Whether it’s a three-hour tour a day away, or a long weekend, there’s plenty to do and lots to see in the sunshine state.
GROVELAND / CLERMONT
Water ski and wakeboard in South Lake
Moving on the water.
Story: Theresa Campbell
Groveland and Clermont-area lakes attract enthusiasts who enjoy wakeboarding, slaloming, jumping, barefoot, and trick skiing on the water.
Interested in learning to water ski or wakeboard? Specialized instructions are available at several South Lake County facilities, including Jack Travers Water Ski School, 20225 County Road 33, Groveland.
The family-owned, 110-acre site with slalom and jump courses on three lakes—Sunset Lakes—was designed by Jack and Lelani Travers.
“We take beginners just getting up on skis or wakeboard to the elite tournament skier,” Lelani says. “Our youngest person to learn to ski was 18 months and our oldest is 80.”
The ski school’s goal is to help people have fun on the water while they are led by USA water ski-certified coaches. Summer camp sessions are offered for youths during two-week blocks between June 1 and Aug. 31. Youths experience a camp-style setting during summer camp; the school also has villas and suites for adults.
The Travers couple host up to six tournaments a year, along with the Travers Grand Prix, geared for professionals and amateurs interested in competitive skiing.
“It’s a great out-of-the-box pro-am event,” says Lelani, adding the top 20 men and women and top 10 juniors compete for a place at the Nautique U.S. Masters in Callaway Gardens, Georgia.
“Waterskiing is more than just buoy count and rankings for most of us,” according to traversgrandprix.com. “It is about family, fun and community; the Travers Grand Prix exists to bring those back into the forefront of the sport.”
World Wakeboard Center, 19022 Orange Ave., Groveland, has been in existence for more than 24 years and offers the longest-running wakeboard camp geared for beginners to those experienced in higher-level riding, according to its website.
In addition to a full-time wakeboard, wake skate, and wake surf program, the center also offers weekly sessions year-round for wakeboarders of all ages and skill levels. Customers commend the center’s coaches and lakefront facilities for being “the best in the industry,” the website states.
Swiss Ski School, 13114 Skiing Paradise Blvd., Clermont, sits on 450 acres with Swiss Vacation Houses, four manmade lakes, one large natural lake, five slalom courses, and two jump ramps.
Owner and manager Katty Parent says guests come from many countries to relax on vacation and enjoy water sports. The water ski school on the property provides customized lessons for water skiers of all levels.
TAVARES / MT. DORA / LEESBURG
Lovers of the great outdoors can find attractions in Tavares, Mount Dora, and Leesburg.
Story: Chris Gerbasi
By land, water, and air, residents and visitors can enjoy all the staples of outdoor life along the Leesburg-Tavares-Mount Dora corridor.
Jones Brothers & Co. Air and Seaplane Adventures takes off from Lake Dora in both Tavares and Mount Dora, offering 15 sightseeing rides and daytrips. The choices include the “Splash and Dash” 15-minute tour of the Harris Chain of Lakes, breakfast and swimming at St. Johns River and De Leon Springs, lunch at Eaton’s Beach on Lake Weir, a romantic dinner at Hillstone Restaurant on Lake Killarney, or a party at lakefront bars on the Harris Chain Bar Hop.
The seaplane tours attract visitors from near and far, owner Rob Galloway says.
“We get a lot of international people, the people who come to the Orlando attractions and want to get out of there for real Florida stuff,” Rob says. “And we do a lot of local business, too, like residents who want to show their friends and family the area.”
Jones Brothers offers combo packages with boat tours on the Dora Canal. Mount Dora is home to several tour companies, such as Cat Boat Tours, where guests pilot their own CraigCat powerboats up to 35 mph, guide Todd Voss says. The two-hour journey goes around Lake Dora, through the cypress tree-lined canal, out to Lake Eustis and back, with stops along points of interest.
On Lake Eustis, visitors can find Get Wet WaterSports, which rents boats, kayaks, and personal watercraft. The business caters to customers’ every need so they can spend quality time with their family, owner Vinnie Vittoria says.
“Literally, we do everything for them,” he says. “They don’t do anything but enjoy themselves.” From Get Wet, visitors can reach any downtown area by water, or fish in some of the best locales in the world. One Cast Away, a professional guide service based in Leesburg, helps anglers fish for bass like the pros.
On land, Leesburg is known for outdoor event spots such as Venetian Gardens, Towne Square, and the Mote-Morris House. The historic Victorian-style house, built in 1892, hosts weddings, family reunions, and parties on its shaded lawn, which includes a picturesque gazebo.
