January is a perfect time to head to Blue Spring State Park to see the manatees. The park is in Orange City, just a short drive from downtown Orlando. The spring flows into the St. Johns river and is a designated refuge to West Indian Manatees in the winter. My daughters and I spent a full day there last January. This January we spent a Saturday morning there with part of our Girl Scout troop.
The park has something for children (and adults) of all ages. There is a rustic boardwalk running the length of the spring that provides an easy view of the manatees in their natural habitat. The boardwalk is nestled among trees and shrubs.
The sheer number of manatees floating effortlessly in the spring is an amazing sight. The water is clear enough that you can easily see the manatees underwater. The kids delight in watching them stick their noses above the water and nosh on fallen palm fronds. We’ve seen alligators and turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks.
There are tables and benches perfect for a picnic lunch, and a large playground area near the start of the boardwalk. There is a concession stand near the playground and a small store (with supplies for overnight campers) where you can purchase sandwiches, burgers and drinks. And of course, there is a gift shop!
Canoes and kayaks can be rented by the hour or the day. We briefly considered that on our most recent trip, but it was a little too chilly. Last year we took a guided nature cruise on the St. Johns River. Although the two-hour tour would be long for little ones, my ten-year olds really enjoyed being on the water and seeing alligators, turtles and all kinds of birds (including an eagle) up close.
If you check the schedule when you arrive, the park shows a film about the manatees and offers other learning opportunities. The park opens at 8:00 a.m. I recommend arriving early, particularly on the weekends, because once the parking area is full, visitors are turned away. Entrance to the park is $6 per car.