Your Vacation Guide to Central Florida
Central Florida was practically built with fun in mind, starting with the theme parks of Orlando, Kissimmee and Winter Haven. But that's just the tip of the sandbar; you can visit the rodeo in Arcadia, tube or paddle the aptly named Rainbow River in Dunellon, or discover the charms of eclectic Mount Dora.
Local parks offer trail-walking and waters for fishing and boating. Lake Lotus and Lake Orienta are well visited, but the greatest activity encircles the lake at Cranes Roost Park. Follow the cobblestone paths, pausing at benches and shade trees. A floating stage and amphitheater host city events from concerts to art shows, and the surrounding Uptown Altamonte has a variety of hotels, spas, shops and restaurants.
Old West meets Old South in Arcadia, home to the All-Florida Championship Rodeo, antiques stores and storied structures (an active historical society and Main Street Program keep things in town lively). Yes – you can observe barrel racing and bronco bucking during the rodeo – there’s even a kids’ calf scramble and a shoot-out that recalls the rambunctious days of Arcadia’s turn-of-last-century cattle wars. Paddling the Peace River provides another escape to yesteryear.
Bartow reflects its 1851 founding in well-aged homes, a downtown antiques district and a historic courthouse that holds the Polk County Historical Museum. A self-guided walking tour passes some of the city’s grandest structures and ancient oaks, pretty azaleas and dogwoods. Annually, Bartow times its Bloomin’ Arts Festival with the onset of the plants’ showiest season. Attend to purchase fresh-cut flowers or a handmade quilt.
Things get wild in Dunnellon with the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers running nearby, and along with them, a lengthy list of adventures. Rainbow Springs State Park is perhaps the best known – swim, snorkel, tube or paddle this cool, clear, liquid paradise. Just south of Dunnellon, join the Withlacoochee State Trail at its Gulf Junction Trailhead. In town, a historic district, quaint shops and an annual Boomtown Days Festival let on that this is homespun Florida.
With its own resorts, themed dinner shows and kitschy amusements, Kissimmee’s no longer Orlando’s sideshow. Old Town entertains with nightly main stage performances and weekly car cruise-ins, and thrills with attractions like a human slingshot and Ferris wheel. Move away from the neon to discover authentic Kissimmee: Swamp buggies and airboats cut through the wilderness (yes, you’ll see alligators); bass fishing is big on Kissimmee’s Chain of Lakes (Lake Kissimmee and Lake Tohopekaliga – Lake Toho to locals – are the biggest); and the Silver Spurs Rodeo keeps its calendar full of roping, racing and riding at Osceola Heritage Park. Several local organizations have collaborated to improve Kissimmee’s historic downtown, now marked by streetscapes, events on Toho Square (including a farmers’ market on Thursdays) and Key’s Welcome Station, a 1926 service station adapted into an outpost of the town’s visitors’ bureau.
For a town once rambling with orange groves and cow pastures, modern Lakeland is well manicured. Follow Lemon Street to see the city beautiful: An ornamental seawall frames Lake Mirror (the Lake Mirror Promenade); Hollis Garden forms its centerpiece with a gazebo, grotto and garden “rooms.” Nearby, an antiques district and historic Munn Park warrant walks (the latter displays WPA projects and “boom buildings” of varying architectural styles), while Frank Lloyd Wright sets the aesthetic on the campus of Florida Southern College – the largest collection of his architecture on a single site resides here. Echoing Lakeland’s inside-and-out artfulness, the Polk Museum of Art contains eight galleries and a sculpture garden, and helps produce the Florida Outdoor Sculpture Competition, an accessory to the city’s eye-popping landscape.
Doing Disney is a Florida vacation mainstay, and Walt envisioned centering the Florida fun on one magical locale: Lake Buena Vista. Hop between four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom) and two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach). If you need more stimulation, Disney Springs won’t disappoint – here, Cirque du Soleil performs, and House of Blues rocks. Themed restaurants, including one by Wolfgang Puck, will keep your appetite stimulated too.
Lake Wales is a looker. Sixty bells encased in an Art Deco- and Gothic-styled, coquina and marble carillon tower sound over Historic Bok Tower Gardens’ more than 250 blooming acres. Plan your visit with the flower blooming schedule and open-air concert calendar in mind. The Lake Wales Arts Center hosts concerts of its own, and a free art gallery, inside a Spanish Mission-style church from 1927. Similarly, the Lake Wales Museum and Cultural Center earns its nickname, “The Depot Museum,” from its digs inside a former railway station. Its pink exterior nearly matches another local landmark – Chalet Suzanne, an inn and restaurant with a special-occasion flair.
