Winter Park | Winter Park, FL

Posted by on May 26, 2002

I know this is heresy, but if you find yourself in central Florida, in the Orlando area, you don’t HAVE to go to Disney World. If you happen to be taking the kids down there this summer, consider the following:

There are lots of adult endeavors in the area in the towns around the booming Disney enterprises. (Not that I didn’t enjoy Disney World and Epcot Center as an adult)

All of the towns around Orlando seem to be connected to each other in one great urban sprawl. In their midst is one that stands out from all the others. It is Winter Park.

This town has retained a good deal of its early 20th century charm, and parts of it have the look you might imagine a prosperous Florida town to have had in the twenties or thirties. (When I was a tiny tot, I adored my mother’s glamorous friend who spent her winters, wearing silk pajamas in the daytime, in a place like this in Florida.)

The town fathers seem to sense that people are looking for the nostalgia of old, since they have recently completed re-bricking the main street, called Park Avenue. It outlines one side of the town green, which has the railroad station and its tracks right running through its middle. This is as it should be, since the big train from the North STILL stops here, or so I’m told.

Park Avenue has all the usual 21st century shops, including Ann Taylor, The Gap, Talbots, Chico’s, and, of course, Starbucks. The original shops have long since been replaced by the “in” names of today, but the look is the same.

You might have sensed that there would be a college nearby. Indeed there is, and it is Rollins College, a very pretty sixty-five acre campus of Mediterranean architecture on the banks of Lake Virginia. More about this later.

And that reminds me to tell you that one of the most pleasant things one can do in this area is to take a twelve-mile “Scenic Boat Tour” through Lake Virginia, Lake Osceola, and the chain of lakes around it. This is a most pleasant way to pass an hour, gliding by old-fashioned luxury homes while hearing a commentary on the history of the area. Bird lovers will be especially pleased with this diversion. Very few people seem to take advantage of this rather simple recreation, the only reason for which seems to be that it is not really advertised except very near by.

The history of the development of Florida as a winter recreation and retirement residence for the rest of the country is indeed a fascinating story. Much of it necessarily includes the story of Henry Flagler, who has major Millbrook connections.

Winter Park was specifically developed as a winter resort for wealthy northerners. This cool location in the midst of several lakes was particularly attractive. Chartered in 1887, its history is replete with New England names, and it is also the home of the oldest college in Florida. Rollins College was founded at about the same time as the town, for youth of the north “whose health demands that they should spend a considerable portion of the year in a more genial climate to pursue their studies.” This early catalog description would seem to apply to most students of today.

It is one of the premiere liberal arts colleges in the country, and is known for its literature and writing courses. I am told that is was named Best College of 2002by US News and World Report. I certainly wouldn’t mind attending college in such a place with such a reputation and location.

Winter Park boasts several art museums and a sculpture garden. One museum, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of Art, has one of the most comprehensive collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass in the country. It also has a major sidewalk Art Festival each year, which they say attracts over 250,000 people.

I mentioned the train tracks thru the center of Winter Park. Checking with Amtrak’s website, I discovered that you can get from New York City to Winter Park in 24 hours on a direct train. It might be a great way to see a lot of America.

I drove to Winter Park from a further suburb, where we were visiting friends. On the outskirts of Winter park, my friend took me to a shopping center called Winter Park Village, a rejuvenation of an older shopping mall. This re­creation seems very successful, full of active popular restaurants, and a twenty-cinema theatre.

From my point of view, the best thing about it was the restaurant discovery. It was The Cheesecake Factory. This is a well-known chain of restaurants, the kind I avoid like the plague. I probably have avoided these eateries in the past. I have been wrong. If you ever see one in your travels, go in and enjoy good to excellent food and service. The Cheesecake Factory has an incredible variety of cheesecakes, (thirty-six flavors) which are served in huge portions. You may, for health reasons, wish to avoid the desserts. If so, you can eat from a sophisticated Pan-Asian sort of menu, in a huge space, cleverly decorated in Art Deco fashion, but very hip. The food was delicious, and the service cheerful, fast and intelligent. I liked the menu, which featured popcorn shrimp, and firecracker salmon rolls, and the particularly special quesadillas we ordered. I will go out of my way for a Cheesecake factory in the future. Unfortunately there are none nearby. In the Metropolitan area, there is one in Old Westbury, and one in Hackensack. Not exactly handy for lunch.

There you have it, an older Florida town that has reinvented itself in part, while retaining the historical. I have given you my impressions of my visit. Have any of you been there? Let me know what you thought.

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