Crystal River, Florida has a series of fresh-water springs that attract that largest population of manatees in all of North America.
While it’s a bit out of the way, snorkeling with the Crystal River Manatees can be a fun long layover (minimum of 2 days) from a Tampa or Orlando layover. Crystal River is located roughly 87 miles from Orlando, and 80 miles from Tampa. With a rental car, the trip from each airport is at least 2 – 2 1/2 hours.
While the water temperature in the Crystal River springs stays around 72 degrees, the winter air can drop down into the 30’s, so warm clothing (especially for after snorkeling) is a must! All the tours offer wetsuits and snorkel gear.
Here is a ridiculously cute video of a manatee baby getting a stomach rub:
Crystal River, itself, is a small town that revolves around the manatee tourism. Hotels include the Days Inn, Best Western, and other nearby hotels can be found here.
Snorkeling with the manatees is a truly remarkable, unique experience where you can interact with these gentle creatures in their own habitat. Crystal River has a number of tour operators, including Birds Underwater, and Florida Manatee Tours.
Layover Guide would recommend renting a car from the Orlando or Tampa airport for the Crystal River excursion. The winter months have the best viewing, and the peak season is from October 1 through March 31. We would recommend calling the tour operators before booking to inquire about the amount of manatees that are expected in the time you plan on visiting. Manatee populations vary by year, as well.