Swimming with Manatees- Crystal River, Florida

adventure of the week, Florida, History, outdoors, United States

A few years ago a co-worker informed me that you can swim with wild MANATEES in Florida! As you know, if you follow this blog, I adore animal encounters. Learning manatees are an option meant they went to the top of my list for my Florida vacation 2019.

Photo Courtesy of River Ventures

Manatees are a native species to Florida, and are considered an important part of the ecosystem and culture of the state. Before Europeans arrived the animals were a valuable part to the winter diets of Native populations in the Southeast. Early European explorers to the Southern United States thought they were some type of mermaid, and myths and legends abounded about the “sea cows”. They also hunted some types into extinction.

By the 20th century the animals were threatened due to pollution, boats, and loss of habitat. In 2019 though, the numbers have greatly increased and they are now a vulnerable versus an endangered species. However, the biggest threat to these animals continues to be humans, and impending climate change.

You are so lucky because you live on the west coast of Florida, where there are lots and lots of manatees, … Most of the kids in the country don’t know about manatees and how wonderful they are.

John Lithgow

My intrigue with manatees began when I was a little kid, an animal lover, and I learned about the oddly majestic water mammals. I was extremely concerned for their well-being regarding the damage boats were doing to them, and I have followed their bounce back over the last 20 years or so. Thus, having the chance to get dirty and go visit some of the critters was simply something I could not pass up!

Researching the trip, I learned that some the best viewing areas for manatees is in Crystal River, Florida, about two hours west of Orlando. Located on the gulf coast, the area has the perfect blend of warm waters fed by underground aquifers that the manatees adore. The beasts like things to be 70°F +, and can die in temperatures below 68°F. When the gulf coast gets cold, especially in the winter months, the animals move inland to the naturally warm fresh water.

I ended up selecting the company, River Ventures, as they vocally expressed their concern and work to protect the gentle giants, and they came highly rated in Trip Advisor and other locations. We selected their group tour, flight and early at 7:15 a.m. and waited with anticipation for our adventure.

A youth manatee at Crystal River

At 4:00 a.m. on a Saturday in October my sister and I carb loaded, drank some tea and coffee and drove the pitch black highways of western Florida to Crystal River. We wore swimsuits under our clothes, and made sure we were well equipped with towels and equipment to make the most of a three hour adventure. As a severely nearsighted person I purchased snorkel goggles with adjusted lenses, and as a video nerd I bought a small 4k camera to film our adventure. These investments proved to be priceless!

The company started before our scheduled time and offered coffee, bathrooms, and friendly rescue dog snuggles (a total bonus). Everyone was enthusiastic to participate in the adventure and we chatted happily with other travelers. Before long we were sat in to watch an educational video, discuss wet suits, and change into said suits before a short bus ride took us to the canal boats we were to sail on.

(c) Photo courtesy of River Ventures

It took a while to find some manatees in the canals, we were early for the season, but several manatees had come inland sensing a storm and cooling period on the horizon. The added bonus of sailing the canals for 40 minutes was that we could take in dozens of birds and the sunrise over the canals, offering a charming glimpse into the ecosystem of the area.

While the canals lay on ancient foundations fed by springs the area has been built up with houses and boating enthusiasts. However, with as many people as there are living in the area there was an active group participation in preservation and safety for the animals. Every few docks posted signs about manatees, people named their boats after the animals, and the tour companies that regularly operate in the area work together to tell people about manatee spotting, patterns they have seen, and other important details. This community spirit is vital in the preservation of the region and unique animals that inhabit the area.

(C) Photo by River Ventures

Once we had found a good manatee for visiting, and by good manatee they mean one that is docile and experienced with people, we got our goggles and snorkels ready to go, climbed into the cool waters, and let the wet suits and pool noodles do their jobs to keep us afloat.

Slowly we approached the 40+ year old manatee that we were meant to visit. The big girl was affectionately known as “Red Hot Poker” due to the red algae she grows on her back during certain times of the year. “Red” was not only an elder member of the manatee community, but she was also very pregnant and due to give birth at any time.

I expected the manatees to be large, one can not truly understand their size until you come upon them in murky waters. My experience was one of slowly swimming to the rest of my group with “Red” and coming upon a massive grey beast lurking in the water. For scale, imagine how disconcerting it would be to swim upon a car hood in a small and shallow canal. Her tail fin was in fact the size of a car hood, and showed her decades of swimming, boat encounters, and life in the canals and gulf.

