CENTRAL FLORIDA:
CREATING WONDROUS STORIES

BY KEVIN FRITZ

Central Florida Tourism Guide

Central Florida is a wonder. Its world-class attractions, hotels, restaurants and year-round warm sunshine continue to beckon millions of visitors. With so much to see and do, this area fascinates both children and adults alike. From the rural, Old Florida feel of Highlands County to the Ocala National Forest and all the magic in between, the Central Florida region summons your exploration.

ARTS AND CULTURE

Known as the “Town of Murals,” Lake Placid features more than 40 colorful murals within its historic outdoor art gallery. This small, Old Florida town is also known for its American Clown Museum and School. Soak in the culture in nearby Avon Park at the Museum of Florida Art and Culture and the Alan Jay Wildstein Center for the Performing Arts, both on the Avon campus of South Florida State College.

Standing tall on Iron Mountain, Bok Tower in Lake Wales has been a fan favorite since 1929. Its 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco “singing tower” houses one of the world’s finest carillons, with 60 bells ringing 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. Follow the River of Stone—a mosaic pathway composed of more than 100,000 hand-selected pebbles—to the 2.7-acre hands-on Children’s Garden, an outdoor kitchen and a farm-to-table edible garden.

Who would guess 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.

From September through June, the college hosts the Festival of Fine Arts, featuring a calendar of musical, theatrical and dance performances as well as art exhibits.

The City of Orlando is now home to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hosting Broadway shows, concerts and community events in the heart of downtown.

North of downtown, 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. Nearby, 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, is open for daily tours.

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.

A visit to historic Winter Garden is a step back in time. Once the bustling center of Central Florida and the largest citrus shipping point in the world, artifacts found around Lake Apopka 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.

For a fun way to enjoy culture, join the pedal-powered party through historic Sanford on a 15-passenger Limo Cycle. 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.

ATTRACTIONS

While Central Florida is widely known for its big three—Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, which debuts its 28-acre new water park Volcano Bay in 2017, and SeaWorld (see our Theme Parks story in this issue)—there are many other attractions you want to experience on your next visit.

In Lakeland, drop by the 260-acre Safari Wilderness Ranch and experience 400 species of African, Asian and American animals. Nearby, you’ll find the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Polk City.

For an airboat ecotour, check out Wild Florida Airboat & Wildlife Park in Kenansville on Cypress Lake. Get an in-depth look at the ’gators, birds and eagles. Later, Old Town in Kissimmee offers rides for the kids, go-karts, a haunted house, themed restaurants, an arcade and shopping.

The Showcase of Citrus in Clermont is a family-owned roadside citrus farm and cattle ranch at which families can pick grapefruits, lemons, tangerines and oranges. Don’t forget the handcrafted creamsicles. At Clermont’s Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, kids and adults can take turns stomping grapes.

The Crayola Experience in Orlando’s Florida Mall is a family attraction offering 25 hands-on experiences. Or take part in the Grande Lakes Orlando catch-and-release fish program and help track data for the Florida Wildlife Commission. Orlando’s International Drive is now home to the 25,000-square-foot Sea Life Aquarium, Madame Tussauds wax museum and the Orlando Eye, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel. At nearby iFly Indoor Orlando, test your bravery at this indoor skydiving experience. Don’t tell the kids, but at WonderWorks Indoor Amusement Park on International Drive, they can learn while having fun in this 35,000 square feet of edutainment. Fun Spot America, a family-owned theme park in the area, features multi-level go-karts, thrill rides, family rides, and an arcade. (There is also a Kissimmee location.) Just north of downtown Orlando, the Orlando Science Center offers four stories of interactive, hands-on exhibits, an observatory, a café and the Dr. Phillips CineDome, a 300-seat theater for films and planetarium shows.

Venture over to Black Hammock Adventures in Oviedo for airboat rides on Lake Jesup, home to the largest alligator population in Florida, estimated at 9,000.

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.

Near Ocala, a must visit in this region is the venerable Silver Springs State Park, Florida’s first attraction, known for its famous glass-bottom boats.

BEACHES AND OUTDOOR GEMS

Whether nature-made or artificial, the Central Florida region is home to plenty of options for the family to cool off or explore.

For water enthusiasts, Highlands County is home to 95 crystal-clear lakes. In Polk County, the Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park covers more than 8,000 acres of scrub, sandhill and flatwoods land.

Like fishing? In Osceola County, Lake Tohopekaliga, known as Lake Toho, covers 19,000 acres, spans 42 miles in diameter, and is a hotbed for bass.

Take the family waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakeskating, wakesurfing and kneeboarding at the Orlando Watersports Complex. A short drive west, Lake Louisa in Clermont is the largest in a chain of 13 lakes and designated an Outstanding Florida Water Way. Grab a pole or canoe and relish in the beauty of Lake County.

