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Florida Family Vacations; Crystal River & Citrus County

manatees at homosassa springs wildlife st park; photo by william garvin

Citrus County, a.k.a  “Mother Nature’s Theme Park” is the only place in the world where playing and interacting with manatees is possible within their own habitat. Crystal River in Citrus County Florida is a super family oriented and kid friendly destination for your Florida family vacation filled with amazing natural sights and sounds that will be remembered long after your family vacation has ended. Read more to find out why Crystal River and Citrus County are one of the best kid friendly Florida family vacation spots, with insider tips to kid-friendly attractions, restaurants, resorts & hotels. 

Also see my post on Florida Family Vacations; The Nature Coast for more information about the area.

Crystal River and the Homosassa area in Citrus County are probably best known for swimming and snorkeling with the manatees, one of mother nature’s most amazing creatures.  Crystal River, and Homosassa are both great for kayaking with dolphins, or taking a fishing trips for some of the most amazing redfish, trout, shark, tarpon and bonefish as well as snook.Come see the real Florida the way it was meant to be lived. Crystal River also has a strong fishing community. Whether it’s fishing from a kayak, or with an experienced guide.

Background about Manatees

Manatees are air-breathing water-dwelling mammals that can grow up to 12 feet long, and weigh up to 3500 pounds. Manatees were once common throughout Florida, but their numbers plummeted in the 1960’s as construction boomed in the Sunshine State. Manatees need undisturbed habitat and are extremely vulnerable to injuries from motorboats.

Manatees also need warm water, and can’t survive if temperatures fall below 68 degrees. The best time to see wild manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is from December to March, when the weather is coolest, and the manatees seek the warm water springs in Kings Bay.

Kid Friendly Things to Do in Crystal River & Citrus County, on your Florida family vacation

See and swim with manatees in Florida

Manatees: if you’ve ever wanted to see these fascinating shy creatures (also called “sea cows”, and actually related to the elephant) the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge could be your best bet, from November to March each year. You can even get in the water and swim with the manatees.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
This small Wildlife Refuge– 46 acres– is located near the town of Crystal River, Florida, 75 miles north of St. Petersburg. (St. Pete is on the west coast, about 2 hours from Orlando.) The refuge can only be reached by boat.

The Refuge –which has twenty islands– is in the Kings Bay area, and provides critically important habitat for some 25% of the endangered manatee population in Florida.

How do I see manatees?

You can book a guided manatee snorkel tour through many commercial dive shops in the town of Crystal River. The Web site of the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge lists tour operators who’ll take you see manatees, snorkel with manatees, etc. Also listed are boat rentals, diving instruction, and other activities.

Note: if you rent a boat on your own, be very careful not to disturb the manatees! Read more at the Friends of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge site. Also, be sure to read tips at Save the Manatees.

Captive manatees, meanwhile, can be seen year round at the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park, 7 miles south of Crystal River on Highway 19.

Where can I find out more about viewing manatees?

More about Manatees
  • Manatee Protection Tips for divers and swimmers
  • Manatee Springs State Park; img; courtesy of florida state parks

    Manatee Springs State Park

    Kid friendly Manatee Springs State Park is a great place to visit on your Florida family vacation in Crystal River & Citrus County. The first-magnitude spring at this park produces an average of 100 million gallons of clear, cool water daily. In winter, West Indian manatees swim upriver to the warmer waters of the springs. Popular for snorkeling and scuba diving, the headwaters of the spring are also a great spot for swimming. The spring run forms a sparkling stream that meanders through hardwood wetlands to the Suwannee River. Canoe and kayaks can be rented May through September. Children enjoy the playground in the picnic area. Hiking and bicycling are available on the north end trail system. The full-facility campground is surrounded by red oak woods.

    Campground Review- from about.com-Michele Parrish

    My family has enjoyed this beautiful state park on numerous occasions during different times of the year. The campsites are large wooded lots, but not anything special in scenery. What draws us back again and again is the spring. A short walking distance from the campsite is gorgeous Manatee Springs; so named for the docile creatures that visit annually during Florida’s occasional cold snaps. We’ve never been lucky enough to see the manatees visit, however on each visit we’ve seen many deer. On other visits we’ve seen armadillo and raccoons. My favorite wildlife encounter has been while walking the beautiful catwalk beside the spring. We saw a playful otter diving in the crystal clear water, looking for snails or whatever tasty treats he could find. The catwalk follows the spring as it flows to the broad Suwannee River, where huge sturgeon spawn and leap, making tremendous wakes.
    In the summer, Manatee Spring is a popular swimming hole for the locals. There are stairs and a beach leading into the cold water, and do I mean cold. The best way to experience this water is to take the plunge by jumping off the dive platform. The first jump is a shocker, but four or five times later you’re feeling revved up and ready for anything.

