In January we celebrated my nephew's fifth birthday by spending a day in nature. It makes me so happy that we live a couple of hours away in the same state again! We gathered the three boys, a canoe, snacks galore, and took off for the day, in hopes to see the manatees that hang around the Crystal River this time of the year.
We had a picnic and took the canoe out at the Crystal River State Park (my son's first and very successful canoe experience!) and got to see a gator from afar. Although the view of the river was beautiful, there wasn't much else for the kids at the park, and we will probably find another canoe-launch area next time. After a couple of hours and no manatees, we decided to head to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park - which we all loved and highly recommend!
|Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park|
PLANNING A VISIT
Homosassa Springs is located 75 miles north of Tampa on U.S. 19, and 90 miles northwest of Orlando. Admission fees are $13 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 6 through 12, and FREE for children 5 and under. The park is open every day of the year from 9:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., but the ticket counters close at 4:45 p.m., and some exhibits close earlier than others. Pets are not allowed (save for service animals), but they do provide free kennels at the entrance!
ABOUT THE PARK
According to the website, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s, when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the spring. Next, it operated as a type of zoo, housing exotic animals and some native species. Later, it was purchased by the county, then by the state of Florida to be protected as an environmentally sensitive area. Now, most animals housed there are native to Florida, with the exception of Lu, a 57 year-old African Hippo who was declared an honorary citizen of the state after spending most of his life at the park.
|Lu, an African hippo, was born at the San Diego Zoo on January 26, 1960.|
At the park we were guaranteed to see West Indian manatees, since they have an underwater observatory in the main spring! Homosassa also houses a rehabilitation facility for injured manatees (a huge problem in Florida due to irresponsible boating), and the spring provides a natural winter refuge for a large wild manatee population. We were also excited to see tons of native Florida wildlife, including black bears, bobcats, white-tailed deer, American alligators, American crocodiles, and river otters. The park has a children's education center and wildlife encounter programs, providing hands-on experiences about Florida's environment and inhabitants. Some of the animals there had been victims of poachers and were no longer able to survive in the wild. Talking to the park volunteers really made it apparent that animal welfare and conservation are important to the state park.
|Walking right over the springs where manatees gather|
We could've spent the whole day at the park, and my suggestions is to plan for just that! Although there are concession stands, you can also pack lunch, since there are areas to picnic. We were only able to spend a couple of hours at the park and did not get to see everything, but our little guys loved it regardless! We will be sure to go back (in the cooler months) and take our time exploring.