The park has been updated to reflect the latest hits (witness the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor comedy show and the Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin), but all the classics are still here: Whirl around on Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, join Peter Pan’s Flight and take the international cruise that reminds us all that “it’s a small world.” The evening fireworks you watched through bleary eyes as a child live on too, though Disney promises they’re the “biggest and boldest” extravaganzas in park history.
What is Mount Dora made of? Much to see and do along the Lake Dora waterfront (including a lighthouse, piers for fishing, an annual regatta and a holiday boat parade); an historic sensibility rooted in thick-trunked oaks (the Lakeside Inn dates to 1883) and a reputation among antiques collectors (weekends are for Renninger’s, operator of a mega antiques, farmers’ and flea market with heavily attended extravaganzas throughout the year). Keep a few weekends open for the town’s annual bicycle and art festivals – the former packs two fall days full of rides for cyclists of all skill levels; the latter is associated with the Mount Dora Center for the Arts, where, year round, you can view changing exhibits and a sculpture garden.
Ask anyone what to do in Ocala and the response will be: Silver Springs State Park. Visitors got their first glimpses of the immaculately clear water here from a glass bottom boat in 1878. Since then, the nature-themed park has grown up around it, offering new attractions through the years (today, you can take a jeep wilderness ride and visit a water park next door). Want more? The Ocala National Forest produces an unplugged version – camp, swim or snorkel springs and mountain bike the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail (truly, there are no mountains here, but rugged terrain through prairies and pines poses a challenge). The landscape turns green and white as some-600 picket-fenced Thoroughbred farms sprawl throughout this “horse capital.” Downtown, historic buildings, mossy oaks and a gazebo for gatherings add to the Victorian flavor.
If Lake Buena Vista belongs to Disney (and it does), Orlando claims everything else – namely Universal Studios Florida and its Islands of Adventure and CityWalk dining/shopping/nightlife triumvirate; plus SeaWorld Orlando, accompanied by Discovery Cove and Aquatica water park. But don’t let the turnstiles box you in. International Drive, Pointe Orlando and the Mall at Millennia set the scene for souvenir (and other) shopping, dining and entertainment, albeit with a franchised feel. Spreading from downtown, trendy neighborhoods like Thornton Park and South Eola impart just the opposite – with original eateries and nightlife nooks (each with a walk-able quality that works during the day, too).
Even with downtown development underway, Oviedo holds onto its down-hominess: Oviedo Chickens strut about town; the annual Taste of Oviedo pairs a local restaurant competition with rides for the kids; and Lake Jesup, rumored to be one of Florida’s most ’gator-filled lakes, supports airboat tours. The Cross Seminole Trail, part of the Florida National Scenic Trail, runs near town.
Sanford’s Lake Monroe vista and Victorian downtown go easy on the eyes and the spirit. Traditional street lamps illuminate brick paths that connect restored homes and historic buildings. Parks flaunt the city’s greenery, and assemble the community for open-air movies in Centennial Park and a Saturday farmers’ market and live music series on Magnolia Square. You can also see the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens here.
Most of us know Sebring for its international raceway and 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. Slow down to see the city for all the other things it is: The boardwalks of Highlands Hammock State Park reveal colossal oaks, lazy alligators and a kaleidoscope of birds. Lake Jackson backdrops the Highlands Little Theatre and Highlands Museum of the Arts. The Highlands Art League has refurbished a historic building in proximity as the Yellow House Gallery to host receptions and show its members’ works.
Lakes about town number near 50, and their canal connections secure Winter Haven’s title as the “Chain of Lakes City.” That explains why water skis and wakeboards are acceptable footwear here. Schools dedicated to the sports have come to Winter Haven in recent years, though the iconic Cypress Gardens ski shows debuted in 1941 at the spot of what is now LEGOLAND Florida.
Affluent and artsy Winter Park rolls out its best along Park Avenue. Lunch, shop and stroll Central Park, where the Autumn Art Festival unfolds annually. Head indoors to view the extensive Louis Comfort Tiffany collection at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, but get back outside in time to board a scenic boat tour along Lake Osceola. You’ll cruise past Rollins College, the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and stunning homes – many with boathouses built to match.
For this and other Florida travel ideas, go to VISIT FLORIDA's official travelers guide.