9 things to love in Central Florida
From its beaches to a certain mouse who makes a mighty vacation destination, Florida is full of iconic sights. But one of the joys I’ve found in Florida is exploring lesser-known areas and discovering hidden gems.
Central Florida is one of those places that’s easy to slide past as you make your way between Orlando and Tampa, but if you don’t visit you’re missing out on a Florida sweet spot.
With two major international airports less than an hour away, and Interstate 4 slicing through the region, it’s an area that’s easy to reach. It’s also a good deal less expensive than the big cities.
LEGOLAND® FLORIDA RESORT
LEGO® toys have been inspiring kids for generations, and now the LEGOLAND® Florida Resorts are providing lifetime holiday memories. If you’re looking for a theme park where you don’t need to be constantly checking your phone for wait times, this is the park for you and the kids. LEGOLAND® Florida Resort is located near Lakeland, just a short drive from Interstate 4. The park offers up 55 rides and attractions, including Coastersaurus, a wooden roller coaster that darts between brick dinosaurs. They also have seasonal events, such as spooky Halloween shows. Kids of all ages will love the water park, which has a splashy wave pool, a lazy river, water slides and water-play structures.
PEPPA PIG THEME PARK
If you’ve got kids or grandkids older than three or four years old, you’ve no doubt heard of Peppa Pig. The cute critter with a British accent has become an entertainment sensation, and just a few steps from LEGOLAND® families can visit a theme park dedicated to this adorable little porker. The Fun Fair allows kids to meet Peppa herself, and to play a variety of free games, which is a nice change of pace from many parks. You’ll also find Mr. Potato’s Showtime Arena, Daddy Pig’s Roller Coaster and Grampy Rabbit’s Dinosaur Adventure. Rides are geared to a younger age at this park, but some attractions still have height restrictions.
Travelzoo tip: Central Florida has taken major steps in the area of sensory accommodation and accessibility. Peppa Pig is America’s first Certified Autism Centre (CAC) theme park, with amenities for children and families, as well as accessible rides for children in wheelchairs. LEGOLAND® Florida Resort is also a Certified Autism Centre, and these initiatives have been extended to the Children’s Museum at Bonnet Creek Park.
Florida’s many state and regional parks have lovely nature trails and waterways where you can sometimes spot snowy white egrets or even bald eagles. If you’ve got a craving to see powerful alligators in their native habitat, Circle B Bar Reserve is the place for you. The 525-hectare park has numerous trails, including the popular Alligator Alley Trail.
Colt Creek State Park has more than 2,000 hectares of splendid, central Florida nature habitat, including 24 kilometres of multiuse trails that are shared by hikers, cyclists and even folks on horseback. Take time to enjoy the sweet-smelling pines and the winding waterways as you look for white-tailed deer, otters and more.
BONNET SPRINGS PARK
One of the top places in central Florida is Bonnet Springs Park, a free, 70-hectare urban oasis where visitors can enjoy a heritage garden, an art gallery that honours the area’s railway and citrus-growing history, and a kid’s treehouse which might put you in the running for parent of the year. The Bonnet Springs Welcome Centre boasts a stylish café that turns into a wine bar at night. The park also is home to the Florida Children’s Museum, which features almost 4,500 square metres of hands-on exploration. You’ll find everything from indoor climbing apparatus to toy trains and arts & crafts.
AN AWESOME ANIMAL SAFARI
If you’ve always wanted to try riding a camel or feeding an adorable ring-tailed lemur, Central Florida is the place for you. Safari Wilderness Ranch in Lakeland allows you to see zebras, cheetahs and other exotic animals as you bounce around on a rugged ATV. They also have kayak safaris and open-air safaris where you can let someone else do the driving while you look for that perfect Instagram photo. Or you can watch the action from the comfort of your own vehicle.
Architecture fans often drive hundreds of kilometres to visit the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, often referred to as America’s premier architect. But Central Florida is home to Florida Southern College, where you’ll find not just one or two of his buildings but a full baker’s dozen. The college is a national historic landmark and contains 13 remarkable Wright structures, including the glistening white Annie Pfeiffer Chapel and the Water Dome, a fountain that features dozens of nozzles that shoot water some 14 metres into the air.
Feeling hungry? Thirsty for a craft cocktail? Lakeland Food Tours offers tours that allow you to sample a variety of great food at different restaurants. You also can take a drinking tour that lets you grab six beverages from some of downtown Lakeland's best bars while learning the history of Prohibition and the cocktails you sip. Lakeland is the spring training home of Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers, and boasts the Silver Moon, one of the few remaining drive-in movie theatres in Florida.
Central Florida is a great place to enjoy the slower pace of small towns, such as Lake Wales and Bartow. You’ll find quaint squares and friendly locals with Southern charm to spare. Lake Wales is home to Bok Tower Gardens, which features 20 hectares of gardens, a remarkable 20-room estate and the 62-metre art deco and neo-Gothic Singing Tower carillon. Lake Wales is also where you’ll find Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo, the largest dude ranch east of the Mississippi River. They put on a championship rodeo every Saturday night.
In Bartow, there’s a wild home called Wonder House, which was built with rock found on the property and features everything from concrete, tile, glass and even used train rails
RENT A VILLA, OR TRY A GLAMPING HOLIDAY
Central Florida has tons of large homes or villas you can rent, including the perk-filled Orlando Attraction Homes in Davenport. It’s a great way for the family to enjoy time together and have lots of space. Because you can cook, you can make what you want and take a break from restaurant visits. Another option is glamping: you sleep in a sturdy tent that’s usually furnished with a comfy bed, lights and indoor plumbing.
At Colt Creek State Park, they offer generously sized glamping tents that have a queen bed, coffee maker, bedside tables with lamps, heating and cooling equipment and much more. There’s also a fire pit with seating and a place to charge your phone or other devices. Westgate River Ranch Resort & Rodeo also offers glamping as well as unique experiences such as sleeping overnight in a teepee, wagon or rail car. Wake up in the morning to a breakfast placed inside a wooden barrel bright and early outside your door. In warm weather, the concierge will provide an ice chest to keep refreshments cool throughout your stay.