By Gary McKechnie

No one could ever have anticipated how Orlando’s first theme park would change the face of the city. Then again, back in 1883 Orlando had never seen anything like Lake Eola Park where the theme was, quite simply, the city’s natural beauty.

Nearly 150 years later, Lake Eola Park is still recognized as the centerpiece of Orlando; a postcard-perfect sanctuary where you can savor the simple pleasures of strolling beside a picturesque lake, stop for a picnic lunch in the shade of sprawling oaks, and soak in the colors and perfume of fragrant gardens as you enjoy a leisurely stroll.

lake eola park

In the middle of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola is home to dozens of white and black swans.

- Kara Franker for VISIT FLORIDA

Few people realize this low-tech experience that receives constant high marks comes to us courtesy of a Florida Cracker cowboy…

The Symbol of the City

Jacob Summerlin, known as the ‘King of the Crackers’, made his fortune as a cattleman before becoming one of Orlando’s leading financial backers. One investment that resulted in impressive returns was the parcel of land he donated in 1883. What would become an idyllic oasis in the heart of Orlando began with Summerlin’s vision that the land and the sinkhole-turned-lake it encircled would be landscaped with fragrant flowers shaded by oaks, and lined by a graceful promenade to transform it into a setting of tranquility.

Summerlin’s generous gift became a source of pride, with successive generations adding special touches ranging from a racetrack to tennis courts to a pier for dancing and live radio broadcasts. But in 1912 it was the addition of a $10,000 fountain that would define Lake Eola as Orlando’s focal point; its beauty traveling across America via thousands of postcards tourists mailed to friends and relatives shivering in the wintery north.

In the late 1950s, the original fountain was replaced by the European-influenced $350,000 “Centennial Fountain” whose tumbling, cascading flows and jets of water splashed above a circle of glowing multi-colored lights. The fountain so perfectly captured the essence of Orlando’s reputation as “The City Beautiful” that even after the 1950s fountain was struck by lightning in 2009, the city chose to invest more than $2 million to repair the aging landmark, its elaborate lights and water features now most brilliantly displayed in a nightly music and light show. By 2017, the Lake Eola fountain had become so identified with Orlando that its iconic profile was adopted as the city’s official symbol.

A Walk in the Park

As in the 1880s, Lake Eola Park still has the magic to please visitors. Lazing in the shadow of the city skyline, it remains a place where the pace slows to a natural tempo and a peaceful ambiance is a perfect contrast to the active streets of downtown Orlando.

Many visitors begin the nearly mile-long walk around the lake on the park’s northwest side near the Walt Disney Amphitheater (aka: The Bandshell), an outdoor venue where free concerts and public gatherings are staged and a calendar posts schedules for special events including a Sunday morning Farmers Market, annual bicycle race, July 4th fireworks, Arts & Crafts shows, and yoga and tai chi courses.

Following the contour of the waterfront, each curve and bend the sidewalk unveils new and pleasing views every step of the way, including Lake Eola’s graceful pedal-powered swan boats, a popular pastime and visual highlight inspired by the families of swans (trumpeter swans, black-neck swans, whooper swans, royal mute swans, and Australian black swans) that were introduced to the park in 1922. There are weeping willows reflected in the waters below, public art displayed around the lake, secluded points that are a perfect place to spread out a blanket and crack open a book, and wide overlooks with benches that take in the full view of the lake and the splashing, spraying fountain.

At the east side of the park, an Oriental pagoda from Shanghai, a Japanese rock garden, Asian-style bridges and tranquil ponds are found near rows of benches, making this a natural setting for weddings – just as the entire park is a natural place for marriage proposals.

Rounding the far end of the park, the always-active playground is a popular spot where parents can take a break while their kids find myriad ways to exhaust their excess energy. Just past the playground beyond a broad plaza is a multi-storied apartment building. Formerly known as Cherry Plaza Hotel, it was here in November 1965 that Walt Disney revealed his plans for something he called the “Florida Project.”

Which proves that that Disney, like Jacob Summerlin, was someone who knew a theme park would change the future of Orlando.