Central Florida-Mania, Part One: Say Hello To Polk County And Winter Haven – Polk County, Florida

Central Park has some thought-provoking sculpture!
Central Park has some thought-provoking sculpture!

When people think of Central Florida, the first thing that comes to mind is often Orlando and its incredible Disney-related bells and whistles. But the heart of central Florida is nestled just south of Orlando, and offers travelers an incredible array of holiday opportunities: Polk County, Florida.

Polk County, Florida gets its name from the 11th President of the United States, James K. Polk, who ironically happened to be a mostly life-long resident of Tennessee. The two biggest cities in this county are Lakeland and Winter Haven. Polk County is Florida's largest citrus producer, but many of the oranges grown here are produced mostly for juice products because, while they are tasty, the appearances of a number of varieties don't have the "good store look".

Polk County is known as "Lakes Country", with 554 lakes existing in the county. Polk County has many water and barefoot ski schools, and is considered the "Water Skiing Capital of the World". Currently, the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers both call their spring training homes here.

Introducing Winter Haven

Veterans of the Indian Wars during the early-mid 1800s realized the climate here was very nice to make a home. Blount and Whiteledge platted the land for Winter Haven in 1884, and citrus crops would begin to grow here as well as strawberries, peaches, and others. Winter Haven was incorporated in 1911 and has the world's largest clown-themed collection. The first ever Publix supermarket was opened here in 1930. In 1936, the Popes opened the renowned Cypress Gardens, and the annual Florida Citrus Festival is held in this city of 28,000.

Here's a taste of the city's neat things to do. Travelers can plan their Central Florida vacations by basing in Winter Haven before venturing outside of town for day trips:

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park: Theme Park for the Ages

This famed venue was Florida's first theme park (consisting of botanical gardens and boat rides), decades before Disney World would open in Orlando. Peformance water skiing has its birth here after the Pope family and their friends put on the first ever water ski show for visiting servicemen in 1943, and are still holding such shows and competitions in the 21st century. Cypress Gardens garners the designation "Water Ski Capital of the World", and is celebrating 70 years since its founding by Dick and Julie Pope in 1936. Johnny Carson and Mike Douglas have held their talk shows here.

Cypress Gardens closed in the spring of 2003 but was re-opened in late 2004 under new owner Kent Buescher, after surviving three major hurricanes that blew through Winter Haven that season, even naming one of the roller coasters the "Triple Hurricane", a classic wooden roller coaster that survived Mother Nature's furies.

Nature abounds at Cypress Gardens. The Botanical Gardens offer a feast of Mother Nature's countless array of color through countless species of plant life, including a giant Banyon Tree, which was planted in 1939, but now stands proudly and widely! The Topiary Trail displays a large rabbit and swan all donned in various kind of flowers and plants. The "Wings of Wonder" butterfly arboretum is a nature color fest of plants, and houses hundreds of species of butterflies and moths. I was surprised to find that some species of moths actually look like butterflies, especially one in particular, whose wings have spots that look like eyes gazing back at you!

The Nature's Way exhibit is home to more than 150 animals, including iguanas and some poisonous snakes (which are behind protective glass).

Shopping and dining abound in Cypress Garden's Jubilee Junction, where you can buy anything from candles to Christmas ornaments all year long as well as traditional theme park grub like cotton candy and BBQ, available around the park.

For the kids, Splash Island water park keeps them entertained for a few hours with various water rides like the 60-foot Voodoo Plunge. A plentiful array of dry rides, including the Thunderbolt, exists here, where riders hang 120 feet in the air before suddenly free-falling at an incredible speed. The Inverter ride is a five-story ride where you'll swing back and forth, eventually flipping a full 360 degrees. Less intense rides abound here, too, like the Citrus Line Railroad, which will take passengers around the rides' complex with a narrated history of Cypress Gardens.

Southern belles have been greeting guests since 1940, and are not only a long-standing tradition at Cypress Gardens, but the story of their birth is one for the ages: A lady employee needed to stand in front of a frost-bitten vine so visitors wouldn't see it, but she had to don a hoop-skirted dress in order to help keep the vine inconspicuous. Guests desired to pose with her, and she became such a hit that the tradition of the belles continues to this day.

Musical concerts are held throughout the year. Performers like The Beach Boys, Blake Shelton, and Ronny Millsap have kept the fans entertained.

Cypress Gardens Adventure Park: 6000 Cypress Gardens Blvd. 863-324-2111. Admission Charge.