Indoors, the house at 1195 W. Magnolia St. offers self-guided tours and is home to the Leesburg Chamber of Commerce. As a visitor center, the Mote-Morris House presents the perfect first impression of Leesburg, chamber Executive Director Sandi Moore says.
“People who are moving here, the first thing they say is, ‘What a nice little town,’” she says. “It’s really nice because we want to show that we
A small city with lots to do
Clermont continues to work on its master plan, but there’s always something going on in this great waterfront city.
Story: Leigh Neely
Clermont is a place that has lush rolling hills. Add the Clermont Chain of Lakes, and it’s no wonder athletes are attracted to it. People enjoy riding bicycles, running, hiking, and even preparing for the Olympics in the welcoming culture of Clermont.
One of the most unusual places athletes are attracted to is the famous 10-mile clay loop. People around the world know of this great place to run, says Tracy Jacim, director of communications for the city. Remote and quiet, it’s not very appealing to the typical Florida tourist, but the soft clay road is great for runners, and the quiet countryside makes it even better. There may be vehicular traffic but not much. The beauty of it for runners is the up-and-down effort of the hills, which is what some of the professional runners prefer, Tracy says. They think of it as a training trail. It’s at 8928-9290 N. Bradshaw Road.
Waterfront Park, 100 3rd St., along the edge of Lake Minneola is the site of many of the city’s activities. Clermont is host to a variety of festivals, including the Champions Dragon Boat Festival, Leader of the Lake Regatta, and the famous Pig on the Pond Festival, an annual event that features carnival rides, fireworks, great food, and more.
“At Waterfront Park, you can fish off the pier, use the swimming beach, and have fun in the splash park and the nearby playground,”
Tracy says. There’s also a fitness trail that is part of a 30-mile system that eventually will be part of a coast-to-coast trail crossing Florida. This year, the city hosted its second Great Campout, which was limited to 60 families, and sold out quickly. “For those who are novices to camping, it’s a great way to find out if you like it,” Tracy says. “They put up their tents and try camping in an environment where they’re safe and can enjoy activities together.” Tracy says the city is especially proud of the new Disc Golf Championship Course at Lake Hiawatha Preserve, 450 N. 12th St. This fairly new sport has become very popular in Lake County, and Robert Chandler, executive director of Lake Economic Development and Tourism, feels there’s a great future here. Plans are underway to make this area a stop for national tournaments. The popular park also has two dog parks and is considered a “passive park,” which means it will remain a natural habitat for the study of Florida’s native plants and animals.
If entertainment is your niche, you’ll find what you enjoy at the Clermont Performing Arts Center, 3700 S. U.S. Highway 27. This great venue features everything from Broadway shows to a cabaret series, comics, and great entertainers like Chubby Checker and Nashville Music on Tour. Box office hours are 1-5pm Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Take a step back in time with Clermont’s Historic Village at the corner of West Avenue and Osceola Street. The village came about through a cooperative effort of the South Lake County Historical Society and the city of Clermont. It includes the Townsend House, which was built around 1895 and was the home of James and Sallie Townsend, the first African-American couple to make their home in Clermont. The second house is the Kern House, originally owned by Alexander and Eleonora Kern, who were farmers in New Jersey. It’s unique because Alexander built a water tank in the backyard to hand-pump water from Crystal Lake that supplied his entire home, which was built around 1885. There’s also a World War II Quonset Hut that houses the WWII museum, and the original Cooper Memorial Library Building, circa 1914, which was moved to the Historic Village in 2009.
And if it’s old-fashioned Florida attractions you enjoy, don’t miss the Presidents Hall of Fame, where you can see some of the gowns worn by first ladies to inaugural balls and a replica of Mount Rushmore. It’s informational, educational, and most of all, entertaining. Built in 1956, the Florida Citrus Tower once overlooked an amazing array of orange groves as the highest observation point in Florida. Now you can view the changing landscape of South Lake County and still enjoy the view from the top after visiting the gift shop.
Clermont has a little bit of everything for the local visitor or Florida tourists. The city’s master plan, which continues to change the growing city’s landscape and shape its future, was approved in 2015.
In 2017, Clermont was among the top 10 percent of U.S. cities in which to start a business, according to WalletHub, a personal finance website. In addition, the quaint shops and restaurants that line Main Street and the waterfront make this an ideal stop for a day of fun or a vacation away from the mainstream tourist destinations.
History comes to life in Sumter County
The past is all around us.
