Folks may flock to Central Florida for the chance to meet Mickey, link up at LegoLand and hob-nob at Hogwarts, but the real magic is in the area's hidden botanical gardens.
This look at three green oases will help you fall under their spell.
Harry P. Leu Gardens, Orlando
Owned by four generations of families before being presented to the city in 1961, Leu Gardens is a 50-acre botanical paradise overlooking Orlando's Lake Rowena, a sweet setting for its monthly date-night movies and seasonal Jazz and Blues Stroll.
Leu's crown jewel is the third largest camellia collection in North America. Thousands of these layered blooms come to life between October and March, dotting the pathways with bursts of pink and white flowers that look like the fancy cupcake confections you'd find at a garden party.
More superlatives include the largest formal rose garden in Florida, which boasts varieties dating to the late 1800s, and the 80-inch diameter live oak now resting comfortably on its side after being knocked over, but not out, during the 2004 hurricane season.
For Southern gardeners looking for fresh ideas, 12 residentially scaled gardens offer plenty to ponder. With so many ideas around every corner, Leu isn't one of those stately gardens where you can look but you can't touch. See something you like? Make an appointment with a guide who can help you trim cuttings.
A turn-of-the-century home in the center of the gardens is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for free tours throughout the day, making Leu a great spot for those who love architecture and antiques as well as gardens.
Classes, events and a popular plant sale every March provide ample reasons to visit Leu Gardens, but the best time to go is on the first Monday of every month, when the gardens are both quiet and free. Leu Gardens is located at 1920 N. Forest Ave. in Orlando. Admission is $10 for adults, $3 for kids 5 to 12. No food or drinks are sold, but picnics are welcome. Visit www.leugardens.org to find out more.
Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales
What camellias are to Leu Gardens, azaleas are to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, with veils of white and pink buds giving this whopping 550-acre property a princess look. Surrounded by rolling hills of orange groves, this National Historic Landmark features Frederick Olmsted-designed gardens, the famous Singing Tower and the enchanting Mediterranean-style Pinewood Estate.
The 60-bell carillon is one of only four in Florida. Each bell weighs anywhere from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. Listening to their echoing rhythms during the twice-daily concerts by master carillonneur Geert D'hollander while surrounded by flowers and foliage is like being in Mother Nature's church. The 205-foot tower designed in a mix of neo-Gothic and Art Deco styles rises like a beacon, making you feel as if you're tucked into the European countryside.
Perching over Lake Wales from the highest point in peninsular Florida at 298 feet above sea level (sky-high to Floridians), the sunset views here are exquisite, especially during one of Bok Tower's Concerts Under the Stars, when you might catch the Orlando Symphony, or a funky folk rock band.
Must-sees include Window by the Pond, a tiny log-cabin-cum-observatory overlooking a bog. The peaceful vibe inside when you watch through a glass wall as birds and turtles go about their business is in keeping with the spiritual energy of Bok Tower Gardens. The feeling continues throughout Pinewood Estate, the 20-room, Mediterranean-style mansion built by Dutch publishing czar Edward Bok and his team of world-renowned architects.
Bok Tower also happens to sit along the Great Florida Birding Trail, and with 126 species of birds calling this home, the gardens lure as many birdwatchers as it does garden lovers.
Bok Tower Gardens is located at 1151 Tower Blvd. in Lake Wales. Admission is $18 for a combo adult ticket to both the gardens and estate, $8 for kids 5 to 12. Visit boktowergardens.org to find out more.
Mead Botanical Garden, Winter Park
What Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park lacks in organized beauty it makes up for in spunk. This rustic public garden is always free and open from dusk to dawn, with meandering paths that connect with the surrounding residential neighborhood. You won't find a welcome center here, as Mead is run primarily by volunteers known simply as Friends of Mead Garden, but you will discover a restored greenhouse and its historic collection of bromeliads and orchids. Outside a huge staghorn fern hangs from an oak tree near the entrance, as if on guard.
Let intuition be your guide and follow your whim when exploring this simple and undisciplined 48-acre garden loved by joggers. Enjoy a picnic and people-watching by the pond, followed by a hike along Howell Creek and the surrounding wetlands for a perfect introduction to the garden's charms.
On any given day you might find a mom with a stroller making her way through the butterfly garden, a toddler trailing behind trying to catch the winged works of art. Paved walking and biking paths are shaded by stately pines that provide a cooling, natural canopy.
Compared to the manicured gardens close by, Mead is a bit of a wild child. The annual Duck Derby in February draws families, while the once-per-year moonlight bloom of the resident night-blooming cereus plant lures lovers of exotic flora. Mead Botanical Garden is located at 300 S. Denning in Winter Park. There is no admission charge. Visit www.meadgarden.org to find out more.
--by Ana Connery for VISIT FLORIDA