Polk County is One-Of-A-Kind

If you’ve been to Florida before, you may think the state is one giant beach dotted with cabanas and thunderous nightlife. You’ve seen the rest of Florida, how about seeing the best of Florida? More than sand, surf, and suntan oil, the vibrant heart of the state includes a vibrant urban park oasis, a one-of-a-kind nature park, cutting-edge architecture, and a more than 100-year-old “Singing Tower.” Welcome to Central Florida’s Polk County, where you can enjoy the best of the Sunshine State while leaving the rest behind.

A Gem Added to the Swan City



Transformed from an abandoned rail yard to Lakeland’s newest one-of-a-kind attraction, Bonnet Springs Park opened in 2022. This privately owned public park is situated on 168 acres that underwent extensive remediation site work. Envisioned as Lakeland’s own Central Park, Bonnet Springs Park is world-class in both ambition and scale, a beautiful, flourishing property just a short distance from downtown. Admission and parking are free. The park is supported by an endowment, as well as memberships, community partners, sponsors, and patrons.

With a mission to enrich the community through nature, culture, and recreation, Bonnet Springs Park is designed as an oval, with tram service around the property, and features multiple stops including a playground, a butterfly house, a nature center, a greenhouse, a botanical garden, a treehouse, and the scenic treetop canopy walk. Start your visit at the welcome center, which includes the history gallery, a gift shop, and a coffee shop. Visit the Depot Café for lunch or a snack, then spend some time enjoying the view across the park from the rooftop bar.

Another gem located within Bonnet Springs Park is the Florida Children’s Museum. Visitors will find something for the whole family in this two-story state-of-the-art facility, that offers 47,800 square feet of hands-on exploration. The museum has several galleries full of interactive permanent exhibits including the Watermelon Seeds gallery for the youngest of children. The St. Christopher’s Project City Play gallery is a child-sized version of a real city that allows children to explore a wide range of careers. They can transform into a firefighter, create their own TV newscast, or take a shift as a cashier at the local supermarket. Out front is the Harrell Family Charities Front Yard, an enclosed outdoor space featuring a 100-foot climbable alligator named Blinky, after a famous one-eyed resident alligator who called Lakeland home in the 1970s. Admission to the museum is $15 per person for those ages 2 and up. Parking is free, as is admission for children under age 2.

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, especially the large 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 Kilometers); 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.

Cutting-edge Architecture



Rising up from the flat terrain outside of Lakeland 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. You guessed it. It’s on-of-a-kind.

The Grand Dame of Central Florida

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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 Children’s Garden, 2.7 acres of childhood delight featuring water areas, bridges, tunnels, and an indigo snake-sculptured sandbox. Not far away are areas for kids to climb logs, an outdoor stage area, art and music zones, and even a working hand-pumped well.

Also on the grounds is the recently re-opened enchanting 20-room Mediterranean-style mansion, “El Retiro.” A visit transports you back in time to the 1930s when the home was built for Charles Austin Buck, a Bethlehem Steel executive. To preserve this architectural, cultural, and historic landmark, El Retiro was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

So take a few days and see why natives call Polk County Florida’s Sweetest Spot. For more Central Florida one-of-a-kind vacation ideas, visit www.VisitCentralFlorida.org.