The Paddle Outdoor Rental Company is family-owned and operated. The staff are very friendly and accommodating. When you arrive at their colorful retail shop you will be greeted warmly and signed in quickly. You are required to watch a short video about protecting the environment and the manatees. They will provide you with an iPad and you can sit and watch the video comfortably outside. Once you watch the video, you will receive instructions. You can take their shuttle to the Kings Bay Park Launch Area parking lot or drive their yourself. It costs $5 for all day parking.
Although I rented a sit-on-top kayak, you can also rent a Water Bike, Paddle Board, Party Board. You can also swim with the manatees, take a guided Eco Tour as well. You could rent either a single or double (tandem) kayak. They will fit you with a 3rd seat should you have a small child. Also, they are pet-friendly, so bring your dog if you must. Just make sure he/she can swim.There did not appear to be sit-in kayaks at this facility. Everything is reasonably priced.
The staff was very helpful in preparing the kayak and they have launch/dock platforms to make it easy to enter and exit the kayak.
If you are interested in swimming with the manatees or just seeing them, keep in mind that manatee season is from November 15th to March 31st. I did see 3 manatees at the Manatee Sanctuary, but only from a distance, since I was on a kayak. One did surface briefly right in front of my kayak out by Three Sisters Springs. I only saw his nose surface and then he submerged and disappeared, leaving only ripples on the surface of the water. Wish I had my GoPro for this trip. The scenery on the Crystal River is beautiful and I was able to take many pictures with my phone (see Gallery).
You can kayak freely throughout Crystal River and land on any of the beaches you encounter for a lunch or to stretch your legs. You will see many kayakers and boaters doing the same. There is a nice beach at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Please leave the beach as you found it (Take your garbage home with you!). This is a no wake zone, so the waters are very calm and great for paddling. Boating speeds are limited. If you are bringing any valuables or food/drinks, I suggest you bring them in sealed water-tight containers or dry bags. Since your kayak is a sit-on-top there are no sealed hatches and your items will get wet. Make sure you wear a hat and sunblock, the Florida sun can be deceptively dangerous, especially on the water. If you have a long-sleeve dri-fit shirt (UV protected), it would be a good idea to wear it for protection while paddling. Wear a bathing suit or fast drying shorts and water shoes of some kind, because they too will get wet.
There are many canals you can paddle down. There are some spots that get extremely congested like the Manatee Sanctuary. Here you will see many boats and kayakers stop here to see if they can get a glimpse of the manatees. The dive boats have dozens of people in wet suits and snorkels that crowd around the sanctuary to see the manatees under water. You can not enter the sanctuary but your best views are under water. Next time, I'll wear a bathing suit, so I can jump in and see the manatees under water. I could only see the manatees from my kayak. Basically, they looked like shadows under water.
I suggest you make an appointment early, so you can avoid the larger crowds that come mid-day and early afternoon. Most people appear to be first-timers in a kayak and they may not be able to maneuver their kayak through the crowded areas without colliding with other kayakers, paddle boarders or even boats. If you prefer the mid-day or afternoon, then avoid going down the canals.
Overall, it was a great experience. All of my other kayaking experiences were in a sit-in kayak, which is still my preference. However, that being said, the sit-on-top kayak was comfortable as you can move more freely. However the maneuverability, speed and tracking of the sit-on-top versus the sit-in was noticeably different. Sit-on-top kayaks are a bit heavier and wider and do not go as fast, as straight or turn as sharp as a sit-in kayak. I did enjoy the sit-on-top kayak experience and certainly would do it again. One important note: although they do issue life jackets (PFDs), most people did not wear them, nor was it mandated at this facility. The life jacket was secured to the kayak. If you can not swim, wear your life jacket!!! Accidents do happen!!!
If you are visiting the west coast of central Florida and are thinking about kayaking or paddle boarding you will not be disappointed renting from Paddle Outdoor Rentals. The Crystal River experience is great for both experienced and novice paddlers. Have fun!!! See pictures in the Gallery.