CENTRAL FLORIDA:
The land of Enchantment

BY KEVIN FRITZ

Central Florida Tourism Guide

With the City of Orlando as its hub and home to preeminent signature theme parks, Central Florida is known worldwide as the epicenter of fun. While Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando serve as destinations for many visiting families, there is much more to this region that requires exploration.

Central Florida’s natural attractions—outstanding parks, lakes and rivers—coupled with an array of amusement parks, museums, zoos and aquariums create a family destination like no other in the world.

From the majestic horse farms of Ocala south to the historic city of Sebring on beautiful Lake Jackson, the Central Florida region beckons travelers to revel in its seemingly never-ending things to do.

WHAT’S NEW

Bok Tower Gardens, home to the 205-foot neo-Gothic and art-deco “singing tower” in Lake Wales, is undergoing the largest garden expansion in the 85-year history of this National Historic Landmark. The 18-month-long project, which will include a 2.7-acre hands-on Children’s Garden and a farm-to-table edible garden and outdoor kitchen, is expected to be completed in late spring of 2016.

In Polk County, LEGOLAND Florida Resort has opened a new land called Heartlake City, complete with a horse-themed disc coaster called Mia’s Riding Adventure, an interactive show titled “Friends to the Rescue,” and new shops inside the Heartlake Mall.

As a nod to the United States Women’s National Team winning the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada, Reunion – a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort has introduced FootGolf for guests to play on its award-winning 18-hole, par 72 Watson Course.

Do your kids like to color? At the Florida Mall in south Orlando, the Crayola Experience is a family attraction offering 25 hands-on creative and fun experiences for young and old alike. Coloring outside the lines is encouraged.

Transforming Downtown Disney into the new Disney Springs has doubled the number of shops and restaurants, including Morimoto Asia, a one-of-a-kind dining experience created by Chef Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef America fame. Or check out the BOATHOUSE, an upscale, waterfront dining restaurant. The king of theme parks is also redesigning Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and will feature 20 bungalows on Seven Seas Lagoon and 360 deluxe studios.

Be sure to visit SeaWorld Orlando in the summer of 2016 for the debut of Mako, a 200-foot-tall hypercoaster that will reach 73 mph along 4,760 feet of steel track—that’s almost a mile long. Named for one of the ocean’s fastest known sharks, Mako will be Orlando’s tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster. Want an even more exciting thrill? Ride Mako at night.

A new trio of attractions await newcomers to International Drive. The Orlando Eye is a 400-foot-tall observation wheel with 30 fully enclosed, air-conditioned glass capsules providing breathtaking views of Central Florida. It’s part of the new US$250-million I-Drive 360 dining-and-entertainment complex filled with restaurants, stores and featuring the 25,000- square-foot Sea Life Aquarium and Madame Tussauds wax museum. Restaurants include Yard House, Naru Restaurant and Sushi Bar, and Sugar Factory. Want more? Venture over to Cowgirls and take your chance on Orlando’s only mechanical bull.

New brew pubs are serving up fresh beer throughout Central Florida to rave reviews. Crooked Can Brewing Co. at Winter Garden’s new Plant Street Market, Bowigen’s Beer Company in Casselberry, and Ten 10 Brewery in the Mills 50 District of Orlando are worth the stop.

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 the largest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright designs in the world is in Lakeland, Florida? The legendary architect designed and oversaw 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 Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont. Life-sized wax statues of Presidents George W. Bush, Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln greet visitors who learn all about the 43 US Presidents and their first ladies.

In Orlando, 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 takes you 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 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.

The Melon Patch Theatre in Leesburg opened 60 years ago in 1955 and continues to provide 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 is the largest in a chain of 13 lakes and 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 several from which to choose and many have their own beaches. From Walt Disney World to SeaWorld and LEGOLAND Florida, wet thrills abound. It’s also your last chance to make a splash at Wet ’n Wild, considered America’s first water park. The landmark on International Drive since 1977 will close at the end of 2016.

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 everything from mouth-watering steaks and seafood to smoked baby back ribs and pasta.

In the Orlando area, options abound, starting with Restaurant Row on Sand Lake Road. Here you will find some of the most sought-after culinary favorites including Morton’s The Steakhouse, Roy’s and Seasons 52. For a more casual atmosphere, you can’t beat Rocco’s Tacos.

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, such as 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 laughter 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 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 since 1972 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 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 jeep 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 the finest classic aircraft in the world, 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 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 in their 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, Ihu’s Breakaway Falls at SeaWorld’s Waterpark, Aquatica, is Orlando area’s tallest and steepest free-fall waterslide, which 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.

SHOP

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 Outlet 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 stroll 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 type 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 enjoying a tall-tree breakfast from your room. 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 Carrey’s character did in The Truman Show under Gaylord Palms 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.

The five-story LEGOLAND Florida Resort in Winter Haven features 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 four popular LEGO toy lines as their accommodation theme—pirate, kingdom, LEGO friends 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 have early access to the park and are treated to nightly entertainment.

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.

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