CENTRAL FLORIDA:
THE EPICENTER OF FUN

BY KEVIN FRITZ

Central Florida Tourism Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

There was a time when beaches were the only thing people associated with Florida. In droves, vacationers arrived by train and car to bask in the sun and plant their toes in the warm Sunshine State sand. Few people, especially visitors, ventured inland. That all began to change when Walt Disney bought tracts of swampland near Orlando in 1965 and began to build not only his own empire, but the most popular vacation spot in the world, now known as Central Florida. Fifty million visitors a year can’t be wrong.

Currently home to an array of attractions, zoos, aquariums, thousands of restaurants and places to stay, there is more to do today in Central Florida than Walt could have ever imagined.

Beyond its signature icon theme parks—Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando—the area is rich in natural attractions, with gorgeous parks, lakes and rivers that can almost make one forget about the beaches to the east and west, which are only a short car ride away if the urge strikes. Welcome to Central Florida, the epicenter of fun.

WHAT’S NEW

Resorts make vacation life seamless and hassle-free. One of the newest, Streamsong Resort in Polk County’s Fort Meade has opened its 216-room luxury lodge. The 16,000-natural-acre resort situated between Orlando and Tampa features bass fishing, a sporting clays facility, a grotto-style spa and three restaurants. Guest rooms and suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the property’s lakes and natural surroundings.

For attraction enthusiasts with young ones, the new DUPLO Valley at LEGOLAND Florida brings the LEGO DUPLO line of preschool building toys to life. The farm theme includes a train, mini-tractor ride and water play area. Don’t miss the new six-foot LEGO Globe built out of more than 250,000 LEGO bricks, which is part of an initiative to further educate renewable-energy use inside the park. Then meet your favorite characters. Interact and take pictures with Buddy, Max, the LEGO Friends and even Emmet from the LEGO Movie at Buddy’s Character Corner based in the historic Magnolia Mansion inside the Fun Town section of LEGOLAND Florida Resort.

Feeling nostalgic? LEGOLAND Florida has reopened the Florida Pool and Oriental Gardens section of Cypress Gardens, which formerly occupied this land in Winter Haven. The pool was originally built as a set for the 1953 film, Easy to Love, starring Esther Williams.

Scheduled to open in spring 2015, the Orlando Eye, a 400-foot observation wheel on International Drive, is part of the new US$250-million I-Drive 360 dining-and-entertainment complex filled with restaurants, stores and attractions, including a Sea Life Aquarium and a Madame Tussauds wax museum.

At Orlando’s core three theme parks, great new adventures await. Harry Potter continues to marvel young and old alike at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley situated within a replication of London in Universal Studios Florida. Diagon Alley features shops, a restaurant and a multi-dimensional thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort has opened with 1,800 moderately priced, family suites and value-priced guest rooms. Experience its 10-lane bowling alley and sand beaches. Universal Orlando has also opened eight new dining choices at CityWalk, including the Hot Dog Hall of Fame, featuring iconic hot dog creations from famous ballparks.

Join Snow White’s lovable little friends at Walt Disney World’s new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster. The Magic Kingdom also unveiled a new parade: Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade. Stay at the new Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort and enjoy a Tom Fazio-designed golf course, full-service spa, four restaurants, an elaborate pool area and nightly views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Make your way to downtown Orlando and visit the spectacular new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in November 2014. The state-of-the-art Center is Orlando’s new home for Broadway productions, the Orlando Ballet and a gamut of concerts and special performances. See a show or just relax with some refreshments on its roomy outdoor plaza.

ARTS AND CULTURE

In Highlands County, downtown Lake Placid—known as “uptown” to locals—has preserved its history with masterstrokes of paintbrushes. With more than 40 colorful murals adorning buildings in town, Lake Placid is known as the “Town of Murals.”

Standing tall on Iron Mountain, Bok Tower in Lake Wales has been a fan favorite since 1929. It boasts one of the greatest works of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and a 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco “singing tower” that houses one of the world’s finest carillons. Its 60 bells ring every half hour. Tour Pinewood Estate, a 20-room Mediterranean-style home built in the 1930s, nestled among a spectacular collection of ferns, palms, camellias and magnolias. Afterward, enjoy lunch at the Blue Palmetto Café.