Story: Theresa Campbell
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park, 7200 County Road 603, Bushnell, brings history books to life with a variety of events and reenactments, including the World War II Commemorative Weekend set for 10am-5pm March 3-4.
More than 1,000 visitors are expected to watch Allied and German forces reenactors engage in battle, hosted at 2pm both days. Authentic camps, equipment, military vehicles, weapons demonstrations, and food vendors are featured. The cost is $3 per person, and free for World War II veterans and youths ages 6 and younger.
“People like the big events, like the World War II commemoration,” says Kristin Wood, parks service specialist, who notes the park’s historically accurate Dade’s Battle hosted every January depicts the beginning of the Second Seminole War in late December 1835, when 108 U.S. troops and officers marched from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to reinforce Fort King (Ocala).
“We also do a variety of craft classes, and people love that because it’s hands-on and they get to learn new skills that they can’t find elsewhere,” Kristin says.
Visit floridastateparks.org/park-events/dade-battlefield to view the park’s activities or call 352.793.4781.
Another striking historical landmark in Sumter County is the Baker House, 6106 County Road 44A, Wildwood, which was built around 1886 by Sen. David H. Baker. The two-story house with Victorian and Second Roman Empire architectural touches was occupied by six generations of the Baker family before it was donated to the city in September 2012. It is being restored by members of the Wildwood Area Historical Association.
Gidget Gibson, facilities coordinator, says the Baker House hosts a variety of activities for the community to enjoy, including a Heritage Festival set to take place March 24, along with murder mystery events and holiday tours, all of which bring about 2,000 visitors.
“We are looking forward to doing more of those later in the year,” Gidget says of the popular murder mystery events. All proceeds from the fundraisers go toward exterior and interior restoration projects of the house.
“It is hard to find another house like this anywhere else,” Gidget says, adding one future goal is to see the Baker House listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “We are working toward getting that done.”
The house also is available as a rental location for afternoon teas, and bridal and baby showers. For more information or to schedule a private tour, call 352.461.1140.
Visit vintage Florida
Tour a working citrus farm, explore a Florida swamp, and see four counties.
Story: Leigh neely
Showcase of Citrus is a place where you can tour a 2,500-acre working citrus and cattle ranch on the world’s largest ATV. Open since 1961 on Highway 27 near Clermont, the Showcase of Citrus offers 100 percent “pure Florida fun” with the highly modified giant trucks designed for safe rides through native woodlands, pastureland, swamps, and groves.
Things to do include picking Florida citrus fruits, feeding farm animals, doing a little fishing (as long as you catch and release and bring your own pole), picnicking on the waterfront, shopping in the country store, and even wine tasting.
During the tour, your guide will be giving you Florida history and entertaining facts about this great state. Tours are available 365 days a year, and the Showcase of Citrus is a licensed wildlife exhibitor. For information on tours and ticket prices, see showcaseofcitrus.com.
The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve is a place where visitors can enjoy natural Florida. It’s a favorite of master birders and those who enjoy exploring the rich plants and trees native to Florida. You’ll find sandhills, flatwoods, oak hammocks, river swamp. and cypress ponds, which can be found only in Central Florida. Because it’s an intact ecosystem, wildlife is abundant, including mammals, amphibians, reptiles, butterflies, and beautiful tropical birds.
Green Swamp Preserve includes Colt Creek State Park (5,067 acres), East Tract (51,149 acres), Hampton Tract (11,052 acres), Little Withlacoochee Tract (4,446 acres), and West Tract (37,350 acres). Almost 36 miles of Withlacoochee River waters are protected as “Outstanding Florida Water” in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve.
Visitors can hike a huge network of roads or along the Florida National Scenic Trail that bisects the area. Please note that certain areas are off-limits during hunting season. See swfwmd.state.fl.us for information.
A Day at the Ringling
Sarasota has many attractions but a world-renowned art collection at the Ringling Museum of Art is among its most notable treasures.
Story: Mary Ann DeSantis
Mention the Ringling Estates in Sarasota, and people automatically think of the circus. After all, John Ringling and his brothers operated “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and during the 1920s he became one of the wealthiest men on earth.
Ringling began collecting art while traveling through Europe as he scouted for new circus acts. Today, his priceless collection of paintings and art objects—highlighted with works by Old World Masters including Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, and Velazquez—is housed in a 21-gallery museum on the south corner of the Ringling Estates that was modeled after the famed Uffizi Gallery in Italy.
Ringling and his wife, Mable, began spending winters in Sarasota in 1912 on their 20-acre waterfront property. The couple had such love for Italy that their home was built like a Venetian palazzo with Sarasota Bay as their Grand Canal. Even the name of their 36,000-square-foot mansion, Ca’ d’Zan, is the Venetian dialect for “House of John.”
