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A small, friendly, non-touristy type center with many open lagoons and injured and recovering dolphins, some with babies. You can get very close to the dolphins from the walkways, interact with staff, watch "training" and demonstrations and pay to interact with dolphins. When we were there (late afternoon) there can't' have been more than 20 other people visiting.
This was reallly a good find for an afternoon - especially as it doesn't look like much from the road. There is a very nice museum with the history of the Keys, as well as good gift store and a covered outdoor area with some ponds of local fish and some small touch pools (including an unknown live object that looked like a circular tarantula that noone dared touch). Sitting around were also several cats and large iguanas. There is a short 10 minute film on the history of the Keys and specifically the nature reserve, which has been home first to early Black settlers and then to a prosperous white family. You can still see both properties on the site.
There are several interesting trails through the hammocks and mangrove swamps. We learned to identify different hardwood trees, to taste the salt on black mangrove leaves, to spot spiders on the spider trail, see butterflies in the butterfly garden and watch bees in the see through bee hive.
We all enjoyed the sick and injured bird rehabilition center on the path near the sea and had to "shoo away" a female white heron who had apparently been released the previous week but didn't want to leave.
The paths lead down to several points at the sea, where there are nice areas for seating/bird watching/fish watching and so on.
The family spent Saturday night here to watch the famous sunset, eat some seafood and soak up the atmosphere.
In spite of our fears it wasn't too difficult to get nearby parking for $15 and although there were big crowds of people at Mallory Square itself and on the nearby roads, it is all very family friendly... kind of New Orleans atmosphere without the sleaze.
Lots of free entertainment to watch - singers, one man band, fire eater, hair braiders and so one - and the bars offered great cocktails.
We found this place through a local guide book and Robbie is clearly doing a roaring business. However, the kids had a blast, so it was certainly worth it. We paid $3 for a small bucket of dead sardine (or similar), walked to the end of a jetty and threw the fish to the waiting tarpon and pelicans. The fish are not caged (as a reviewer has claimed somewhere else). They can swim in and out of the netted area (which they do). The netting is there to try to keep the pelicans from grabbing the sardines first. Clearly over the years both birds and fish have learned that this is a wonderful source of food and there were probably over 50 each of tarpons and pelicans.
We ended up purchasing 2 buckets per child (we have 3 - ages 6, 11 and 14) and they all wanted a third bucket.
If you have the time/inclination you can also go kayaking, hire a fishing charter etc from this place. We just bought an icecream.
We visited this State Park primarily for the glass bottomed boat tours which make about 3 trips a day to the coral reef and were able to purchase tickets for the next scheduled trip about 1.5 hours after we arrived.
We purchase dramamine, which they advised, as it was windy - excellent advice as all of us felt fine, although our youngest, who only had half a dramamine spent most of the time asleep.
The trip to the reef itself takes about 40 minutes, we spent 45 minutes drifting over the reef and then 40 minutes back. The boat is quite a modern, fast catamaran and has a snack bar on board.
The commentary was excellent and well-informed and our health and safety were stressed constantly. Only downside was the gentle reminding that the crew are not State but private employees, without health insurance and therefore tips would be appreciated.
We saw three nurse sharks, a couple of barracuda and a multitude of smaller reef fish. Everything seemed very "blue" and it was somewhat difficult to detect all the colours of the fish. (in the mangrove swamp through which you pass to get to the sea proper everything looks yellow).
Nevertheless, this was one of the highlights of our vacation and the one the kids talk about most.
Again - another attraction we highly recommend. it was reasonably priced and there were plenty of different things to do. Although it is an alligator farm, we managed to avoid the "how do they kill the alligators" question and it appears more like an alligator zoo.
The best feature for me is that the people we met are real experts. We talked to the man who fed the alligators and he actually appears on Animal Planet in "Miami Animal Police" (I think that is what it is called).
We saw an alligator show with a bit of "wrestling" and everyone held a baby alligator with its jaw taped shut. We learned the difference between alligators and crocodiles and heard them grunting and hissing.
There are different pens showing babies maturing into teenagers and then they are released (presumably) into the giant ponds which are heaving with alligator - many of which are overweight due to the daily feeding (much like people alligators eat whenever they have the opportunity). In the wild they feed much less.
The highlight of course was the air ride into the Everglades, with complete 360s and ear plugs. We saw many alligators in the creeks and the driver was helpful in pointing out the hidden ones.
We spent a good 2.5 hours here, without a break and good have spent longer seeing the snakes, other animals, shopping or following the nature trail.
In summary - a really good value time.