Excellent outdoor activities await north of Orlando, including Lake Apopka Loop Trail, offering 15 miles of family biking where the odds of seeing a ’gator are fantastic. 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.

Visit Blue Spring State Park home to hundreds of manatees, where the clear 73 F water temperature welcomes swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. Picnic on the beach or stay the night at the campground. In the Ocala National Forest, the southernmost forest in the United States, dozens of campgrounds and 600 lakes await.

ENTERTAINMENT

Florida is analogous to entertainment, whether that’s in the form of sports, gambling or an energetic nightlife.

For an adventure the family will never forget, point your wagon toward Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo in Lake Wales. This authentic Florida cowboy-themed property hosts a championship rodeo with trick riding, bull riding, calf roping and barrel racing every Saturday night.

Golf fans flock to Bay Hill Club & Lodge in March to see their favorite duffers at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The month begins and ends with Major League Baseball’s spring training, a staple in Central Florida for more than a century. Locally, cheer on the Detroit Tigers (Lakeland) and Atlanta Braves (Lake Buena Vista).

A happening scene can always be found at both Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk, the latter of which will keep you jumping between Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville and the Hard Rock Café. Disney Springs is home to the House of Blues and Planet Hollywood.

On International Drive, try ICEBAR Orlando, the largest of its kind in the world. Enjoy a frosty beer or cocktail in a 22 F chill while sitting on ice blocks, then thaw out in the FIRE Lounge. Down the street, Kings Bowl Orlando boasts a chef-created menu and an innovative list of cocktails. The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks presents comedy with your supper, while the Treasure Tavern Dinner Theatre features a cabaret dinner show suitable for adults only.

Orlando’s Camping World Stadium plays host to three year-end football bowl games: the Cure Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl and the Citrus Bowl. In January 2017, the stadium, formerly known as the Citrus Bowl, will host the National Football League’s Pro Bowl.

If you prefer soccer to American football, the Orlando City Soccer Club plays in the Major League Soccer (MLS) organization from March through October. Orlando is also home to the Orlando Magic of the National Basketball Association.

Downtown Orlando offers a slew of clubs and bars where live music can be heard almost every night. Rock out at Backbooth, discover the blues at Tanqueray’s or skip the light fantastic at Independent Bar.

For a unique evening of dinner, drinks and dancing, board the Rivership Romance in Sanford, an authentic sternwheeler paddlewheel ship, for a three-hour tour along Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River.

And while there is little casino action in Central Florida, Ocala Poker and Jai Alai in Reddick hosts poker tournaments and live games, as well as simulcast wagering.

LGBT SCENE

The Sunshine State is home to many year-round events and LGBT Pride celebrations—and Orlando is no exception. In fact, nowhere in the United States is the LGBT community stronger and more energetic than in Orlando. Even the mouse embraces the LGBT community. Gay Days, May 31–June 4, 2017, attracts more than 150,000 folks—families, couples and singles of all genders and ages—to take part in events held at area clubs and theme parks, including Gay Day in the Magic Kingdom on the first Saturday of June.

Orlando is home to a number of LGBT clubs and bars. Savoy in the antique district caters to the gay crowd, while Southern Nights, located on the outskirts of town, welcomes the entire LGBT community, as does the Stonewall in downtown Orlando. It is named after the famous Stonewall in New York City, the bar recognized as launching the gay rights movement in 1969.

The granddaddy of them all is the Parliament House on Orange Blossom Trail, billed as Orlando’s premiere gay travel and entertainment destination. A resort of sorts, you’ll find multiple bars, an outdoor stage, a swimming pool and the Rainbow Café. You can even stay the night. The club, known for its lively female impersonator shows, opened in 1975.

Need a break from the bar scene? Try Hamburger Mary’s on Church Street in downtown Orlando, known for its excellent burgers and outlandish Saturday night burlesque shows. East of downtown, Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria is a cozy, artsy eatery serving up wine along with its namesakes.

White Wolf Cafe & Bar, located down the street from Savoy on Orange Avenue, is an Orlando staple with fantastic sandwiches and Sunday brunch featuring the tastiest cinnamon rolls in town.

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.

Farther west and a bit north, explore the 80-acre Dade Battlefield State Park, where on December 28, 1835, an Indian ambush started the Second Seminole War. There’s a picnic area, playground and visitor’s center.

Look for the Green Mountain Scenic Byway near Lake Apopka 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 sells 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 Loop in Kissimmee is a popular outdoor mall, split into Loop East and Loop West, offering 30 retail outlets including PacSun and Old Navy. Stop for a cone at Ben & Jerry’s or grab a bite in one of a dozen eateries.

The new Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney, is now home to more than 100 shops, ranging from Anthropologie and Lucky Brand to the LEGO Store and the Art of Disney.

