Orlando's water parks are among the best in the world, modern engineering marvels in fact, but the city and the regions surrounding are home to the old-school variety - those crafted by Mother Nature herself. Just a half-hour's drive from downtown, you can immerse yourself in the cooling waters of Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park, an oasis crafted from a natural spring that courses from the source at an astonishing 26,000 gallons per minute. Sounds fast, but in fact, it’s a wonderfully lazy ride from the headwaters, about three-quarters of a mile to a swimming hole at the end. In between, you might spy fish, turtles, wading birds, even deer at the edge of its unearthly crystalline waters – especially before the summer crowds show up.
Tubers cool off with a lazy drift in Kelly Park — Photo courtesy of Orange County Parks
Kelly Park's spring, and even the hiking trails in the surrounding acres, can be positively primordial, making it the absolute antithesis of climbing stairs amid the scent of chlorine for a high-adrenaline plummet through a brightly colored plastic tube.
Interested in the water, but less enthused about getting wet? Check out CraigCat Guided Boat Tours, just 12 miles up the road in beautiful Mount Dora. Explore Lake Dora and the lush waterways of the Dora Jungle Canal in your very own CraigCat (no boating experience necessary) as you learn about the area’s rich history and diverse wildlife.
Visitors explore Mount Dora's waterways via tiny catamaran — Photo courtesy of CraigCat Tours
Back on shore, the adventure continues. Originally settled in the latter half of the 19th century, this town – these days a well-known spot for antiquing – has retained the majority of its original charm. Lovely old homes with gingerbread detail and cozy porches, along with a soothing small-town sensibility that permeates Donnelly Street and its surrounding lanes, imbue Mount Dora with a vibe evocative of simpler times.
Open-air room with a view: the balcony at One Flight Up — Photo courtesy of One Flight Up
Antique shops and other unique boutiques abound. Visit When Pigs Fly Again for a vast and often whimsical collection of folk art and home furnishings, and those traveling with children should check out Barrel of Books and Games. Its array of inventory includes used books – what better way to teach your kids the joys of the second-hand find than letting them loose in the stacks to discover their own vacation read?
Charming cafes like One Flight Up afford diners a view of the action on Donnelly from a lovely shaded balcony while the Copacabana Cuban Café, a hidden gem with a lovely alley patio, serves authentic Latin fare – ropa vieja, croquetas and more – and does up fresh mojitos so good they were voted “Best in Central Florida” by the Orlando Sentinel.