Lakeland Florida - Home of Snowbird Extravaganza

Winter 2009 CSANews Issue 73  |  Posted date : Dec 12, 2009.Back to list

Every year in late January, thousands of Canadian and U.S. snowbirds gather at The Lakeland Center in Central Florida to celebrate the two-day Snowbird Extravaganza. Free day-long entertainment on three stages, interesting consumer product booths and handy food concessions ensure that all have a wonderful time. It's a memorable party but, like all great parties, it always ends too soon.

Last year, Kathy and I decided to stay in the area for a few days longer to see what else Lakeland and surrounding Polk County had to offer. What we found was a treasure trove of local attractions which accounts for the area being one of the popular destinations for Florida snowbirds.

Several minutes west of the Center, nestled on the banks of Lake Mirror, are the enchanting formal Hollis Gardens. Ornamental shrubs, shade trees and outdoor "rooms" of colourful flowers make this a gardener's delight. But it's the pleasant trickling of the fountains and water features with patch-coloured koi which attract me. This is a great place to unwind after a successful Extravaganza day.

A few blocks south on the campus of Florida Southern College, we find the world's largest collection of buildings designed by the iconic architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1938, FSC invited Wright to Florida to design a "great education temple," so he left his Wisconsin retreat and worked on 18 designs for the college's campus beside Lake Hollingsworth.

Wright described the buildings as "out of the ground, into the light, a child of the sun" and that's how they are known today..."A Child of the Sun."

We now head south down South Florida Ave. to take the Polk Parkway East to exit 14- Winter Lake Road. Backtrack west for 2.9 km (1.8 miles) to the entrance of the Circle B Bar Reserve, an area of freshwater wetland, oak hammock and hardwood swamps.

Nature rules here and provides lively action for those interested in ecotourism, birding or observing Florida's fauna in its native habitat. Trails make walking easy and great photo ops abound. Make sure that you bring a telephoto lens to capture the bald eagle nests and animal activity in the marshes.

Now for a different type of flight. From Winter Lake Rd. take the Polk Parkway East entry ramp and head north to I-4, then drive east to exit 44 to visit Fantasy of Flight.

Most aircraft museums display their collections in huge hangars, leaving very little to the imagination, but once you enter Fantasy of Flight, you know this is going to be quite different. First, you find yourself in a short dark passage which becomes the inside of a WWII transport plane. The engines roar and fuselage vibrates beneath your feet...a parachute drop is in progress. Soon it's your turn. The jumpmaster's light turns green and you step through an open door into the cool rush of the craft's slipstream…then all is quiet and peaceful. The night opens up around you with a canopy of spectacular stars overhead. It's all a fascinating illusion.

Turning a corner, we enter a cobbled street in Paris and watch a Montgolfier hot air balloon ascending. Perhaps it's the Marquis d'Arlandes making the first manned balloon flight in history. We will never know because around the next corner, we stumble into a First World War trench just as an enemy biplane is coming around to make a machine-gun attack. Artillery flashes to our left and the ground shakes beneath us. Welcome to the Fantasy of Flight.

Finally, we enter a hangar containing the finest private collection of aircraft anywhere in the world today…and just about all of them are flyable. Kermit Weeks owns these lovely machines, many of them antique classics, and he enjoys sharing them with his visitors. Last time I was here, he was washing down a Spitfire on the hangar's apron to the accompaniment of the engines of a rare Short Sunderland flying boat warming up on the nearby lake. Fantasy of Flight is a real treat for all who love aviation, but we must move on.

Once again, head east on I-4 and turn south at exit 55, US27 towards Haines City. On the right is the excellent area welcome centre - Polk Outpost 27. Stop for a spell and enjoy the short movie of area attractions, or a few relaxing minutes in the rocking chairs on the back porch overlooking the wetlands.

Continue south on US27 through Haines City to Lake Wales and follow the signs to Bok Tower Gardens. As you enter the gardens from the reception building, you will probably stop as I did to take in the beauty ahead of you, giving little thought that it was once a 298-ft hill of sandy soil, one of the highest in Florida. But Edward Bok wanted to protect it and cover it with beautiful gardens topped with a majestic carved carillon tower similar to those in his native Holland. He hired New York's famous Central Park designer F.L. Olmsted Jr., who set to work replacing the poor soil with tons of dark rich loam, and then designed a garden and reflecting pool to showcase the magnificent tower. The result is ahead of you, along the forested canopy path which winds its way to the summit.

As we walk the trail, we are greeted by animals playing in the undergrowth, accompanied by birdsong overhead. This is truly a "live" garden. Finally, we turn a corner and ahead is the mysterious reflecting pool highlighting the ornately carved tower framed by the trees. It's a breathtaking sight.

The hill climbing has left us hungry, so let's leave the gardens and enjoy a meal at one of Polk County's famous restaurants, the Chalet Suzanne. This old-world inn with its warm dining room interior of dark wood, colourful stained glass and exquisite old-fashioned table settings is a delight to the eye. Owned by the Hinshaw family for three generations, the restaurant is internationally renowned with its cuisine earning the prestigious Mobil Restaurant Guide 3 Star award.


Pic 3: After a great day at Snowbird Extravaganza, use Dave's handy map to follow his adventures in Lakeland and Polk County!


Hollis Gardens
702 E. Orange Street, Lakeland (863-834-2280)

Frank L. Wright Center
111 Lake Hollingsworth Drive, Lakeland (863-680-4444)

Circle B Bar Reserve
4399 Winter Lake Road, Lakeland (863-534-7377)

Fantasy of Flight
1400 Broadway Blvd. S.E., Polk City (863-984-3500)

Polk Outpost 27
0.8 km (.5 mile) south of I-4 exit 55, on your right (west side).

Bok Tower Gardens
1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales (863-676-1408)

Chalet Suzanne
3800 Chalet Suzanne Drive, Lake Wales (863-676-6011)