Swimming upon any animal besides a fish is a truly remarkable experience, to visit with such an ancient queen of Florida was truly breathtaking. The guides referred to these beasts as Buddhas due to their calm relationship with their surroundings. The animals simply float, eat, experience, and interact with their world in a second by second manner. They take in the movement and landscape with nerves on their body that sense people and object undetected by their small eyes and poor eyesight. So calm about their existence “Red” simply went about her business grazing on sea grass and coming up for air every few minutes, even with fifteen nosy tourists sticking their nose in her business. “Red” was so calm that she would rise up under myself and other swimmers to get a breath, here she would swim against my hands and was totally unmoved by them being there. Her sense knew I was there all along, but she didn’t care that I touched her in a friendly reminder or hello.

(C) Photo by River Ventures
(C) Photo by River Ventures

Our interaction with “Red” was nothing short of amazing, in the taking breath ones away and wanting to cry it’s so profound, way. I could not believe how peaceful she floated about her day, obviously aware we were curious, and aware that we meant her only peace and friendship. To be face to face with a wild animal that was so calm was a fascinating glimpse into a world beyond our own comprehension and reactions. No wonder early settlers and native cultures were equally intrigued by these majestic animals.

Our time with “Red” came to an end, but before heading back we stopped to view an aquifer, known as Jurassic Spring, that fed the canals with warm water. It was there that a youth manatee swam through our group on the run from a larger group of snorkelers. We called it a day, and followed the directions to return to our boat and back to the tour beginnings.

(C) Photo by River Ventures

In support of the cause we bought our photos, some cute souvenirs, and with giant grins on our face we headed back to Orlando. Ending a truly magical morning in the fresh waters of Crystal River, Florida. With, as my husband calls them, sea potatoes.

Have you swam with manatees? What was your experience like?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Happy Travels!

Disney Discount Shopping – Is it Worth it?

musings

Disney is notoriously expensive, and adding on souvenirs can make everything that much more! My family isn’t particularly materialistic, but we do like fun items to remember our adventures and that includes Disney. All of us at my house have some favorite characters, and all of us have fandoms that we collect from. So, the question when we were headed to Disney World was how much should we budget and how can we save money?

When I visited Disney Springs in 2015, I was surprised at how affordable a lot of options were for visitors. There were a lot of two for one deals on stuffed animals, affordable bags, and other items that made the cost a little more bearable. I also LOVED the pins and lanyards, and inevitably bought about $100 worth of goodies for myself and to share with my stepdaughter.

Planning for our trip in 2019, I am surprised to hear that overall, Disney has increased in price, and that hasn’t skipped souvenirs. From my research on their online shop even, many items seem more expensive than they did previously. Some of the sales are not as good etc. I think a few things have happened with this, including a moving away from so many steep discounts in retail, and general inflation on goods. Thus, being the budget-minded traveler that I am, I have researched and found a few suggestions on getting souvenirs, including visiting the Disney Outlet(s) in Orlando.

Naturally curious, I had to stop at one of these stores for my own take on if it’s worth the time, or if it is a waste. Here is what I learned, bought and decided overall.

plan on it being busy!

  • Start early if you can
    • By the time I arrived in the stores Th e shelved we’re looking kind of bare. I imagine this had to do with the time of year (big family holiday season from Europe and the USA). And that it was a Friday.
  • Make a list
    • In order to keep my spending in check I watched some current videos of locals on YouTube to see what might be available. This allowed me to know what to budget and what to plan to buy.
  • Budget
    • With the prices so much lower than the theme parks it’s easy to want to buy buy buy. However, before you know it you may have spent $100 and bought more than you planned. This is where the list of options/planned purchases are worth the time before you go.
  • Visit both Orlando locations
    • Often I have heard of people just visiting one location, and skipping the other. My advice is to take some extra time and do both. This is because one store may be out of an item, or may have better sizes left (I experienced this directly).
  • Just pay to park!
    • These outlet malls in Orlando have LIMITED parking. This can meat circling the lot for 30 min and still not getting anywhere. Instead, plan ahead and download the MYPARK app, set up your spot when you pull up. Pay your $3, and be on your way. Why eat into vacation for $3?
  • Plan on crowds and lines
    • The closest location to Disney (Vineland) was WAY busier, but it is a bigger store. This made it hard to shop and look around. I was literally bumping into people just trying to walk through the store. I would suggest to be courteous to others and your family, leave the kids elsewhere and just send in an adult to dodge and weave.
    • As a side note, the check out line was long and FAST moving! And the staff was Sooooooo nice and patient and kind. Gold ⭐️ ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  • My preference was the International Drive location:
    • While parking was harder at this MASSIVE mall, this store was better. It was less busy, not as picked over, and the feeling was much nicer. Pricing was as good, selection was basically the same. If you only go to one, go to International Drive!

