By Lisa Armstrong
While family trips to the zoo can be fun, we recommend taking the experience to another level by getting up close and personal with animals themselves. At the following resorts and attractions in Florida, Antigua, and Mexico, families can swim with manatees, play with dolphins, and even—if you’re brave—feed a lion!
1. Tickle a Manatee’s Tummy
Crystal River, Florida
The Plantation Inn & Golf Resort in Crystal River, Florida, has one of the largest aquifers in the state, which is home to more than 400 endangered West Indian manatees. The spring waters remain a warm 72 degrees year round, and between November and March, the manatees come to Crystal River and Kings Bay where you can swim, snorkel, or dive with them. Crystal River is the only place in the U.S. where you can swim with manatees, and children of all ages can participate. Some of the manatees are so friendly they will even come up and roll over so that you can scratch their bellies!
How Much: The snorkel tour is $30 per person; equipment is extra; the guided scuba dive is $39.95, plus equipment.
More Info: www.crystalriverdivers.com
2. Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
At the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Florida, you can care for big cats, bears, and other animals in need through the hotel’s "Give Back Getaway." Guests volunteer at The Big Cat Habitat, which was founded by Kay Rosaire, who has more than 30 years of experience working with and caring for exotic animals. Some of the animals at the sanctuary are retired from the Ringling Bros. Circus. Guests can help with a number of tasks—cleaning and building cages, preparing food, and feeding the animals. Volunteers must be at least 14 years of age and must be accompanied by a parent or adult sibling if between 14 and 16.
How Much: The "Give Back Getaway" experience costs $50 for adults, $30 for children. All proceeds go to The Big Cat Habitat.
More Info: www.ritzcarlton.com
3. Adopt a Turtle
Antigua and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Every year, from June until October, hawksbill sea turtles return to Jumby Bay in Antigua to nest on the resort's protected nesting areas on Pasture Bay Beach. The turtles only come ashore to lay their eggs, and as part of the Jumby Bay Hawksbill Project, you can join a team of researchers to walk the beach and watch the nesting turtles. Last year, the resort also launched a Turtle Adoption Program at its kids club, Rose Buds Camp Jumby. At the beginning of the season, children can adopt one of the nesting turtles and will receive an adoption certificate along with regular updates on their turtle’s progress posted on the resort’s Facebook page.
Guests at the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa in Mexico's Puerto Vallarta, meanwhile, can also help biologists with turtle conservation through the Secretos del Mar program. From June through December, join teams as they patrol the beaches to collect newly laid turtle eggs, which are then kept in a safe environment until they hatch. The resort’s work is carried out according to procedures established by the National Institute of Fisheries and the Fishing & Marine Biology Station of the University of Guadalajara. Children staying at the resort can name the baby turtles once they hatch and help as they’re released into the ocean.
How Much: Turtle programs at both resorts are free to guests.
4. Swim With a Celebrity Dolphin
When Winter the dolphin was just three months old, she got wrapped in a crab trap line, and though she was ultimately rescued, she ended up losing her tail. Winter’s story was the inspiration for the movie Dolphin Tale and you can meet her and interact with other rescued dolphins and other animals at The Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida. In the 30-minute Dolphin Encounter program (ages 7 and up), you get a tour of the facility and also work alongside dolphin trainers during training and feeding sessions. Children as young as 5 can participate in the Wade with Dolphins program and actually get in the water with the dolphins to observe them at play. All of the animals at the aquarium were rescued and are kept at the aquarium because they would not be able to survive in the wild. Visitors can "adopt" the dolphins, otters, stingrays, and other marine animals by making a donation to help pay for their care.
How Much: The Dolphin Encounter runs $75/person, while the Wade with Dolphins is priced at $249.
More Info: www.seewinter.com
Photo Credits: Manatee: Courtesy of Plantation on Crystal River; Tiger: bryan weiss/iStockphoto/Thinkstock; Hawksbill Turtle: Hawksbill turtle by Gerwin Sturm Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License; Winter the Dolphin: Courtesy of Clearwater Marine Aquarium