Blue Spring State Park — just about an hour and half from Jacksonville, about 15 minutes off I-4 West — is a great day trip for kids of different ages.
The Main Attraction: Manatees!
The main attraction there is the manatees, which are “in season” from November through March. The best time to go to this park is when it is cold out, as the manatees swim up the spring from the St. Johns River (yes, the same one that runs through Jacksonville!) and congregate in the warmer spring water, sometimes by the hundreds! (A record-breaking 485 manatees were recorded in the spring this January.) A special manatee hotline (386-775-3663) will let you know how many manatees are there at the moment, or you can check out the ManateeCam. This park gets full quickly, so go early. We left Jacksonville on a Sunday morning with our four kids by 9 a.m. and pulled into the park at 10:30 a.m., snagging one of the last parking spaces near the manatee boardwalk. Fees vary by state park and by season, but usually are less than $10 per car.
After 15 minutes on the big playground to get the wiggles out from the car ride, plus a restroom stop, we walked over to the boardwalk that overreaches the spring to see the manatees. The boardwalk extends about a quarter-to-a-half mile down the side of the spring, wide enough for a double stroller and safe enough that our 4- year-old could run around without falling in the water. Near the start of the boardwalk you can sign up for a boat tour, or rent a canoe or kayak to paddle out into the St. Johns (you aren’t allowed to paddle near the manatees — that area is roped off). We plan to return when the kids are older to do this, as it looked like a lot of fun, and the river was very narrow, slow moving and easily managed (nothing like how big and wide it is in Jacksonville).
As you walk down the boardwalk, there are different alcoves that extend over the water for manatee viewing. (It got more crowded the later it got, so your best bet is to go earlier for little people to get the best view.) See all those gray lumps and shadows? They are manatees. They will surface every once in a while to breathe and say hello. Besides manatees, there were tons of fish to see in the clear water and helpful fish guides posted on signs. There were also birds, and of course, alligators, some of which were larger than I would have preferred!
The walk down the boardwalk isn’t long — a good distance for little legs without getting too tired. At the end of the boardwalk is a gift shop, where we purchased a book about manatees and an ornament for our Christmas tree (this is a tradition we have — we get an ornament when we go anywhere as a family). There is also a concession area, with ice cream and different options for lunch-type foods, and picnic tables.
A historic home (Thursby House) on the property was also open for tour, which we may also do when the children are older. The day we went was (unknown to us) the Manatee Festival, and there were some games, coloring pages and visiting outside groups who shared information on the manatees and conservation of their environment, as well as an exhibit on water and preservation of our lakes and rivers.
After walking back and more playground activity, it was time for lunch. I had packed lunch boxes and snacks for the kids, not knowing what was available, and was glad I had. We ate on our own timeline and they had food I knew they liked. Blue Spring State Park is near a small town in the country, off some back roads off the interstate, and other than the snack bar at the park, there are few-to-no food options nearby. It would be easy to head into Daytona and hit one of the casual dining places off I-95 on the way back if you had older children who could wait for a later lunch. Ours ate their lunch boxes in the car and then promptly fell asleep. Success! We were home by 2:30 p.m. and had the afternoon to get ready for the coming week.
Visiting In the Springtime
If you go now, in the spring, firefly tours are being offered in the evening. While the park also has options for overnight camping, hiking, boat tours, tubing, birding and snorkeling, with four small kids we didn’t attempt these great activities. Tubing and swimming are only allowed when the manatees are gone — which you’d only want to do when it is hot out anyway. There is a dock and easy entry into the spring off the boardwalk if you’re swimming. You just might want to check for alligators first!
Tips for those who go: Bring snacks and lunch, water, bug spray, sunblock and a stroller for your littlest ones. A camera is a great idea. Restrooms and the playground are right by the parking area and boardwalk.