Pointe Orlando, the lush landscaped, fresh-air destination near the Orange County Convention Center, is known for more upscale and specialty shops, such as Armani Exchange and Rumor Boutique.

Want big? Florida Mall in Orlando offers 1.9 million square feet of space and more than 250 stores to shop ’til you drop.

The Mall at Millenia in Orlando has become a favorite of 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.

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 vintage car and garden shows.

Nearby, Lake Square Mall in Leesburg features 59 stores, while Paddock Mall in Ocala has 90 stores, anchored by Macy’s, Sears, Belk and JC Penney.

Explore the shops and boutiques on First Street in historic Sanford, once a major Central Florida hub. The town is also home to Seminole Town Square with seven anchor stores including Burlington Coat Factory.

SPAS

The Spa at Hammock Falls in Sebring invites you to relax in its full-service spa, featuring four massage therapists, a skin-care specialist and a nail tech. Indulge in the Vichy showers or treat your body to a Sea Salt Glow treatment, which softens your skin and leaves you glowing.

Melt away at DayDreams Day Spa & Bath Shop in Lakeland. De-stress in a Body Wrap with Body Polish as part of a five-hour Day of Indulgence, or simply stop in for a mani-pedi. Choose from the Classic, the Luxury or Signature. The spa also offers the Check Me Out Teen Manicure and Pedicure Combo for a mother-daughter day out.

Massage Envy in Winter Garden offers customized massages and Murad Healthy Skin facials to help relieve stress, decrease anxiety, increase energy and improve your skin texture, tone and appearance. Trust the professional massage therapists to help you choose the treatment that’s best for you. Try the Signature Service, Hot Stone Envy, which promotes circulation with light to medium pressure.

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 décor adorning 16 private guest treatment rooms.

The Euro Day Spa & Salon in Orlando invites you to be spoiled with the Spa du Jour, a luxurious massage, facial, manicure and pedicure. As long as you’re getting pampered, have your hair cut by a talented stylist, or add some color!

The Spa in Orlando’s College Park offers an escape from your daily grind stress. Try the Enzymatic Sea Mud Treatment to detoxify, exfoliate and nourish your body. Smooth and supple skin will be the result of the warm infused wrap.

European architecture and a quiet waterfall welcome you at Blush Day Spa in Altamonte Springs. Try the Spa Sampler, comprising a 30-minute back, neck and shoulder massage and a 30-minute customized facial, classic manicure and pedicure. For the ultimate in luxury, lie on a bed of roses for a one-hour tea rose massage for two, then relax with a soothing rosewater pedicure and hydrating rose foot mask.

Mount Dora’s state-of-the-art chic Synergy SalonSpa specializes in facials, chemical peels and massages. Get a haircut, a manicure or enjoy a deep-tissue massage. There are also services for men, so bring the hubby along.

ALL IN A DAY

KISSIMMEE

Getting up before dawn is well worth it when you take in the sights of the theme parks and landscape from a hot-air balloon as the sun rises. Then continue your morning exploring the natural beauty of “Old Florida” as you paddle through the head-waters of the Florida Everglades at The Paddling Center. Historic Downtown Kissimmee is the perfect place for lunch as quaint Kissimmee Main Street offers great dining options, antique shopping and even ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.

ORLANDO

Begin with a beverage from Barnie’s Coffee Kitchen on Park Avenue in picturesque Winter Park. Take a Winter Park Scenic Boat tour through lush canals and peaceful lakes. Visit the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art to view the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Lunch at East End Market in trendy Audubon Park. Stop to smell the roses at Harry P. Leu Gardens. Enjoy a cocktail at The Woods in downtown Orlando. End with dinner at the French brasserie Dovecote and a performance at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

POLK COUNTY

Stop and smell the orange blossoms as you begin a day of citrus delight. Polk County offers delicious options, October through May, as one of the top citrus-producing counties in Florida. Watch citrus candy being made at Davidson of Dundee and pick up some citrus souvenirs in the gift shop. Have lunch at Lang’s Taste of Florida Café—don’t miss the award-winning grapefruit pie. Complete your day with an authentic Florida experience, picking fresh oranges from the tree at Ridge Island Groves.

SEBRING

Start with a sunrise walk along Sebring’s boardwalk or cycle through Highlands Hammock State Park. Golf the Citrus Golf Trail featuring Florida’s most affordable courses. Stroll in charming Lake Placid with nearly 50 outdoor murals and small-town shops. Lunch at McLane’s Garden Café in historic downtown Sebring, then browse through “City on a Circle” boutiques and artist galleries. Tour Avon Park’s Maxwell’s Grove House and sample the dairy-free orange ice cream. Finish with dinner at trendy 18 East Main and a performance at the Alan Jay Wildstein Performing Arts Center.

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Orlando Sanford International Airport
Orange Lake
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