Living on the Wild Side: Kid-Friendly Animal Encounters in Florida

Thanks to my incessant need to plan adventures for me and my kids to experience together, I decided to research the many opportunities in Florida to get up close and personal with all sorts of living creatures. Some of these you may have heard of and some are a bit more random, but all are fabulous opportunities to embrace your wild side!

Swim with dolphins at Marineland (St. Augustine)

If you haven’t had a chance to swim with dolphins, I’d highly recommend the swim experience at Marineland. Marineland first opened in 1938 as “Marine Studios” and was a place where underwater scenes for movies were filmed!  Marineland is now owned by the Georgia Aquarium and is a Dolphin Conservation Center. My family loved the long amount of time we got to spend in the water with the dolphins and the educational aspect of the whole experience. Did you know dolphins shut down only one hemisphere of their brain to sleep and close the opposite eye to sleep? You really do learn so many cool things about these amazing mammals.

It’s a great day trip for families and kids of all ages, whether they just want to see some dolphins or if they want to go for a swim! You will also see a nod to the old films shot in the location. It’s a really neat little part of history in our area. Kids must be 3 years old for the Touch-and-Play experience and 5 and older for the other immersion experiences.

Interact with elephants at Two Tails Ranch (near Gainesville)

Two Tails Ranch was built to board both Asian and African elephants needing temporary or permanent housing, regardless of health or dispositions. Over 250 elephants have passed through the gates of the ranch for a variety of reasons. Some stayed temporarily while their own exhibits were being remodeled or built. Others stayed for retirement, medical needs, behavior problems or even in emergencies after hurricanes destroyed their zoos.

In private guided tours, you can learn about and interact with elephants like nowhere else. The ranch is also home to several other animals such as zebras and a variety of tortoises. Great for kids of all ages.

Swim with manatees (Citrus County)

Have you seen the recent video of a Manatee munching on a man’s beard?!  I can’t even with the cuteness. Swimming with the manatees is still one of my favorite memories of growing up in Florida. Did you know Crystal River and Homosassa Springs are the only two locations in the country where people are legally allowed to swim with the manatees? The best time to swim with them is in the colder months (Nov.–Mar.) when manatees seek warm “shelter” in the waters of the natural springs that stay at a constant 72–74 degrees.

A quick Google search of the area will pop up plenty of reputable companies to host you on a tour or help you find rentals. If you are looking for a place to stay, the Plantation at Crystal River is a solid choice, as they offer swim excursions on the property and will be an easy one-stop-shop. Best for kids 6 and older.

Meet the wolves at Seacrest Wolf Preserve (Chipley)

Seacrest Wolf Preserve is a non-profit organization dedicated to wolf and wildlife conservation through education. Located in Chipley, in the Florida panhandle, Seacrest offers people a chance to get up close and personal with Gray, Arctic, and British Columbian wolves.

Wolf Encounter Tours are on Saturdays and last approximately four hours. This includes the Small Animal Adventure where you can feed the raccoons, hug a skunk, play with foxes, and meet Pecos the Coyote. They also have campgrounds available to patrons participating in a tour. The age requirement for the Encounter Tour is 10 years old, but younger children can do the Small Animal Adventure. Also, be sure to check their website for strict dress code rules.

Pet the penguins at the Florida Aquarium (Tampa)

Did you know penguins are projectile poopers? I didn’t either until I tried the Penguin Backstage Pass at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa.

Led by an experienced penguin biologist, we had a chance to touch the penguins and see them waddle, swim, shake their tails, jump in and out of their interaction pool, and poop! The biologist was fantastic and answered the many questions my kids had. These South African penguins live in a temperate environment, so no coat is needed. Great for kids of all ages.

Drive through a safari at Lion Country Safari (West Palm Beach)

Close to the Palm Beach area awaits Lion Country Safari, an actual African Safari you can drive through with your own car! It is home to over 900 animals in the drive-through preserve and in the Safari World exhibit area. Among the more notable species on display at the park are lions, white rhino, chimpanzees, zebras, and giraffes.

Also on the grounds of Lion Country Safari is a KOA campground if you are of the camping ilk. I think this would be a great place to try a trip with an RV if you have ever had the desire. A new splash park is also set to open in the spring of 2019 and will be included in admission. Great for kids of all ages.

Snuggle with a sloth at Wild Florida (Osceola County)

I discovered Wild Florida because of my son’s obsession with sloths. Since a trip to Costa Rica wasn’t in the cards, I was curious if there was a place in Florida where we could get in some sloth snuggles and good #slothies. (Sloths + selfie. Yep! It’s a thing.) Not only does Wild Florida offer Sloth Encounters, but they also offer up-close-and-personal experiences with a number of animals including gators, porcupines, and ring-tailed lemurs!

Wild Florida also offers airboat tours and will give you a taste of that true Florida wildlife experience. Great for kids of all ages, but many of the animal encounters have an age requirement of 8+ or 12+.

Do you know of any other cool animal encounter experience in Florida? 

Looking for more day trips in the Sunshine State? Check out these other posts about kid-friendly day trips from Jacksonville here and here.

Kacey Roache
Kacey Roache is a Jacksonville native who lives in Ponte Vedra with her husband, TJ, and her three kids, Lucy, Lucas and Lola. Kacey graduated from Florida State University (Go Noles!) with a degree in interior design. She is passionate about the arts and arts education and has served on the board of Art with a Heart in Healthcare, Ponte Vedra Public Education Foundation for the Arts, Christ Church Creative Academy as well as the PTOs at her kids' school. In her spare time you might find her channeling her inner Serena Williams on the tennis court, performing in community theater, or enjoying the beach with her friends and family. Follow her family's chaos on Instagram: @kaceyroachepvb


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