Purchases

  • I can’t post specifics as some are presents for the upcoming holiday season. However, I did get some awesome (and expensive) shirts for about 75% off their original prices. I got my stepdaughter an ornament for our tree (an annual tradition). And I got myself a patch for my travel denim jacket (my thing).
  • If you have littles, there were MANY toys to choose from that would make great surprise souvenirs for before or after the park (leaving more money in your pocket.

Have you shopped the Disney outlet?

If so, what have you found and enjoyed?

Happy Travels!

Planning for Magic at Universal Studios

Florida, Travel, United States

Universal Studios is the competitive edge to Disney’s theme park empire. While the Universal Studios experience has existed since 1961, the theme park magic that we know today is a more recent concoction. While some attractions existed at their Hollywood Studio in the 1960s and 1970s, the theme park lands really expanded in the 1990s with the opening of Universal Orlando in Florida. Over the last 50+ years Universal has brought its own version of movie magic to kids young and old, offering imaginative and exciting adventures.

Disney Planning – What Are You Wearing?

Florida, Travel, United States

Disney Planning – What are you wearing?

What you are wearing to Disney is a huge question. The interwebs LOVES Disney Bounding and no doubt, I also find the cosplay meets every day fashion quite a treat (my stepdaughter and I will also be Disney Bounding in the Magic Kingdom in October). Then there is being practical to deal with the weather. Orlando is notorious for heat and rain, making a normal day hot, muggy, and sopping wet. Then there is the shoe question, if one is walking seven to ten miles in a day, what does one wear to ride rides, play in water, and stay comfortable.

For our trip to Disney, we are keeping things simple but cute. My stepdaughter’s Epcot day will be a tanktop and shorts. Her shoes for every day (including one day at Universal Studios) will either be Sanuk sandals that wrap around her face, or tennis shoes (my preference is the tennis shoes, she’s 12, so we’ll see who wins). For our magic kingdom day, she will be wearing a Minnie Mouse Disney Bound that is a red Mickey shirt, black Minnie overalls skirt (shorts underneath), Minnie mouse socks (with tennis shoes), and Minnie Mouse ears.

My Magic Kingdom bound (I have to miss Epcot) will be Mulan. I have a Mulan tanktop with the original movie poster, grey chinos, a green jacket (rain coat), and Chacos for my feet. I also bought an epic Mulan Backpack, and some cute jewelry and hair accessories along with earrings to spice up the outfit. My goal is to have fun with the outfit, but also be comfortable for the day, as there is no point in dressing up but being miserable and uncomfortable all day.

My little cousin Ivy, who is five, got a very cute Minnie Mouse tutu outfit for her birthday that I may have been involved in…she will wear tennis shoes with this, and shorts under the skirt (just in case we get tired of the poof). She also has a pair of ears that match my stepdaughter’s.

Other people may choose to show of former Disney swag, shirts, ears, etc. Kids under the age of 14 are allowed to dress up for their day in the park. If you are going to an after hours event, like Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween, adults are allowed to wear costumes as long as they meet rules on layering, length etc.  For more details, click here.

All around, I think the best advice, is plan to be practical, and wear what will bring you comfort and joy. If you want some inspiration, hit the Pinterest and Instagram for millions of options!

Happy Travels!

Disney Planning – Where to Stay, How to Fly, How to Save

family, Florida, Travel, United States

Part 1

Part 2

Once you have a good idea of what you are wanting from your Disney trip then you can start to make solid plans.

Most importantly I think it’s important to establish a budget and what your family can afford. While everyone wants an epic vacation, it may be important to plan another year and save. This is especially true if you are saving vacation days and want to make sure you get the vacation you want!