A stroll through Ringling Estates, with its beautiful gardens and Italianate-style buildings, can certainly remind visitors of Italy and the opulent lifestyles of the Roaring ’20s. However, if it’s circus history you want to see, visit the Ringling Circus Museum on the north side of the estates behind the Visitors Pavilion. Ironically, Ringling’s generation believed it was ostentatious to bring attention to the source of wealth, so the circus museum was established in 1948, well after his 1936 death.
Today, visitors can see performers’ wardrobes, props, parade wagons, the cannon that shot performers across the Big Top, and even the luxurious private railway car the Ringlings used. But the best display may be the 44,000-piece miniature circus inside the Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center. Handcrafted by Sarasota philanthropist and lifelong circus lover Howard Tibbals, the detailed model stretches across 3,800 square feet and is a re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus combined shows from 1919-1938. Tibbals worked on the miniature circus for more than 60 years, beginning the carvings as a teenager.
Lovers of art, architecture, exquisite gardens, and all things circus-related can easily find themselves running out of time trying to see everything the Ringling has to offer. Admission prices vary depending on what you want to see, but the best deal is the three-day pass. For $35 for adults, and $10 for children ages 6-17, the pass is valid for three consecutive days, giving you enough time to explore the entire estate.
Gypsy Gold in Ocala is home to a rare but beautiful horse breed.
Story: James Combs
With his sometimes mischievous ways, GG The Walker Horse is all man. He’s all mane, too.
The 3-year-old horse’s long, wispy mane grows down a crease in his chest. He has a mustache that curls along his lip and hairy feet like a Clydesdale.
Although his hair must occasionally be braided to keep it from covering his face, a trip to the barbershop is entirely out of the question.
“We leave their mustaches and belly hair because gypsies consider both to mean good luck,” Dennis Thompson says.
Dennis and his girlfriend, Erin Mahoney, own and operate Gypsy Gold, a 40-acre farm in Ocala that is home to a breed of horse many have never heard of—the Gypsy vanner. The breed was envisioned after World War II when European Gypsy travelers began using selective breeding methods to create the perfect caravan horse to pull their covered wagons.
The farm, which is rated as Ocala’s top attraction by Trip Advisor, attracts visitors from around the country who desire a personal encounter with this breed that Dennis brought to the United States from Great Britain. Tourists soon realize that the Gypsy vanner’s playful personality is as much a trademark of the horse as its long-flowing mane and stout body.
“They’re golden retrievers with hooves,” Dennis says. “They love people. I always say they don’t have a flee factor because they don’t get scared as easily as other horses and get over stressful events much faster.”
Dennis, an Indiana native who spent 30 years designing animal products, was first introduced to the breed in 1995 when he and his late wife, Cindy, were on a business trip to Great Britain. As they drove through the countryside, Cindy spotted a black-and-white stallion named Cushti Bok grazing in a field. They stopped, and the horse enthusiastically greeted them. They were impressed with its stature—heavy bones and broad, compact body of a draft horse, but on a smaller scale.
The Thompsons spent the remainder of the day at a Gypsy camp talking to the horse’s owner, who accepted their offer to purchase Cushti Bok.
“The Gypsies had been breeding and trying to create this horse for 55 years but it went largely unnoticed because they tend to be private people,” Dennis says. “When we purchased Cushti Bok, we knew something magical was about to happen in our lives.”
It wasn’t long before the couple imported 16 horses, established a breed registry, and opened Gypsy Gold in 1996. After receiving approval from European Gypsies, they christened the breed as the Gypsy vanner horse. The old English Chambers dictionary defined vanner as “a horse suitable to pull a caravan.” In 1998, they introduced the breed to the American public at the Equitana USA event held in Louisville, Kentucky.
Although Cindy died in a tragic accident in 2002, Dennis continues breeding the animal with descendants of the original 16 horses. Today, the farm is home to more than 40 Gypsy vanner horses with various colors and markings.
“When we breed, we’re looking for a specific body type rather than a color scheme,” Dennis says.
The story of how the Thompsons established the horse as a recognized breed is shared with visitors who tour the farm at 10am Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. After delivering an informative 45-minute speech, Dennis leads guests on a walk around the farm, which has 19 paddocks and is dotted with ancient oak trees. Among the horses they meet are the all-black BB King, the farm’s first solid-colored horse, and King William, who impresses visitors with his majestic black-and-white coat.
