Relaxation awaits minutes from the fast-paced action of downtown Orlando.
Orlando, known best for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, draws more than 50 million tourists annually. They visit the area for Central Florida attractions, theme parks, shopping, restaurants and entertainment, epic attractions that are famed worldwide.
But the central Florida area promises quiet retreats as well, where you can soak up the sounds and sights of nature.
Check out these places that are close to the action-- and yet, oh so far away.
Orlando features many natural areas just a few miles from the downtown business district. Mead Garden is one such gem, offering 50 acres in the heart of Winter Park, a few miles north of the tip of Orlando.
Enjoy a lazy afternoon exploring the nature trails or dipping your feet in the freshwater ponds. Bring bottled water as the trails are a few miles and you will want to stop to see the streams, plants, wetlands and animals.
Mead Garden is unique because it is a natural island of diverse habitats within an otherwise developed landscape, and these diverse habitats protect quite a variety of living things. If you don’t want to explore the trails, visit the butterfly garden, greenhouse, community garden, lake and acres of shady picnic spots with tables. Restrooms are available. And it features an outdoor amphitheater, one of the few in the state.
If you check the calendar on the website, you will find an array of activities going on year round. They include concerts, summer camps, geocaching, guided bird walks and walkabouts. The Annual Camellia Show and Festival is held there each January.
In 1916, State Senator Walter Rose purchased the land that is now home to Dickson-Azalea Park. Rose became attracted to the property, and planned to develop it, because of its natural setting, flowing creek and proximity to downtown Orlando.
In November of that year, Rose offered $25 in gold to the person submitting the best name for the subdivision. W.S. Branch, Sr. won the gold pieces, naming the new area "Rosarden," which was later changed to "Rosearden." He was inspired by William Shakespeare's As You Like It, in which the characters Rosalind and Orlando met in the Forest of Arden.
Rose, a prominent developer, platted all but five acres along the east side of Fern Creek into lots for homes. He set aside the property adjacent to the creek for a park. Rose cleared the park of debris, added pathways and terraced the banks of Fern Creek. In 1924, Rose deeded the park, then on both sides of the creek, to the City of Orlando.
The incredibly lush landscaping, birds and water flowing throughout the park offer a treat to many visitors. This park sits as an oasis for those needing a quiet site to eat lunch, or to reflect to a time when this area was a watering hole for cattle. As you walk along Fern Creek, you can see the quaint Washington Street Bridge. Constructed in 1926, its style reflects that of many bridges found in South Florida. A playground, athletic fields and a basketball court provide opportunities for play, but most people appreciate the shady trees and peaceful quiet.
Mayor Carl T. Langford Park sits across the street with plenty of room for kids to play. Young children love the swinging bridge over the creek and the playground.
Leashed pets are allowed at all city of Orlando parks, but you must clean up after your pet.
Rather than a wide, open expanse like most parks, one unique feature of Blanchard Park is that it’s relatively narrow and long. Just minutes from the high-paced downtown Orlando area, it offers one of the most beautiful walking and biking trails in Orlando.
The paved, 7.9-mile Little Econ Greenway Trail and The Little Econlockhatchee River run through Blanchard Park. The trail allows you to bike, hike, skateboard or just plain meander, and is wide enough to allow families to stroll as cyclists stream by. The scenic riverbank also offers a great place to picnic under the trees, though traditional picnic tables are also available in the park. Fishing is allowed off the banks.
Two larger pavilions can be rented for special events. The playground provides total shade and features multiple slides and activities for different ages. Smaller slides offer protection for preschoolers with rubber flooring underneath in case of spills. Swings stand a short walk from the playground, near the parking area.
The popular sand volleyball and basketball courts host pick-up games almost every day of the week. Additional soccer and multi-purpose fields offer plenty of room for kickball, kite flying and other activities.
No story about urban sanctuaries in and around Orlando can go without mentioning a few passive parks. These are places where the only interaction you will experience is with nature. They don’t have all the bells and whistles that accommodate for picnicking and volleyball. These are places to sit, to walk and to meditate, and to enjoy the beauty, the sounds and the smells.
And LaCosta Urban Wetlands, a 25-acre park that functions as a storm water drainage facility for the surrounding neighborhood and roadways, is one of these places. A sidewalk winds through the park and across several bridges spanning the water. This open space provides a perfect place for taking a nap, reading a book, birding or fishing. There is ample parking and leashed pets are allowed. Remember to bring bags for clean up.
The University of Central Florida is now the second-largest university in the United States, and its 800-acre campus buzzes year-round with classes, cultural events, academic lectures and athletics.
So, who would expect that hidden in the middle of campus sits an undeveloped, 82-acre site of native trees, lakes, hiking trails and a pristine conservation area called the Arboretum? More than 600 plant species have been identified inside the Arboretum, and the campus itself has more than 45 animal species.
Located between the College of Engineering and the College of Optics and Photonics, the Arboretum was established in 1993 and began with 12 acres of pond pine community on the east side of the developed part of campus. In 1988, the university expanded the land to include a five-acre cypress dome, an oak hammock of three acres and about 15 acres of sand pine and Florida scrub, connected to the original property by sabal palm and increasingly rare Florida longleaf pine flatwoods.
You can explore on your own or enjoy a tour.