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Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon | The Palm Beaches

Discover all sensory-friendly activities and things to do at Manatee Lagoon

By: Candi Spitz

For the last eight years, Manatee Lagoon has been one of our family’s favorite local activities.  But now more than ever – this is becoming one of the premier sensory-friendly tourist stops if you are visiting The Palm Beaches.

The ocean in general is captivating for those on the spectrum.  From the allure of the sparkling waters and the mysteries of what lies beneath the surface, the ocean is a multi-sensory experience which draws our children in.   Even more intriguing is the endless variety of marine mammals, fish, crustaceans and more which can be seen from the shore.  One of the most mesmerizing of these mammals is the manatees.  And there is no better place to see these beautiful mammals than Manatee Lagoon.

The Florida Manatees are the largest of all the species of manatees and since they like to stay warm, the waters along our coastline are the ideal location for them to live and play.  In the cold winter months, they gravitate to warm water sources to avoid cold temperatures. Florida Power & Light Company’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center creates a flow of warm water that is just right for manatees.  In these cooler months, you can see hundreds of manatees gathered around Manatee Lagoon.

Now while the ocean and marine mammals are a preferred activity for many on the Autism Spectrum – that does not mean that planning a day of fun does not come with its challenges.  As a result, Manatee Lagoon – An FPL Eco-Discovery Center, recently became certified to be a certified autism-friendly business by the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (FAU CARD). So I am thrilled to be able to share all of the incredible ways that Manatee Lagoon has turned their location into a sensory-friendly inclusive experience for all ages.

Before you go

New activities are always a challenge for those on the autism spectrum.  Our children prefer to know exactly what they will see, the layout of the venue, activities available, and more well in advance so that they can acclimate to the new environment and not have any surprises. Manatee Lagoon has done an incredible job of creating social narratives for all of the situations you will encounter during your visit.  These social stories are available on their website here. There are three versions of the social narratives available on their website, however the most important for your visit will be the Visiting Manatee Lagoon story. This will walk your child through every moment of your visit.

Be sure to print out their Visual Checklist. This is a great tool for all children, regardless of abilities.  They are fun picture cards of all the activities to see and do during your visit.  This checklist also contains picture cards for expressing needs such as I need a quiet space, I need a restroom, I need a break and more to aid in communication.

And print out their Sensory-Friendly Map to help them visualize what the venue looks like and it identifies quiet areas at Manatee Lagoon where you and your children can take a break if needed.

They also have a live Manatee Cam that you can view from their website! This is a great tool to help your child see first-hand what they will be experiencing during your visit.  And in the colder winter months, this cam is quite the site to see!  I have even tuned in to watch the manatees play when I need a few moments of peace throughout the day!

Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon

When you arrive

Parking

Parking is conveniently located in front of Manatee Lagoon and is always free.  They also have an overflow lot directly across the street for busy days.  There is a sidewalk connecting the overflow lot to make it easier to walk over safely with children.

Cost

Admission is always FREE but donations are suggested.  For many special needs families who are already overburdened with expenses – this is a huge plus!  Electronic donation jars are located at the front desk for ease in donating, if you are able.  And once you see all that they offer families for free, you should really consider making a donation so they can continue to grow this incredible program. 

Sensory Bags

I must admit they have one of the BEST Sensory Bags available for use during your visit that I have experienced at any venue!  Sensory kits are available for checkout at their Welcome Desk, which is located at the entrance. Each sensory kit is a backpack that contains the following items: sunglasses, noise canceling headphones, fidget toy and a weighted manatee plushie.  And I am obsessed with the manatee plushie!!!!  I wish they would sell these!

These backpacks can be used during your visit and returned to the Welcome Desk as you leave.

Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon

Exhibits and Activities

Inside the Marine Center, you will find numerous interactive exhibits and aquariums to learn about manatees, ocean life, and the Lake Worth Lagoon. 