He also takes visitors to Fair Hill, the final resting place for the first horses that lived on the farm: Caymus, Cushti Bok, The Roadsweeper, The Gypsy King, Latcho Drom, and Shogun. Their names are etched in granite grave markers.
Dennis shares some heartfelt memories. “Shogun used to come into my office and stand behind me. That horse really had a unique personality,” he says.
The same can be said of all Gypsy vanners living on the farm today. Erin, Dennis’ girlfriend, has formed a loving relationship with GG The Walker Horse, whom she affectionately refers to as “Little Fred.”
“He’s like a big puppy, but he’s a 1,200-pound puppy so he’s not so cuddly,” Erin says. “The gentleness of this breed has ruined my love for all other horses.” First-time visitors to the farm are equally impressed. “These horses are gorgeous, breathtaking, and very majestic,” says Tony Porritt, a resident of Ontario, Canada. “Best of all, they have warm personalities like a dog.” Dennis has plans to make the farm bigger and better.
“I want to turn it into a permanent education and cultural center,” he says. “At Fair Hill, for instance, I want to have benches where guests can sit and look at beautiful gravestone markers of our horses that have passed. They can use their cellphones to scan a QR code and see videos and read stories about each horse.”
Gypsy Gold is located at 12501 SW 8th Ave. in Ocala. For more information, call 352.817.1777 or visit gypsygold.com.
The legend of the mermaid
Weeki Wachee’s underwater stars and other attractions have endured since 1947.
Story: Chris Gerbasi
Long before Disney’s “Little Mermaid” film, before Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah starred in “Splash,” there was Weeki Wachee.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, a historic roadside attraction in Spring Hill, has told the enchanting and mysterious tale of the mermaid for more than 70 years. In the park’s natural spring, beautiful “mermaids” perform underwater dances for the enjoyment of families, faraway visitors, curious onlookers, and red-blooded males. (The park strictly enforces a “catch and release” policy.)
The site is internationally known, having been featured in Hollywood films and TV shows since the 1940s, and video screens show black-and-white footage of past mermaid performances for patrons at the underwater theater.
Katie Wagner, in her fourth year as a mermaid, learned of the legacy while growing up in nearby Brooksville.
“As a kid, we’d drive past and see the ‘Weeki Wachee Mermaids’ sign and you dream to be one of those girls,” says Katie, who is 23 with wholesome “mermaid next door” looks. “I’m happy I could fulfill that dream.” She adored the underwater dancers, dressing up as a mermaid for Halloween and practicing routines in her pool. “You see that everybody loves the mermaids and you want to be the person that everyone else idolizes,”
Katie says. Now young girls idolize Katie and about 30 fellow performers who went through rigorous training to attain their dreams. Prospective mermaids must complete a 300-yard swim, a breath-holding test, and show they can smile and keep their eyes open underwater while not looking “frantic,” Katie says. They must become scuba-certified and learn to use air hoses—the most difficult part of the job, she says—and then choreography.
All that hard work goes into multiple daily shows 365 days a year. While the mermaids are the stars of Weeki Wachee, they have a supporting cast of attractions that include wildlife, a River Boat Cruise, an adventure park, kayaking, and camping. At the Wildlife Exhibit & Theater, handler Eddie Hamilton displays creatures such as snakes, turtles and tortoises, and Newt, a baby alligator that kids love. Eddie dispenses fun facts, including dispelling the notion that running in a zigzag pattern is the best way to evade an alligator. It’s not—run for your life in a straight line as fast as you can, he says.
Visitors also can see wildlife during the boat ride on Weeki Wachee River. Guide Mike Homan and navigator Larry Moore point out snapping turtles and yellow-bellied sliders, birds such as anhingas and egrets, the nests of eagles and great blue herons, and the occasional manatee, which is drawn to the spring because of its constant 74-degree temperature, Larry says.
Alligator sightings are rare, which is probably a good thing since the river stems from Buccaneer Bay, the adventure park with three tall water slides heading into the lagoon, beach and picnic areas, and other activities for children and adults.
But everybody winds up at the mermaid show. Tracey and Joe Lutz, on a winter vacation from Allentown, Pennsylvania, were sure to see Weeki Wachee. The couple wasn’t familiar with the history of the mermaids, but heard about them from a well-known musical travel guide.
“We’re Parrotheads and years ago we heard of it through Jimmy Buffett and just always wanted to make it a stop,” Tracey says. Sure enough, a video of Jimmy singing “Fins,” accompanied by Weeki Wachee mermaids, warms up the crowd at the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theatre. The place is named for the man who had the theater built into the limestone around the spring, created the air hoses for underwater breathing, and trained the young women for his new roadside attraction in 1947, according to the park website.
