What to Expect at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River (2025)

Located an hour from Tampa, Crystal River is famously known as the Manatee Capital of the World. Surrounded by spring water, this small town is the only place where you can legally swim with these gentle giants.

While you can see and swim with them all year, winter is peak manatee season. Swells of manatees migrate from the ocean to the springs because the temperatures in the ocean water start to get too cold for them, putting them at risk of cold-induced illnesses and death.

So it’s no surprise that the annual Florida Manatee Festival takes place in January.

a greeting card featuring a painting of manatees and mermaids, painted by Samm Wehman, a Florida based artist, for the 2024 Florida Manatee Festival.

The Florida Manatee Festival is a 2-day event in Downtown Crystal River, celebrating all things dedicated to these sea cows. You’ll walk through small businesses selling arts and crafts in booths, live music, chalk art demos, and food stalls. You can even go on a guided boat on Kings Bay or a kayaking tour on Hunter Springs, and get free admission to Three Sister’s Springs, where you can see manatees up close!

Cecilio and I spent 4 nights in Crystal River and Homosassa Springs, and we happened to arrive on the weekend of the festival. I had no idea it occurred as I booked the tickets, but let’s just say that I’m happy that I booked the tickets on those dates. The festival introduced us to this small, cozy yet vibrant town and its dedication to its mascot, the manatees.

If swimming with manatees is on your life bucket list, keep an eye out for the Florida Manatee Festival! The schedule for 2025 is TBA.

Disclaimer: This post uses affiliate links, which means I make a commission if you book through this post. If you do decide to book using my links, thank you so much for your support!

Florida Manatee Festival: General Information

Date

TBA for 2025 schedule

Location

Downtown Crystal River, FL

Admission and Pricing

  • Adults: $10
  • Kids (12 and under): Free

Tickets are $5 for adults on Sunday with a coupon from the Citrus County Chronicle. The newspaper is everywhere, from coffee shops to grocery stores to hotels. I found a stack of them in our hotel lobby!

Parking

Parking is extremely limited in Downtown Crystal River, where the festival takes place. There is free parking available at Crystal River High School. There are also free shuttle buses that take you from the school to the festival and back.

Highlights of the Florida Manatee Festival

Booths from local artists and businesses

Crystal River is home to so many artists, crafts(wo)men, and small businesses that set up booths to sell their handcrafted products. Expect to see manatee and aquatic-themed trinkets!

I’ve seen booths selling paintings, home decor, stained glass, crochet items, soaps, jewelry, food, and clay sculptures.

The artists’ booths are featured in Crystal River’s town square as Art in the Park, right next to the restaurants, shops, and tour operators.

By supporting these artists and business owners (whether you purchase something from them or follow them on social media), you are helping them stay afloat. They, along with the many manatee tour operators, are the backbone of Crystal River’s economy!

Acrylic painting of a manatee as Little Mermaid in the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, Florida. Art by Gnarly Carly
Raffle for a painting from Gnarly Carly
Booth filled with colorful paintings of manatees , dogs, cats, butterflies, ad turtles by Samm Wehman Art at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, FL
Booth from Samm Wehman, one of the artists featured in the festival. She is a Florida-based artist who specializes in animals and custom pet portraits.

Community Color Project

Twistid Arts Initiative is a non-profit based in Inverness, FL whose mission is to make visual and performing arts accessible to the Citrus County community through education and immersive events.

The artists from Twistid Arts Initiative were in charge of the Community Color Project, sketching a gorgeous, large-scale chalk mural near the Art in the Park. They work tirelessly on their hands and knees all day, creating a masterpiece during both days of the Florida Manatee Festival.

Twistid Arts Initiative accepts donations to help benefit its organization and mission.

A chalk mural of manatees by the artists of Twistid Arts Initiative, a nonprofit in Florida They did this chalk art during the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River in 2024

Food Vendors

No festival or party is complete without food, and the Florida Manatee Festival is no exception! There are two food courts on both sides of the festival, with a few food trucks at Art in the Park.

No matter what your tastebuds, lifestyle, or dietary restrictions, there is something for everyone’s tummies at the Florida Manatee Festival.

There are so many different kinds of food offered, like BBQ, gator bites (a Florida delicacy), seafood, pretzels, Asian, and ice cream.

And if you’re not feeling anything from the booths, you can try one of the many restaurants in Downtown Crystal River! I recommend St. John’s Tavern, a pub that serves burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, and flatbreads.

Food stalls at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, FL in 2024. The food stalls feature tacos and nachos, an Asian walk, and deep fried Oreos.

