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Published on Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Joni Allen dives into the best experiences in Central Florida



She may not have been raised in Florida, but with more than 30 years of experience focused on the best experiences in Central Florida, Joni Allen is a Polk County expert.



"In fact, I opened our very first Visitor's Center," said Allen.

That was back in 1996. At the time, the state's first theme park, Cypress Gardens, was thriving and citrus trees bloomed along major roads.

Today Allen serves as Visit Central Florida's Tourism Industry Sales expert, highlighting what has, during her tenure, become a tourist destination for millions of visitors every year. To say a lot has changed for Central Florida's Polk County since 1996 might be an understatement.

"We've grown to be a year-round destination, known as Florida's Sweetest Spot" said Allen. "We still get the snowbirds and the baseball Spring Training crowd. But today, we have something to keep every type of traveler interested." 

One change is that Cypress Gardens is no more. Replaced by LEGOLAND Florida Resort in 2011, its impact lives on in the ski shows and schools that call Polk County home, many owned and operated by former Cypress Gardens skiers. Opening in 1936 as a botanical garden, Cypress Gardens soon expanded to include water ski shows that captivated a nation. At the height of its popularity, the park and water ski show co-starred with swimming Hollywood superstar Ester Williams in the 1956 hit movie, "Easy to Love." Quite simply, the park put Central Florida on the worldwide map.

"They had a successful formula for a while," said Allen. "When our Visitor Center was there, they still had folks visit from around the world who remembered them from the movies and television specials. So they had a steady influx of tourists, but they'd also hold concerts that drew quite well from the surrounding area. We were very busy, and since we were located in the major parking lot, we'd get lots of customers coming and going."

But according to Allen, some things never change.

"From the beginning, everyone coming to Florida wants to do the same thing - they want to pick an orange and see and alligator," she said. "We ask that people don't just stop on the side of the road and raid some stranger's grove, and certainly don't endanger yourself to see an alligator. In Polk County, we can do both sanely and safely."

For everything citrus - and peaches, and blueberries - Allen recommends Ridge Island Groves, in Haines City. Harkening back to the roadside stands of yore, this is a one-stop citrus shop. Not only do they grow and harvest oranges and grapefruit, tangerines and Honeybell tangelos, blueberries, strawberries and peaches on site, they sell them, ship citrus anywhere in the United States, and make their own ice cream from it.

"The peach ice cream is one of my favorites," said Allen. "And Ridge Island Groves squeezes their own orange juice, adding nothing, just right out of the orange."

Family owned and operated since 1992, when you deal with an employee at Ridge Island Groves, you are most likely talking to a member of the Ritch family.

"And the customers around you are probably locals," said Allen.

To pick your own oranges, ask for a grove tour.

"This is one of the few places in the state where you can get a behind-the-scenes look," said Allen. "So take the tour and learn about citrus, the challenges the industry faces - and pick an orange fresh from the tree."

Now that we have the oranges out of the way, what about the alligators? 

"There is no better place to see alligators than Circle B Bar Reserve," said Allen. "It is the top place in the state to see them, and it is one of the top 50 places in the United States for wildlife viewing, according to USA Today. And it is free."

Thanks to the aptly named Alligator Alley Trail, you can see examples of the state's reptilian rock stars ranging in size from mere inches to the average hatchback car, all from the safety of one of the two piers. 

But there's more than just alligators. A favorite of photographers and painters, Circle B features a tremendous bird population including wading birds, waterfowl, ospreys and bald eagles.

After that, Allen's suggestions depend on the visitors.

All-Around Attraction

"Bok Tower Gardens is my go-to recommendation," said Allen "Everyone in every age range will find something to enjoy at Bok."

For a sun-beaten Florida nonagenarian, the Lakes Wales landmark Bok Tower looks and sounds as good as the day President Calvin Coolidge dedicated her to the public in 1929. Today, the brainchild of Dutch-born Edward W. Bok spans more than 150-acres, including 50-acres of gardens, a 2.5 acre children's area known as Hammock Hollow, and the 205-foot art deco and neo-Gothic Singing Tower carillon, a giant bell instrument played via keyboard.

"Today it's a great place for the whole family to visit," said Allen. "You really haven't been to Florida if you haven't seen Bok Tower."

Families with Small Children

Another great spot for the family to visit, according to Allen, is LEGOLAND Florida Resort.

"If you have small children, this is the place," said Allen. "And stay overnight - there is too much for a family to do in a single day."

