Affordable Family Fun Abounds in the Sunshine State
Most people think only of theme parks when planning a visit to Central Florida, but this region offers so much more. From natural attractions to history to parks, this area overflows with family- and budget-friendly entertainment.
Go Outside and Play
At the Circle B Bar Reserve (4399 Winter Lake Rd., SR 540, Lakeland, FL), nature enthusiasts will love the trails, wildlife and scenery on this 1,267-acre property. Named for the cattle ranch that operated here for many years, the Circle B Bar Reserve hosts a large population of birds such as wading birds, waterfowl, ospreys and bald eagles, making it an ideal destination for birdwatchers.
There are also unpaved trails for walking and biking, including Alligator Alley Trail that travels between the parking area and Lake Hancock, where visitors may spot some alligators. In addition, the reserve is home to Polk Nature Discovery Center, which houses informational exhibits, offers educational programming, contains a picnic area, and has restrooms. It’s a great family outing for all ages.
Hit the Playground
Kids will love Barnett Family Park (730 E. Orange St., Lakeland, FL), with its playground, oversized sand box, splash pad and green space where kids can run around. For kids ages 2 to 5, there’s the Sunflower Preschool Playground with its small-sized equipment. When it’s time for something more quiet and less active, visit Hollis Garden (702 E. Orange St., Lakeland, FL) located next door to Barnett Family Park. Wander the paths and take in the neo-classical architecture, the public art and the ornamental fountains all placed in tandem with the topiaries and patterned flower beds.
Enjoy a Look Back in Time
See how Florida’s natural history combines with the state’s phosphate industry at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum (101 S.E. 1st St., Mulberry, FL), housed in a former train depot and boxcars. In the first set of boxcars, the Phosphate Gallery examines what phosphate is, where it lives and how we use it. The second set of boxcars contains the Historic Railroad Gallery, which has information on the city of Mulberry, Polk County, the phosphate industry and the railroad industry. Inside the train depot, the Fossil Gallery showcases prehistoric fossils, while an outdoor exhibit features a 44-yard Dragline bucket previously used to dig phosphate rock out of the ground. Here, visitors can search for shark teeth and other prehistoric animal remains. Just think what a great memento that would make for your visit.
Check Out Artistry on Water
A historic carryover from the original Cypress Gardens theme park, the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team (199 Lake Silver Dr., Winter Haven, FL) continues to thrill audiences on Lake Silver at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. On the third Saturday of each month, the team of barefoot skiers, Aquamaids and Rampmasters, perform gravity-defying tricks and even a four-tier human pyramid all on water. The team consists of former water skiers from the original show at Cypress Gardens who didn't want the legacy of the original skiers to fade away after the park closed in 2009.
Satisfy Your Curiosity and Your Sweet Tooth
For something sweet everyone will like, make your way to Davidson of Dundee (28421 Hwy. 27, Dundee, FL), a locally owned company that makes candy, marmalade, jellies, chocolates and more, with many products created using fresh fruit from the company’s own groves. Visitors can follow the process of making these products on the company factory tour, in which participants watch through glass windows as employees work in the kitchens and pack rooms. Davidson of Dundee continues to use recipes from the early 1900s that are cooked up in copper kettles and hand-stirred using wooden paddles. After the tour, sample some of the sweet treats you saw along the way.
When to Go
Florida is well-known for its sunny, warm weather, so planning a trip is really a matter of preference. Yes, the temperatures are more mild in the winter months than summer, so if you prefer cooler temps, plan to visit in December through February. July and August are usually the hottest months, and higher humidity could be present, making it seem hotter than it actually is. Central Florida does experience an average of 54 inches of rain each year, but most of that is in July and August, so in general, expect sunny days when visiting the remainder of the year.
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Karon Warren has covered travel for nearly 20 years with numerous print and online publications. Her byline has appeared in USA Today, USA Today’s 10 Best, WorkingMother.com, FamilyVacationCritic.com. and many others. She is a member of both the Society of American Travel Writers and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. In addition to her freelance work for other clients, she also writes for her own travel site, ThisGirlTravels.com