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The Winter Park Chain of Lakes has been a major feature contributing to quality of life in Winter Park, Florida for well over a hundred years. The City of Winter Park was developed as a resort community beginning in 1885 soon after the railroad first was constructed across this East Central Florida region. A chain of beautiful small lakes soon became the centerpiece of the growing town. Past presidents often vacationed here at some of the opulent lakefront resort hotels.
Before the turn of the last century, Florida was discovered as a warm winter retreat by wealthy northerners; the City of Winter Park grew to accommodate that need. Canals were dug between several of the lakes to facilitate drainage and to accommodate boat traffic. Although several other small lakes connect to the main five lakes in the Winter Park Chain, most of the smaller channels are not navigable. Boating enthusiasts and fishermen can access Lake Osceola (157 acres), Lake Minnehaha (98 acres) and Lake Mizell (68 acres) from public launch sites on Lake Virginia (225 acres) and Lake Maitland (449 acres). Water skiers in particular like Lake Virginia and Lake Minnehaha .
The City of Winter Park provides a small park with picnic area, swim beach, fishing dock and boat launch at Dinky Park on Lake Virginia. Another public boat launch is located on Lake Maitland. To avoid boat congestion, a boat permit, either daily or annual, must be purchased for any motorized watercraft. The price varies according to size. Very little public land is located around the lakeshores, which hold exclusive upscale homes. As many famous people have lived here over the years, the popular pontoon boat tours allow visitors to marvel at the elegant architecture of the lakefront homes and the amazing boathouses built along the shore. Some websites advertise these boat tours as the Florida version of a historic walking tour. The one-hour tours are filled with historical information and a knowledgeable guide to point out the most unique properties. Other boaters should note that the canals between these lakes are quite narrow, and the pontoon tour boats take up the entire canal, so enter at your own risk. Luckily, most of the canals are quite short.
Fishing is a popular sport on the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. The 2,781 acres of water hold sunshine bass, bass, black crappie, striped hybrid bass, bream, tilapia and gar. As there is little public shoreline for fishing other than the fishing dock at Dinky Park and another at Kraft Azalea Garden Park on Lake Maitland, many utilize canoe or kayak to reach their favorite fishing holes. The lakes are quite shallow, with the deepest spot among them being a 29-foot 'hole' on Lake Maitland. Many anglers prefer to fish the largest lakes early in the day before the water fills with watersports fans. Little Lake Nina, just off the main canal between Lake Minnehaha and Lake Maitland, is a peaceful spot for casting a line into the weed beds without choppy waves created by ski boats.
During periods of high water, some of the other small lakes attached by drainage course to the Winter Park Chain of Lakes may also be reached by canoe or kayak. Many of these smaller lakes are bordered by wetlands and harbor a wide variety of wildlife and waterfowl. Otters are frequent in the canals between the lakes, while ospreys, bald eagles, woodpeckers and kingfishers join wading birds and waterfowl along the canals and at the lakeshores. Kraft Azalea Garden Park is particularly busy with nesting birds during hatchling season. So numerous are the birds flying overhead there that birdwatchers often suggest an umbrella as required gear right along with binoculars!
Early a favorite getaway of the wealthy, Winter Park continued to grow in popularity and size until it was nearly encompassed by nearby Orlando and the various theme parks. City leaders realized they had a unique environment within the lake-based town and worked to protect the local ambiance through zoning and environmental education. Maintaining and enjoying the Winter Park Chain of Lakes as a playground for residents and visitors alike is a large part of the focus of city planning. Along with Kraft Azalea Garden Park and Dinky Park, the city holds nearly 70 other parks and several walking trails, including one along the old railroad bed that first drew visitors to the area.
Scenes of Olde Winter Park show a neighborhood with narrow brick streets winding between live oaks and camphor trees draped with Spanish moss. Historic buildings have been preserved with care. Nationally-known Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival is one of the country's oldest outdoor juried art festivals, rated as the best of its kind by national magazines. The festival draws thousands to the city every year. The Winter Park Farmer's Market serves residents and visitors every Saturday with fresh produce and baked goods.
Though surrounded by ever-expanding cities, Winter Park has maintained its sense of history with particular emphasis on the Arts. A city filled with unique shopping and dining experiences, Winter Park also hosts Florida's first four-year college-Rollins College-which opened along the shore of Lake Virginia in 1885. Among the cultural events the city is known for, the Bach Festival Society calls Rollins College home and offers an annual concert series and the yearly Bach Festival. Nationally-accredited Full Sail University, formed in the 1970s, offers degree programs in business, computer animation, audio, and film and design which brings a young and creative class of residents to the area.
Other cultural treasures near the Winter Park Chain of Lakes include the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Mead Botanical Garden, and the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. The Botanical Garden encompasses nearly 48 acres featuring several eco-systems with flowers, butterfly garden, amphitheater and recreation center. Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens on Lake Osceola features the home and works of the famous Czech-immigrant sculptor along with visiting exhibits. The Morse Museum features the largest collection of Tiffany glass art in the world along with other collections of American art produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Winter Park Concours d'Elegance Exotic Car Shows attract a completely different audience that enjoys unusual luxury cars on display.
Winter Park can easily be reached by major highway or by Amtrak. A number of major hotels have locations near the Winter Park Chain of Lakes, with other lodgings in the form of bed & breakfasts, short-term rental condos, and occasional private vacation rentals on the chain itself. Real estate is available and usually in higher demand than some of the surrounding areas. The mixture of history and creativity offers an ambiance that will suit any discerning visitor. The lakes themselves are inviting for fishing, boating and wildlife watching. And the major tourist attractions are just down the road near Orlando. So plan a vacation a bit different from the usual tourist-geared scene and enjoy a cruise along the Winter Park Chain of Lakes.
*Statistics are for the lake chain as a whole, not individual lakes,whose acreages are shown in the summary above. The figure listed for total acreage includes peripherally-connected lakes and the canals. Actually navigable water acreage is closer to 1000 acres.
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