    During the Christmas holidays, volunteers light up the park with holiday lights and decorations and pass out candy to the children. It’s quaint and enchanting to walk among the lights at night. Everyone who works there is very friendly. For a day trip from the campground, ask the park ranger for directions to Cedar Key. It is an hour away and is a very unique little fishing town with lots of galleries, restaurants, and quaint neighborhoods to explore. We purchased some fresh seafood while we were there. On our way back we saw a flock of wild turkeys by the roadside. There’s always a new discovery each time we visit.

    Manatee Springs is outside of Chiefland off Highway 19, which runs along the west coast of Florida. It’s off the beaten path, but well worth the visit.

    Citrus County is home to many great parks with an abundance of wildlife, and beautiful Florida flora and fauna, as well as being a kid friendly area for your Florida family vacation.

    The Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

    The Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is a a 210-acre park that encompasses some of Florida’s loveliest landscape and the headwaters of the Homosassa River. The park serves as a rehabilitation center and refuge for injured and orphaned endangered West Indian manatees. The natural spring environment allows them an opportunity to re-acclimate themselves to a more natural environment before they are returned to the wild. The park also offers visitors an opportunity to observe Florida’s native wildlife in natural settings. One strolls along paved trails and boardwalks to see manatees, black bear, bobcats, key deer, alligators, grey fox, otters and cougars at close range. Most of the birds and animals that live here cannot survive in the wild.

    Kid Friendly State Parks in Citrus County

    Kid Friendly Federal Parks and Preserves in Citrus County;

    Airboat Tours!


    AirboaTours.com Capt. Stu (At Riverside Resort)
    NativeSunTours.com Capt Russ (at MacRae’s)
    RiverSafaris.com Larger groups, larger airboat
    HomosassaAirboat.com Capt. Chuck

    –Crystal River


    –East Side-Inverness

    WildBillsAirboatTour.com Larger Groups, larger airboat

    More kid friendly things to do: (also see; Florida Family Vacations; The Nature Coast for more information about the area.)

    Manatee Lanes -FUN FAMILY BOWLING & FOOD- 7715 West Gulf To Lake Highway, Crystal River, FL 34429, (352) 795-4546

    Check out the Crystal River Florida website for more kid friendly things to do in Crystal River & Citrus County

    Rent an Island!!! Swim with a Manatee Parks
    Dining Canoeing and Kayaking Theme Parks
    Fishing Rent a Harley-Davidson! Hunting
    Shopping Lakes, Rivers, Springs Theaters
    Flying Boat! Diving and Snorkeling Bird Watching
    Festivals Camping and RVing Trails
    Hiking Horseback Riding Bike Riding
    Golfing Tour Guides Night Life

    Best Kid Friendly RESTAURANTS in Crystal River & Citrus County on your Florida family vacation:

    Crystal River is also known for great sea food and even better hospitality.  The Crystal River area also has over 30 on-the-water restaurants between the towns of Crystal River and Homosassa Springs.  There are well over 30 plus restaurants on the water and off the water, giving you incredible options for takeout or eating in.

    Here are a few kid friendly favorites:

    ABC Pizza House-located at 2010 Southeast US Highway 19,Crystal River FL 34429, (352)-795-1046

    Back Water Jacks– 13982 West Ozello Trail, Crystal River, FL 34429-(352)-795-6900

    Charlie’s Fish House Restaurant -224 Northwest US Highway 19, Crystal River, FL 34428 , (352) 795-3949

    China Bridge Restaurant 238 Southeast US Highway 19,Crystal River FL 34429, (352)-795-1774

    Cody’s Original Roadhouse- 305 Southeast Highway 19, Crystal River,FL 34429

    Crackers Bar, Grille and Tiki Bar- 502 NW 6th St. on US 19 1.5 miles south of the mall next to Best Western- (352)-795-3999

    Fat Boys Bar-B-Q– 505 Northeast US Highway 19, Crystal River FL 34429 (352)-795-4441

    Fuji Express Inc.– best Japanese! 1801 Northwest Highway 19, Crystal River FL 34429 (352)-795-8788

    Schiano Pizza BEST PIZZA!-1801 Northwest US Highway 19, Crystal River, FL 34428 ,(352) 563-6415

