Are you planning to or are currently visiting Orlando? Then you probably know you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with manatees while you’re there!
Orlando is close to Crystal River, the only place in the U.S. where swimming with gentle giants is legal. It would be a shame to miss out on this wonderful experience.
While you can start your tour in Orlando and come to Crystal River with your group, we suggest choosing a tour operated by operators based in Crystal River instead. This guide will explain why that’s a better option, and how to ensure you choose the right tour.
Generally, there are two ways you can swim with manatees while in Orlando. You can:
Although booking a tour in Orlando may sound easier, we suggest booking a tour with operators in Crystal River instead. There’s so much you’ll miss out on if you spend most of your time on your bus or boat ride and head back to Orlando right after your manatee swim.
We’ll list several reasons why it’s better to book a tour with a Crystal River based operator below. For now, let’s get you acquainted with the town itself – and see how long it would take you to come here from Orlando.
Crystal River is a small, picturesque town located in west central Florida. It’s often referred to as the Manatee Capital of the world, as it welcomes hundreds of wild manatees migrating from the Gulf of Mexico every year.
While the Gulf of Mexico gets significantly cooler during the fall and winter months, Crystal River remains warm and comfortable year-round. This spring-fed river maintains a constant temperature of 72°F, making it the perfect home for warmth-loving manatees.
So, how far is Crystal River from Orlando, and how can you get there on your own?
To answer your first question: not far at all.
Crystal River is just a 1.5-hour drive away from Orlando, and there are three driving routes at your disposal.
While it’s certainly easier to travel with a group and have all the logistics pre-planned for you, traveling on your own has many benefits. For example, it gives you the freedom to choose the route you want to explore and visit more amazing places during your travel.
But that’s just scratching the surface. We have many more reasons why you should get to CR on your own and book a tour here! Let’s discuss them in more depth.
Why go through the hassle of organizing your trip and driving to Crystal River yourself, you ask? Well, we’ve got 7 convincing reasons to share!
Despite common misconceptions, Crystal River is a well-rounded tourist destination with a lot to offer — much more than just meeting manatees.
The town has something for everyone. Whether you like exploring outdoor spaces, artisan shops, state parks, or galleries, you’ll find a variety of options that suit your interests.
Here are a few ideas on what you can do and visit in Crystal River:
With so many attractive things to do, it would be a shame to come only for a quick manatee swim and immediately go back to Orlando.
That brings us to our next point: enjoying other activities besides swimming with manatees will give you a more well-rounded and immersive experience.
For example, you’ll be able to explore the town at your own pace, discover hidden gems that you may miss on a guided tour, and even chat with friendly locals to get a sense of the community.
In other words, you’ll have a chance to immerse yourself in the local culture. This will give you a deeper understanding of the area than you could get if you just made a quick stop at CR and went back to Orlando right after your swim.
Why not take this unique opportunity to widen your horizons?
Are you looking for an authentic manatee experience? Tours run by Crystal River based experts are your best bet.
Unlike operators based in Orlando, guides based in CR work with manatees and in the Refuge every day. That means they have many nuggets of knowledge and even more anecdotes to share. They can also teach you the best ways to interact with manatees and your environment during your tour.
Hearing about their first-hand experience will make your tour more enriching and make you feel like a true manatee pro.
Also, CR-based guides are up-to-date with the latest info on where to find manatees — which can sometimes be tricky. This will help ensure you actually see the animals you came for.
Crystal River is home to just around 3000 residents. Compare that to Orlando’s population of about 309,000!
Obviously, Crystal River is quite different from Orlando. Orlando is larger and more urban, while Crystal River is more rural, less crowded, and much less touristy.
Staying here for a day or two can provide a peaceful experience that you may not be able to get in Orlando. It’s the perfect way to bring your vacation to a close!
If you book a tour in Orlando, your entire itinerary will be planned for you. You’ll probably take a quick manatee swim, head over to one of the pre-chosen restaurants for lunch, and get back to your bus or boat.
While some like having their whole day planned for them, you may prefer a bit more flexibility. Booking your tour with a Crystal River-based operator will give you just that.
You’ll have more control over your schedule and you’ll be able to customize it to your wants.
For example, you’ll be able to decide when to leave Orlando, whether you’ll make a few stops on your way, and when you’re ready to go back.
You may even decide you want more time to explore the rich underwater plant life, go for a stroll around the town, or just try another activity. You’ll be able to fulfill all such spur-of-the-moment wishes because you’re the one in charge of your schedule.
Another benefit of booking your tour in CR is that you’ll be directly contributing to the local economy and businesses. For example, you’ll be “investing” in an operator based in CR that works with manatees every day – and you may be indirectly improving manatees’ lives by doing so.
If you decide to extend your stay, you may also choose to stay in local accommodations, eat at local restaurants, and shop at local stores. This may actually save you quite a few bucks you’d spend to get the same services in Orlando.
Crystal River is generally cheaper, so it’s a win-win!
As we’ve already mentioned, Crystal River is generally cheaper than Orlando. So, choosing to stay in CR for a few days rather than extending your stay in Orlando may actually help you save some money!
Also, keep in mind that organized tours from Orlando to Crystal River do calculate the transportation costs in their prices.
While you’ll still need gas money if you’re coming on your own by car, it may be worth it.
Traveling independently lets you explore other areas at no extra cost, making sure you get the most bang for your buck.
You can simply make a few stops and visit wonderful places and towns on your way to Orlando. We especially recommend visiting Lecanto, Wildwood, and Winter Garden.
So, let’s say you want to book a tour to swim with manatees near Orlando. How can you find a suitable tour with credible (and ethical) guides?
Our first tip is to look for tours in Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. This is where (legal) manatee tours take place in Crystal River. So, by searching for tours in the Refuge, you’ll immediately narrow down your options and speed up the process.
The Refuge doesn’t provide guided manatee tours, but it does issue use permits to “tour operators in Kings Bay who offer quality guided tours in Refuge waters.” This tells you that operators with permits are at least somewhat vetted and deemed ethical.
That’s important, considering that all three species of manatees are listed as vulnerable to extinction. (Just FYI, Crystal River is home to the West Indian manatee. The other two species are the West African and the Amazonian manatee.) Choosing credible operators can be your small contribution to the conservation and preservation of these gentle creatures.
Secondly, you want to look for tours that include the full gear. Renting the gear independently will cost you extra dollars, and can be a hassle you can easily avoid. By choosing an all-inclusive tour, you only have to worry about bringing your beach towel — and nothing else.
“The full gear” may include snorkel equipment, such as a mask, a snorkel, and a wet suit, but that depends on the type of tour you want to book. Make sure to research what you’ll need before booking your tour.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s see how you can actually book a manatee swim in Crystal River. You have two options:
Our site lets you easily compare and book different outdoor activities in Florida, including manatee tours. This link will take you straight to suitable listings, i.e., manatee tours in Crystal River, Florida.
Compare multiple listings at a glance and decide which tour is right for you – a three-, four- or six-hour tour? Private or group? Your choice.
Once you decide, simply book your favorite tour by filling out the form at the bottom. Choose your desired tour date and add the required information for determining your wet suit size. This allows the operators to prepare it in advance.
Click “Book now” and you’re done! Let the counting-down-days-before-my-trip fever period commence!
No matter if you book a manatee tour in Crystal River or Orlando, one thing’s for sure — swimming with manatees will be a wonderful experience you’ll never forget.
What’s most important is that you get to know the gentle giants and experience how lovely they are first-hand. This will give you a deeper understanding of why we need to protect them.
So, no matter what you decide, we hope you’ll have a fantastic time in Crystal River. Have a safe and ethical trip!
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