On Saturdays and Sundays, they also offer the absolute cutest activity I have seen for children of all ages – Manatee Rescue Adventure. This is offered from 9 am – 4 pm indoors in the classroom on the first floor.  This new interactive experience allows children to simulate a manatee rescue.  They have a pretend pool of plush manatees with scars that match the actual real-live manatees found at Manatee Lagoon. Their resident designer was brilliant in designing these!  The children can rescue them with fishing nets from the pretend pool and bring them to an exam table to examine them and read all about the real manatee it matches (ex/ Floyd, Gator and Lily).  This experience allows guests to practice measurement and data recording skills while encouraging active imaginative play.  This is seriously fun for all ages and abilities.

Another great activity is their Manatee Tales Story Time which is offered every other Saturday from 10:30-11:30 AM.  This unique experience “Manatee Tales: Adventures with Mia & Friends”  is an interactive program which begins with a kid-friendly exploration of their exhibit and then continues in the classroom for a fun story telling experience featuring the beloved Mia the Manatee.  Following the story time is a craft inspired by that day’s story.   This event is always free but registration is required. Register here.

And of course, what most of us go to Manatee Lagoon to see…. There are tons of manatees outside!!!!! 
Keep in mind that manatee season is November 15 – March 31, when the water is cold and the manatees are drawn to the warm water which is put off by Florida Power & Light Company’s Riviera Beach Next Generation Clean Energy Center.  In the warmer months, you will still see a few manatees swimming around – so don’t be discouraged if you visit out of season.  

Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon

Sensory Saturdays

For those who may be overstimulated by crowds, bright lights, noise, and other sensory concerns – they now offer Sensory Saturdays.  Once a month, on the third Saturday of each month, Manatee Lagoon will open an hour early and will be sensory-friendly.  Lights will be lowered, noise reduced, and crowds limited in order to allow our children to have the best experience possible.  In order to control the number of attendees, registration is required. Register here for Sensory Saturdays.

This event is always free and will feature activities in addition to the interactive marine center and manatees.

Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon

After Your Visit

And if your kids are like mine, they are going to want to continue to learn about manatees after their visit.  Because of this, Manatee Lagoon offers an entire Virtual Learning series for FREE on their website.  Here you can take a Marine Science Series, they also offer over 20 educational videos and you can even do virtual field trips!  The fun doesn’t have to end when they leave.

Manatee Lagoon is one of the best-kept secrets in Palm Beach County.  As both a parent of twins on the spectrum and as a professional in the field, I highly recommend you take the time to experience it for yourself.  Whether you are attending on a Sensory Saturday or just a regular day of the week, I can vouch that the Staff are trained in Autism and Sensory Needs, they are some of the kindest individuals I have ever met, and they truly want to provide everyone with a fun and educational experience regardless of abilities.  Everyone is welcome, accepted, and loved!  Hope to see you there!

More Sensory-Friendly Activities in Palm Beach County

About the Author: Candi Spitz

Candi Spitz is the Director of Development and Community Relations for the non-profit 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast.  211 is the only free and confidential Crisis Hotline and Community Helpline serving the residents of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast that provides suicide prevention, crisis intervention, information, assessment, and referral to community service for people of all ages.

She has also served as an Ambassador for Project Lifesaver International Ambassador since 2012 and was currently serves as the Director of Ambassador and Public Relations.  Candi is also a radio and tv personality and has been the Host of WPTV NewsChannel 5’s  segment “Take 5: Now You Know” since 2018.   She is the former National Spokesperson for Autism Speaks, she spent years as a Special Needs Advocate for the Palm Beach County Court System, and she has served as an autism trainer for Palm Beach County law enforcement and rescue workers.

Most importantly, she is the mother of identical twin sons, Brendan and Jaden, who both were diagnosed with Autism in 2009. She knows firsthand the struggles and concerns that families face each day as they navigate the maze of life with special needs and is passionate about helping families find the help they so desperately need.

Sensory-Friendly Attractions: Manatee Lagoon
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