Lake County, Florida is home to over 1,000 lakes and it’s the geographical center of the state. It’s often called “Real Florida” or “Old Florida” – beauty and allure that pre-date Disney or Universal by decades.
To me, Mount Dora really brought home the Old Florida moniker. We fell in love with this small, charming town. There are no high-rise condos…no chain hotels or restaurants. The streets are still cobblestone in some areas, everyone knows each other, and the number of locals still outnumber the guests. This small town in Florida is worth a visit.
This area of Central Florida certainly offers enough adventures to entertain the kids – our kids adored every second. But it’s not built for kids…with flashing lights and neon signs. Some restaurants don’t even offer a kids’ menu.
So go as a couple, for sure. But if you can, I also encourage you to visit this delightful and endearing town with your children – show them what a Real Florida vacation looks like. Start with our list of 9+ things to do in Mount Dora!
Grantham Point Park, also known as Lighthouse Park, quickly became a favorite place for us during our short stay in Mount Dora.
It’s here you’ll find the red and white stripe lighthouse, one of only three freshwater lighthouses in Florida. There are also picnic tables and benches, plus free parking. The boys enjoyed fishing off the public pier (though their big catch was not here).
Don’t miss the large alligator art honoring “Old Joe” – a 15ft alligator that used to hang out in this area. You’ll see it as you move from Grantham Point toward the Palm Island Boardwalk entrance.
Palm Island Park includes the boardwalk and several nature trails spread over 8-acres. We saw a ton of wildlife here, so bring your binoculars!
Across the street from the boardwalk and lighthouse is Gilbert Park. The boys loved playing here on the huge playground. We also enjoyed listening to live music during the Founder’s Day Festival – the locals told us there are several annual festivals held here throughout the year. Bring your own lawn chair or blanket and a picnic!
I was surprised to learn that the chain of lakes in Lake County, also known as the Harris Chain, is a very popular area for sea planes. The thousands of connected acres of generally calm water provide an abundance of landing locations, which is apparently something you want to be able to do when aloft in a plane.
We took a ride with Jones Brothers in Tavares, which is only minutes from Mount Dora. They offer a wide selection of durations, locations and prices. We went with the 45-minute tour which took us all the way to Orlando and back. Seeing Disney and Universal from that vantage point was not at all what I expected, which made the experience all the more interesting.
Don’t worry – there was plenty of time to take in the beautiful lake view on the way there and back. I had no idea that sea planes commonly cruise along at a very low 50 feet of altitude (and sometimes lower). Our experienced pilot Skyler explained that it was a hard thing to get used to coming from normal aircraft, where you are taught to gain elevation as soon as possible and avoid being close to the ground.
But the miles and miles of lakes make this a very safe place to cruise along the water low – at times it felt like we were in a super fast, but smooth, boat — and not an airplane. Jones Brothers even offers a “splash and dash”, where the pilot just barely touches those pontoons down into the water and then up again.
CATBOAT ADVENTURE TOURS
Look into a CatBoat tour for an up-close view of Lake Dora and beyond. If you’re not familiar with these little speedsters, catboats are mini “catamarans” with a small outboard engine. The steering is unique and designed for one-handed navigation while the other hand controls the throttle.
As our friends at CatBoat Adventures in Mount Dora say, “Catboat tours are safe, stable, fun and unsinkable.” Ok then!
CatBoat Adventures offers numerous tours exploring different locations in the surrounding area. We took the 2-hour boat tour of Lake Dora and Dora Canal tour. They also offer rentals if you’d rather go it alone.
We started with a quick lesson. These things are incredibly easy to maneuver so don’t be intimated if you lack boating experience. They will patiently walk you through everything you need to know, and carefully guide you as you first start out.
Each boat holds two people. You must be at least 21 years of age to drive a boat on Lake Dora, or 18 if you have a boating license, so our kiddos road shotgun on this one.
We started out crossing Lake Dora – a mile or so jaunt on the way to the canal. I have to be honest – “the sea was rough that day my friends” – but not unbearable. Just a little bumpy as we crossed the lake. Our guide recommends booking on a weekday, or sunset cruise if you’re looking for calmer waters.
Once we got to the canal, it was smooth sailing! And let me tell you, this was one really gorgeous stretch of water to take in so up close. The Dora Canal has been called “The Most Beautiful Mile of Water in the World.” The overhanging trees and Spanish moss make you feel like you’re on an exotic jungle cruise. In fact, this stretch of water has been used as a filming location for the iconic “The Africa Queen” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
How do I know this? Our expert tour guide told us, along with many other interesting tidbits about the area and it’s history. Each driver and passenger receives a walkie-talkie, so it’s easy to communicate, listen, and ask questions.
LONG AND SCOTT FARMS
Not too far from Downtown Mount Dora you’ll find Long and Scott Farms, a family farm that’s been feeding the community since 1963. If you’re visiting in spring or fall, be sure to stop in.
We visited during fall and loved exploring all the activities. Your maze tickets let you “get lost” in the large or small kiddo corn maze, play on the large bouncing pillow, ride down the 60ft slide, soar down the kid’s zip line, visit the food vendors and more.
