Central Florida
Helen Hatzis
Helen Hatzis
July 8, 2024 ·  11 min read

Central Florida: Waterski Capital, Iconic Architecture & Nature

Central Florida
Photo credit: Visit Central Florida Tourism

FLORIDA SERIES – Second stop!

Central Florida, known for its vibrant cities, stunning natural landscapes, and world-renowned attractions, is a premier destination for travelers of all ages. Home to Orlando, the theme park capital of the world, visitors can explore the magic of Walt Disney World, the thrills of Universal Studios, LEGOLAND, the new Peppa Pig Theme Park, Bonnet Springs Park, Bob Tower and more. Beyond the theme parks, Central Florida boasts 554 freshwater lakes, 300 miles of scenic trails, and charming small towns perfect for leisurely explorations. Whether you’re seeking adventure, relaxation, or family fun, Central Florida offers a diverse array of experiences that cater to every traveler’s interests.

OVERVIEW

Central Florida
Boat tour in Winter Haven

Lakeland, in Polk County the fastest growing city in the US, is a hidden gem in Central Florida that combines rich history with modern appeal. Nestled between Tampa and Orlando, Lakeland is known for its picturesque lakes, vibrant arts scene, and charming downtown area. The city is home to the historic Polk Theatre, the renowned Florida Southern College with its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and a thriving local food scene. With its rapid growth, Lakeland offers a dynamic blend of cultural attractions, outdoor activities, and a welcoming community spirit, making it an exciting destination for both residents and visitors alike.

Winter Haven, known as the waterski capital of the world, is a paradise for water sports enthusiasts. With its Chain of Lakes, this city offers unparalleled opportunities for waterskiing, wakeboarding, and boating. Winter Haven is also home to the famous Legoland Florida Resort, which provides family-friendly fun with its themed rides, interactive exhibits, and water park. The city’s vibrant downtown area boasts a variety of shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions, making Winter Haven a dynamic destination for visitors of all ages.

Central Florida
Photo credit: Helen Hatzis – Beautiful Gardens amongst Frank Lloyd Wright architecture

Lake Wales is a charming city renowned for its natural beauty and historical significance. The highlight of Lake Wales is Bok Tower Gardens, a lush sanctuary featuring stunning gardens, tranquil walking paths, and the majestic Singing Tower carillon. This National Historic Landmark offers a serene escape with its vibrant flora, artful landscape design, and musical performances. In addition to Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales offers a glimpse into Florida’s past with its historic downtown, antique shops, and the Lake Wales History Museum. Visitors can enjoy a peaceful retreat in this picturesque city, surrounded by the beauty of Central Florida.

EAT

Central Florida

Lakeland’s culinary landscape is a delightful fusion of diverse flavors and innovative dining experiences. The city’s food scene boasts an eclectic mix of upscale restaurants, cozy cafes, and vibrant eateries that cater to a variety of palates. From farm-to-table freshness and Southern comfort food to international cuisines and gourmet delights, Lakeland offers a culinary adventure for every food enthusiast. The community’s passion for food is evident in the many food festivals, farmers’ markets, and locally-owned establishments that emphasize quality ingredients and unique culinary creations.

Restaurants I enjoyed during my stay in Lakeland:

Nineteen61: Nineteen61 is a modern Latin-American restaurant that brings a sophisticated twist to traditional flavors. The menu, crafted by Chef Marcos Fernandez, features a blend of Latin and Spanish cuisine with contemporary techniques. Diners can enjoy dishes like paella, ceviche, and slow-cooked pork, all made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. The elegant ambiance and exceptional service make Nineteen61 a standout dining destination in Lakeland.

Bok Tower Garden Blue Palmetto Cafe: Nestled within the serene Bok Tower Gardens, the Blue Palmetto Cafe offers a relaxing dining experience surrounded by natural beauty. The cafe provides a selection of fresh, healthy options including salads, sandwiches, and flatbreads. Visitors can enjoy their meals on the outdoor terrace, taking in the picturesque views of the gardens and the Singing Tower. It’s the perfect spot for a leisurely lunch after exploring the scenic grounds.

Harborside Restaurant: Harborside Restaurant is a waterfront eatery located on Lake Shipp, offering stunning lake views and a casual, welcoming atmosphere. The menu features a variety of seafood dishes, from fried shrimp and fish tacos to grilled salmon and crab cakes. With its laid-back vibe and scenic setting, Harborside is a favorite for locals and visitors looking to enjoy a delicious meal by the water.

Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille: Harry’s Seafood Bar & Grille brings the flavors of New Orleans to Lakeland with its vibrant Creole and Cajun cuisine. The restaurant’s lively atmosphere complements a menu filled with classics like jambalaya, gumbo, and crawfish étouffée. Known for its flavorful dishes and friendly service, Harry’s is a go-to spot for those craving a taste of the Big Easy in Central Florida.

PLAY

Central Florida is a playground for adventure seekers and families alike, boasting some of the state’s most historic and beloved tourist attractions. Home to the world-renowned theme parks of Orlando, such as Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld, the region offers endless excitement and entertainment. Beyond the thrill of roller coasters and themed lands, Central Florida is also the waterski capital of the world, with Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes providing the perfect setting for waterskiing and wakeboarding. Paddleboarding enthusiasts will find ample opportunities to explore the serene waters, while the region’s 554 freshwater lakes offer diverse water-based activities, including fishing, boating, and kayaking. Whether you’re chasing adrenaline at a theme park or enjoying a tranquil day on the water, Central Florida’s diverse attractions ensure there’s something for everyone to play and enjoy.

During my visit, I really enjoyed a one-hour relaxing Rue Denton Living Water Pontoon Boat Tour. This serene cruise through Winter Haven’s Chain of Lakes offers a unique perspective on the area’s natural beauty and history. The tour provides a close-up view of wildlife, including alligators sunbathing on docks, white ibis, and blue herons. The pontoon boat glides through interconnected lakes, passing historic sites such as the former Cypress Gardens, now part of Legoland Florida Resort. The knowledgeable guides share fascinating stories and insights about the local ecosystem and Hollywood filming locations. This immersive experience is perfect for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike, offering a peaceful and informative way to explore Winter Haven’s aquatic wonders. For more details, you can visit Living Water Cruises​ (or Visit Central Florida)​.

CHILL

Central Florida is thoughtfully designed with numerous green spaces that provide locals and tourists alike with peaceful retreats to recharge and connect with nature. From expansive parks to serene gardens, these green spaces offer a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life, allowing visitors to unwind and enjoy the natural beauty of the region.

Bonnet Springs Park: Bonnet Springs Park is a transformative green space that enriches the community through nature, culture, recreation, and education. Formerly an abandoned rail yard, this land has been revitalized into a vibrant park that offers a variety of activities for visitors of all ages. The park’s mission to create a harmonious blend of natural landscapes and community spaces is evident in its beautifully designed gardens, walking trails, and recreational facilities.

Visitors can enjoy the serene environment while engaging in cultural and educational programs that highlight the importance of nature and community. It includes the Canopy Walk, offering elevated views of lush landscapes, and the Nature Center, which provides educational exhibits on local flora and fauna. Families can enjoy the playgrounds and splash pad, while the Event Lawn hosts concerts and festivals. Scenic trails and boardwalks wind through diverse ecosystems, perfect for hiking and jogging. The park also boasts botanical gardens, picturesque lakes, and water features for fishing and birdwatching. Shaded picnic areas and pavilions are ideal for gatherings, while art installations and fitness zones promote cultural enrichment and wellness.

Central Florida
Bonnet Springs Park

Inside Bonnet Springs Park’s Nature Center, visitors will find an immersive and interactive installation designed to acquaint them with the park’s natural and cultural features before venturing outdoors. This installation includes interactive displays and touchscreens that provide detailed information about the park’s ecosystems, wildlife, and plant species. Virtual tours and augmented reality experiences offer a preview of the Canopy Walk, trails, and botanical gardens. Educational videos and exhibits highlight the park’s history, the transformation from an abandoned rail yard to a vibrant green space, and its mission to enrich the community. This engaging indoor experience ensures visitors are well-informed and excited to explore the park’s outdoor wonders.

Bonnet Springs Park stands as a testament to the power of reclamation and community-focused development.

Bok Tower Gardens: Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark, has been a beloved destination since it opened in 1929. The gardens encompass 50 acres of beautifully designed landscapes, two hiking trails, and the historic 20-room El Retiro Estate, which visitors can tour. At the heart of the gardens stands the 205-foot Singing Tower, an exquisite art deco and neo-Gothic carillon that delights visitors with its musical performances. The gardens were designed by the renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who played a pivotal role in shaping America’s most iconic parks and green spaces. Olmsted’s design principles focused on creating naturalistic landscapes that provide aesthetic and recreational value, making Bok Tower Gardens a serene haven for nature lovers and history enthusiasts alike.

