Wondering how to see loads of marine life up close and personal in winter? Check out the FREE Manatee Viewing Center!
Free? From the electric company? That was my first response when I heard about the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center.
However, if you are looking for a free and fun winter family activity in the Tampa area, the Manatee Viewing Center is a great place to start!
What is the Viewing Center?
Manatees, the gentle cows of the sea, seek out warm waters for their long lazy days of winter. So when the water turns cold, these gentle giants have learned that the waters around the Tampa Electric plant are a great place for lounging!
Loads of manatees drift in and out of the Viewing Center on the banks of the Tampa Electric plant along with scores of other sea creatures.
Tampa Electric has seized the opportunity to protect the sea life and give back to the community through the neat, clean, and completely FREE Manatee Viewing Center. As the manatees start congregating in the warmer water between November and April, the viewing center is a great free family winter activity!
The center has free parking, free admission, and even staff to answer your many marine-life questions.
What to expect at the Manatee Viewing Center
The Center is not an aquarium or a zoo. The animals are wild and unpredictable. This means, that you may see sharks one day (as my son and husband did) and see nothing another day.
Regardless of what wild animals come and go from the center, you will be greeted with a large, paved, free parking lot, simple food trucks, a sting-ray touch tank, and a long beautiful boardwalk winding through the mangroves and over the waters.
Even if you saw no animals, it is a lovely place to play in the interactive exhibits, take a walk along the boardwalk, and enjoy the view over the ocean (as long as you look away from the enormous power plant!)
Plus, the viewing center also has a modest cafe serving snacks and hot beverages for chilly Florida days!
What animals might you see at the Manatee Viewing Center?
Anything that lives in the ocean might make an appearance at the Center.
You are likely to see dozens if not hundreds of manatees, but you might also see fish, stingrays, turtles, sharks, dolphins, crabs, birds, and more in the open waters.
Plus, as you walk through the tangled mangroves along the boardwalk, keep your eyes open for lizards, scampering mammals, creek dwelling fish, and more!
Even if you don’t see those animals in the water, make sure you see the many types of stingrays in the ray touch-tank and learn about the different types of sea turtles at the rehabilitation center.
Don’t skip the ride to the rehabilitation center.
A short shuttle ride from the main viewing center is Tampa Electric’s research and rehabilitation center where scientists and volunteers alike work to save and rehabilitate turtles, coral, and other sea life.
Ordinarily, my children see marine animals in cages, preserves, or aquariums, but rarely do they get to see so many animals in the wild or on their way to rehabilitation.
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If you are lucky, you will even get to watch some of their sea turtles-in-residence.
My kids loved watching the different sea turtles, learning about the different kinds and sizes of sea turtles, and exploring the facility.
The entire facility spans more than 500 preserved acres. So, we chose to walk back to our car through the reserve between the viewing center and the rehabilitation center admiring the flora and fauna as additional fun for the family.
All in all, our family spent about 3 hours touring the entire Manatee Viewing Center, playing in the exhibits, learning about marine-life, and watching rehabilitation of wild animals.
Tip: The shuttle is a great way to get to the rehabilitation center, but the short 1 mile walk between the parking area and the rehab center is a beautiful, leisurely walk through nature.
Where is the Viewing Center?
If you see the towering power power plant tubes, just keep driving toward them!
The address of the viewing center is 6990 Dickman Rd., Apollo Beach, FL 33572 .
Again, the center is only open from November to April, so check the official website for hours and operating times before you go at https://www.tampaelectric.com/company/fctc/
The Manatee Viewing Center: Free Family Fun in Tampa
The Manatee Viewing Center is completely free, has tons to offer the whole family, and is a gorgeous place to spend a few hours.
Better yet, your children will learn a few things about types of stingrays, the migration habits of manatees, the generation of energy, or even the life spans of turtles.
Our entire family had a great time, and we highly recommend it for any family that wants to experience ocean life up close and personal without having to pay a hefty entrance fee!