Photo opps

In addition to being a super fun event, there are so many cute photo opps at the festival! Like this larger-than-life inflatable manatee.

I’m a huge mascot fan, so if you see Marley the Manatee wandering about, don’t hesitate to snap a shot of or with her!

Manatee mascot and dog with its owner at the Manatee Festival in Crystal River, FL

Wanna take your sea cow spirit to the next level?! You’ve got to sport these awesome manatee onesies! I saw a few people wearing these!

Free admission to Three Sisters Springs

Three Sisters Springs is one of the most popular attractions in Crystal River. Located across from Kings Bay, Three Sisters Springs is a 52-acre preserve for manatees and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The preserve got its name from the three springs that make up the area: Magnolia Springs, Lake Crystal, and the Wetland.

Normally, admission to Three Sisters Springs is $20 for adults during winter. But tickets to the Florida Manatee Festival include free admission to the springs! As a result, it can get quite crowded.

In Three Sisters Springs, there’s an observatory boardwalk you trek through. This is where you can watch the manatees and other animals. The bright blue waters and lush, hanging greenery transports you to another world, almost like the Garden of Eden.

manatees in Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River, FL

Guided Kayak Tours

The Florida Manatee Festival wouldn’t be complete without actually seeing and interacting with them up close, which is why they recently added guided 1-hour kayak tours! For $15 (the tour is sold separately from the festival ticket), you can glide your way through Kings Bay.

If you want to go on a kayak tour on your own or another day, here are some top-rated tours below:

People kayaking on Kings Bay in Crystal River, FL. There are manatees under the water.
Those aren’t rocks under the water; those are manatees!

Boat Tours

Okay, so maybe you’d rather not maneuver your own boat and get wet. You’d prefer to sit back, relax, and watch the manatees swim by. That is totally fine because the festival also holds 30-minute boat tours around Kings Bay, which are super popular!

The boat tours start at 9:30 am, and end at 4:30 pm on Saturday (and 3:30 pm on Sunday). You will be picked up at the pier in Kings Bay Park. Like the kayak tours, they are not included in the tickets, so they cost $15.

Of course, you are not required to go on a boat tour specifically at the festival. If you want to spend more with a smaller or private group, below are some of the most popular boat tours:

If you’re interested in swimming with the manatees, check out this post with a list of snorkel tours!

Manatee Festival merch for purchase

While Cecilio and I didn’t buy the official festival shirts, they are available for purchase on both days. The shirts are designed by the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce, which also hosts the event.

The shirts are also available to purchase on their official website!

Shirts of the 2024 Florida Manatee Festival under a booth in Crystal River, FL

Where to stay during the Florida Manatee Festival

While there are a handful of hotels in Crystal River, I recommend staying near Downtown if you plan to visit during the festival. Downtown is completely blocked off, making parking limited. It’s just easier to stay close to Downtown and walk to the festival.

We stayed in PaddleTail Lodge, 5 minutes walking distance from Downtown (and right on the Kings Bay waterfront!). PaddleTail Lodge used to be a Best Western hotel and was under renovation during our stay.

Other hotels near Downtown Crystal River include:

Frequently Asked Questions

Where is the manatee festival located?

The Florida Manatee Festival is located in Crystal River, located an hour north of Tampa (and an hour west of Orlando). Crystal River is also known as the Manatee Capital of the World and the only place in the world where you can swim with them.

How much is it to get into the manatee festival?

Admission to the Florida Manatee Festival is $10 for adults, and free for kids 12 and under. On Sunday, you can get $5 off with a coupon from the Citrus County Chronicle newspaper.

Wrapping up the Florida Manatee Festival

Suppose you ever plan a trip to Crystal River for an epic, once-in-a-lifetime experience swimming with manatees. In that case, I recommend visiting during the weekend of the Florida Manatee Festival! Booking our trip, I found out last minute about the event, and I was pleasantly surprised that it fell on the day we arrived!

The festival gives you a glimpse of the friendly, tight-knit, and artsy community and their love and dedication to the manatees.

Make sure to bookmark this post and check back for the 2025 dates!

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Hannah is a travel writer, graphic designer, and the founder/editor of Hannah on Horizon. She is based in Sacramento, California, living with her husband and two adorable dogs. She shares tips on how to experience luxury travel on any budget, and how to maximize time at each trip or destination, no matter what your budget or amount of vacation time at work. She enjoys making you feel like you have visited each destination with her through her storytelling and informative writing style.

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