Orlando – Central Florida, known best for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, draws more than 50 million tourists annually. They visit the area for its theme parks, shopping, restaurants and entertainment.
No one comes to Orlando to "get away from it all." In a state surrounded by beautiful beaches and water, this landlocked city lacks any view of the ocean. The I-4 Corridor slices Orlando and cuts through the center of the state from I-275 in Tampa to I-95 in Daytona Beach. The pristine view of the peninsula that many take for granted eludes Orlandoans.
So, it's always good to have a list of places to go to relax away from the noise and excitement of the area.
Mead Botanical Garden
Orlando features many natural areas just a few miles from the downtown business district. Mead Garden offers 50 acres in the heart of Winter Park, a few miles north of the tip of Orlando.
Enjoy a lazy afternoon exploring the nature trails or dipping your feet in the freshwater ponds. Bring bottled water as the trails are a few miles and you will want to stop to see the streams, plants, wetlands and animals.
Despite damaged caused by hurricanes in 2004, the city and volunteers have restored much of the garden to the appearance of its inception in the 1940s.
As this area goes through the stages of ecological succession, new growth provides resources such as food and shelter to many bird species, including migratory songbirds. It makes the restoration site a great place to observe birds.
Mead Garden is unique because it is a natural island of diverse habitats within an otherwise developed landscape, and these diverse habitats protect quite a variety of living things. If you don't want to explore the trails, visit the butterfly garden, greenhouse, community garden, lake and acres of shady picnic spots with tables. Restrooms are available. And it features an outdoor amphitheater, one of the few in the state.
The Winter Park Garden Club has been meeting in the garden for more than 50 years. If you check the calendar on the website, you will find an array of activities going on year round. They include concerts, summer camps, geocaching, guided bird walks and walkabouts. The Annual Camellia Show and Festival is held there each January.
1500 S Denning Drive, Winter Park
Open 8 a.m. - dusk daily
It's located north of Orlando on 17-92. Once you hit Winter Park, make a right. There are signs to guide you along the way, but it's easy to miss if you're not on the lookout.
Dickson Azalea Park
In 1916, State Senator Walter Rose purchased the land that is now home to Dickson-Azalea Park. Rose became attracted to the property, and planned to develop it, because of its natural setting, flowing creek and proximity to downtown Orlando.
In November of that year, Rose offered $25 in gold to the person submitting the best name for the subdivision. W.S. Branch, Sr. won the gold pieces, naming the new area "Rosarden," which was later changed to "Rosearden." He was inspired by William Shakespeare's As You Like It, in which the characters Rosalind and Orlando met in the Forest of Arden.
Rose, a prominent developer, platted all but five acres along the east side of Fern Creek into lots for homes. He set aside the property adjacent to the creek for a park. Rose cleared the park of debris, added pathways and terraced the banks of Fern Creek. In 1924, Rose deeded the park, then on both sides of the creek, to the City of Orlando.
The incredibly lush landscaping, birds and water flowing throughout the park offer a treat to many visitors. This park sits as an oasis for those needing a quiet site to eat lunch, or to reflect to a time when this area was a watering hole for cattle. As you walk along Fern Creek, you can see the quaint Washington Street Bridge. Constructed in 1926, its style reflects that of many bridges found in South Florida. A playground, athletic fields and a basketball court provide opportunities for play, but most people appreciate the shady trees and peaceful quiet.
Mayor Carl T. Langford Park sits across the street with plenty of room for kids to play. Young children love the swinging bridge over the creek and the playground.
Leashed pets are allowed at all city of Orlando parks, but you must clean up after your pet.
100 Rosearden Drive, Orlando
Open 5 a.m. - sunset daily
Jay Blanchard Park
Rather than a wide, open expanse like most parks, one unique feature of Blanchard Park is that it's relatively narrow and long. Just minutes from the high-paced downtown Orlando area, it offers one of the most beautiful walking and biking trails in Orlando.
The paved, 7.9-mile Little Econ Greenway Trail and The Little Econlockhatchee River run through Blanchard Park. The trail allows you to bike, hike, skateboard or just plain meander, and is wide enough to allow families to stroll as cyclists stream by. The scenic riverbank also offers a great place to picnic under the trees, though traditional picnic tables are also available in the park. Fishing is allowed off the banks.
Two larger pavilions can be rented for special events. The playground provides total shade and features multiple slides and activities for different ages. Smaller slides offer protection for preschoolers with rubber flooring underneath in case of spills. Swings stand a short walk from the playground, near the parking area.
The popular sand volleyball and basketball courts host pick-up games almost every day of the week. Additional soccer and multi-purpose fields offer plenty of room for kickball, kite flying and other activities.
Those 17 and older can check out bikes through the office every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer. A state-issued driver's license or ID is required, and adults cannot check out a bike for a child. The Blanchard Park River Rangers offers kids 3 to 12 a chance to learn about wildlife, the environment and conservation. Pre-registration is required.
2451 N Dean Road, Orlando
Open Monday-Sunday; 8 a.m.- 8 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. in the winter
LaCosta Urban Wetlands
No story about urban sanctuaries in and around Orlando can go without mentioning a few passive parks. These are places where the only interaction you will experience is with nature. They don't have all the bells and whistles that accommodate for picnicking and volleyball. These are places to sit, to walk and to meditate, and to enjoy the beauty, the sounds and the smells.
And LaCosta Urban Wetlands, a 25-acre park that functions as a storm water drainage facility for the surrounding neighborhood and roadways, is one of these places. A sidewalk winds through the park and across several bridges spanning the water. This open space provides a perfect place for taking a nap, reading a book, birding or fishing. There is ample parking and leashed pets are allowed. Remember to bring bags for clean up.
5814 La Costa Drive, Orlando
Open 5 a.m.- sunset daily
The University of Central Florida is now the second-largest university in the United States by enrollment. In 2011, there were almost 60,000 students from 140 countries, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The 800-acre campus buzzes year round with classes, cultural events, academic lectures and athletics.
So, who would expect that hidden in the middle of campus sits an undeveloped, 82-acre site of native trees, lakes, hiking trails and a pristine conservation area called the Arboretum? More than 600 plant species have been identified inside the Arboretum, and the campus itself has more than 45 animal species.
Located between the College of Engineering and the College of Optics and Photonics, the Arboretum was established in 1993 and began with 12 acres of pond pine community on the east side of the developed part of campus. In 1988, the university expanded the land to include a five-acre cypress dome, an oak hammock of three acres and about 15 acres of sand pine and Florida scrub, connected to the original property by sabal palm and increasingly rare Florida longleaf pine flatwoods.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley decimated the 12 acres of pond pine and destroyed most of its canopy, but the area is currently being restored to its original state by the UCF Environmental Initiative & Arboretum, which was founded to manage the natural lands that are owned by UCF.
For a fee of $3 per person, per hour, UCF offers guided tours of the Arboretum ranging from one to three hours. During the summer, visitors are advised to wear light-colored clothes, a hat and closed-toe shoes. Sunscreen and a reusable water canteen are a must. The campus has picnic pavilion areas to eat before or after the tour.
4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando
Open sunrise to sunset daily
Susan Clary is a former award-winning reporter for the St. Petersburg Times, Orlando Sentinel and CFN News13. She works as a freelance writer and editor in Winter Park and runs Compassionate Canines, a nonprofit dog rescue.
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.