CENTRAL FLORIDA:
FLORIDA AT ITS BEST

There’s good reason why so many families love to spend their vacation time in Central Florida. World-class theme parks provide awe-inspiring fun for the entire family, while nature provides a backdrop for activities found only in this region of the Sunshine State. Revel in the mix of culture, attractions and outdoor gems as you embark on your family’s vacation of a lifetime.

BY KEVIN FRITZ

A DAY IN...


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 headwaters of the Florida Everglades at The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. 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 using liquid nitrogen. Ride the 85-foot custom-made ferris wheel at Old Town.

ORLANDO

Begin with a beverage from Barnie’s Coffee & Tea Co. 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 most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Enjoy lunch at the East End Market in trendy Audubon Park. Explore a botanical oasis at Harry P. Leu Gardens. Have 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 (VisitCentralFlorida.org) 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 trees at Ridge Island Groves.

SEBRING

Start with a sunrise cycle or walk along the Cypress Trail boardwalk at Highlands Hammock State Park. Golf the Citrus Golf Trail featuring Florida’s most affordable courses. Stroll in charming Lake Placid with 47 beautiful outdoor murals and small-town shops. In historic downtown Sebring, browse through “City on a Circle” boutiques and artist galleries. Sample creative treats at the Sebring Soda & Ice Cream Works. Finish with dinner at trendy Eighteen East ... a restaurant and bar! and a performance at the South Florida State College Performing Arts Wildstein Center.

Known as the “Town of Murals,” Lake Placid features nearly 50 colorful murals within its 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 Wildstein Center, both on the Avon Park campus of South Florida State College.

Located on Iron Mountain, Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales is a fan favorite. Its 205-foot neo-Gothic and art deco tower houses one of the world’s finest carillons, with 60 bells playing concerts daily. This 250 acre paradise includes wild birds, wildlife and spectacular flowering plants as well as Pinewood Estate, a 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion built in the 1930s.

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. A 13th structure, the Usonian House, was completed in 2013. Based on an original 1939 design, the unique building is part of the new visitor center at the college.

The City of Orlando is 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 is the Loch Haven Cultural Park. It is home to a variety of culture offerings, among them are: the Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Science Center, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theatre, Orlando Ballet and Mennello Museum of American Art. Nearby, Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre semi-tropical and tropical botanical oasis.

In artsy Winter Park, The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is the world showcase for everything Tiffany. For one of Florida’s oldest and most distinguished permanent collections of art from antiquity to contemporary, 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 Native Americans inhabited the land for thousands of years, up until the colonization of Florida by Spanish explorers.

For an interesting 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 U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Calvin Coolidge have done.

ATTRACTIONS

While Central Florida is widely known for its big three—Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando 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, book a natural adventure tour of the 260-acre Safari Wilderness Ranch via safari vehicles, kayaks or camels. Nearby, you’ll find the Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum in Polk City.

For an airboat ecotour, check out Wild Florida Airboat & Wildlife Park in Kenansville on Cypress Lake. Activities include a 14-acre gator park, animal encounters and a drive-thru safari park. Old Town in Kissimmee offers a variety of rides and attractions such as The Great Magic Hall as well as themed restaurants, an arcade and shopping. For more rides and go-karts, head over to Fun Spot America–Kissimmee.

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. 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 dozens of 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 home to many attractions, including the SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, Madame Tussauds wax museum and The Wheel, a 400-foot-tall observation wheel at ICON Park. Dezerland Action Park is an indoor theme park featuring the Orlando Auto Museum which includes cars from James Bond and Batman movies. At nearby iFly 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 interactive, hands-on exhibits, an observatory, and two theatres for educational films.

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

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.

Sebring is home to 95 crystal-clear lakes and the Highlands Hammock State Park, one of Florida’s oldest parks and a gem you must not miss. The park is renowned for its beautiful old-growth hammock and thousand-year-old oaks. You may catch a glimpse of a black bear and the Florida panther. An elevated boardwalk traverses cypress swamp where you may observe alligators, birds and other wildlife. Birdwatching, catch-and-release fishing and ranger-guided tours are other popular activities and a fully accessible tram tour allows visitors to view wildlife relatively up close.

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, spans 42 miles in circumference, and is a hotbed for bass.