Inside Bok Tower Gardens, the Visitor Center offers an engaging and interactive installation designed to prepare visitors for the outdoor experience. The center features multimedia exhibits that detail the history and significance of the gardens, the Singing Tower carillon, and the El Retiro Estate. Interactive touchscreens provide information on the diverse plant species found in the gardens and the work of renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr.

Visitors can explore virtual tours of the gardens and the tower, including behind-the-scenes looks at the carillon’s intricate mechanisms. Educational displays highlight the ecology of the area, including local wildlife and conservation efforts. A digital guide offers interactive maps and suggested routes to explore the gardens, ensuring visitors are well-informed and ready to fully appreciate the beauty and history of Bok Tower Gardens before stepping outside.

Tour of Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center: The Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center at Florida Southern College serves as the gateway to exploring the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in the world. The Visitor Center offers an immersive introduction to Wright’s visionary designs and his profound impact on modern architecture. Visitors can expect to see a variety of Wright’s iconic structures, including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel with its unique geometric patterns, the Usonian House which exemplifies Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, and the Water Dome, an impressive display of water and architecture in harmony.

The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center enhances the visitor experience by providing in-depth educational exhibits about Wright’s life, his design principles, and the historical significance of his work at Florida Southern College. Interactive displays and informative panels guide visitors through the architectural masterpieces, highlighting the innovative techniques and materials Wright used.

Additionally, the GEICO Gift Shop offers a range of merchandise and educational materials related to Wright’s architecture, allowing visitors to take a piece of their experience home. This shop, along with the educational center, is part of an ongoing effort to better educate and engage visitors, ensuring a deeper appreciation of the astounding architecture that defines Florida Southern College. The comprehensive tours and resources available at the Visitor Center make it an essential stop for anyone interested in exploring the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright.

STAY

central florida
Photo credit: Helen Hatzis

During my stay in Central Florida, my home base was the Hampton Inn Lakeland. It is conveniently located off I-4, making it an ideal base for exploring Central Florida. This hotel is perfectly positioned between Tampa and Orlando, offering easy access to major attractions such as LEGOLAND, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. It’s just a short drive from local gems like Bonnet Springs Park and Bok Tower Gardens. Additionally, it’s close to the historic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College and the vibrant downtown Lakeland area.

The hotel features a range of amenities including free hot breakfast, free WiFi, an outdoor pool, and a fitness center, ensuring a comfortable stay for guests. The surrounding area is pedestrian-friendly, with a plethora of shops, book stores, and restaurants, offering a delightful blend of leisure and convenience. You can stroll through the nearby shopping areas, enjoy a meal at a local eatery, watch a movie, or simply relax and soak in the lively atmosphere of this charming part of Lakeland​.

I enjoyed my time in Central Florida immensely. The proximity to everything made it easy to explore a wide variety of attractions and activities without dealing with heavy traffic. From the vibrant cities and stunning natural landscapes to the charming small towns and theme parks, there’s something for everyone here. The overall vibe was welcoming and relaxed, making it a perfect destination for both adventure and relaxation. Whether you’re seeking thrills at theme parks, tranquility in nature, or cultural and culinary delights, Central Florida offers a unique blend of experiences that cater to every traveler’s interests.

TIPS

Central Florida
Photo credit: Helen Hatzis

Be sure to visit the visitor centre. The Central Florida Visitor Center is a comprehensive resource for travelers, offering a wealth of information and services to enhance your visit to the region. Additionally, you can experience the USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Hall of Fame right here!

As you embark on your travels, remember that our journey leaves an impact. Embrace eco-friendly accommodations, support local communities, and reduce plastic use. Respect wildlife by observing from afar and conserve resources like water and energy. Choose sustainable transportation, leave no trace behind, and participate in conservation efforts. Educate yourself and others about the environment you’re exploring. Let’s ensure that we tread lightly on our planet, leaving only footprints of kindness and taking home memories that inspire others to protect our beautiful world. Happy responsible travels!

Thank you to the friendly team at Visit Central Florida and all of the incredible people I met during my stay. You made it memorable. xo Helen

COMING SOON – MY BLOG POST MY 3RD STOP —> 2 days in Deland, Florida