Photos and Story: Stephanie Lauren Bramson
When naïve northerners visit Florida, they expect sunshine, palm trees, smooth sand, and breathtaking natural views. Sadly, with the exception of palm trees and occasional sunshine, central Florida has generally replaced natural beauty with knock-off Disney tourist shops, sketchy motels, and the corporate trinity of McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s. There are hints of the wild elsewhere—the orange groves off of 429, various parks and lakes. But for guaranteed, safe-to-view, and all around stunning botanical wonder, there are few places better than Bok Tower.
The park is overwhelming at first. The mile-long drive between the entrance and the visitor’s center alone provides an abundance of greenery not often seen this close to Disney. If you can keep from being immediately entranced by flowers, the visitor’s center leads to a mini museum with quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and a crash course on Edward W. Bok. Across from the museum is a gift and plant shop (with care guides and knowledgeable salespeople for the horticulturally challenged) and a café with sandwiches, Stubborn-brand sodas, and gigantic salads with some of the freshest tasting fruits and vegetables this side of Whole Foods. Meander along the path past the café and you’ll meet sunflowers and a pollinator’s garden (be careful of the latter if you’re allergic to bees or wasps), followed by an outdoor kitchen and edible garden, home to various culinary workshops. You could turn the corner and go through a maze of trees to find the Pinewood Estate or Singing Tower Carillion (the latter of which is the cover picture for every guide to Bok Tower Gardens), or you could continue through the path to the Gardens’ newest feature, Hammock Hollow.
A warning to parents: Your children will never want to leave Hammock Hollow. Even the least creative children will see this playground as a fairy garden. Artfully placed sand-colored walls guard a misty fountain with sprinklers and a sunken meadow filled with butterflies. Giant climb-worthy trees shade the “Songbird Music” area, complete with wooden xylophones and musical pipes that always sound peaceful, no matter how dissonant the notes your three-year-old hits. There is a shaded sandbox guarded by a giant snake made of flat dark stones, climbing logs and paths, a stage for impromptu performances, a “Doodle Bug Art Palace” where children can display their drawings, a word garden with rocks that say words like “Joy,” “Honesty,” and “Respect,” and, of course, several giant hammocks. The entire area is shaded, and there are benches and Adirondack chairs for parents and anyone else who needs a rest. Spend a few hours here, and you’ll find that Disney no longer has a local Monopoly on children’s imagination.