Be real – Disney isn’t going anywhere.

What I think shocks most people is how fast the cost adds up. Disney tickets are realistically $100+ a day for everyone. More for adults. You save if you do multiple days or if you do half-days (a new program Disney is doing), or if you do an after hours option instead (like Mickey’s Not so Scary Halloween party). However, tickets and pricing now varies day to day, with increased cost around holidays and on weekends. Cheaper days land on your Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (generally speaking). This is because they’re trying to reduce congestion on weekends, but also bring people into the middle of the week.

When it comes to hotels, you have choices. Plan on around $200/night for your family of four to stay in the lower 3-star kind of hotels on property. This does not include breakfast or other amenities.

If you stay off property you will save , and I’ve seen hotels within 20 minutes for around $70/night. However, if you stay off property you have to consider the cost of transfers and resort parking. But no doubt you will most likely save, regardless.

If you stay on property you also have the opportunity to combine everything for a package savings. This means your hotel + theme park tickets + flights + dining can all be bought in one go. If you like the idea of being on property, this will probably be your best option overall. BUT, don’t just buy this without checking specials, rates throughout the year, and other important options.

An added perk to being on property is that every resort has public transportation to the parks and from the airport included in your stay. That means you DON’T need a car. This is especially true when parking is between $25 to $30 a day at the resort of parks. I’ll go into if you want to leave later.

Of course, this benefits Disney if you never leave. However, there are ways to avoid costs by packing food, having groceries delivered, and meal plans with the park.

For flights, if needed, you will likely pay around $200-500/person roundtrip. From Denver (my airport) we usually pay $330 with Southwest and $200 with Spirit. For us, Southwest is usually better if we have to change our flights, and when we’re taking presents to family in Orlando (use those 2 bags baby!).

With all of this in mind, figure out what your family will need to pay for the trip and what is realistic for your budget!

Happy Travels!

Disney Planning – How to Plan

family, Florida, food, Travel, United States

Part 1

While looking at lists of everything you need to do when you plan your Disney vacation it’s all extremely overwhelming. With my work as a travel advisor (agent) it’s always best to break things into reasonable pieces. Think of it like cutting up your plate of food, the small pieces prevent you from choking and dying. This is important for Disney too. (Ok death is less imminent, but your headache is real).

If you don’t have a lot of time to break everything down and you need to make sure things get done, talk to an expert! There are thousands of travel agents that have specialized training to help you turn a Disney dream into a reality. AND it doesn’t have to be a bank breaking vacation to get help! Search locally and online and you are sure to get connected with an expert. Many times your fee is minimal or even free!

Also, check with your credit card perks, some even offer concierge and travel experts as a part of your card fees! This is especially true if you are using points for any parts your travel.

If you want to handle the whole thing yourself, then prepare for it to take a good chunk of time. Most importantly, start planning what you’re doing MONTHS if not a year in advance. Even if you have been to Disney since you were in pull-ups, the changes that roll out every few months will mean you need to update your mental picture of what you want to do.

My personal suggestion is to make a list of wishes. Ask your spouse and kiddos or friends what they want out of their Disney time. Some may be all about Star Wars, others may be into the Princesses, and some may not care. Make a detailed list of everything from rides, foods, events, shopping, and hotels. This will make putting the puzzle together much easier. If you can, have everyone pick their top 1-3 “things” they don’t want to miss and then narrow it down. Find the things that overlap, and work in the rest. Ultimately, this will help you understand what you need to plan for the most.

Once you have a good idea on what everyone is wanting (don’t forget yourself) you can get into reservations and solidified plans.

-stay tuned for part 3

Happy Travels!

Disney Planning – Getting Started

family, Florida, Travel, United States

I have never been to a Disney Park. A weird admission from a travel and media geek like myself.

See my parents didn’t really love theme parks. I don’t think my dad went to a single one with us as kids. And the biggest theme park I had been to before 2015 (I was 24) was Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado.

It wasn’t that my dad didn’t like fun, or even Disney movies. In fact he adores the music from quite a few of them, it was the crowds and the noise and the heat, and most importantly, the cost.

When you’re living below the poverty most of your childhood, a Disney vacation is at the bottom of the list.

Therefore, at the age of 28 I am taking on the work of planning a day at the Magic Kingdom at Disney World!

