Winter Haven is best known these days for its premier attraction: LEGOLAND Florida , an evolving theme park dedicated to brick builders of all ages. But this central Florida destination, nestled among hundreds of freshwater lakes , many of which are linked with canals, has a laid back, tropical charm that serves as an attraction in its own right.
Thanks to its roots with the original theme park Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven's Polk County is called "Water Ski Capital of the World," and many past visitors have fond memories of daily dazzling water ski performances at Cypress Gardens featuring synchronized skiers. Though LEGOLAND has replaced this park, it still pays homage to this area's water skiing legacy with water ski shows (now branded as "Brickbeard's Watersports Stunt Show"), as well as the original gardens.
Downtown Winter Haven is approximately five blocks from north to south just east of Lake Howard. Here you'll find a charming collection of restaurants and boutiques, as well as the palm tree-lined Central Park, which hosts seasonal events throughout the year.
Nearby is Lakeland, Florida, about 15 miles west, where a quaint downtown historic district stands filled with antique shops and early 20th century architecture (fans of architect Frank Lloyd Wright will enjoy examples of his work throughout the campus of Florida Southern College).
Be sure to include the Chain of Lakes on your itinerary to get a good slice of Winter Haven life. Boaters and anglers love freshwater fishing in this "Largemouth Bass Capital of the World," spread out over 550 inland lakes. If you're not into fishing, take a boat cruise through a company such as The Living Water Boat Cruises , which offers options for sunset cruises and day tours that include lunch.
Families would be remiss not to pay a visit to LEGOLAND Florida , which has built new attractions in addition to the dozens of coasters, performances, and hands-on activities for LEGO fans. Recent additions include Pirate River Quest and the LEGOLAND Story, which brings the history of the beloved LEGO toy to life, and ends in a Master Builders' Workshop. Next door, a brand new Peppa Pig Theme Park welcomes young visitors to enjoy an entirely new set of attractions designed for Peppa fans.
Where to Eat in Winter Haven
When you're in the land of lakes, finding your favorite waterfront dining spot can be a worthwhile mission. Head to Harborside Restaurant on Lake Shipp and Harry's Old Place on Lake Ned for fantastic views, fresh seafood, and classic Florida vibes. Splurge on a fine dining experience at Arabellas Ristorante in Winter Haven or Terrace Grille in Lakeland.
Get your fresh picked Florida oranges in season from Ridge Island Groves in Haines City, where you can take a tour of the groves from October to May, sampling fresh-squeezed orange juices and house-made ice cream. Lang's Taste of Florida Cafe boasts a famous grapefruit pie. Beer lovers will enjoy Grove Roots Brewing Company in Winter Haven, which incorporates local citrus in their craft brews.
Where to Stay in Winter Haven
With more than 7,000 luxury vacation rental homes in Polk County, finding a home rental through Airbnb or a similar service can be an easy way to create your own "home base" to come back to after a day of exploration.
If a theme park resort stay is more your speed, check out LEGOLAND Florida's five-story LEGOLAND Hotel , as well as recent additions: the lakefront LEGOLAND Beach Retreat and LEGOLAND Pirate Island Hotel . And for a truly adventurous overnight option, head to Safari Wilderness , a 260-acre safari experience, complete with tent or premium camping options. Amenities include a continental breakfast and on-site safari concierge, plus the experience of sleeping near the wilderness area's resident animals, including the water buffalo, Grant's zebra, greater kudu, and more.
You can also experience an authentic dude ranch stay at Westgate River Ranch Resort , which offers glamping tents, Conestoga wagons, and luxury teepees—great places to rest after a day spent on horseback or swamp buggy, in addition to dozens of other outdoor activities.