Often times festivals are all about food! The chicken wing festival offered delicious chicken wings, The Oyster Festival has a great selection of oysters, and the Festival of Bacon had so many great offerings. So I was expecting the Manatee Festival to have at least a few selections of delectable manatee. Nope, not that kind of festival.. All kidding aside, the Orange City Blue Springs Manatee Festival was one of the greatest, most family friendly events that we have attended in quite awhile. Of course it wasn’t about eating the manatees, but instead saving these gentle creatures and bringing awareness to their declining numbers.
It’s still up for debate on how we discovered this great annual event, but the entire family was looking forward to going for over a month. We got a bit of a late start as the Mrs. worked the night before and got a few hours of sleep before we went on our adventure. We didn’t really know what to expect as we had never been to Valentine Park, which is where the annual Manatee Festival is held. Located a mile or two off of I-4, you can get to the festival easily from anywhere in Central Florida. We used our phones for navigation, but we did notice a few Manatee Festival signs when we go to the right exit.
Because we arrived a bit after noon, we parked all the way on the western side of Valentine Park. It wasn’t really a big deal, but just meant we had some walking to do. We didn’t mind as we loaded our little guy into his stroller and grabbed all the gear associated with taking a toddler out for a day on the town. After a brief walk we got to the main gate of the Manatee Festival and had to chuckle a bit at the prices. Adult admission was $8 per person, and children 4-10 were only $2. Under 4 were FREE. Since they offered FREE parking the overall cost of the Manatee Festival was reasonable. The reason we chuckled is because dogs were welcome, but they had their own admission charge of $10.
Once we made it inside the Manatee Festival had rows and rows of everything from community vendors to local artisans. The Central Florida Zoo had an entire tent full of activities for the little ones. Our little guy was still just a bit too small to enjoy the activities, but we were impressed but the variety of children’s offerings. We spent over an hour checking out the local vendors. We saw pet rescue groups, artisans, and had some yummy snacks. We stopped by one of the candy booths and I dug into some great chocolate covered bacon. I know it sounds strange, but it was delicious! There were people selling everything from t-shirts to hand made flutes. It seemed like there was a little something for everyone.
One artisan that really stood out at the Manatee Festival was Ana Jones of Ana’s Jazzy Art. I’m not all that cultured of a person I suppose, but her artwork really stood out to me for some reason. Most of here pieces were deeply patriotic as well as beautiful so I stopped to chat with her. After taking a few minutes to speak with me, it turns out that she doesn’t focus on the patriotic art, but this particular show she happened to have a great collection. Using everything from salvaged windows to fence posts as a canvas, she has a talent for making the patriotic beautiful and artistic. I was personally drawn to her Gadsen Flag piece. (The yellow “Don’t Tread On Me”, flag.) You may want to checkout her Facebook page. She actually shows you pieces in progress and explains more about her work. Thank you Ana for taking some time to talk with me!
After we strolled about the grounds of the Manatee Festival, we decided to head on over to Blue Springs. As part of our admission there were charter busses that offered FREE shuttle service to Blue Springs State Park so we could get up close to the manatees. The line seemed to vary in length depending on the time, but it moved very quickly. There were probably 3 or so busses that went back and forth during the festival. We were a bit concerned as we had a stroller and lots of gear to take with us, but it actually worked out great! We didn’t even need to fold it up, as the bus driver just loaded it under the bus and we were good to go.
It had been years since anyone in my family had visited Blue Springs, so it was like exploring all over again! I’ll have to do a write up about this fully equipped State Park at a later time, but just know that they have lots to offer a Frugal Florida Family! Along the spring run, we were treated to a great stretch of boardwalk with many places to stop and check out the manatees! As we got closer to the spring, there were more and more of these gentle creatures packed into a relatively small location. What was amazing to me is that the manatees seemed to share their habitat in harmony with lots of other wildlife. In addition to fish and birds, we even saw a gator who was just hanging out in the springs. It was great to see this endangered species up close in their safe winter harbour.
Before heading back to the Manatee Festival, I did a quick run through the Thursby House. This historic home is a focal point of the park, and is open to the public. There were a handful of displays inside which introduced visitors to the Thursby family, the early settlers of Blue Springs. Outside the Thursby home, the Junior Ranger program hosted by Blue Spring State Park had additional activities for the kiddos. They were actually making their very own manatees! It was a great arts and crafts opportunity, and allowed the little ones to really get to know the park rangers.
Once we boarded the bus back to Valentine Park and the main staging area of the Manatee Festival, we decided to checkout the food options. Don’t worry there was no deep fried manatee! What we found was standard fair type food. There were lots of deep friend options as well as dessert options. The Mrs. picked up some gelato which was awesome, and I tried the soft serve ice cream. The soft serve was very disappointing, as it was flavored after it came out of the machine. It just a chemical type taste. at first I thought it was just me as I hadn’t had real sugar in quite a while, but the Mrs. confirmed it was quite gross as well. It turned out to be a wast of $3.50. There were plenty of other food choices including some great hot dogs in Blue Spring State Park. If you wanted to bring your own lunch, I don’t see why you couldn’t, but I’m willing to bet there was a no cooler policy at the Manatee Festival.
As if the food, manatees ,and community interaction wasn’t enough, there was also quite a bit of live entertainment at the Manatee Festival. There was a large music stage that was jammin’ all day, as well as a K9 Frisbee demonstration. We found that the best time to board the bus to Blue Springs was when the K9 Frisbee demonstration was in full swing. The demonstration was actually quite impressive and entertaining. I would love to get out dog into something like that, but I’m afraid I would just hit him in the head with the frisbee.
To help the little ones burn off some steam, there was a free kid zone filled with bounce houses and other inflatable attractions. There were some other activities like the floating hamster ball attractions you have probably seen at other festivals as well as a rock climbing wall and other activities too, but they cost extra so we steered clear.
Combined with the low-cost, educational experience, location, and family friendly atmosphere, the Orange City Blue Spring Manatee Festival was a great family entertainment value. We looked forward to attending for over a month, and weren’t disappointed! Between the wooden board walk at Blue Spring, the stroller friendly bus ride, and the had packed or grass location, it was probably the most stroller friendly location we have been to in quite some time. We look forward to returning next year as well. We have already loaded the 2015 dates into our calendar so plan ahead!
Orange City Blue Springs Manatee Festival Details:
Cost: Adult $8 – Child 4-10 $2 – Under 4 FREE – FREE Parking!
Dates: 1/24/15 & 1/25/15 – Hours Vary
Location: Valentine Park Orange City