Howdy! We are staying domestic today with a visit to the beautiful state of Florida – aka the Sunshine State – and in particular Central Florida!
I recently had the pleasure of having Joni Allen, the Sales and Events Representative from the Central Florida Visitors & Convention Bureau sit down with me to chat about the Central Florida region and all of its hidden gems – most of which are unknown to those out of state.
So you think you know Central Florida? Let’s see just how much you know!
Location, Location! Central Florida is situated right between Tampa and Orlando, is next door to Walt Disney World and about an hour’s drive to either coast – the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. This makes it the perfect location to unpack once and see it all!
Play Time! Not only can you easily get to the Disney and Universal Parks, but Legoland is actually right in their backyard too. And Joni boasted that they are proud to say the Legoland Florida resort is the largest Legoland Theme Park in the world. There’s only one other Legoland in the United States right now and that’s in California but of course they are Florida so they gotta do it bigger! For those of you not familiar with Legoland it is geared towards two to 12 year old’s and their families – everybody can do everything together as a family unit. Plus, you don’t have the long lines like you do at the other theme parks that are available for all ages – you will only see the little ones and their families. Not only are there 50 rides and shows to take in within the park – it’s 150 acres! – it also includes a water park with a build-a-raft experience, Lego Movie World, which is the only Lego Movie World display in the world, and it has three hotel properties on site. They include the Legoland hotel, the Beach Retreat – which is very whimsical, very brightly colored venue – and then there’s the brand new Pirate Island Hotel that just opened in June 2020. And bonus – all three of these properties offer all sorts of amenities and extras for all of the guests to enjoy while they’re at Legoland.
The Great Outdoors. There are 40 parks and RV resorts within the area so there’s lots of outdoor space. They also have over 550 lakes so needless to say water sports are abundant everywhere. In addition, they are home to Bok Tower Gardens which was one of Florida’s original attractions. It features a 206-foot bronze bell Carillon and since it is located on one of the highest points of the peninsula it’s surrounded by some of the most serene gardens you will ever experience. There are about 200 acres of infrastructure for you to explore and you can opt for either a guided tour or take your own self-guided tour. There’s a whole children’s area that is very interactive as well as all sorts of special events going on that are also interactive. They even offer camping several times during the course of the year.
Safari Anyone? Bet you didn’t know that the top ten safaris in the US are based in Central Florida? And once again – Joni boasted how very proud they are to have that recognition from voters. If you head to Lakeland – which is the largest municipality in the area – you can experience an African-Asian safari. It’s 260 acres that you can take in via a safari type vehicle by kayak or by camelback. A lot of the animals that you will encounter you can hand feed and Joni shared that her very favorite experience is the lemur feeding experience – she says you have not lived until you feel the hand of a lemur. And you guys this a great opportunity for travel as a living classroom as its a great science class for kids. Plus, safaris are anything but boring! Safaris really give you an opportunity to see the way animals live and all of those things that we learn in textbooks – but in a living classroom. And remember these animals are not in cages. They’re out living in the wildlife that they should be living in and so you’re actually you’re going into their world, they’re not coming into yours.