    Augie’s Nut House -7452 West Grover Cleveland Boulevard,Homosassa, FL 34446 ,(352) 628-3220

    Cedar Key Fish & Crab of Homosassa Inc -5590 South Boulevard Drive ,Homosassa, FL 34448
    (352) 628-2452

    Charlie Brown’s Crab House -5297 South Cherokee Way ,Homosassa, FL 34448,(352) 621-5080

    Colonel Frog’s Tennessee Barbeque -3171 South Stonebrook Drive ,Homosassa, FL 34448 (352) 628-1076

    Dinin in the Past -3297 South Suncoast Boulevard ,Homosassa, FL 34448 ,(352) 628-1133

    El Ranchito Mexican Restaurant -8367 South Suncoast Boulevard ,Homosassa, FL 34446 ,(352) 382-1100

    Emily’s Family Restaurant ,7181 West Cardinal Street ,Homosassa, FL 34446 (352) 628-6559

    Homosassa Riverside Resort -SEE THE MONKEYS ON MONKEY ISLAND! 5297 South Cherokee Way, Homosassa, FL 34448 ,(352) 628-2578

    See more kid friendly and family restaurants here.

    Places to Stay on your Florida family vacation in Crystal River & Citrus County; Kid Friendly Resorts and Hotels;

    1203 NE 5th Street
    Crystal River, FL 34429 US Map It
    The Holiday Inn Exp Crystal River is conveniently located to many of Floridas natural parks, fresh water lakes and beautiful Gulf beaches and water attractions such as scuba diving and swimming with manatees.The hotel amenities include elevators, handicap facilities, business center, high-speed Internet access, fitness center, swimming pool, guests laundry service, and parking.The hotel rooms are equipped with amenities like air conditioning, AM/FM alarm clocks, cable TV, telephones, Internet access, coffee/tea makers, irons/ironing boards, microwaves, refrigerators, and private bathrooms.
    9301 West Fort Island Trail
    Crystal River, FL 34429 US Map It
    This Plantation Style Resort, located on the Nature Coast of Florida, features 232 acres of lush landscape, panoramic Bay-front lawns and rolling greens adorned by centuries old majestic live oaks and graceful emerald pines. Set on the Crystal River, the hotel with 202 well-appointed rooms scenically overlooks Kings Bay and our 27-hole golf course.Amenities at the resort are numerous including fine dining in the full-service Savannah Room, casual dining at our poolside Tiki bar and 19th hole Pro Shop snack bar, a 96,000-gallon heated swimming pool with Jacuzzi and sundeck. A fitness center and full service Aveda Spa are located on property. In addition to our 27 holes of golf and lighted tennis courts, we have a full service marina and dive shop which is among the only place in the world where you can swim with the manatees. Scuba and Snorkel lessons along with boat rentals are also available.
    5297 South Cherokee Way
    Homosassa, FL 34448 US Map It
    The Homosassa Riverside Resort is situated on the banks of the Homosassa River, and is a great place to relax and have fun. There are endless activities such as river tours, manatee tours, fishing charters, and more. Guests can enjoy a sunset and riverside cocktail, or just spend time dreaming by the pool.Some of the other on-site amenities include the Riverside Crab House, the Yardarm Lounge, Citrus County’s oldest and most favorite riverside lounge, and the Monkey Bar. Visitors are likely to be entertained by the antics of the monkeys on Monkey Island, manatees in the river, or passing dolphins.The waterfront resort has one and two-bedroom riverfront rooms and suites complete with balconies or patios. Guests can bring boats and use a boat ramp, or a boat slip space. An additional charge applies for boat ramp or boat slip use. Additional amenities include free local calls, free parking, and free high speed Internet access.
    4076 South Suncoast Boulevard
    Homosassa, FL 34446 US Map It
    The Bella Oasis Hotel is located approximately 75 miles from the Tampa International Airport, adjacent to the Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.The hotel amenities include restaurant, gameroom, pool, business center, complimentary newspapers in lobby, fitness equipment, conference rooms, hair salon, and free parking.The rooms feature cable TVs, hairdryers, free local calls, refrigerators, microwaves, dial-up Internet access, alarm clocks, and coffeemakers.
    614 Northwest US Highway 19
    Crystal River, FL 34428 US Map It
    The Best Western Crystal River Resort specializes in family resort fun. Relax and enjoy all the pleasures of Florida sun, major attractions, and beautiful beaches.

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