updates.

TECO Manatee Viewing Center—Tampa

Tampa Electric Company created a manatee viewing center for public access after seeing how manatees would congregate in the clean, warm waters of the Big Bend power station’s discharge canal. There is also an environmental education building complete with displays to educate guests about manatees and their habitat as well as a hurricane simulator and a habitat loop trail with an observation tower.

Note: TECO has decided to remain closed for the season due to COVID-19.  The center is scheduled to reopen November 1, 2021.

Three Sisters Springs—Crystal River

Just north of Tampa and part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, Three Sisters Springs is also a favorite for manatees during cold months. Admission fee to the park includes a short trolley ride to and from the spring.  A boardwalk circles the one-acre spring, allowing visitors great views of these gentle giants in one of Florida’s most beautiful springs. Guests can also enjoy hiking trails, bicycling, and spot other wildlife such as birds and reptiles.

Covid-19 protocols: Visitors are encouraged to wear face coverings on the shuttle, and are expected to maintain a social distance while on the boardwalk and in viewing areas.  Guided walking tours have been temporarily suspended.

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