Hey Dude! So Central Florida has the only dude ranch in the state of Florida and it’s the largest dude ranch in the southeastern United States. It’s called Westgate River Ranch Resort and Joni said if you didn’t see palm trees you would think you’re out in the Wild West somewhere. This is the real deal guys, it’s not just people walking around with cowboy hats on. These are real cowboys, and this is a working dude ranch. You will see cows, you will see buffalo, you will see longhorn steer and because it is a dude ranch there is a sanctioned rodeo every Saturday night. And if there are kids in the audience, they bring them out and they get them to participate along with the rodeo. There is also a saloon on property that is kid friendly up until about 10:00 PM and they play all the western music and teach you all the new western line dances. Plus, there’s a whole kid’s area with a petting zoo, a small rock climbing wall and a short zip line. And of course, being a dude ranch, there’s horseback riding, there’s skeet shooting, there’s archery, there are swamp buggy rides and airboat rides – so you get the full western experience. Oh, and the food is amazing – think delicious western style barbecues. Every Friday and Saturday night there is a wagon that goes around the entire property and when you come back from that ride the barbecue is there waiting for you. Another thing that makes Westgate River Ranch so special are its varied accommodations. There is a hotel on property if you choose to do it that way, they have some very lovely condos and villas, you can sleep in a railcar and there’s glamping – that’s glamour camping – it’s a tent but there’s a floor in the tent, there’s furnishing and there’s even climate control. But Joni gushed that the ultimate in western dude ranch accommodations are their teepees. To get an idea of the size of these teepees Joni said that inside each of them there is a living room with a fireplace, there is a king bedroom, there is a small kitchenette and a bathroom – all within your teepee – it is literally a home!
You guys I think we all definitely need to do this, as it is an experience like no other that is right here in our own backyard and no passport needed! And we can absolutely do all of these moving pieces and put it into play – it’s time! Let’s get these itineraries going for you guys because this is definitely an experience and for those of you who are in states where you’re not that far away and driving could be a day or two days away – you can totally make a road trip out of this. Imagine having this kind of experience where you’re bonding with your family, your kids are learning and they’re excited about learning because they’re excited about the experience that they’re having. And even as adults we get excited for this too so it’s not just about the kids here. This can be a great family reunion opportunity and for those of you who need that kind of mojo going back into the office and you need that team bonding this is a great team bonding experience because you’re still social distancing and yet at the same time you’re able to collaborate – plus Joni said they do a lot of team building exercises at the ranch!
A dude ranch is fun for all. You get to really see how to become a cowboy or cowgirl – going to a dude ranch is a whole other experience with so many different types of opportunities – and going to a dude ranch will give you a chance to really explore and have that wellness aspect because it’s nature!
Build Me Up… Central Florida is home to one of the largest collections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. His Child of the Sun series – which makes up Florida Southern College (also located in Lakeland) including the Annie Pfeiffer Chapel – which is one of the most photographed chapels that Frank Lloyd Wright ever constructed. Also, there is the Danforth Chapel which Joni advised is one of her personal favorites and that it’s an absolutely amazing experience to walk in the door of that chapel. And then there is one of his USONIAN Houses – they took Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural plans and built the home there as part of the college – so that’s also part of the tour. Then of course his world famous Water Dome – they refurbished that, and it is alive and well and working beautifully. Here you have the choice of taking a guided tour or doing a self-guided tour. And not only do you learn about his architecture, but you also will learn about the architect himself and for those of you not familiar with Frank Lloyd Wright he was quite the colorful character!
It’s For The Birds (Watchers)! The wildlife and especially the bird watching are plentiful in Central Florida thanks in part to the fact that they are home to three state parks and also have a little over 40 parks throughout the entire Central Florida area. USA TODAY even gave them top billing of one of the Top 50 places in the entire United States for wildlife viewing at the Circle B Bar Reserve which is also located in Lakeland. Here you can actually view Florida alligators at a safe distance – everything from the teeny ones to the ones that are much larger than you even want to consider. Plus, at any given time here in the year you can probably spot about 250 different species of birds.
A Day Without Orange Juice… Central Florida is one of the few places in the entire state where one of their citrus grove owners opens his groves and allows visitors to go in and handpick their own citrus – talk about farm to table! Joni teased that when you are in Florida you want to see an alligator and pick citrus and they can provide both of those for you. And of course, while you’re out there in the grove you’re learning about the citrus industry in Florida. Joni once again boasted how they are very proud to say that they’re still the number one citrus producer in the state of Florida. And – not only does the grove have various types of citrus available for you to try, they also have a peach orchard, and they grow strawberries and blueberries, and the best part is that he makes homemade ice creams with all of his fruit. You guys I’m in heaven and ready to go! Joni agreed and said that she tells everybody if you don’t do anything else you’ve got to go to Ridge Island Groves. And this is great because it’s not only farm to table but you’re really helping small businesses, family owned businesses thrive and that’s super important.
