Spring Break in Polk County
Spring break came and whizzed by, taking all of our adventurous plans with it. We filled our first school spring break week (didn’t it used to be called EASTER VACATION?) with new destinations and a quick trip back to the old house to play with the cousins and kiss grandmas’ cheeks. Unfortunately, Polk County does not bring forth any immediate exploration destinations to the uninitiated. Our first ideas of adventure came with Disney/Orlando/Beach–all the places you do NOT want to go when everyone else is out of school too. (I have really grown to despise crowds, alas). So, we decided to do something…gasp.. different!
Searching for the Peace River
Day one found us hunting down the Peace River in Fort Meade. My sister had recommended the Fort Meade Recreation Area..let me save everyone the trouble.. do not bother. Overgrown and neglected, the Peace River there does not even seem to move, due to the low water levels, and what is there is overgrown and a good gator/water moccasin area. We tried the IMG north of Fort Meade for river access to let the kids wade- dirty and again the low levels made it less than ideal.
Swimming at Lithia Springs
Back in the car, we took another road over the county border to Lithia and Lithia Springs. $1 per person at the park entrance and the kids were soon paddling away in a beautiful natural spring. It was a Tuesday and Hillsborough County was still in school, so it wasn’t too busy. The spring area was roped off and the kids had a wide section further from the spring to swim. Shallow enough for a preschooler to stand but deep enough for my 3-year-old daughter to practice her Little Mermaid swimming. Nice playground and changing/shower/bathroom area too.
The Water Park at Cypress Gardens
The next day found me and three kids at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven. We’d been through the gardens and rode all the rides on previous occasions, so being another hot and sweaty day, I told the kids we were spending the day at the water park- the kiddie area is awesome with water slides that scare me (that’s just the kiddie ones!) I used every excuse to follow Sydney around the maze of pouring water, steps, and rope ladders- pointing her towards the blue flume (my personal favorite). I managed to keep the kids’ interest on the kiddie area (it wasn’t hard), and away from the wave pool and lazy river, as I needed more adults for the number of kids I had under my care. It was a good day, and we left exhausted and looking like a bunch of prunes.
Stepping Through Time at Dinosaur World
Day three I was back down to two kids and myself. We drove a quick 1/2 hour to Plant City and checked out Dinosaur World. My son loves dinosaurs and trains. My daughter loves alligators and princesses, and well, Disney world was out for the week and we had already seen gators at grandma’s dock over the weekend. I had heard about Dinosaur World and expected it to be very cheesy, but it turned out to be fun.
The dinosaurs (150 of them) of Dinosaur World were life-sized, built by a Swedish artist, and set in 13 acres of swamp and forest. Okay, some of them, like the carnivore’s attacking other dinosaurs were cheesy, but the others were amazing. It was like going to Jurassic Park without the fear factor.
The kids dug for fossils in a giant sandbox- everyone leaves with a shark tooth or pretty rock. There’s a playground for running excess energy off and you have to bring your own lunch. There’s also a find- a -stegosaurus in a sand pit area- covered for shade, with benches for parents.
It would take a normal family about two hours tops to see the place, find their sharks tooth and eat a ham sandwich. My kids, who can spend five hours playing in the Children’s V Exploration Museum in Lakeland (it’s small), took the day. I think we hit all the paths three times, spent over an hour digging up and reburying the stegosaurus bones and could have stayed on, if I didn’t bribe them with a gift shop prize if we left NOW. They still talk about it and beg to go back. Good Choice for little kids and a lazy day!
Riding the Gulf Coast Railway
Our final day we got up early and headed an hour’s drive through a vast wasteland-James Joyce came to mind, with nary a petrol station or 7-11 to break the emptiness. Before I had kids, I would have loved this long drive, but now with begs of I’m hungry/thirsty, I gotta pee, it ain’t too grand, but we finally made it to Parrish and the Gulf Coast Railroad train.
It was the only real railroad around that you could ride, and on weekends, the public could ride the rails for 1& 1/2 hours. A surprisingly good crowd, most with preschoolers came out for the early Saturday ride.
The train was a diesel, the cars in bad need of some love, and the staff all volunteers. And the kids were excited. We started out on the outside car, which looked like it had been slapped together in a hurry, but my son complained of the heat, so we moved indoors to the passenger car and ate a packed lunch in air-conditioned comfort(I packed the lunch). They sold snacks (chips & candy) and drinks on the train, but they didn’t mind people bringing food.
1 1/2 hours was too long for the kids (and the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad trip we had wanted to do this past summer was 4 hours!) But they did enjoy it ( I wanted to scrub the car clean myself). Afterwards, we headed back across the wastelands again, stopping by a playground for a game of tag, and went home. Sunday was a recovery day and an early night. And now back to school…
All in all, exploring in and around the sights of Polk County is like stepping back a few decades (maybe even more-) when life was simple, and pleasures even simpler.. a train ride, a swim in a spring. Aside from Cypress Gardens, we had to bring our lunch where ever we went. Orlando, Florida, Polk County ain’t…but perhaps that is not such a bad thing at all.
Update: Cypress Gardens has long since turned into Lego Land. The water park is still there for everyone to enjoy!
Other Posts You May Enjoy:
Florida Spring Break Escapes for Families Part 1
Florida Spring Break Escapes for Families Part 2
Ways to Save Money During Your Spring Break Travels
10 Tips for Planning the Perfect Family Beach Day