Why do Floridians honor the citrus crop every year with a great festival in Winter Haven, which has been running from the last week of January into the first week of February? Citrus is as good as gold to Polk County and the rest of Florida, especially when you consider that these crops bring in around nine billion dollars to the state, employing some 90,000 people yearly. Environmentally, the 800,000 acres of citrus crop produce annually 13 million tons of oxygen to breathe!

Oranges are my favorite citrus selection, and they not only are a great source of Vitamin C, but they are rich in potassium, which is supposed to be good for blood pressure. It was a real treat stopping by a local Polk County produce stand to get some tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit.

Oranges though, aren't native to Florida. They were brought from another great citrus-producing country, Spain, with the first orange trees being planted in the mid-1500s around St. Augustine, Florida. The state's climate and sandy soil are ideal for citrus fruit-bearing trees.

Here's a few other tips about citrus. It isn't just oranges, but also includes lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruit, mandarins, and kumquats, etc. When shopping for citrus, don't be dismayed if you see a bit of yellow or green on the fruit. It just means that the chlorophyll has returned to the peel during ripening. If you notice marks on oranges, tangerines, and tangelos, it's probably from wind scarring caused by the breezes making the peels rub against the branches of the trees, but doesn't affect the quality.

Oh, what a sunset from Lake Shipp!
Oh, what a sunset from Lake Shipp!

The first Citrus Festival happened in 1924, to help promote Florida citrus. It had taken some 400 years for citrus to become a real serious cash crop for the state, but now the festival is paramount for the industry's efforts to keep citrus viable on the cash side. Numerous events honoring the growing of citrus fruits take place like a parade and pageant, and a major karaoke competition. Other competitions have included chili cook offs, citrus packing, hay bale decorating, and poetry/photography contests.

Festival Contact: Florida Citrus Festival Administrative Office: 863-292-9810. An informative site about citrus.

Springtime means Cleveland Indians

The Major League Baseball Cleveland Indians train at Chain of Lakes Park, built in 1966 on the shores of Lake Lulu. They are very much loved when they come to train for the upcoming baseball season, so much so, that the Indians' Chief Wahoo logo is painted on both sides of Winter Haven's Water Tower (The words "Winter Haven" aren't on the tower). But this team came by accident. In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew destroyed their new complex in Homestead, Florida, they scrambled to find another home, and picked Winter Haven, which was abandoned by the Boston Red Sox. Box Office Info: (863) 293-3900. Chain of Lakes Complex is on 210 Cypress Gardens Blvd.

Informative Spring Training website.

More things of note on Winter Haven events:

Forty five freshwater lakes touch the city of Winter Haven alone, with 14 making up the Chain of Lakes; and thus, Winter Haven holds the annual Chain of Lakes Festival that begins on Easter Weekend with egg hunts and sunrise services. The festival goes on throughout the week, ending the following Saturday night with a sunset celebration that was highlighted by para-sailing on Lake Howard this year. A variety of music performances and community workshops take place. Viewers can feast their eyes on antique cars and boats. Cruises on the Chain of Lakes are available, too. This festival is a good time to venture a few blocks down the street from Lake Howard to Central Park, where park a variety of outdoor sculpture is displayed, that's part of an annual competition.

Butterflies abound during the month of October, and this upcoming October, Polk County will host many arts and cultural events related to butterflies. Lakeland (which will be discussed in depth in Part 3) will feature a series of butterfly sculptures that will be displayed around Lake Morton.

The Great Dining Tour of Winter Haven

One of the things I noticed about dining in this part of the country is that you really get some good-sized portions at prices that won't kill your travel budget. Here's a fine sampling of eateries to check out:

Christy's Sundown Restaurant offers a great Old World Greek/Mediterranean atmosphere and tasty food. It's been filling stomachs and providing charm to guests since 1952. The rich and famous have frequented this establishment, and the scores of signed autographed pictures prove it, including those from Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Mike Douglas, and Barbara Mandrell.

As for the dining part, a large selection of fresh seafood and the best beef from the Midwest headline the main courses. They also offer a large variety of wines and spirits. You may even get a personal visit from the congenial owner, Nick Christy, who might tell a bit of a racy joke with a straight face!

I had their Iowa Pork Chops, and I must say that as a pork chop connoisseur, I really liked the light and even flavor, and some of the fat remained on the chop, which is my favorite part. The best topping was the cottage cheese because of its rich flavor. Their hot fudge sundae is filling and delicious as they use a top quality whipped cream and ice cream.