Speaking of Food… Central Florida has everything from southern style barbecue – including Andy’s Restaurant which was has been in Central Florida since the 1950s. And of course, having 550 lakes in the area they have lots of dining options lakeside so you can enjoy the outdoors and have some wonderful cuisine – seafood and otherwise. They also have several craft breweries in the area as well as several home cooked bakeries.
Home Sweet Home. Not only do they have all of the major brands of hotels scattered throughout the Central Florida region, but they also have about 7500 vacation rental homes and condos and most of those are located within five to ten minutes from Walt Disney World’s main gate, so convenience is a definite. Joni joked – you’ve heard of location, location – we’ve got that for you! Their newest vacation rental home community is Balmoral Resort Florida, and they have everything from two bedroom condos to eight bedroom vacation homes. For those of you that want to have a bachelor or bachelorette party, or you want to do a family reunion and things like, these are great homes for that. Not only will they fit your entire family but if you need multiples homes, we can get you all near each other and you can have a few acres all to yourself! And rest assured all the homes at Balmoral are decorated exactly the same so whatever you see on their website is exactly what you’re going to get. I personally really enjoy working with Balmoral so they are definitely somebody who I would vet very much for your trip, and they are very cost effective especially if it’s a multi-family or group getting together – much more cost effective and less expensive than say multiple hotel rooms. Plus, we can always get you a private chef if you don’t want to cook – and it still keeps it reasonably priced. Most people are surprised at how little cost it is to have your own home.
Planes, Play Ball and Putt. One of the other things that I really like about this area is that there are so many golf courses and so for somebody who wants to go out and just be there for a few days and experience different golf courses this is perfect. And for those that have partners with them that are not so much into the golf that’s ok because there’s plenty of spas as well to enjoy. I mean golf and spa go very well together! Central Florida is home to 40 different golf courses and Joni confessed that she is not a golfer, but she does know from listing to the golfers that are in her office that they have all different types of challenges on their courses. Central Florida is also home to Florida’s newest upscale golf and spa resort which is Streamsong Golf Resort. It’s 216 rooms, has an underground spa, is beautifully landscaped and the best part of this was no dirt was moved to create his beautiful landscape. As for golf they have three courses – red, black and blue – and all three courses are rated in the top 100 in the entire world. She shared that you would never know you were in Florida to see these courses and although she is not a golfer, she loves to go to Streamsong and just enjoy the scenery. It is absolutely magnificent and because they are on the highest point in the peninsula, they always have a nice breeze. It’s not just for the golfers. It’s for the nature lovers as well. They offer star gazing, they have fishing and they have skeet shooting and tons of meeting spaces so if you’re looking for an event location this will be one to consider. There are also six restaurants on property, so you really never have to leave.
On another sports note…Central Florida has always been home to the Detroit Tiger spring training ever since its inception way, way back when. In addition, they are home to the second largest Fly In in the United States called the Sun and Fun Fly In. It happens every April and about 250,000 aviation enthusiasts from all over the world come in for a weeklong celebration of flight including a daily air show and, weather permitting, a balloon launch.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing Florida is open for domestic visitors!
Obviously Central Florida has is it all. I think that this is a place that even though it’s not on the beach you’re only about an hour away and thus you have the best of both worlds and you know it could be helpful for your budget as well. I mean you can have all of these experiences without a passport, without having to go very far and I can set this up to include whatever you want. You can even do it as workcation or do the virtual learning for the kids there and make Central Florida your home for two or three weeks. It’s beautiful and it’s cost effective as well and gives you just a different view. Or you can just do a quick getaway. Whatever your heart desires!
For more details on things to see and do in Central Florida, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!