Disney World® one day, Universal Orlando® the next, SeaWorld® the day after that. No doubt, vacations to Orlando truly create some of the most fun and greatest memories you’ll ever share with your loved ones.
But it’s no secret that occasionally those vacations get noisy. And kinda hectic. And kinda crazy. That’s when you long for a mid-vacation change of pace. Someplace that’s not so noisy, hectic or crazy. Someplace where you, and everyone, can … just … recharge. You’ll find exactly that place just an hour south of Orlando in homey Lake Wales, Florida. Bok Tower Gardens is the perfect complement to theme parks and other attractions that will exhilarate you but over time can exhaust you.
Bok Tower Gardens is a 250-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary, the home of 1,000 stately live oaks and 10 times that many azaleas. Instead of rushing to beat everyone to the line for the next ride, set aside half a day—travel time included—to leisurely stroll the wood grounds and tour to the visitor center and adjacent Pinewood Estate.
See the magnolias, pines, gordonias, carmellias, philodendrons, figs, lilies, gardenias and countless other blossoms, common and rare. A registered National Historic Landmark, Bok Tower Gardens also is home to more than 100 bird species including wild turkey, not to mention an antic squirrel population. It’s the original Wide World of Color—christened in 1929, it was here before Disney’s.
And tranquil? The low buzz of conversation at Bok Tower Gardens is interrupted periodically not by shrieking kids but by a Singing Tower. The gardens themselves occupy a rolling hilltop, one of the highest points above sea level in Florida. And from a clearing at the crest rises a majestic, 205-foot, neo-Gothic and Art Deco tower that reigns over a spectacular reflection pool. Inside the tower is an 60-bell carillon.
The Singing Tower carillon
A carillon is a musical instrument in which a keyboardist manually creates complete melodies out of sequenced bell tones. The musician, called a carilloneur, uses hand-played keys and foot pedals to engage levers that cause the clappers to strike inside the bronze bell cups. Carillons originated in the Low Countries—Belgium and the Netherlands—in the early 1500s. Today most sources agree that globally, fewer than 700 carillons are still in service.
Sustaining a melody on a carillon is much more physically demanding than playing a piano. Consequently, the carillon music that marks every half hour at Bok Tower Gardens is recorded, as are full concerts at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Wednesday. The twice-daily concerts the rest of the week are live, however, as a master carillonneur brings the bells to life to treat visitors to classic and familiar tunes. (Parents bringing younger children, take note: The public is not allowed inside the tower. Even so, “Yes, we can go see the tower up close” is a great bargaining chip in exchange for promised good behavior.)
The eight-story tower—pink and gray marble and Florida coquina stone over a steel frame—was designed and built by architect Milton B. Medary, best known for the Justice Department building in Washington, D.C. Sculptured sections of the marble, including one depicting Adam and Eve, are the work of Lee Lawrie, who later created the iconic Atlas statue outside Rockefeller Center in New York City. Medary and Lawrie were the leading artisans of their day, as was the garden’s designer, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.
Who was Edward W. Bok?
The trio was hired by Edward W. Bok, an influential and highly cultured magazine editor who had bought the land in 1921. Bok initially sought to create an environment that would not only draw wildlife to sanctuary but also “touch the soul with its beauty and quiet.” His idea to add the carillon came later, in tribute to those he had remembered from his childhood in the Netherlands.
As an editor, Bok had transformed the Ladies Home Journal into a social phenomenon, the first magazine to earn 1 million subscriptions. His autobiography won a Pulitzer Prize. And he’s known for championing the transition from seldom-used formal parlors into busier home spaces he named living rooms. Bok died in 1930, but he lived to see his final dream materialize. The year before, President Calvin Coolidge officially dedicated the Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower. A plaque still marks the tree planted at the ceremony by first lady Grace Coolidge.
Bok’s biography is told in full at the visitors center, in graphics, video presentations and displays of artifacts such as the original carillon keyboard. Visitors also can sit down for soups, sandwiches, salads and desserts at the Blue Palmetto Cafe—although you’re also welcome to bring your own picnic lunch a spread a blanket on a sunny patch of lawn.
In addition, you can include a guided tour of the Pinewood Estate in your visit. The Pinewood Estate is a 20-room, Mediterranean-style mansion restored to its 1930s vigor. Built on land now accessed through the gardens, the mansion was built by an executive of Bethlehem Steel as his retirement home and became an example of impressive opulence.
Finally, it’s off the the diverse and fascinating gift shop, and you’re on your way back to Orlando. And suddenly you’re ready to rev back up for more of the noisy, hectic and crazy parts of your vacation. The theme parks are fun again, now that you’ve stopped to smell the flowers.