Christy's Sundown Restaurant: 1100 Third St. SW 863-293-0069.

Cypress Café is one of Winter Haven's neat places to grab a bite to eat for those lazy Saturday mornings out to breakfast. The sausage gravy is especially good. The café's walls are lined with hunting, fishing, and grandma's-kitchen type motif. They always make sure your coffee cup is full, too, without even having to be summoned.

Cypress Café: 3055 Cypress Gardens Rd. 863-324-6385.

Harbor Side Seafood House & Oyster Bar is on the coastline of Lake Shipp. Harbor Side's Fried Pickle Chips are a must-try as an appetizer. Ever have fried alligator tail? Well, this is the place to get some. I tried it, and to my taste buds, it tasted like a bland Chicken McNugget that was hard to chew! Still, this is one of those activities I crossed off my list of "Things To Do Before I Die!" The seafood platters taste great and are large.

Harbor Side Seafood House & Oyster Bar: 2435 7th St SW. (863) 293-7070

Say Amen Café serves up some great soul food from fried okra to sweet potato pie! You get the real South here, as the iced tea is served up in canning jars. Fried foods abound from fried chicken, fish, and pork chop dishes and sandwiches. You'll mostly get big portions at fair prices. I'm an avid fried chicken eater, so I tried some of that, and the skin was really crispy and the meat tasted really mild and non-spicy. My chicken parts were small, but the loaded side dishes filled me up.

The eye has it! A moth species at Cypress Gardens.
The eye has it! A moth species at Cypress Gardens.

Say Amen's fried green tomatoes are Winter Haven famous, and batter fried to perfection, and the cornbread has a great texture and a nice dash of sweetness. For dessert, you can't go wrong with the sweet potato pie, which leaves a light spicy aftertaste in your taste buds. Dine in an environment that has the motif of honoring the culture and accomplishments of African-Americans, including a large wall mural of a church choir. Say Amen Café also houses Souls Sisters Coffee, where many different coffee plus other traditional bistro drink selections are available.

Say Amen Café: 3009 Cypress Gardens Rd. 863-318-8877

Tanner's Pub offers a lively modern pub atmosphere and traditional lunch and dinner pub grub that's hearty and fairly priced. They offer a wide selection of imported and domestic bottle beers. The one I tried was a WoodPecker Cider from England. This sweet selection tasted really smooth and was an enjoyable drinking experience.

They've installed a Touch Tunes Digital Jukebox with BOSE sound, which offers a large selection of classic/modern rock and country music.

Tanner's Pub 325 W Central Ave. 863-294-7220.

Lodging I stayed at the Best Western Admiral's Inn and Conference Center. It's got comfy beds and nice spacious rooms. An outdoor olympic size swimming pool, 24-hour exercise facility, and free high speed internet access are available. The Legends Lounge offers great nightly entertainment, including karaoke and comedy nights throughout the week. Admiral's Cove Miniature Golf is on the premises for those who love this pastime with a pirate-theme twist.

Three restaurants are on site, including Baxter's, a casual dining venue for all three meals; Antonio's Ristoranti is for those who desire higher end Mediterranean cuisine. Also on the premises is a little coffee and sandwich shop called 2 J's Java, which serves up a variety of breakfast and lunch specials and an adequate selection of gourmet coffees and sandwiches.

Best Western Admiral's Inn & Conference Center 5665 Cypress Gardens Blvd. 863-324-5950 or 800-247-2799.

…Or check out www.Bootsnall.com for other lodging opportunities for all tastes and budgets.

Cheap Hotels in Florida

More Information on Visiting Polk County and Winter Haven: A Visitor Service's Office is located adjacent to Cypress Gardens Adventure Park in Winter Haven. Contact: 800-828-7655 or 863-298-7565. The Main Polk County Visitors and Convention Bureau/Sports Marketing Office is at 600 N. Broadway, Ste. 300, Bartow, FL 33830. 863-534-2500. And you can also access the City of Winter Haven's site.

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Roy A. Barnes is a past contributor to Bootsnall.com for articles on London, Virginia Beach, and Central Ohio. He's worked in the travel agent and airline industries and has trekked the North American, European, African, and Asian continents in his lifetime. He writes poetry and fiction, too, with his literary-themed writings appearing at Skatefic.com, Breath & Shadow, and e-clips.