Take the family waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakeskating, wakesurfing, kneeboarding and tubing at the Orlando Watersports Complex. A short drive west, Lake Louisa in Clermont is the largest in a chain of 13 lakes and is 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 the Lake Apopka Loop Trail, offering nearly 15 miles of family biking or hiking. 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, tubing and hiking trails.

Blue Spring State Park is home to hundreds of manatees. The clear, 73-degree waters welcome swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers.

In the Ocala National Forest, the southernmost forest in the United States, dozens of campgrounds and 600 lakes, rivers and springs welcome visitors year-round.

ENTERTAINMENT

Orlando has the most nightlife establishments per 100,000 residents, clocking in nearly 300.

International Drive, known as I-Drive, features an abundance of shopping, dining and entertainment for daytime or nighttime activities. Mango’s Tropical Cafe showcases exciting live shows, dancing within a vivacious Miami-style club while Tin Roof offers live music performances by Central Florida’s best artists. Sip on a cocktail at a bar made entirely of ice at ICEBAR Orlando, enjoy a fiesta at Señor Frog’s or rock out to dueling pianos at Howl at the Moon. Pointe Orlando fuses dining and entertainment with spots ranging from the distinctive flavors of Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar and Greek Zorba and belly dancing at Taverna Opa to the Southern comfort food of B.B King’s Blues Club. Nightly entertainment includes the Improv Comedy Theatre and Restaurant as well as Main Event Entertainment.

Within close proximity to Orlando’s world-famous theme parks, “Restaurant Row” is a one-mile stretch of Sand Lake Road featuring some twenty exquisite restaurants. Many feature extensive bars, comprehensive wine lists and live music.

Universal CityWalk is another vibrant place to grab a quick snack, relax over dinner, mingle over cocktails, take in an electrifying concert or dance the night away. Select from a variety of dining options, such as The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food and VIVO Italian Kitchen. Nightclubs and other after-hour hot spots include CityWalk’s Rising Star karaoke club, where on select nights visitors take center stage and perform with a live band complete with backup singers. Classic American cuisine hits the spot at the world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe, while world-famous names in music and comedy perform at the adjacent Hard Rock Live Orlando. Drink in paradise at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. A little of the Big Easy is offered at Pat O’Brien’s, the original home of dueling pianos. Savor one-of-a-kind gourmet treats at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. Sports fans can catch the big game on almost 100 HD Screens at NBC Sports Grill & Brew while grubbing out on hearty dishes.

Disney Springs is an entertainment-shopping-dining complex at Walt Disney World Resort. There are four distinct neighborhoods to explore here: The Landing, Marketplace, West Side and Town Center—built around bubbling springs.

For a unique evening, board the Rivership Barbara-Lee in Sanford, an authentic stern-wheeler, for a three-hour tour along Lake Monroe and the St. Johns River.

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

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 travels more than 38 miles along the Lake Wales Ridge, through the historical communities of Sebring, 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 eight counties in Central Florida.

In Sumter County, explore the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park where, on December 28, 1835, a Native American ambush started the Second Seminole War.

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.

Ocala, in Marion County, is the center of the thoroughbred horse industry in Florida and beautiful rolling farmlands. 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.

SHOPPING

If you are looking for a taste of Florida, there are several outdoor markets selling fresh, local produce, preserves and products, including the Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market and Main Street Bartow Farmers Market. For mall shopping, hit the Lakeland Square Mall with over 90 shops.

The Loop in Kissimmee is a popular outdoor mall offering retail outlets including Sunglass Hut and Old Navy.

Disney Springs is home to around 100 shops, ranging from Anthropologie to the LEGO Store and the Art of Disney.

Want big? The Florida Mall in Orlando offers 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 International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets 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 and Ten Thousand Villages as you walk the brick-lined street. Nearby Winter Park Village features upscale shopping and dining.

North of Orlando, Renninger’s Antique Center & Farmer’s & Flea Market in Mount Dora is worth the trip. The family-owned business features hundreds of vendors.

Nearby, Lake Square Mall in Leesburg features some 50 stores, while Paddock Mall in Ocala has more than 90, anchored by Macy’s, 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 Towne Center with four anchor stores including Burlington Coat Factory and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Crystal River
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Flagler Museum
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