We did it right this year, thanks to planning ahead. We arrived early-ish. We'd planned to arrive earlier, but it takes Miss D an hour to decide what she's going to wear. Middle school is going to be HELL, but I digress.
Instead of leaving the house at 9:30 and being in the gate before 10:30, we left at 10 and arrived slightly before 11, or, as it turns out, in the nick of time. We paid our modest entry fee ($8 for adults, Miss D was still free) and got our hands stamped with a manatee stamp. My daughter's former co-worker, who lives nearby and is a delightful woman, joined us a few minutes later, and we boarded the bus to Blue Spring State Park. We did the park first, and boy, were we glad we did!
We timed it all right. By the time we'd gotten back from Blue Spring
State Park to the festival at Valentine Park (less than 10 minutes away)
the line for the bus to see the manatees was backed up all the way
through the festival, and I cannot imagine waiting in that line with a bored three year old - it would have been misery. Traffic on the road leading to the state park was also backed up, so even the official festival transportation had a very long wait in stopped traffic. We lucked out.
Pro tip: Go early, and see the manatees FIRST. Also, consider stopping at Publix for subs and chips, throwing them in a cooler in your car, and eating at one of the picnic tables outside the festival
area, because the food is a total crapshoot. Last year was delicious, this
year was potential gastrointestinal disaster and hideously expensive.
It was cool, sunny, and the crowds were light when we arrived. The manatees weren't as plentiful as they were last year, when the spring looked like Times Square on New Year's Eve, but there were plenty to see. My daughter wanted to walk all the way up to the spring head, because we'd never done it before. Good call - most people didn't bother, and there were maybe a dozen or so people on the platform.
The shadowy area at the lower left with the "fuzzy" water is the spring, with the water bubbling up.
The festival portion of the festival wasn't as awesome as last year - the food was deeply disappointing. Last year they had some really good food trucks, and it was hard to decide what to eat. This year we were gouged for insanely overpriced tasteless greasy fried crap. But then Delaney spent some time in the bounce house and "won" a toy sword in a purple plastic sheath throwing darts at balloons (the nice game attendant let her throw way more than the allotted 3 so she could get a good prize). She was thrilled with her sword, and we had to keep her from smacking random strangers for the rest of the afternoon. She's a born pirate.
She was an exhausted pirate by the time we left, way later than we'd intended, and passed out in the car before we'd crossed the St. Johns. It was a lovely day, and I'm glad we went.