Visitors in the 400-seat theater enjoy a panoramic view of the 100-foot-wide basin of the spring, and mermaids swim about 16 to 20 feet below the water surface. Current shows include Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” and “Fish Tales.”
The aquatic ballets reveal how athletic and acrobatic the mermaids are as they coordinate their moves with each other and play to the crowd while also having to time their use of the air hoses. It’s a remarkable feat considering they’re underwater in spring currents of 5 mph or more.
The Weeki Wachee tradition is in good hands, and tails, with Katie and her fellow performers, and it’s not ending anytime soon. They’re inspiring a future generation. “It’s a trend now to want to be a mermaid. I see it in younger girls, older girls,” she says. The legend of the mermaid continues.
If you go
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill
SUN ‘n FUN aims high
A tour of the clouds.
Story: Theresa Campbell
The south’s largest air show, the SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-in and Expo, attracts more than 200,000 spectators, including many who make the trip from The Villages.
This year’s 44th event will be April 10-15 at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, 3900 Don Emerson Drive, Lakeland. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds—a crowd favorite—will be among about 60 air acts.
The U.S. Navy Super Hornet Demo and Paradigm Aerobatic Team also will perform, according to Carol Cali, marketing director. A complete list of the performers’ schedule will be posted at flysnf.org.
The fly-in is the largest fundraiser for the Aerospace Center for Excellence, and Carol notes the organization funds more than $2 million annually in STEM-related (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational programs and scholarships for youths.
“The Aerospace Center for Excellence has much to offer to folks of all ages,” Carol says. “Whether you join in the spectacle of the SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In and Expo, a day wandering around our wonderful museum enjoying the interactive displays, or any of the myriad activities we host year-round, knowing you’re supporting the future of flight for tomorrow’s youth can be personally gratifying.”
She says by visiting Aerospace Discovery at Lakeland’s Florida Air Museum, billed as Florida’s “official aviation museum and education center,” people can see a display of warbirds, one-of-a-kind designs, classics, ultra-lights, and antiques.
“The museum is more than a collection of airplanes; it is a tribute to the history and joy of flight highlighting pioneers such as Howard Hughes, early air racers, and countless Floridians who have influenced the world of aviation,” Carol says. Summer camps, group tours, workshops, and speaker presentations also are featured at the museum. For details, visit flysnf.org.
Plantation on Crystal River
Tucked away behind the mangroves of the Crystal River is one of Florida’s most charming resorts, a place where families return for generations once they discover it.
Story: Mary Ann DeSantis
The Plantation on Crystal River combines Southern elegance with eco-friendly service in one of Florida’s most natural environments. You won’t find high-rise condos here, but you will find the natural springs of Kings Bay and more than 25,000 surface acres of pristine lakes and rivers. If you prefer to keep your head dry, The Plantation also offers 27 holes of golf, a full-service spa, and many other family-friendly activities.
“We offer a whole different Florida experience,” General Manager Michael Mancke says. “Did you ever wonder what Tampa may have looked like 100 years ago? Well, that’s Crystal River. We are the original Florida.”
Indeed, “Old Florida” traditions still exist at the 232-acre resort along with new activities and many updated features since the hotel’s original construction in 1962. The Plantation on Crystal River is well known for its Snorkel with the Manatees tour packages. The Crystal River NationalWildlife Refuge in Kings Bay is the only place in the United States where swimmers actually can get in the water to practice “passive observation” with manatees. The Plantation’s Adventure Center provides pre-tour education programs year-round, so snorkelers will have the most fulfilling experiences when viewing manatees up close.
The Plantation also offers special packages during Florida’s scalloping season, which usually runs from July through late September (dates vary). In the meantime, though, guests find plenty of other water activities, including kayaking and canoeing, boating, fishing, and scuba certification classes.
Golfing has become even more enjoyable at The Plantation with a recently updated clubhouse and newly paved golf cart paths. The tree-lined Florida-style courses offer a variety of water and bunker obstacles, which keep golfers challenged enough to return year after year.
The resort also has become a popular place for family reunions. All ages will find something to do, whether it’s golf, tennis, pickleball, water sports, spa treatments, or kid-friendly activities like hula-hoop contests and cornhole games. Or you can just soak up the sun by the pool and tiki bar. At the end of the day, enjoy a family-style picnic on the lawn or a relaxing dinner at the onsite West 82° Grill, which now offers patio dining.