What I thought would be a simple planning of a day or two has turned into months of opening dates and reservations and hourly details. It’s insane.

Therefore, what has been a deep dive into planning a Disney World vacation, and at times a headache, has lead me to thinking that other people could use some guidance. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing my tips and tricks to figuring it all out, saving money, and having the best time possible! I look forward to helping others along the journey.

Happy Travels!

Part 2

Visiting Cinque Terre

History, italy, Travel

Located on the west coast of Italy, a part of the Italian Riviera is the ever increasingly popular National Park of Cinque Terre. Millions visit the area every year from Florence and Rome, making it a top destination for travelers.

The appeal of The “five lands” is its sweeping landscapes, rich views, and unique adventures.

Here are my tips for visiting this enchanting location.

  • Catch an early train
    • Most people start from Florence, catch a regional train from Santa Maria Novella to La Spezia. At La Spezia you can buy your day or multi-day pass to the National Park and access to the train network in the region
    • If you are renting a car, park in La Spezia, and buy your pass just the same.
    • A small train network links the five villages (lands) running approximately every 20 minutes in each direction (north or south). This is the easiest way to get from city to city.
    • Note that there are no cars allowed in the cities and that there is a bus line that also connects the region but it’s less consistent and requires more walking.
    • The earlier you go, the better! This will help you avoid crowds and heat.
  • Bring your hiking shoes
    • There are over 70 miles of trails that links the five villages are region. The views from these trails are magnificent and offer amazing photo opportunities.
    • The trails are tough, but you do escape the crowds and enjoy some fantastic nature along the way.
    • Check trail conditions before you go, as wash outs are common.
  • Check your trains
    • Train schedules are more of a guideline than a rule in Italy. Therefore, make sure you read the schedules and allow extra time to get back to La Spezia and then your “home base” if you’re doing a day trip.
    • Allow time
    • If you can, stay a couple nights and truly take in the cities!
  • Off season or bust
    • If you can, go right at the end of summer (September/October) or right at the beginning of summer (March) so that you can enjoy the region sans millions of tourists. This allows a local connections that is often missed in June and July!

Memories of Chianti

europe, italy, Travel

As about 10% of College Students in the United States do, I did a study abroad program. I chose Italy before I started college, and stuck with Italy, specifically Florence. While the fees were high and the time away from my partner (now husband) was hard, it was worth EVERY SINGLE PENNY and every hard day to have the experience.

Reflecting on this trip is a constant aid to my work today, and a reminder of just how much I have seen and enjoyed since I graduated from high school in 2009.

Today, I share a little video on the PERFECT Day in Chianti and where you should head on your next journey to Tuscany.

Locations

Your Local Theme Park is as Good as you Remember

colorado, Colorado Events, Travel, United States

Many times we are reminded that theme parks are for kids. They are money sucks of candy and cartoons and memorable characters and wild rides that make many adults queasy. We are reminded to take our kids to this and that so they have fun and memories and pictures. But I say, hold up, theme parks are as much for adults as kids, and you damn well can have a great time.

This year, if anything, is becoming my year of theme parks. For a long time I shied away from the parks. Well, I didn’t actively shy away, but I didn’t try to go to theme parks. I had not been to anything since 2015 on my last trip to Florida, and I decided to change that.

The last eight months have been a stressful, but mostly positive experience in my family. My husband had a job change, I am having two surgeries this year (more on this later next week), I have had promotions and job trainings. It has been crazy, an emotional roller coaster (pun intended), and stressful. I decided that my stepdaughter and I needed some fun on a day we had free together and that’s what we did.

We took a whole Saturday, grabbed Lily’s friend Josiah, and spent a whole day eating junk food, riding rides, and weaving through crowds at Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado. It was silly, it was fun, we made goofy jokes, we laughed at the rides, we got dizzy on the tea cups and we had an overall great day.

We enjoyed it so much we are looking forward to going next week with our Girl Scout Troop! There is even a new ride based on Meow Wolf, the Kaleidescape, which is an amazing art installation! It’s classic fun, in a local setting, full of all the grease and Dippin’ Dots that made a 90s childhood amazing.

So, fellow adults, and adult adjacents, get off your ass and enjoy the insane stupid fun of your local theme park this year. You will blow off steam, you’ll get some sun, you’ll walk like five miles so don’t stress about the calories, and you will make some memories.

Happy Travels!