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Polk County - Central Florida
A land of cattle, cowboys, rodeos, lakes, fishing, boating, birding and exotic gardens....

Just south of Orlando, in central Florida, lies Polk County. In less than an hour's drive, you will be as far removed from the bright lights of Disney World as you can get. Here, thriving orange groves have survived the freezes. Cattle, horses, and cowboy culture reigns.

Westgate River Ranch

If you want to find Old Florida, but not travel too far, check out Westgate River Ranch, an authentic dude ranch east of Lake Wales on Route 60.

This was our third Florida Outdoor Writers Association annual conference at River Ranch going back 15 years. Under new ownership since our last trip, we saw that the resort not only caters to families, but they can handle large groups as well.
The Ranch offers horseback riding, rodeo every Saturday night, petting farm, airboat and swamp buggy rides, hayrides, trap and skeet range, golf, a full sized marina - bring your boat or rent - and its own airstrip. Easy access to the Kissimmee River means you are close to good fishing, boating and canoeing. Camping is available, and the sites handle the really big RV rigs - from what we could tell, some of the sites are time shares. We did see a couple of "For Sale" signs on the beautifully landscaped and treed lots. Check with the resort about the camping opportunities.
They also have a "Western Village", with a General Store, Western Store, a gym, and arts and crafts for the kids. The Smokehouse Grill on the river offers breakfasts, lunch and dinners - check for hours of operation. Most rooms and suites have semi or full kitchens, so one can save by making your own meals. This month, they are doing major renovations to the rooms. The River Ranch Saloon offers line dancing on Saturday nights after the rodeo...
The resort does have Wi-Fi - some fees may apply. During the conference, though, we found the free Wi-Fi only available in the Lobby and the meeting room, and it was spotty at best - be aware, if you plan on working on your vacation....
They also say they are pet friendly, but the fees are so high, and only for a single pet, that pets are really not encouraged. That's too bad, as we travel with our 2 dogs all the time, and they are far better and cleaner guests than most of their human counterparts. I wish they would change that policy.
So, if you want to just kick back and fish,golf, birdwatch, kayak, or go the whole way and experience the cowboy life, animals and rodeo, River Ranch has something for the whole family.
Check their website for full details at http://www.wgriverranch.com or call (863)692-1321.

Kissimmee River

With all the activities the resort has to offer, and with seminars we had to attend, you'd think there was no time left to explore some of Polk Counties other jewels. You would be wrong. We were able to canoe on the Kissimmee River, while others went fishing. The bird watching was excellent - I discovered and photographed a rare leucistic female Boat Tailed Grackle, a bird with a rare color mutation, but not albino.. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/Albinism_Leucism.htm We saw numerous birds, butterflies, dragonflies and a few alligators.

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Bok Tower Gardens

We got an opportunity to visit the Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic landmark near Lake Wales. This is a "must see" place of beautiful gardens, the amazing tower and views - the land is almost 300' above sea level - and the sounds of the carillon. A carillon is a musical instrument that consists of at least 23 cast bronze bells that are tuned so that music can be played. The 205' Singing Tower has 60 bells, ranging in weight from 16 lbs. to over 12 tons! Concerts occur every day at 1 and 3 p.m. The Tower is built of coquina from Florida and pink and gray marble from Georgia.

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The story behind the tower is incredible, and I don't have enough space to tell it all. An immigrant, Edward W. Bok, took over 7 years to build and then gave this gift of the tower and gardens to us in gratitude for his adopted country. He alone was able to assemble master craftsmen and artisans to create this place of beauty. The Tower represents a unique Florida flavor with the sculptures of eagles, herons, and pelicans, jellyfish and octopus. The Bok Tower is one of the most photographed places in Florida.
I only got a couple of hours to see this beautiful area. It was dusk and overcast, a thunderstorm interrupted our photography. I know that I just scratched the surface of this unique place. I remember seeing the Bok Tower for the first time in the mid '50s on one of our family's road trips through Florida. It is even more amazing now, a real sanctuary for birds, plants and wildlife. It is a designated site on the Great Florida Birding Trail. Nestled in the gardens is a 1930's 20 room Mediterranean mansion that was acquired and restored in 1970. When you go, make sure you devote plenty of time to see it all and learn about the history of this amazing place. Bok Tower Gardens is open 365 days a year!
Learn more at http://www.boktowergardens.org or call (863)676-1408


Parks and Other Attractions

Polk County also offers state parks, wildlife preserves and other tourist attractions. If you want to see wildlife, go to the Circle B Bar Preserve - once a cattle ranch that has been restored to its natural state and includes swamps, marshes, creeks and lakes - home to waterfowl, eagles, osprey and alligators. Near Lakeland on Lake Hancock, the trails and Polk Nature Discovery Center is open every day. (863) 668-4673
Lake Kissimmee State Park is off RT 60 - west of River Ranch - follow the signs.... this park is on Lake Kissimmee, the 3rd largest lake in the state - and offers canoeing, kayaking, boating, a nice boat ramp and docks, general store, camping, fishing, and hiking. There are 6 miles of horse trails, too. We canoed out, hoping to see the caracara and bald eagles, but saw the purple gallinules instead! This is the head water of the Everglades. and is also joined by Tiger Lake and Lake Rosalie. They have guided hikes, Segway tours and a cow camp (welcome to 1876!) in this park.

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Polk County's newest State park is Colt Creek State Park - over 5000 acres abutting the Green Swamp Wilderness Area.

For those inclined to visit a family oriented interactive theme park- LEGOLAND is dedicated to families with children 2-12.. with rides, shows and attractions...it has just unveiled its third expansion- the World of Chima...LEGOLAND is in Winter Haven. Check out http://www.legoland.com or call (877) 350-5346

I would need a book to include all the parks, activities and places to see in Polk County, so if you want to unwind in a quiet place close by the big cities, get in your car, head down Rt 27 and explore this great area of Central Florida.

Contact www.VisitCentralFlorida.org, or call 1-800-828-7655

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