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Photo by Sheila O'Connor

Gardens, Orange Groves, and Adventure: Delights near Orlando

You always thought that Mickey Mouse was synonymous with just about everything related to Orlando, right? But think outside the Mouse-trap and think instead of the beautiful, abundant orange groves and gardens bursting with color that exist just an hour from Orlando's airport. Didn't know they existed? Then you're in for a real treat.
The Polk County area, an hour from Orlando airport, is a dream for horticulture lovers and those who just enjoy the serenity that gardens instill.

Hollis Garden

This garden is a pure delight. It is neoclassical in design and features more than 10,000 flowers and ornamental shrugs. One of the most surprising things is that you'll find some trees here from famous gardens. Just take the weeping willow that grew from an actual cutting from a tree found on the Graceland property, for instance. It's classic history and horticulture blended together and it's stunning in its presentation. There's even an oak from President Lincoln's birthplace and a sycamore from Susan B. Anthony's gravesite. Even more impressive is the fact that entry to the Hollis Garden is free.

Historic Bok Sanctuary

Talking of beautiful gardens, one of the most serene spots in this area has to be Historic Bok Sanctuary. It's actually one of Florida's original tourist spots. Not surprisingly, this is a national landmark and you'll find it on Iron Mountain, the highest point on the Florida peninsula. Enjoy being surrounded by 128 acres of gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. and discover the most striking feature of the gardens-the 205 foot marble and coquina bell tower housing one of the world's great carillons. Try to arrive in time for one of the bell-ringing concerts, it's serenely peaceful. Here too you'll find the Pinewood Estates summer home which was home to Mr. Buck (no relation to Mr. Bok). This was Mr. Buck's summer home when he was not at work in the Bethlehem Steel Company.

The mission of the sanctuary is to "inspire beauty" and it's an objective it easily fulfills in anyone who strolls through this whisper-quiet, lush place of respite.

Florida Natural Growers Grove House

The champion for the best citrus industry in the state has to be Polk County. As you enter the county, you can't help but notice orange groves - lots of them. They line the roadways, up and down both sides of the streets. It won't come as any surprise to learn that the Florida citrus industry ranks just behind tourism as the economic industry for the entire state. Polk County is, in fact, the largest producer of citrus in Florida.

You can see examples and learn how it all works at Florida's Citrus Showcase in Winter Haven and Florida's Natural Grower's Grove House on Highway 27. Citrus promotion and marketing are big business in this area and you can watch a video that shows how citrus processing is done. Don't forget to try samples of the orange juice that is produced, sweet and delicious (you can always say you are trying it for "research purposes" that's always a handy line)!

Photo by Sheila O'Connor It's worth noting that today about 95 percent of Florida oranges are turned into orange juice, the reason being that many of the oranges have been tainted by badly-colored skin making the fruit less desirable as fresh produce. Just makes for an even better excuse to have your daily vitamin C in the form of freshly-squeezed juice!

Davidson of Dundee

All those oranges are bound to make you crave this juicy fruit, so stop in at Davidson of Dundee. They've been featured on the Food Network and for good reason. They are growers, packers and shippers of Florida's tree-ripened citrus fruits - oranges, honeybells, page oranges, temple oranges and ruby red grapefruit to be precise. Shipping is no problem, they've been doing that for over 35 years.

In the early 1900s, TW Davidson grew citrus friends and in later years his son, Glen, planted his own groves, from whence he made a delicious candy mixing citrus juice and Florida sugar cane. It wasn't long before people from all over were asking for Glen's citrus candy.

These days, the line has increased to include marmalades, jellies, chocolates and they're all still made the old-fashioned way--with slow cooking in copper kettles, one loving batch at a time.

Lang Sun Country Groves

But you might not just want to tour the gardens and groves, you might actually want to TASTE them. Well go ahead. You've already indulged in that freshly squeezed orange juice. What about some one-of-a-kind-grapefruit pie? Yes, it's true. Check Lang Sun Country Groves which started in 1951 as a family owned citrus stand and has now become so popular it has been featured on both the Food Network and the Travel Channel. No, it's not sour as you might expect. In fact it's quite sweet and lip-lickingly delicious.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park - NOW CLOSED

After feasting on gardens and orange groves, you'll want to check out the adventure available in the area. And that's adventure for all ages, no matter how you define it. Cypress Garden in Florida certainly needs no introduction. This is the original, world-famous landmark that put Winter Haven on the map in 1936. Today, it's still known as "Florida's first theme park." The gardens, (now over 70 years old and looking great for their age!) have been revived and are bigger and better than ever. The attraction still has the Ski Show, botanical gardens and Southern Belles wandering the grounds that caught the world's eye originally.

Those southern belles were actually the result of a happy 'accident'. Julie Pope, co-founder of the gardens with her husband Dick Pope - came up with the idea in 1940 after the park was caught in its first freeze. One of the flame vines at the entrance to the park was damaged and Ms. Pope quickly asked a female worker to put on an antebellum dress with hoop, and stand in front of the tree and greet the guests. The tradition continues today and is oh so reminiscent of Gone with the Wind days. New additions, however, include the family fun rides, roller coasters and new water park.

Check out the banyan tree - it's incredible. Amazing to think that this was planted from a seedling in 1939 by the co-founder, Dick Pope Sr. This awesome gargantuan is certainly a remarkable sight.

Photo by Sheila O'Connor Other plants can be found along the Topiary Trail. Look for the eye-opening man-made structures including a giant peacock, a rabbit and a centipede. Romantic they all are, as is the Gazebo known as the Love Chapel where over 300 weddings are celebrated every year.

Even if you don't get to glimpse a wedding, you'll definitely be able to spot a ski show. These are renowned in these gardens and they're offered four times/day. Over the years, the skiers have established more than 50 world records, many of which are mentioned at the Water Ski Museum/Hall of Fame in nearby Polk City. It's because of its waterskiing that Cypress Gardens has inherited the name "Water Ski Capital of the World".

Family Fun

By now the kids or grandkids will be asking "When can we do something for US" and this is it. Take them along to Westgate River Ranch for a morning of bringing out their inner cowboy (go ahead, you can too!). Here you'll find an authentic 'dude ranch" experience on a 1,700 acre ranch with winding trails, pristine waters and more. Take an airboat ride, tour the property or take to the trail on horseback.

Then if you really want to wow them, head to the Fantasy of Flight, home to the world's largest collection of vintage aircraft. There's a reproduction of the renowned Ryan Spirit of St. Louis, a German JU-52 and a B-24 Liberator to name just a few. Let them experience life in an imitation war trench and see for themselves what life was like for the soldiers back then. The pride of the museum is the huge Short Sunderland, the last airworthy four-engine civilian flying boat in the world. You could easily spend half a day here surveying aircraft that have run the gamut from being a novelty to being the means to win a war. Look out for the flight simulators and the crashed Japanese Zero in which they found the skeleton of a Japanese pilot.

Central Florida is a great location to spend time. It's THE place to find lush and natural beauty bathed in serenity; adventure if you want it; and unmatched total relaxation, all in the same place. Who needs that mouse anyway?

For more information contact:
Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau at VisitCentral
Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce at

Sheila O'Connor is a freelance travel writer living in San Francisco with her husband and 3 children. Sheila runs a market newsletter for writers and can be reached by email on