If you are looking for outdoor adventure, Polk County offers ample opportunities. Home to more than 550 freshwater lakes and 25,000 acres of unspoiled recreational parks, there are many ways to enjoy the great outdoors, including water skiing, air boating, kayaking, world-class fishing, and hiking.
Located between Orlando and Tampa, Central Florida’s Polk County offers more than a place to lay your head between theme park destinations. From unspoiled lakes and wetlands to historic landmarks, citrus groves, and more, there is a reason many Floridians say that Polk County is Florida’s sweetest spot.
But if you really want to get wild, this is the place for you. Tucked away down a winding road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, these wide-open spaces aren’t the sand-and-surf images that most think of as Florida. It is, however, the perfect veld-like setting for Safari Wilderness Ranch, an African safari-type experience. Here, cattle still roam, but they are the African version of the longhorn, known by their distinctive upright horns.
Opened in 2012, the ranch – a 260-acre expanse – is not a zoo. You won’t find any cages here. Instead, most animals move about 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.
Normally, visitors only have four choices of excursion types – safari bus, kayak safari, camel expedition, and llama trek. Most opt for the safari bus, which offers the most shade from Florida’s intense sun while allowing visitors to enjoy both up-close encounters with the wildlife and the insight from the guide.
But for a limited time, Safari Wilderness is offering guided hour-long drive-through tours. Led by an ATV-riding tour guide, you’ll view the exotic animals around you while observing social distancing from the comfort of your own vehicle. You even get to communicate with the guide via radio. For more information or to book your outdoor adventure, visit safariwilderness.com.
Architecture of Tomorrow
For a more placid experience, Central Florida is home to two historic area attractions, Bok Tower Gardens and Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Child of the Sun” collection of architecture on the Florida Southern College campus. More than 80 years after famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright constructed his vision of a “College of Tomorrow” at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, the largest one-site collection of the architect’s work still draws visitors from around the world.
Guided tours are available, or you can opt to walk around yourself to create your own outdoor adventure. Just don’t miss the crown jewel, the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel, or Wright’s piece of domestic bliss, the Usonian House.
Of course, Florida Southern College might not be so stunning if it wasn’t next to one of the most popular lakes in Florida, Lake Hollingsworth. So popular, in fact, that the path around it was dubbed the 20th most popular running route in the United States by Under Armour in 2017.
Found in the spiritual heart of Lakeland, the almost three-mile path around the lake is nearly always busy, but never full. Cyclists, folks on roller blades, runners, and walkers are all welcome. Friendly nods and hellos are frequent.
Wildlife is abundant in the lake, including plenty of aquatic birds and plant life. Playful families of otters can be seen, but usually only in the quiet of an early morning. Rabbits skitter through the nearby bushes, pelicans and herons swoop nearby and gallinule peep along the shoreline.
But half the scenery is on the other side of the road. Stately homes – this is one of the higher rent districts in the city – ring the lake. The loop around the lake is also a popular destination for classic cars and motorcycles.
Take in Some Art
Just a short walk away from Lake Hollingsworth you’ll find one of the top-10 art museums in the state. And you can enjoy it for free.
The Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College offers an extensive permanent collection of contemporary and modern art, as well as Pre-Columbian, Asian, European, and American decorative arts. Around 20 exhibitions rotate throughout its nine galleries each year, and it remains home to rare 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, as well as ceramic plates made by Pablo Picasso. The outdoor garden area showcases a number of permanent sculptures.
There are also workshops led by experienced art educators on the first Saturday of every month that give families time to create artwork together.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, as well as details about special events and exhibits, be sure to check the website, polkmuseumofart.org, before heading out.
Less than an hour away in Lake Wales is the world-famous Bok Tower. Reigning high over Central Florida since the 1920s, the 20-story high structure composed of gray marble and pink coquina rock is surrounded by 50 acres of luscious vegetation and gardens, all on top of one of the highest points in peninsular Florida. The sight of the tower alone is worth the visit.
Then There are the Bells
Bok isn’t just any tower – it houses a giant musical instrument comprised of bells known as a carillon. Found around the world but most popular throughout Belgium and the Netherlands, carillons are played from a keyboard. Bok’s 60-bell carillon, known as “The Singing Tower,” is one of only four in Florida and 600 around the world. Live concerts are held daily for a relaxed outdoor adventure.
Build your Own Adventure at LEGOLAND
If you’d rather build a tower than visit one, just around the corner is the bricktastic 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 brick fans to vacation like a brick pirate. Just steps from the entrance you and your band of privateers can enjoy the resort-style pool, family-style dining and pirate-themed entertainment, including s’mores around the 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 you and your little pirates are 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, just steps away is the 150-acre interactive LEGOLAND theme park. Featuring more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, restaurants, shops, the LEGOLAND Florida Water Park, two hotels, a beach retreat, and a botanical garden, you probably won’t get to see it all in a day. Tiny pirates can jump into the LEGO wave pool or the interactive water-play structures of Joker Soaker and DUPLO Safari then cool down at the aptly named Build-A-Raft River or Creation Cove before hopping on pink-knuckle rides like the Coastersaurus. For a more immersive experience, head on over to LEGO Movie Land to the Triple Decker Flying Couch or, for some old-school fun, jump on Mia’s Riding Adventure disc coaster.
For a true taste of Central Florida, make sure to catch Brickbeard’s Watersport Stunt Show. Hollywood found Florida – thanks to the water ski shows put on in Winter Haven – long before Walt Disney did, filming both “Moon Over Miami” and “Easy to Love” on these very waters. Today, this tradition continues at LEGOLAND, featuring original music and gravity-defying water stunts including wakeboarding, barefoot skiing, jumping, and an iconic ski pyramid.
Glamp Your Heart Out
Now, if you seek a truly unique American experience, why not venture into the wide-open spaces with roaming cattle, cowboy hats, and teepees with air conditioning…wait, teepees with air conditioning?
If you haven’t heard of glamping – the hottest trend in experiential vacationing since street food – prepare to be amazed. And there is nowhere better for glamping than Westgate River Ranch in Lake Wales, where the rodeo, saloon, and line dancing comprise one of the most memorable Central Florida vacations imaginable.
Long before Florida was known for its endless citrus groves, theme parks, and seaside resorts, the cowboy was king. You can saddle up and ride to yesteryear when visiting this 1,700-acre dude ranch that features everything from horseback riding to airboat and swamp buggy rides. Outdoor activities abound at River Ranch, including swimming, golf, a state-of-the-art ropes course, rock climbing, zip lines, bungee jumping, skeet shooting, and nature hikes. And of course, there’s a petting farm.
At River Ranch, weekends are made for the longest-running championship rodeo in the United States. Featuring trick riding, bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing in the 1,200-seat Rodeo Area, you can finish off the night with a few beverages and line dancing in the saloon.
But let’s not forget glamping, the most luxurious outdoor adventure. For while overnight choices range from roughing-it tents to a guest lodge or staying in a cabin or caboose, the real stars are the luxe teepees and glamping accommodations. Thanks to their one-of-a-kind blend of modern conveniences and “roughing it,” the combination allows visitors to take in the beauty of the ranch while enjoying a fireplace, leather chairs, and even air conditioning and heating.
So no matter what outdoor adventure you had in mind as you visit The Sunshine State, a visit to Florida would be incomplete without a visit to Central Florida’s Polk County, the state’s sweetest spot. Go to www.VisitCentralFlorida.org or call 1-800-828-7655 to plan your vacation.