Who would guess that the largest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright designs in the world is in Lakeland, Florida? The legendary architect oversaw and designed the construction of 12 structures, including his only planetarium, on the campus of Florida Southern College.

A little-known fun culture stop in Lake County is the miniature White House on display at the Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont. The 10-ton replica was formerly on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The intricate details of the Oval Office, Lincoln’s bedroom and other legendary rooms are incredible.

Harry P. Leu Gardens and Leu House Museum are part of a 50-acre botanical park created as gardens in 1936. Stroll pathways past 50 varieties of azaleas, 50 species of bamboo, 2,000 camellia plants and 50 kinds of citrus trees. The house, built in 1858 by Orlando pioneers Angeline and David W. Mizell, is open for daily tours.

North of downtown Orlando, the Orlando Museum of Art, the Orlando Science Center, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theatre and Mennello Museum of American Art are all conveniently located in the same culture complex, the 45-acre Loch Haven Park.

A visit to historic Winter Garden is a step back in time. Because it was situated on the banks of Lake Apopka, it was once the bustling center of Central Florida serving as the largest citrus shipping point in the world. Artifacts found around the lake indicate that Indians inhabited the land for thousands of years, up until the colonization of Florida by Spanish explorers. The Garden Theatre, built in 1935, was restored to its true Mediterranean Revival style in 2008.

In artsy Winter Park, The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is the world showcase for everything Tiffany with the most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. For the oldest and most distinguished collections in Florida, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College is a must-see.

Stay or just sit a spell in a rocker on the porch overlooking beautiful Lake Dora at The Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, circa 1883. Enjoy the quiet while sipping iced tea, just as past visitors Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and US Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Calvin Coolidge have done.

The Melon Patch Theatre in Leesburg celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014, providing family-friendly theatrical musicals, comedies and plays. The second floor of the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala is devoted to a wonderful collection of European paintings, sculptures and decorative arts.

BEACHES

Although there are no seaside beaches in this region, there are plenty of options to cool off by the water.

In Osceola County, Lake Tohopekaliga, known as Lake Toho, covers 19,000 acres and spans 42 miles in diameter. At Fantasy Surf in Kissimmee, indoor surfing and bodyboarding will make you feel like you’re at the beach. Nearby, try water skiing, wakeboarding, wakeskating, wakesurfing and kneeboarding at the Orlando Watersports Complex.

A short drive west of Orlando, Lake Louisa in Clermont, the largest in a chain of 13 lakes, is designated an Outstanding Florida Water Way. Take a swim and admire the rolling hills of Lake County.

Don’t forget Central Florida’s water parks. There are many from which to choose and many have their own beaches. From Walt Disney World and SeaWorld to Wet ’n Wild and LEGOLAND Florida, wet thrills abound.

For a more natural setting, Wekiwa Springs State Park, north of Orlando, boasts a pristine spring-fed swimming hole. Or relax on a canoe or kayak and join the otters as they float down the river.

In Marion County, Rainbow Springs State Park offers cool, clear waters of headsprings. The depth ranges from five to 18 feet, while the water temperature averages a soothing 72 F year-round.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

In the southern reaches of the region, Dock 633 in Lake Placid is famous for its Dock Onion and fresh seafood. Be treated like family and try the fried pickles.

If you are looking for some of the finest Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, Arabellas Ristorante in Winter Haven is known for its Chateaubriand in a casually elegant atmosphere. In Kissimmee, Chef John’s Place offers a fusion of mouth-watering steaks and seafood to smoked baby back ribs and pasta.

In the Orlando area, options abound, starting with Restaurant Row on the fabled International Drive. Here you will find some of the most sought-after culinary favorites including Morton’s The Steakhouse, Roy’s and Seasons 52.

The ICEBAR Orlando on International Drive is an experience like no other. Stop by the largest permanent ice bar in the world and enjoy a frosty beer or cocktail in a 22-F chill while sitting on ice seats. Next door, thaw out in the FIRE Lounge with live DJ music. Down the street, luxury-bowling concept Kings Bowl Orlando boasts a chef-created menu and an innovative list of cocktails.

