Bok Tower Gardens: A True Old Florida Attraction

Lisa Fritscher July 15, 2014 No Comments

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Singing Tower

The Singing Tower is definitely the highlight of Bok Tower Gardens.

If you have ever been to Central Florida, you probably know all about the theme parks, the t-shirt shops, and the seemingly endless array of mini-golf courses and go-kart tracks eager to part you from your money. Yet before Walt Disney World came to town in 1971, Central Florida was a sleepy area known for citrus and cattle rather than thrills and excitement. With its year-round sunshine and mild temperatures, the region always lured its share of tourists, but its attractions celebrated the natural beauty of their surroundings. Most of the Old Florida attractions are long gone, but a few gems remain. Located in Lake Wales, roughly an hour from both Tampa and Orlando, Bok Tower Gardens is arguably the jewel in the Old Florida crown.

History of Bok Tower Gardens
At the age of 6, Edward W. Bok immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands. He went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and successful publisher, but he never forgot the lessons taught to him by his grandmother. Among these was the idea that he should leave the world a little better off from his having lived in it.

Although they lived in Pennsylvania, Bok and his wife owned a winter retreat in Lake Wales. He loved the outdoors, and greatly enjoyed climbing the nearby Iron Mountain. Rising to a peak of nearly 300 feet above sea level, it was one of the highest points in the Florida peninsula. In 1921, he decided to share his beloved spot with the world by creating a bird sanctuary and nature preserve at the top of Iron Mountain.

Bok purchased the land and enlisted the help of talented architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. Together, the men created a plan to turn the sandy hilltop into a true natural wonder. The crowning achievement was the creation of the Singing Tower, a 205-foot art deco monolith that houses a 60-bell carillon. Upon completion in 1929, Bok presented what was then known as the Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower to the American people.

Pinewood Estate

The elegant Pinewood Estate is worth the small surcharge.

What to See
The winding historic gardens feature hundreds of varieties of plant life, including a separate garden filled with Florida’s endangered and rare plants. A reflecting pool, a Japanese peace lantern, a Florida bog overlook and, of course, Bok’s beloved sunset viewing spot at the top of the hill are among the other highlights. Walking trails are available for those who want to venture beyond the main pathways.

The historic 60-bell carillon plays concerts every day at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. with shorter selections on the hour and half-hour throughout the day. Note that the concert is live on Thursday through Sunday from mid-October through mid-May, and prerecorded at other times. You can hear the concert throughout the grounds.

Pinewood Estate is the 12,900 square foot winter estate of Bethlehem Steel vice president Charles Austin Buck. A big fan of both Latin architecture and Bok Tower, Buck had the 20-room mansion built in the style of a Latin villa with three sweeping porches that afford excellent views of the tower. In 1970, the Bok family acquired Pinewood Estate and had it restored to its original glory for visitors to enjoy.

Museum

Don’t miss the small museum inside the Visitor Center!

Planning Your Visit
Today, Bok Tower Gardens is open to the public 365 days per year, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Pinewood Estate, the Visitor Center, the restaurant and the gift shop are sometimes open more limited hours and are occasionally closed.

As of 2014, general admission is $12 for adults and $3 for children ages 5-12. A combo ticket that includes Pinewood Estate is $18 for adults and $8 for children. Annual membership begins at $45. Bok Tower also has reciprocal membership benefits with numerous institutions. Check your membership paperwork to see if you qualify for a discount.

The tower is normally closed to the public. However, four times per year, special guided tours are given for those who are members at the Sustainer level ($100) or above. You will receive two tickets for your choice of one tour date per year.

Special events are held throughout the year, including classes, concerts and member-only opportunities. Many of these are included with admission, while others require a nominal additional charge. Check the official website for details on what is happening during your trip.

Bells

The highlight of the tower tour was being so close to the massive bells.

Inside the Tower
Dad and I were fortunate to visit on one of the tower tour dates. We joined a small group for a guided experience we will never forget.

The bottom level of the tower is a stunning lobby with a fireplace, a patterned tile floor and an antique seating area. We were allowed to explore the 211-step wrought iron staircase before piling into the original Otis elevator to continue our tour.

Each floor of the tower houses different facilities including the maintenance workshop, the archives, an extensive library and a recording studio. We were encouraged to take our time and explore each area in detail. We even had the opportunity to meet one of the recording engineers, and to talk with him at length about his experiences at Bok Tower.

Of course, the highlight of the tour was the 60-bell carillon. It would be impossible to describe just how small I felt standing amongst the enormous bells. We got to hear the afternoon concert from inside the tower, a unique experience that I was honored to have.

Winding Pathways

The winding pathways lead you on a journey of exploration.

Tips for Parents
Bok Tower Gardens is a wonderful choice for families of all ages and interests. From walking tours to shopping, and concerts to geocaching, Bok Tower Gardens truly offers something for everyone. The immense grounds are a favorite picnic spot for many local families, and the friendly squirrels provide plenty of photo opportunities.

Keep an eye on your kids to ensure they don’t damage the plants, but give them some free rein to run around and play. While most of the Central Florida area is now covered in asphalt and buildings, Bok Tower Gardens is one of the few spots where kids can enjoy an old-fashioned Florida experience.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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