How to Add Magical Florida Manatee Encounters to Your Disney World Vacation

Up close of a manatee
Credit: Daytona Beach

Don’t you find manatees just absolutely adorable? Alternately and affectionately referred to as “sea cows” for their rather rotund bodies and gently grazing nature, did you know that the manatee is the official marine mammal of the state of Florida? Therefore, it seems only natural that for some, manatee encounters play an integral part in having the ultimate Floridian experience.

There are undoubtedly a variety of visitors to Walt Disney World Resort who are in particular seeking out additional opportunities to add in more manatee-based experiences into their vacation. Likewise, there are probably even Orlando-based locals looking to get out and explore new manatee mingles not so very far removed. If you want to add a couple of magical manatee encounters of your very own into your Disney World vacation, we have seven exceptional suggestions just for you.

Manatees at Crystal River
Credit: Discover Crystal River

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7. Crystal River

Just over an hour and a half away from Walt Disney World Resort, Crystal River has been frequently referred to as “the manatee capital of the world.” It also happens to be home to the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge—the only refuge in the nation that was designed specifically for these majestic creatures.

Tourists swimming with manatees.
Credit: Crystal River Water Sports

There are a number of locations throughout the city of Crystal River where you can take manatee-focused encounters and activities. Two points of interest you’re guaranteed to find manatees grazing about in are at Kings Bay and in Three Sisters Springs. And aside from boating, going on sight-seeing tours, or viewing from the coast, here you’re even welcome to go for a swim with the manatees if you so choose!

6. Daytona Beach, Ponce Inlet

If you’re up for a mini road trip that’s just under an hour and a half from Walt Disney World, take a drive up to Daytona Beach. With a reputation for being a tourist hotspot, largely due to its awesome beach scene as well as being the home of the Daytona 500 NASCAR race, there are many reasons for heading here. And making up the long list of reasons is also the fact that it offers up another excellent location for where to encounter manatees in the wild.

Up close spot of a manatee
Credit: Daytona Beach

One of your best bets when visiting Daytona is to head south to Ponce Inlet in particular. It is here that you can embark on various scenic boat tours and river cruises designed to let guests see the cute cows out to pasture amongst the waves of their natural environment.

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5. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Another hour and a half drive away from Disney World will land you here—the perfect go-to area for nature lovers. While you will find plenty of wildlife features to explore, from the Florida panther to the red wolf and from the whooping crane to the alligator, it goes without saying that there is also an awesome array of manatee-based exploration opportunities awaiting you here as well.

Even if you choose the dry route by staying on land, they feature a famed underwater observatory that allows visitors to stand beneath the pristine waters of Homosassa Springs and observe the vast and versatile marine life swimming by, including the slow-moving sea cows, which you can spend plenty of time watching.

Homosassa Springs
Credit: Florida State Parks

4. Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach

Thanks to the folks at Tampa Electric, visitors in and around the Walt Disney World Resort Area need only take a detour that’s just a little over an hour away to Apollo Beach in order to check out the very impressive, one and only, Manatee Viewing Center. Powered by the company’s Big Bend Power Station, the way it works is by circulating water from Tampa Bay and then flowing clean, warm currents back out.

And because manatees love warm water, it’s a way to draw in the appreciative creatures much to the delight of onlookers. Therefore, the viewing center has been optimally designed for guests seeking to get a closer look, delight in photos opportunities, and take in an impressive, personal experience laden with memories to last a lifetime.

Manatee Viewing Center at Apollo Beach
Credit: Tampa Bay Times

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3. Blue Spring State Park

A convenient commute that’s just an hour’s drive away from Walt Disney World Resort will take you to what’s arguably the gem of Orange City, Florida: Blue Spring State Park. Another Manatee mega-hub, the park is so popular for these gentle giants that water recreational activities are even suspended during winter months to avoid disturbing them for the duration of manatee season.

Otherwise, opportunities exist for swimming, snorkeling, boating, and more throughout late spring and into summer. And yes, during these times you can still make manatee friends.

Blue Spring State Park
Credit: Florida State Parks

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2. SeaWorld Orlando

If you don’t mind spacing out some of your time at Disney with an alternative park in the Orlando area, keep in mind that SeaWorld is only about 15 minutes away and can easily be added to your agenda for taking in more magical manatee encounters. In fact, there are many great ways to experience all sorts of animal encounters among the profuse marine life here.

But in keeping the focus solely on manatees, we recommend heading for their Manatee Rehabilitation Area. It’s pretty self-explanatory what goes on here; this is an opportunity for visitors to come out and see behind-the-scenes rehabilitation efforts in progress and on a personal level. You also gain valuable insight into the creatures themselves, their vulnerabilities in nature, and what’s being done to save them.

SeaWorld rehabiliations
Credit: Inside The Magic/Adam McCabe

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1. The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion

Last, but certainly not least, the most obvious way to have a magical manatee encounter while on vacation at Walt Disney World Resort is to head for EPCOT’s own Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion. Playing temporary host to these majestic creatures for the sole purpose of rehabilitation efforts, Guests exiting the Seas with Nemo & Friends attraction have the chance to view them up close and personal and even watch caretakers tending to them in real time. Learn how the manatees are fed, tended, and cared for in order to promote rest, rejuvenation, and recovery, with little training or interference so that their eventual release into the wild will be successful.

Manatees at EPCOT
Credit: Disney

Related: Video: Disney Conservation Efforts Support Rescued Manatees

The state of Florida, on a whole, provides a myriad of other opportunities for encountering manatees in the wild as well as within contained, well-managed locations.

On that note, it goes without saying that manatees exude a magnificent, magic all their own, and making for more opportunities to mingle with them while visiting Disney World only makes sense for magnifying the overall magic that both experiences bring forth when brought together.

About Laura

Laura Catherine aka “LC” is a writer who resides in Maryland with her family and several pets. She visits Walt Disney World whenever she can. Additionally, she is a published author of three novels, a children’s book, and has a passion for gardening.

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