If you want to make an adventure out of your evening meal, Orlando-area themed dinner theaters Capone’s Dinner & Show, Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament and Pirate’s Dinner Adventure will entertain and satisfy the whole family, while the Treasure Dinner Theatre features a cabaret dinner show suitable for adults only. The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks presents comedy with your supper, and Titanic the Experience gives diners the feeling of eating with Titanic notables and an opportunity to experience life on board the ship.

The COOP in Winter Park is a new southern-food favorite serving up chicken and waffles, deviled eggs, buttermilk biscuits and po’ boys. Winter Park continues to be a mecca for visitors eager to stroll its famed brick Park Avenue and dine and people-watch from the sidewalk cafés. Off the main drag, the award-winning Ravenous Pig is definitely worth a stop.

Orlando’s antique district offers classic Italian dishes at Gargi’s Lakeside Italian Ristorante and the venerable White Wolf Café & Bar features a popular US$3 mimosa and Bloody Mary brunch on Sundays. Downtown’s historic Church Street Station, once bustling with activity for locals and visitors alike, is making a comeback, offering a number of clubs and restaurants, such as The Rusty Spoon, Cevíche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, and Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grille that doubles as a cabaret on Saturday nights complete with female impersonators.

North of Orlando, Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Café in Sanford has served freshly prepared German food in Central Florida since 2001.

In Leesburg, Sully’s Smokehouse is the place for fall-off-the-bone ribs and is known locally as the king of barbeque. Also in Lake County, Amrit Palace has delighted foodies for 30 years with the finest Indian food in Florida. Try the lamb curry or shrimp masala. Maggie’s Attic, a cozy, family-owned wine bar and boutique in Mount Dora, serves up craft beer, live music and unique gifts.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

When it’s time for some fresh air, the Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park in Polk County covers more than 8,000 acres of scrub, sandhill and flatwoods land. Enjoy six miles of hiking trails, fishing and excellent wildlife-viewing opportunities, including several protected animal species: Florida scrub jays, bald eagles, gopher tortoises and Florida scrub lizards.

In Lakeland, visit the 260-acre Safari Wilderness Ranch and take a safari ride to experience 400 species of African, Asian and American animals. If your plans land you in the Lakeland area in April, SUN ’n FUN, the Annual International Fly-In & Expo, educates generations with more than 10,000 aircraft, a variety of hands-on activities and daily air shows.  

When it comes to airboat ecotours, there is simply no comparison to Wild Florida Airboats. By day, at sunset or by the light of the moon, airboat tours at the Wild Florida Airboat & Wildlife Park in Kenansville on Cypress Lake will present you with a glimpse of Old Florida at its best. Get an in-depth look at the ’gators, birds, eagles, trees and plants as you glide through more than 100,000 acres of wetlands.

Have the family experience the tranquility and adventure of an early-morning hot-air balloon ride with Orlando Balloon Adventures in Kissimmee. Later, take the controls of a restored antique fighter plane at Warbird Adventures at Kissimmee Gateway Airport.

Old Town in Kissimmee features rides for the kids, go-karts, a haunted house, themed restaurants, an arcade and shopping. Or try your luck at the AMPVenture Experience, an adventure course with a four-story ropes challenge course, a 300-foot-long zip line and a 35-foot rock-climbing wall. Visit Green Meadows Petting Farm in Kissimmee to get a hands-on experience with more than 300 animals, such as pigs, chickens, goats and sheep. Kids can enjoy a pony ride and milk a cow at Central Florida’s most popular petting farm.

In Downtown Disney (soon to be known as Disney Springs), Splitsville Luxury Lanes is 50,000 square feet of bowling, billiards and great food, offering hours of family entertainment.

For less petting and more thrills, Gatorland is the alligator capital of the world. Watch live feedings, learn about exotic reptiles, and cheer on the ’gator wrestlers. Say hello—from a distance—to Bonecrusher II, a resident 15-foot, 1,400-pound American crocodile, and visit Bloo and Osceola, the newest members to the Bobcat Bayou habitat. There’s also a splash park for kids and the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line for the more adventurous.

Fun Spot America features White Lightning, Orlando’s only wooden roller coaster; Freedom Flyer, a suspended family coaster; and a 250-foot SkyCoaster, the world’s second-largest of its kind. (The world’s tallest is at Fun Spot America in Kissimmee, lifting you 300 feet in the air.)