A small town of mediums
Cassadaga is home to a spiritualist camp, many mediums, and a host of contented residents.
Story: Leigh Neely
Cassadaga is a place where you can stand at the corner of Mediumship Way and Spiritualist Street, and you eventually find yourself at Séance Court and Metaphysical Street. The town is just off Interstate 4 near Lake Helen. About an hour from Lake County, it is often called “the Psychic Capital of the World.”
When you drive down Cassadaga Road, you’ll pass a large sign that reads, “Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp.” You could say this is the origin of the town that was founded in 1875. George P. Colby was led to the area by his spirit guide, Senaca, who told George there was a “congress of spirits” who chose his land as the place for a spiritual center.
On Dec. 18, 1894, the charter to form the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association (SCSCMA) was granted. Today, the town and its camp occupy 57 acres and is on the list of national historic places. Anyone may rent there, but to purchase a home, you must be a spiritualist.
Ray Carroll is president of the SCSCMA. “I came here a couple of years ago when my wife passed,” Ray says. “When I came, I felt peaceful. I came back and met someone, and now I live here.”
A former federal law enforcement officer, Ray felt his life was over after the death of his wife. He found himself “running away” from his home in Pennsylvania often. But the peace and acceptance he found in Cassadaga gave him a new hope and a new life. He eventually met his current wife, Lilian, whose license plate read, “Runaway,” and now they’re both settled.
If you have an interest in spiritualism—a religion, science, and philosophy of belief in continuous life and communication with those in the spirit world through mediums—you will enjoy a visit to this small, energetic town.
All the official mediums of Cassadaga are certified by the SCSCMA. They must go through a lengthy educational process, and they are evaluated on their readings for three years after receiving certification. Only certified mediums can work in Cassadaga. Since the Cassadaga Hotel has private ownership, the psychics and mediums on their premises are independent. Dawn Medley is the activity director for the town and camp. “We all have interesting stories about how we got here,”
Dawn says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I came to visit and stayed.’”
She recommends Sunday as the best day to visit if you want to get an overall picture of what the town and its residents are about.
The day begins at 9:30am with Adult Lyceum, a spiritualism class in the meeting hall of the Andrew Jackson Davis Building. At 10:15am, everyone moves to Colby Memorial Temple for a service that begins with spiritual healing in the back of the church while the congregation participates in a guided meditation. A message follows from one of the town’s mediums or healers and, at the end of the message, the speaker may call out three or four people in the audience with a message from spirits.
Following the service, everyone returns to the meeting hall in the Davis Building for a communal lunch. At 12:30pm, the Sunday Grove Service meets with students and mediums demonstrating the continuity of life in a public setting.
The mediums and healers are available every day. A room is set up in the Davis Building with a notebook containing their biographies so visitors can choose the medium they want for their reading. There is a dry-erase board on the wall to let you know which mediums are open for appointments that day. If you’re coming from a long distance, you may want to schedule your meeting ahead of time to be sure someone is available for your reading.
“October is our busiest month,” Dawn says. “People become very interested in death then.”
Other popular stops in Cassadaga include the town’s busy bookstore.
In addition to a variety of books from spiritualists, astrologers, mediums, and psychics, the store sells crystals, all kinds of jewelry, clothing, purses, and even wands. It’s a great place to shop. You also will find a great meal at Sinatra’s Italian Restaurant in the Hotel Cassadaga or you can get a snack at the small grocery store in town. Otherwise, you may want to go a mile or so to Lake Helen for a meal. In addition to the camp and services, the town also offers historical tours, the Nighttime Encounter Spirits Tour, official Cassadaga Camp Walking Tours, and special group tours. For information on the customized bus tours or any questions, visit cassadaga.org or call 386.228.3171.
Don’t race through Daytona
After the NASCAR and Daytona Bike Week dust settles, the Daytona Beach area offers an array of family-friendly activities.
Story: Mary Ann DeSantis
To understand why Daytona Beach became such a magnet for auto racing, just climb the 203 steps to the top of the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse. The breathtaking views show a stretch of beach that early stock car drivers zoomed along from 1927 to 1958, setting 15 world land speed records.
It’s hard to escape the city’s racing legacy, even when visiting Florida’s tallest lighthouse. Most people know of Daytona’s major events—NASCAR races, Bike Week, and Country 500—but there’s a lot more that doesn’t involve crowds and high-energy happenings.
“There are many other days besides those events that can be filled with family-friendly attractions and other things,” says Kate Holcomb, director of communications for the Daytona Beach Visitors Bureau. “We have so much to do and lots of new places to enjoy.”
