When it comes to the heart of Florida, most potential visitors think theme parks – and the long lines that come with them.
Why not mix in a visit to a one-of-a-kind nature reserve, an open-air safari suitable for the African plains, breath-taking, cutting edge architecture or a singing tower?
We’ll even throw in a theme park, because we’re Florida, of course.
Welcome to Central Florida’s Polk County, where you can enjoy the best of the Sunshine State while leaving the rest behind.
Reptilian Rock Stars
If the state’s most popular reptile is on your must-see list, the world renowned Circle B Bar Reserve, often listed as one of the top nature reserves in the United States, is the place. Comprised of nearly 1,300 acres, Circle B may be the top spot in the nation to observe alligators in the wild. While there are numerous trails, the most popular trail in the park is, without a doubt, Alligator Alley Trail.
Running along alligator-inhabited Lake Hancock, you can watch the star attractions at a safe distance from shore or from a number of piers. Ranging in size from mere inches to nearly as long as your average hatchback car, the alligators are at home in the oak hammock, freshwater marsh, hardwood swamp and the lakeshore of the reserve.
With all the alligators around, it’s the perfect place to bring a camera or smartphone – but don’t miss out on everything else around you. Circle B Bar Reserve, with a series of well-maintained marked trails of different lengths, provides countless opportunities for photographers or painters looking to capture the beauty of nature. The tremendous bird population includes a variety of wading birds, waterfowl, ospreys and bald eagles.
No matter your fitness level – or how hot it is – there is a trail that will be just the right length for you. The extensive trail system includes the Shady Oak Trail (2 Kilometers), Lost Bridge Trail (0.8 Kilometer); Alligator Alley (1.6 Kilometers); Marsh Rabbit Run (1.1 Kilometers); Heron Hideout (0.8 Kilometers), Eagle Roost (1.1 Kilometers), Wading Bird Way 1.1 Kilometers, Windmill Whisper (.64 Kilometers) and the Otter Trail (.32 Kilometers). Many of the trails interconnect to provide for longer hiking or biking opportunities.
A bit of Africa in Central Florida
Tucked away down a winding road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, scrub pine and palmettos transform into wide open spaces, a fairly flat topography and miles of lush field broken up by the occasional bush or tree. This isn’t the sand-and-surf that most think of as Florida. This is “cracker country,” where cattle and cowboys once roamed.
It is the perfect veld-like setting for Safari Wilderness, an African safari type experience in Central Florida’s Polk County. Here, cattle still roam: mind you, it is Watusi – the African version of the longhorn, known by their distinctive upright horns that can reach eight feet in length.
Opened in 2012, the ranch – a 260-acre expanse – is not a zoo. Here, the animals roam freely, grazing and interacting with each other much like they would at home in Africa or Asia; eland, water buffalo and antelope mingle with zebras and Watusi cattle, while lemurs dance away on an island in the middle of it all. There are even breeds here that you can no longer find in Africa, such as the scimitar-horned oryx. Extinct where they originated, this type of antelope thrives in game farms around the United States.
Visitors have their choice of excursion types – safari bus, all-terrain vehicle safari, kayak safari, camel expedition and a seasonal sunset safari. Or opt to stay socially distant in your own vehicle for a guided drive thru safari for SUV sized vehicles or smaller – motorcycles or commercial vehicles are not allowed.
Most visitors opt for the safari bus, which offers the most shade from Florida’s intense sun and allows up-close encounters with wildlife from the safety of the vehicle. Many animals simply walk up to the bus, seemingly as interested to look at those on-board as the passengers are to look at the wildlife.
However, don’t discount the other options. On the kayak safari, you’ll navigate through freshwater areas which lend themselves to close-up encounters with wetland species such as Defassa waterbuck and red lechwe. Mid-way through the kayak safari, visitors navigate to the lemur island, where they can hand feed grapes to two different species of lemurs.
Of course, being a working animal encounter means that babies are born here on a regular basis. If your timing is right there will be plenty of adorable baby lemurs, oryx and zebra around for the quick eye to see.
Rising up from the flat, veldt-like terrain outside of Lakeland – and just minutes from Safari Wilderness – is an architectural feat unlike any other in the Southeastern United States. Welcome to the grounds of Florida Polytechnic University and its signature Innovation, Science and Technology Building designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava. Featuring arched pergolas and operable louvers, the shape of the building actually changes during the day as the moving louvers keep the students below in the shade.
Considered a working piece of avant-garde architecture, the complex houses Florida’s only state university focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A few of Calatrava’s other works include the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, the Oculus, in New York City, Garde de Oriente in Portugal, Reggio Emilia AV Mediopadana in Italy and the Museu do Amanha in Brazil, as well as the under construction Greenwich Peninsula project in London.
The Innovation, Science and Technology Building earned more than 20 architectural and engineering awards. For visitors, the white arcs and lines contrast nicely against Central Florida’s typical blue skies, making the grounds one of the most photographed – and Instagramed – locations in the area.
If you’ve ever watched a home improvement show and heard the terms “open concept,” “open floorplan” or “form follows function,” you are experiencing the influence of one of the world’s foremost architectural minds, Frank Lloyd Wright. More than just an architect – he was also a writer and educator – his works continue to inspire and challenge others.