Speaking of heights, the Orlando area’s tallest and steepest free-fall waterslide is at SeaWorld’s Waterpark, Aquatica. Ihu’s Breakaway Falls drops an exhilarating 80 feet—the steepest of its kind in Orlando. For a shorter fall, try the six-story Super 8 Aqua Drag Racer slides at Wet ’n Wild Orlando on International Drive. iFly Indoor Orlando treats visitors to the ultimate indoor skydiving experience.

The Orlando Science Center offers four floors of interactive, hands-on exhibits, an observatory, a café and the Dr. Phillips CineDome, a 300-seat theater for films and planetarium shows.

The Showcase of Citrus in Clermont is a family-owned roadside citrus farm and cattle ranch at which families can meander and pick grapefruits, lemons, tangerines and oranges. Enjoy its Swamp Safari | Eco Tour on board the world’s largest 4x4 for a unique look at the groves. There’s also a picnic area, a playground and a petting zoo on the grounds. Don’t forget the handcrafted creamsicles, made on-site, before you leave.

For relaxing family fun, the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour takes 18 guests at a time through the city’s chain of lakes and canals, passing by beautiful lakeshore mansions of yesteryear.

Want to tube down a crystal-clear river fed by natural springs? Located in Apopka, local favorite Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park offers swimming, hiking trails, picnicking and concessions. Or join the throngs of sunbathers by the shores.

The Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Sanford is home to more than 400 animals and the Barnyard Buddies Children’s Zoo. Feed the giraffes then cool off in the Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground. 

ROAD TRIPS

Take a break from the parking lots and embark on a scenic drive to experience some of Old Florida at its finest.

The Ridge Scenic Highway in Polk County travels more than 38 miles along the Lake Wales Ridge, through the historic communities of Frostproof, Lake Wales, Dundee and Haines City. While in Lake Wales, be sure to visit Spook Hill, a natural phenomenon that gives the illusion that cars are coasting uphill.

A drive west of Orlando to Clermont brings you to the Florida Citrus Tower built in 1956 on one of the highest hills in Florida’s ridge section. An elevator ride to the top gives way to panoramic views of Central Florida.

Look for the Green Mountain Scenic Byway that shows off the region’s little-known rolling hills. Among the rural towns and villages, you’ll pass by the historic moss-covered Sadler Oaks in the community of Tildenville.

Take a ride to Ocala, the center of the thoroughbred horse industry in Florida and spot the beautiful rolling horse farms. Hop on the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway, which travels through the heart of Central Florida to the Ocala National Forest. Look for springs, kayaking and fishing spots—you might even see the elusive Florida black bear.

SHOPPING

If you are looking for a taste of Florida, the Bartow Farmers’ Market has fresh produce, preserves, pickles and more. Or try the Lakeland Downtown Farmers’ Curb Market for some citrus from Scotty’s Produce. For mall shopping in the area, hit the nearly 100 stores at the Lakeland Square Mall.

The Mall at Millenia in Orlando has become a favorite with locals and visitors. This shopping mecca features some of the most stylish shops in all of Central Florida: Tiffany & Co., Gucci and Louis Vuitton, to name a few. The Orlando Premium Outlets International Drive and Orlando Premium Outlets Vineland Avenue offer discounts in hundreds of brand-name stores, while the upscale Pointe Orlando off International Drive features Tommy Bahama’s Store, Tommy Hilfiger and Armani Exchange. Want big? Florida Mall in Orlando offers 1.9 million square feet of space and more than 250 stores to shop ’til you drop.

Park Avenue in Winter Park is the quintessential place to shop in Central Florida. Wander in and out of shops, such as Tuni, Siegel’s Winter Park, Ten Thousand Villages and Charyli as you walk the brick-lined street. Nearby Winter Park Village features Pier One Imports, Owen Allen and Ulta.

North of Orlando, Renninger’s Antique Center & Farmers’ & Flea Market in Mount Dora is worth the trip. The family-owned business, situated on 117 acres in the rolling hills of Lake County, features hundreds of vendors, as well as car and vintage garden shows.

SPAS

Nothing says relaxing on vacation like a day at the spa. And nothing says a Florida spa vacation like the 40,000-square-foot spa at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, which employs Sunshine State ingredients in citrus-inspired treatments. There is even an outdoor rooftop eco space where you can lie in a hammock and get a massage. Try the four-hands massage during which oil is drizzled over your body and two therapists perform a full-body massage.