Kate is especially enthusiastic about One Daytona, a mega-shopping and entertainment district that opened in December. Located on the north side of West International Speedway Boulevard, the complex features major retailers, boutiques, restaurants, live entertainment and even a lawn where kids can play cornhole and life-size chess.
Another relatively new venue is the Daytona Arcade Museum, where for $19.95 visitors can play vintage pinball machines and video games all day— no quarters needed. Located downtown on North Beach Street, the Arcade Museum is a family-friendly time-machine trip to the 1980s, powered by Pac-Man games and music videos. The crème de la crème is an Atari Star Wars sit-down cockpit game made in 1983.
As one of the nation’s most historic beach towns, Daytona Beach has no shortage of history and nature activities. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse is a good place to start with its manicured grounds showing how early lighthouse keepers lived. The complex features several buildings that trace the area’s heritage from when it was known as Mosquito Coast.
Within walking distance of the lighthouse is the Marine Science Center, where families can explore the area’s diverse ecosystems, touch stingrays, and learn about Volusia County’s bird rehabilitation program.
Tourists often fail to discover the city’s world-class museums located across the Halifax River on Nova Road. The Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum showcases paintings spanning nearly 200 years of Florida history while the Museum of Arts & Sciences (MOAS) houses several collections as well as a pre-historic gallery.
Of course, strolling along the famous Daytona Beach Boardwalk and Pier is a requirement for first-timers. The historic band shell is the site for seasonal weekend concerts and special events while the Joyland Amusement Center is the place for family go-kart races and several new rides. One of the newest beachfront properties is the Hard Rock Hotel, opening in March, where guests can get complimentary use of Fender guitars and Crosley record players for in-room jam sessions.
Non-race-day tours of the International Speedway are quite popular—especially since a $400 million renovation was completed a few years ago. See the speedway up close on the 30-minute shuttle tour ($18, adults; $12, ages 6-12) or go behind the scenes on a 90-minute all-access tour ($25, adults; $19, ages 6-12).
Experiencing all Daytona Beach has to offer in a long weekend is a race to the finish, but the good news is that it can be just a trial run until your next visit.
For more information, visit daytonabeach.com
What to do?
Fishing, riding horses, leisurely boat tours—Lake and Sumter counties have it all!
Blue Moon Ranch
4605 County Road 134, Wildwood
Cypress House Ranch Bed and Breakfast
5175 County Road 631, Bushnell
DreamCatcher Horse Ranch and Rescue
10639 Toad Road, Clermont
Lake Louisa Trail Rides
7305 U.S. Highway 27, Clermont
Rock Springs Run Trail Rides
31700 County Road 433, Sorrento
Southern Cross Stables
14910 Lost Lake Road, Clermont
Premier Boat Tours
100 Alexander St., Mount Dora
400 W. 4th Ave., Mount Dora
311 S. Tremain St., Mount Dora
Justin’s Jungle Airboat Rides
19400 SE Highway 42, Umatilla
Captain Ernie’s St. Johns River Tours
(Departs at Blackwater Inn)
55716 Front St., Astor
Bartholomew’s Yesteryear Boat Cruises
12121 Canal St., Tavares
HOT-AIR BALLOON RIDES
Florida Balloon Adventures
Clermont Balloon Rides
BOAT AND JET SKI RENTALS
Get Wet WaterSports
1000 W. Burleigh Blvd., Tavares
Gator Bay Marina
10320 County Road 44, Leesburg
Palm Gardens Restaurant and Marina
1661 Palm Garden St., Tavares
Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina
148 Charles Ave., Mount Dora
Cypress Cove Marina
10233 Cypress Cove Lane, Clermont
Lake Harris Lodge
11924 Lane Park Road, Tavares
Water sports Clermont Boathouse
1050 Victory Way, Clermont
Clermont Waterfront Park
330 3rd St., Clermont
World Wakeboard Center
19022 Orange Ave., Groveland
Jack Travers Waterski School
20225 State Road 33, Groveland
Lake Eustis Sailing Club
1310 County Road 452, Eustis
Mount Dora Yacht Club
351 W. 4th Ave., Mount Dora
Swiss Waterski Resort
13114 Skiing Paradise Blvd., Clermont
201 E. Dixie Ave., Leesburg
One Cast Away
837 Lock Road, Leesburg
5405 Bettys Court, Tavares
Gdawgbass Fishing LLC
Revolution Off Road
400 State Road 33, Clermont
GatorWorld Parks of Florida
492 W. Highway 44, Wildwood