The drive down Highway 27, past fast-food chains, car dealerships and gas stations, is unremarkable. After a dozen red lights you may even wonder if your final destination is worth the drive. Then you'll see it: an exquisitely beautiful bell tower looks out of place from the highway. But as soon as you pull into the main entrance of Bok Tower Gardens, through neat rows of citrus groves dotted with oranges, your blood pressure begins to drop. Moss blankets majestic oaks, ancient pine trees climb toward the sky and bells chime a familiar hymn. You feel an inner calm—a peace that can never be obtained at a theme park.
So how did a place like this come to be in Central Florida?
Back in the 1920s, Edward Bok, millionaire publisher of Ladies Home Journal, spent his winters in the affluent Mountain Lakes community 50 miles from Orlando. Each afternoon, he hiked up the hill (298 feet above sea level and one of Florida's highest points), to watch the sunset and listen to the birds. His grandmother had once told him to "make the world a bit better or beautiful because you have lived in it," and on this sacred spot, he took her message to heart. He soon bought the land and built a public garden.
Essential to the garden was a bell tower, a carillon to play music. Bok, who grew up in the Netherlands, often played in the woods while beautiful music drifted from bell towers to every corner of town. Bok hired world-famous landscape architect Frederick Olmsted, Jr. of the National Mall and Central Park to transform the sand hill into a fertile garden, and he commissioned Philadelphia architect Milton Medary and acclaimed sculptor Lee Lawrie to construct a 60-bell, 205-foot, neo-Gothic and art deco tower. When the project was complete in 1929, President Calvin Coolidge came to dedicate the gardens in front of a crowd of people. Bok died one year later.
His legacy lives on today as a National Historic Landmark and one of Florida's most beloved attractions. Today, Bok Tower Gardens is adding a children's garden, an edible garden and an outdoor kitchen, and they've recently recruited the top carillonneur in the world to perform the park's twice-daily concerts. Geert D'hollander, who grew up playing 15th-century carillons in Belgium, says the Bok Tower instrument with bells ranging from 16 pounds to 12 tons, is the most beautiful in the world.
"When your dad is a carillonneur, the nice thing is as a kid you can climb towers, go places where nobody is allowed; open doors that have not been opened in 100 years," says D'hollander. "And that's how I got into it. It's just one nice adventure."
When D'hollander plays from his studio at the top of the tower, whether it's an original composition or a favorite melody, the crowd below stops what they are doing to listen. They take in the pure sound of the bells and the beautiful gardens that surrounds.
Bok Tower Gardens is open daily, including holidays, from 8 am to 5 pm. The visitor center, café and gift shop are open at 9 am. Admission is $12 for adults and $3 for ages 5-12. Members and children under 5 are admitted free. LEGOLAND ticket holders receive free admission for children under 12.
SLIDESHOW: Bok Tower Gardens
Images courtesy Bok Tower Gardens