No visit to Polk County is compete without a stop in Lakeland to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Child of the Sun” collection of architecture on the Florida Southern College campus. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012, the Florida Southern College Historic District is the largest single-site collection of the famed architect’s work in the world.
Envisioning the campus rising out of the ground, Wright made designs for 18 structures, 12 of which were completed during his lifetime. Constructed of concrete blocks with native sands and shells added, the buildings were placed in such a manner that the overall vision would be similar to an orange grove. And even though the campus is now more than 80 years old, it was recently named “The Most Beautiful Campus in the Nation,” by the Princeton Review. Visitors can either take a guided tour or simply stroll through the campus. Guided tours start at the Usonian House, where pieces of glass embedded in the walls act as prisms, casting rays of light throughout the home, and end on the far side of campus. Be sure not to miss the Tourism and Education Center complete with unique one-of-a-kind gifts, or the Child of the Sun Collection’s crown jewel, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel.
Note that the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center is closed until further notice due to the worldwide pandemic.
The grand dame of Central Florida
Since we’re talking about pictures, perhaps luscious gardens and sweeping vistas are more your style. If so, visit Lake Wales’ world-famous 205-foot art deco and neo-Gothic legend, Bok Tower. Built upon one of the highest elevations in peninsular Florida, guests can stroll in the shadow of the tower that houses a carillon – an instrument comprised of a series of bells played by a keyboard.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Bok Tower Gardens is the lasting work of Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant. Bok, a journalist by trade, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for his autobiography. Before that, Bok rose to fame and influence as the editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, which, under his leadership, became the first magazine in the world with one million subscribers.
The Boks commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. – the son of the man who designed Central Park in New York City – to design the gardens while architect Milton B. Medary designed the tower. Opening more than five years later, Bok Tower Gardens were dedicated by then President Calvin Coolidge in 1929. Built on Iron Mountain, what was once a desolate sand hill was transformed into a 250-acre lush tropical landscape that is both a contemplative garden as well as a bird sanctuary.
A recent addition to the grounds is Hammock Hollow, 2.7 acres of childhood delight featuring water areas, bridges, tunnels and an indigo snake sculptured sand box. Not far away are areas for kids to climb logs, an out-door stage area, art and music zones, and even a working hand-pumped well.
The legend continues
If you would rather scare up a little of bit of Old Florida, go out to Spook Hill in Lake Wales. Legend has it that the hills are the site of a battle between a giant alligator and a Native American chieftain. Years later, riders using the old trail around the lake discovered their horses laboring when traveling what appeared to be a downhill route. With the advent of the automobile, residents found that their cars defied gravity and seemed to roll uphill by themselves. Could it be the ancient ghost of the chief?
A favorite of both locals and tourists for generations, Spook Hills is part of a phenomenon known as mystery hills or gravity hills. While various similar sites are located around the world, Spook Hill is the only one of its kind in Florida. And after you are done rolling up hill, locals know to stick around and watch the reaction of others – that’s at least half the fun.
Avast! There be pirates at LEGOLAND Florida Resort
If you’d rather build a tower than visit one, stop by the Sunshine State’s newest attraction, the LEGOLAND Florida Resort. Built around historic Cypress Gardens, it offers roller coasters, a water park, 3-D movies and plenty of opportunities to build – or walk the plank.
Ahoy matey, and welcome landlubbers to LEGOLAND Florida Resort’s newest reason to visit, the Pirate Island Hotel!
The first LEGO pirate themed hotel in North America, this on-site accommodation invites fans of the interlocking bricks to vacation like a pirate. Just steps from the entrance, you and your band of privateers will not only enjoy a resort-style pool, family-style dining and pirate-themed entertainment, there are also s’mores to be made around a campfire, a 9-hole miniature golf course, daily builds with Master Model Builders in the lobby and pontoon boat rides on Lake Eloise. And when your away-party is back in the room, the kids can enjoy their own separate sleeping area, LEGO bricks to play with and their own flat panel TV with complimentary On-Demand content.
Of course, your tiny buccaneers will want to sail away to the 150-acre interactive LEGOLAND theme park itself. Featuring more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, restaurants, shops, the LEGOLAND Florida Water Park, two hotels, a beach retreat and a botanical garden, there is plenty to do all day long. Tiny swashbucklers can jump into the LEGO wave pool or the interactive water-play structures of Joker Soaker and DUPLO Safari to the apt named Build-A-Raft River and Creation Cove to cool down, then hop on the pink-knuckle rides like the Coastersaurus.
For a more immersive experience, head on over to LEGO Movie World to the Triple Decker Flying Couch or, for some old school fun, jump on Mia’s Riding Adventure disc coaster.
To ensure the safety of guests and staff, LEGOLAND Florida Resort has implemented enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols, as well as utilizing social distancing guidelines and reduced capacity on many of the rides. Additionally, their Peace of Mind Policy for new LEGOLAND Florida booking and annual pass purchases gives visitors the option to change their reservation date up to five days before a trip without a fee, giving you maximum flexibility in these unpredictable times.
So take a few days and see why natives call Polk County Florida’s Sweetest Spot. For more Central Florida vacation ideas, visit www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.