At Waldorf Astoria Spa by Guerlain near Walt Disney World, customized treatments help you bid goodbye to anxiety, stress and insomnia. Blue Harmony Spa at Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek reminds guests of the nourishment provided by the great blues of the world—water and skies. The newly remodeled Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa blends the resort’s turn-of-the-century elegance with modern touches and a dash of Disney. There are 15 treatment rooms and relaxation areas, as well as orchestral music harmonizing with your selected treatment. 

In Orlando’s trendy Dr. Phillips community, The Woodhouse Day Spa caters to men and women. Relax with a facial, massage or body treatment in a Vichy shower. Indulge in the Woodhouse Escape, a full-body ritual that begins with a bamboo body scrub followed by a soothing volcanic stone massage. There are 6,000 square feet of Victorian decor adorning 16 private guest treatment rooms.

Mount Dora’s state-of-the-art chic Synergy SalonSpa specializes in facials, chemical peels and massages.

UNIQUE PLACES TO STAY

While there are thousands of hotel rooms and vacation home rentals in Central Florida, there is a share of accommodation that offers a flair all its own.

The largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi, Westgate River Ranch in Lake Wales is an authentic Florida cowboy-themed property, yet home to luxurious villas and cabins where you can rest up after a day of horseback riding, swimming, fishing, nature hikes, trap and skeet shooting and hayrides. Be sure to stay over on a Saturday night to enjoy its championship rodeo with trick riding, bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing in its 1,200-seat rodeo arena.

The most popular children’s hotel in the region is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. The African-themed resort sits within a 33-acre wildlife preserve, and the entire property is designed to make you feel as if you are staying in the wild among 30 species of African wildlife, including zebras, gazelles, kudu and flamingos. When the sun rises over the savannah, watch giraffes from your room enjoying a tall-tree breakfast. Get even closer on a sunrise or sunset safari. After a long day, refuel at Boma — Flavors of Africa, an all-you-care-to-enjoy buffet resembling a lively African marketplace.

Ever stay in a glass-enclosed resort? Experience life like Jim Carey’s character did in The Truman Show under Gaylord Palm Resort’s 4.5-acre atrium with themed environments that depict popular Florida destinations, such as Key West, St. Augustine and the Everglades. The themes also characterize the 1,406 guest rooms.

For water-lovers, a best-kept secret is CoCo Key Orlando Resort, home to Orlando’s only outdoor canopy-covered water park. With 54,000 square feet of slides, rides and pools, the family can splash all day without harmful sun rays. When the sun sets, head indoors to the Key Quest Arcade and experience 6,500 square feet of games and activities. Also in Orlando, near all the major attractions, are seven Rosen Hotels & Resorts.

Minutes from Disney attractions and featuring an outdoor pool and free continental breakfast, the family-friendly Days Inn Kissimmee offers spacious guest rooms and reasonable rates.

Scheduled to open in summer 2015, the five-story LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven will feature 152 brightly colored and highly themed rooms and suites, thousands of LEGO models, interactive play areas, a pool and kid-friendly restaurants. Families can choose from one of three popular LEGO toy lines as their accommodation theme—pirate, kingdom or adventure—and all rooms include two separate sleeping areas for grown-ups and up to three little ones. To round off this ultimate family experience, hotel guests will have early access to the park and be treated to nightly entertainment.

INSIDER’S TIPS

Your family will never forget this little-known family getaway, offering a hands-on encounter with animals, such as lemurs, kangaroos and deer. The Exotic Animal Experience, located on a horse farm 15 miles east of Orlando, allows you to touch and feed exotic animals that you have only seen in the zoo or on TV. Get kissed by a llama or nuzzled by a pot-bellied pig. All of the animals are tame and love human contact. Enjoy no crowds and plenty of fresh air.

Lake County is a birdwatcher’s paradise. Conservation is important here and you just might spot the rare and endangered scrub jay found in the area.

SunRail, a new commuter rail operating from the border of Volusia County, south through Greater Orlando, is a great way to get from one town to another for as little as US$2. The trains currently only operate Monday–Friday, between 6 AM and 9:30 PM.

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