Built around historic Cypress Gardens, LEGOLAND Florida Resort offers roller coasters, a water park, 3-D movies and plenty of opportunities to build - or walk the plank at the Pirate Island Hotel, the first LEGO pirate themed hotel in North America. The 150-acre interactive LEGOLAND theme park features more than 50 rides, shows and attractions, restaurants, shops, the LEGOLAND Florida Water Park, three hotels - including the only beach retreat in LEGOLAND world - and a botanical garden.

Don't Cage Me In

Tucked away down a winding road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, these wide-open spaces, flat topography and miles of lush field isn't the sand-and-surf that most think of as Florida. It is the perfect veld-like setting for Safari Wilderness Ranch, an African safari type experience.

"At Safari Wilderness, you enter their world," said Allen. "There are plenty of safaris around, but this one is in the top-10 for Fodor's."

Opening in 2012, this 260-acre expanse is not a zoo. There are no 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. Extinct where they originated, this type of antelope thrives in game farms around the United States.

Visitors only have four choices of excursion types - safari bus, kayak safari, camel expedition and llama trek, with most opting for the safari bus, which offers the most shade from Florida's intense sun and allows visitors to enjoy up-close encounters with the wildlife the park offers. Recently introduced have been guided hour-long self-drive tours, allowing you to view the exotic animals around you while observing social distancing, led by an ATV-riding tour guide.

Home, home on the range

Wide open spaces, 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 Resort and Rodeo in Lake Wales, where the rodeo, saloon and line dancing comprise one of the most memorable Central Florida vacations imaginable.

"Westgate River Ranch is great to visit or just spend a day to participate," said Allen. "This is the only dude ranch in Florida and the largest in the Southeastern United States. It is one of a kind."

Go back in time to a Florida long before endless citrus groves, theme parks and seaside resorts. Saddle up and ride back to yesterday on 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 is a petting farm.

At River Ranch, weekends mean it is time 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. 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, both give visitors the opportunity to take in the beauty of the ranch while enjoying a fireplace, leather chairs and even air conditioning and heating.

A taste of the United States

If it is Americana you are after, Polk offers that as well - and it is tasty.

"Since 1934, the Reececliff Family Diner in Lakeland has been serving American roadside staples," said Allen. "In fact, their baker has been creating their pies for 50 years, while their chef has been their 40 years."

Standards on the menu include liver and onions, country fried steak, burgers and fried chicken - all using the same recipes they started with in the 1930s.

Opening just a handful of years later is Auburndale's iconic Peebles Bar-B-Que, where a converted chicken coop serves their own brand of barbecue that isn't just a hit with the locals - it has been featured in various media around the world.

"They opened in 1947," said Allen. "And they've always been family owned and operated." 

A relative newcomer to the mix is Andy's Igloo in Winter Haven. Harkening back to the 1950s, from their menu to their décor, Andy's takes visitors back to the days of tail finned cars, hoop skirts and Happy Days.

"This is the place for burgers and shakes," said Allen. "Their fruit cocktail milk shake, I've been told, is to die for."

Other spots for foodies include Crazy Fish in Lake Wales, once featured on an Emeril Lagasse program, and family owned and operated Scarpa's Italian in Lakeland, where reservations are recommended.

"In Winter Haven, Arabella's has been a foodie-staple for years," said Allen. "They are the top rated restaurant in Winter Haven on Trip Advisor. And there is plenty of competition for the top spot."

A one of a kind collection

Tired of stuffy museums and static art?

Venture to Central Florida, where the art is as tasty as the citrus. 

More than 80 years after then-campus president Ludd M. Spivey convinced famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to construct a "College of Tomorrow" on the grounds of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, people from around the world visit to see the largest one-site collection of the architect's work. 

"And the campus keeps impressing, even after all these years," said Allen. "It regularly makes the list of the 50 most beautiful campuses in the country."

Envisioning the campus rising out of the ground, Wright dubbed it the "Child of the Sun." The buildings, constructed of concrete blocks with native sands and shells added, also have square pieces of glass embedded in the blocks, which cast an array of kaleidoscopic beams throughout the inside of the buildings. Wright laid out the buildings in a manner inspired by the orange groves he walked through.

Stay how you'd like

One of the biggest changes in the Florida tourism industry has been the rental options guests have to choose from. Short-term flagship hotels and extended stay accommodations including kitchens and living rooms dot the area.

"And we have a large and wide variety of vacation rental homes to choose from," said Allen. "Everything from two bedrooms to eight rooms with a pool."

For more information about a Central Florida vacation, visit www.VisitCentralFlorida.org. If you are in the area, make sure to stop by our new Visitor Information Center in Davenport for discounted tickets to all the Central Florida attractions.

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