This attraction is only an hour from the Disney area and is definitely worth the visit if you need a break from long lines and wallet-busting prices, or if you just appreciate the quiet beauty of a master-planned garden and its grand centerpiece, the Bok Tower.
Just take I-4 down to the Haines City/Highway 27 exit, head south, and soon you’ll see the signs for this Lake Wales landmark.
I arrived at the park at about 11 AM, and I was well ahead of what turned out to be a small crowd that day. Enter the Visitor’s Center, and there are some very friendly volunteer guides who’ll let you know the event schedule. Take the time to watch a short video about the history of the tower and gardens. It’s worth it. And so is the small museum that is a part of the Visitor’s Center, which tells you about the many famous people that Edward Bok knew from the age of “The Great Gatsby”, as well as quite a bit about the architecture, history, and design of the grounds and buildings that are part of what comprises Bok Tower today. For instance, did you know that Mr. Bok was a poor Dutch immigrant who made his money as the editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal? Or that one of the carillon bells in the tower weighs almost 12 tons? Or that Bok Mountain, at 300 feet, is the tallest point in Florida? Neither did I, and I love trivia like that. Allow about 30 minutes if you have the time for it at the Visitor’s Center.
Then arm yourself with a site map and stroll through the meandering trails designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Olmsted (of Biltmore Estate and White House grounds fame). I arrived in late December, but even so there were plenty of flowers blooming, and of course this is the best time of year to be outdoors in Florida, anyway. Along the way to the tower, you may see up to 100 different bird species, as the grounds are designated as a sanctuary, and you can relax and enjoy the Window by the Pond, which is one of those small delights that used to amuse people before we got in such a hurry. Here, you have a chance to view pond-side wildlife in an observation center. On my trip, all that we saw was a couple of cardinals and some sunbathing turtles, but there is a chance you could see alligators, wild turkey, and Sandhill Cranes as well. There is also a tiny exhibit dedicated to endangered plant species, but in all honesty it just looked like a bunch of weeds to me. If you take your sweet time and explore all of the pathways thoroughly, you’ll spend about 90 minutes on this part of your visit.
The beautiful art-deco/neo-Gothic tower is a 205 foot-tall stone masterpiece made from cut pink and grey marble from Georgia, and coquina from Florida. You can take some great pictures from a reflecting pool as you approach from the Visitor’s Center or from a promontory that also offers an expansive view of the orange groves surrounding the park. Try to time your arrival so that you can hear one of the (twice daily) recitals from a sitting area near the base. Here, you can watch a video monitor as the carillon player works the clavier. Because of the season, we were lucky enough to hear some of my Christmas favorites. The tower itself is a study in intricate detail. There are interesting features everywhere from the birds of prey atop the spires down to the massive and ornate brass door entrance into the building, which is unfortunately off limits for ordinary guests. My favorite was the sundial. At first I thought it was off by a few minutes. Then I noticed that there were several plaques instructing you to add or subtract time depending on the month of the year. I did the math, and voila! Right on the money. The kids seemed to enjoy feeding the very large and varied collection of koi at the base of the structure, while I just enjoyed the understated grandeur of it all. Allow about 30 minutes in the tower area if you plan to listen to the music.
If you have an extra hour, go to the Pinewood Estate, which was once a large private winter home and can now be toured on the grounds of the attraction for an additional $8. But if you do go, get there before noon. We did, and avoided the lines, which started forming after lunch. The Mediterranean style home was decked out for Christmas when we saw it and it was absolutely gorgeous inside. I’d say it was worth it during the holiday season…and as an additional bonus, there was a saxophone player on the estate grounds who put on a very good one-man show (however you could hear him without paying admission to the house).
I love this park. It harkens back to a day and age when people came to Florida to truly savor a Southern Sojourn as an experience in pastel moments, little snippets of time that they pieced together to form a mosaic of languid activity away from the harsh winters of the Great White North. Weeki Wachee. Silver Springs. Cypress Gardens. Gatorland. Mckee Botanical Gardens. True, some of it was over the top, but it was all uniquely part of an Old Florida which is now almost gone, victimized by the frenzied schedules of those with too little time to travel down the old byways, busy as they are consuming vacations like Big Macs, and with a need to reach terminal velocity before they are happy. If that’s you, you won’t be satisfied with this dignified little garden. But if you’re in Orlando and have even a half a day to spare and would just like to relax, then slow down, take your time, and enjoy this little slice of heaven. And at only $12 for adult admission, it’s a great deal!
Here’s my Ten Tips for a Great Visit to Bok Tower Gardens:
- Bring your own lunch. There are some great picnic spots on the grounds and even near the parking lot.
- Allow about 4 hours if you do it all. 6 hours including the drive from Orlando.
- Skip the Window on the Pond and the Endangered Plant Garden if you’re in a hurry. That will save at least 30 minutes.
- If you’re really rushed, skip the Pinewood Estate. That might save an hour (at least 30 minutes).
- If your pants are on fire, you probably shouldn’t have come anyway, but skip the Visitor’s Center and save yet another 30 minutes. If you’re counting, you’re now down to only about 2 hours here!
- Get your coupons before you go. I only got $2 off, but I saw a buy one, get one free deal here: http://www.kgstickets.com/attractioncoupons.html Too late for me, but not for you!
- Bring some quarters for the koi feeding.
- Arrive early to avoid long lines at Pinewood Estate
- Plan to be in the Concert Viewing Area when the recitals begin so you can “see” the performance on the monitor
- If you’re coming from the Space Coast and go through Yeehaw Junction (yes that’s the real name of the place), make sure you stop at the Desert Inn. This funky old hotel, set in the middle of a saw palmetto swamp, used to cater to Florida crackers, highwaymen, and other assorted ne’er do wells in a land ill suited for anything except rattlesnakes and bootlegging. Today, it’s just full of characters, and serves up a mean cup of Joe as well. I had the Cuban coffee, and it was a heady brew, strong and masculine. Great stuff! While you’re there, tape your autographed dollar bill to the wall and see if it’s there next time!