The Florida Tourist Trap To Skip (And The Less-Crowded Destination To Check Out Instead)

While Florida brings in tourists due to its theme parks, the state's nature and subsequent wildlife are a significant draw as well. The state is home to multiple national parks, seashores, and preserves. Iconic Florida wildlife, like dolphins and manatees, extends beyond these protected areas and into the ocean. However, some places are better for viewing such wildlife than others.

As previously mentioned, Florida is known for its theme parks. One of these is Discovery Cove in Orlando, operated by SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. Though controversy has followed SeaWorld's parks in recent years because of animal trainer deaths and unideal living conditions for the creatures, Discovery Cove still sees high reviews, and its reservations fill up months in advance. If the park is fully booked during your planned vacation, Crystal River offers a less crowded and even more affordable way to see wildlife, and it is less than two hours from Orlando.

Snorkel with manatees in Crystal River, Florida

Orlando's Discovery Cove features opportunities to swim with dolphins or sharks, snorkel with tropical fish, feed stingrays, get close to land mammals, and relax on the park's beaches. To give everyone meaningful time with these animals, Discovery Cove limits daily admission to 1,300 park guests and offers limited slots for experiences. While these experiences are incredible, they can also be expensive. For example, a session in the water with sharks starts at $169, and there are only 16 spots per day. Swimming with dolphins can cost over $300 based on seasonal fluctuations and adult versus child tickets.

The Plantation Resort on Crystal River doubles as a tour company. For less than $100, the Plantation's Adventure Center offers manatee snorkel trips. These peaceful sea mammals are in the area year-round, but nearly twice as many can be spotted during the winter months. The Adventure Center also provides its visitors with snorkel gear and wetsuits. Trips on weekdays are even more affordable and less crowded.

Rent or bring your own boat to paddle among manatees

For those with a smaller budget or those who do not want to get in the water, The Adventure Center at the Plantation Resort has boat tours as well. Guides take visitors out on Kings Bay, where guests can spot manatees, dolphins, turtles, and birds from the water's surface. These boat trips are $18 during the day and $25 during sunset.

Another affordable location to see the wildlife of Crystal River is the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge near the Three Sisters Springs. Here, visitors can rent nonmotorized boats or bring their own and view the manatees while carefully paddling on the water. Those with their own snorkel equipment can check out the gentle giants for themselves. There are no manatee tour guides within the refuge, but multiple nearby tour providers are recommended through Florida's Fish and Wildlife Services, including the Plantation Resort's Adventure Center. Whether you get close to manatees with a tour or not, remember that they are endangered and must be enjoyed hands-off.