Right before Ascendio, the big Harry Potter con, I visited Kennedy Space Center and took Florida Dolphin Tours to see the manatees and swim with them!
On my first day, I’d scheduled a very very early morning pickup at a hotel a mile from mine. I knew I’d be jetlagged the bad way, but was all packed and ready to go. However, I had hoped that the disgusting sauna weather wouldn’t strike that early and that if it did, the buses would be running first thing in the morning. I was wrong on both counts. I arrived, hot and worn out but in plenty of time for my tour.
First we went and visited the manatees in Crystal River. At the last minute, I got a wetsuit, not because the water was cold, but to protect lots of exposed skin from the sun (my sunscreen, oddly, wasn’t waterproof. Perhaps because it had mosquito spray, meant for this very excursion). Of course, sitting on the boat in basically a black rubber turtleneck as we searched for elusive manatees was less than pleasant. By this point, I’d truly had it with the weather. After a long search (it was off season, but even our boat captain was getting frustrated) he spied a group swimming with a pair and we went in. The cold water was wonderful, and I found I could snorkel all right, even though I hadn’t tried since I was twelve.
I looked down and oh my! There was a giant brownish creature hovering maybe five feet below me! Manatee etiquette determined that we float on the surface and only touch when they bobbed up for air—no chasing, grabbing, or riding. I floated for some time, admiring the whiskery face and huge body. And yes I got to touch a few times—though he was completely coated in algae. After, I felt much cooler, and we headed for the state park and wildlife reserve. They had wolves, gators, and a host of other creatures, including more manatees, who adorably devoured about a barrelful of lettuce. They warned us that here we’d want mosquito spray, so I piled it on, unaware, that everywhere not covered by the wetsuit was already covered with bites from the first trip. Guess we took too long to get in the water.
Halfway around the preserve, the heavens opened, and I discovered that my pretty sun parasol, black with sequins, embroidery, and glitter, makes a perfectly fine rain umbrella (I was reasonably far from the gift shop and it was really coming down). After, however, it was much cooler out. The tour had provided a breakfast buffet at Sizzler (about the last thing I wanted that morning) and a bag lunch. The ham and cheese was annoying for me (kosher) and others on the tour (vegetarian) and the cookies and chips included made for a pretty junky lunch. Of course, the park had food, so I settled things with an ice cream as big as I was. (no judgment please, but I have to wonder about the oblivious lunch providers).
Our third stop was an airboat ride into the swamp (again mosquito warnings). It was my first airboat ride with no gators, but pretty enough, and our captain enjoyed spinning the boat in surprising ways. These excursions were a good distance from Orlando—we finished two annoying kiddie movies on the bus (though I also wrote a bit. The kids found my writing career and upcoming conference quite amusing, as did their mostly-British parents.) All in all, this trip managed three lovely excursions and I‘d definitely recommend it.
Though I didn’t take video or underwater photos, this promotional video covers my tour pretty well: http://www.floridadolphintours.com/sightseeing-tours/florida-wildlife-manatee-adventure-tour
I got back in time for many silly souvenir shops. Until midnight, everything’s open, and International drive had a carnival atmosphere, compete with midway, arcades, junk food, and even a few alligator petting zoos. Lots to see and do. At last I got back to my hotel and collapsed in a dead state, knowing that I had another early tour booked for morning.
The next day I had a bus tour to the Kennedy Space Center (perhaps 20 miles outside Orlando in an enormous wildlife preserve). This time I got to meet an astronaut (on my other visit, I had missed this, probably because I didn’t know it was an option.) This time, Jim Reilly did a talk about his spacewalks and time in the space shuttle, going up to repair parts of Mir and the International Space Station. Day to day life in weightlessness was fascinating to hear about. Then there were the actual space shuttles and lots of posted history of the program. There were lots of videos of astronauts speaking, including the very famous ones. The Space Shuttles, in use since the eighties, are being retired now, in favor of a new international system. One of these, Atlantis, will be housed at Kennedy as a museum piece next year. One is going to LA—I must find out where.