Looking for a unique half-day destination near Disney World, LEGOLAND, and the other central Florida theme parks? Head south on Highway 27 for Lake Wales. This historic community, located in the rolling hills (yes, central Florida has rolling hills!) of the Lake Wales Ridge, is home to two attractions you won’t find anywhere else: Bok Tower Gardens and Spook Hill. They’re just a few miles apart, making this an easy two-part visit, less than an hour from Walt Disney World.
Bok Tower Gardens might not sound like a family destination at first. The serene gardens, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. (the son of famed Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead), surround a neo-Gothic tower on a hilltop, known as the Singing Tower for its carillon of sixty brass bells. Anyone would be excused for thinking that this sounds more like an outing with the grandparents than a fun day out with kids, especially kids freshly hyped-up from a Disney vacation.
But this National Historic Landmark is worth a second look. The secluded winding pathways and broad grassy lawns? Great for kids who want to run and burn off some unregulated steam. The massive growths of tropical foliage and rare flowers? They make for a really convincing backdrop to your own personal dinosaur movie. (Note to self: bring plastic dinosaurs for a photoshoot next time). The park benches placed to give you the best views of citrus groves and rolling hills from the one of the highest points in peninsular Florida? An awesome place to relax and take in the scenery while the kids do their running-around thing on the grassy slope.
You can even get in some history and listen to the carillon while you’re there. The carillon plays a little tune on the hour and half-hour, with live concerts from a master carillonneur several times daily. Down the slope in the expansive Visitor’s Center, displays explain just about anything you might be curious about: how massive “singing” bells are tuned, the origin of the marble used in the tower, the curious orange soil of the surrounding hills.
It’s also where you can learn the personal story of Edward Bok, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author and editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, who dedicated his life to finding peace and tranquility, both around the world and closer to home.
After falling in love with the views from Iron Mountain (which at 298 feet above sea level, totally counts as a mountain in Florida) he turned the property into a bird sanctuary and garden, then gifted the “Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower” to the American people in 1929.
The gardens surround the hill-top tower, with carefully curated views of the tower and the surrounding countryside. Down on lower ground, other nature-inspired exhibits include a bog garden, a nature trail through a longleaf pine forest, and a walking trail that provides magnificent views of the tower and the ridge. All around you’ll see the orange groves that have been an integral part of Polk County’s economy (once the richest county per capita in Florida) since the nineteenth century.
Are you feeling relaxed after your stroll through the gardens? Are the kids ready for a nap after their first unstructured time since you arrived in Orlando? Perfect. Just a few miles away, Spook Hill offers a different sort of family diversion, and you don’t even have to get out of your car for this one. Haunted Mansion fans, take note. On Spook Hill, you might sense a disquieting metamorphosis: is this haunted car actually rolling uphill?
The premise is this: you pull up to a painted line on a road, just past Spook Hill Elementary School (their mascot is Casper the Friendly Ghost), put your car in neutral, and let it roll backwards. Through the haunting powers of a giant alligator ghost (I think? It’s confusing.) in a nearby sinkhole, your car neatly begins to roll backwards and uphill, without any help from your accelerator.
I know. I didn’t understand it either, so we had to give it a try to really understand what was going on. It turns out that if you stare at the hill in front of you, you really do yourself rolling backwards and uphill–which we all found so entertaining we had to do it over again, screaming with laughter, until another car appeared and we had to drive on.
There are houses just to the right of Spook Hill, and I can’t even imagine what they think of the tourists who show up to roll backwards down their hill. But it’s really, really fun.
There’s a giant sign-board which explains both the Standard Operating Guide for rolling your car down the hill, and the giant alligator ghost back-story. I’m still not certain what the alligator ghost has to do with any of it (you can read the sign for yourself and see if it makes any sense to you), but Spook Hill is definitely worth ten minutes out of your day. Just remember that you have to look straight ahead, or the illusion (or ghost!) doesn’t work. Look out the side window, and the road will appear flat.
On our visit, we made a half-day trip to Bok Tower Gardens and Spook Hill, then visited Epcot for the afternoon. We were at Disney World by lunchtime, although we could have spent more time at Bok Tower had there not been threatening weather coming. There is a lot to explore in the trails in and around the tower site that we missed, but just the stroll around the gardens and the view from the hilltop was worth the admission price for us.
Bok Tower Gardens is open daily from 8 AM – 6 PM, with last admission at 5 PM. A general admission is $12/adults, $3 children 5-12 years of age, with various options available to add.
From the Orlando area, take I-4 west-bound to Highway 27 (Exit 55) and head south. After 22.8 miles, turn left onto Mountain Lake Cutoff Road, then left onto N. Scenic Highway (Alt 27). Travel about a mile and a half to Burns Ave., turn left, then left onto Tower Blvd. Got all that? The address is 1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales, FL, 33853. For more information, visit their website.
Spook Hill is located on 5th St./N. Wales Drive, between Highway 17 and Dr. JA Wiltshire Ave. It’s easily found by taking Old Scenic Highway south from Bok Tower and then turning left onto Dr. JA Wiltshire Ave. You’ll also find plenty of directional signs all around Lake Wales for Spook Hill and other local attractions.