It’s worth it to pay a little extra for the hay ride around the farm, Maize-o-Vision glasses (so you can always have a map of the corn maze handy), and catch-and-release fishing.
Whether you are there for the corn maze in fall, or just dropping by for an autumn or spring visit, be sure to pick up veggies from The Market. There are plenty of options here, but Long & Scott are known for their pickles and their Zellwood Sweet Corn.
This is the only farm continuing to grow Zellwood Sweet Corn – triple sweet corn that made this part of the state famous in years past. And sweet it is, too…we sampled some right off the stalk. Yes, I ate every bite, and we brought a huge bag back home with us, too. It’s delicious!
Want to sample before you buy? Try lunch at the Cafe here. The Zellwood Sweet Corn Chowder is a crowd-pleaser. Pair it with a sandwich and a fresh-squeezed lemonade!
THINGS TO DO IN MOUNT DORA: BASS FISHING
As a novice fishing family, we won’t be able to tell you all of the best spots to fish in Mount Dora, or the best tackle to use. But we can tell you this: The Harris Chain of lakes that includes Lake Dora is called “The Bass Capital of the World” for a reason. While we didn’t catch a thousand fish, a picture speaks a thousand words – just take a look.
This beauty of a bass was caught off of the dock at Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora using a spinning rod and small silver spoon lure. We’ve been looking forward to our youngest reeling in a catch like this for a while. Up until this trip he had been emptying the lakes around the southeast of sunfish and other trash fish (to include actual trash) for quite some time.
This trip changed everything. And although our little guy was a big fan of fishing before (he even plays a fishing game on the XBox), I’m pretty sure Mount Dora created yet another angler for life. Just listen to that giggling. A memory for a lifetime!
Just so I won’t leave you completely hanging, see here for more info on fishing in Lake County. No doubt why it’s one the most favored outdoor activities in Mount Dora.
We will without a doubt be scheduling an extended stay in the area sometime soon to take our boys back to the spot where it all happened.
WINDSOR ROSE TEA ROOM AND RESTAURANT
There are dozens of places to eat in Downtown Mount Dora but I’d put the Windsor Rose Tea Room in a list of “things to do” – even though you can certainly dine here. It is an experience all its own.
Visiting as a couple? Stop in for The Windsor: Freshly-baked scones with cream and strawberry jam, Queen Victoria sponge cake, assorted finger sandwiches, homemade pastries and tea for two.
Bringing the kids? You’re still welcome here. Add a Mad Hatter Tea Party order to your ticket. It’s just for kids and includes cheese & butter sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly finger sandwiches, a slice of Queen Victoria sponge cake, cookies, and their choice of hot chocolate or ice cold milk or lemonade.
RENNINGERS MOUNT DORA FLEA MARKET AND ANTIQUE CENTER
Renningers is an open-air flea market covering over 100 acres! There are a few of them around the country, but the Mount Dora location is a special treat.
It’s also home to special events like antique fairs, swap meets, vintage garden shows, and more. Traveling with your four-legged friend? Renninger’s is pet friendly as long as your dog is on a leash!
THE CELLAR DOOR WINE BAR
If you’re looking for live music in the downtown area, then The Cellar Door should be tops on your list.
This isn’t your typical bar, though…this is not a place to come a chat with your besties and “hear” music in the background. The Cellar Door is a place to bring your bestie and soak up the musicians and storytellers practicing their art – a place to celebrate them with your attention and love.
THE DONNELLY HOUSE
The Donnelly House is a beautiful historic Queen Anne home in the center of town. Yellow siding, blue accents and gingerbread detailing make it stand out on the street.
While I don’t know for sure, it seems that Landmark Inn borrowed design notes from this 1893 structure built by J. P. Donnelly, the first mayor of Mount Dora.
It’s a Masonic Lodge, and not normally open to the public…but there is a way for you to experience it. Mount Dora Ghost Tours offers a paranormal experience where you can help hunt for ghosts in The Donnelly House. With elements similar to an escape room, you can spend 2.5 hours inside the house, using high tech equipment in order to find a ghost. Good luck!
The Modernism Museum offers an unprecedented collection of fine art and design, one that defines the Style Art Movement, from mid-century works to those being created today.
It’s open Friday-Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm.
STAY AT LAKESIDE INN: WHERE HISTORY MEETS CONVENIENCE IN MOUNT DORA
If you’re visiting Mount Dora (and we highly recommend that you do) then there is no question that you should stay at the historic Lakeside Inn. Spacious hotel rooms, impeccable customer service, and a prominent guest from the past are just a few reasons to book now.
Keep reading for more details about what we loved during our visit.
Stay Here: Lakeside Inn
LOCATION IS EVERYTHING
Let’s face it, one of the reasons you’re probably in Mount Dora is because of the gorgeous lake! Don’t miss the opportunity to stay at the only lakeside hotel in the area.
From the main building…the pool…the Waterside Bar…everywhere you look, Lake Dora stares back with a twinkle in her eye.
We loved the private pier. Some used it for their pontoon boat or a rowing expedition. Our boys played on the small beach a bit, but spent several early mornings with a line in the water trying to catch a bass. (And yes, we did catch one. He was a good size, too!)
Be sure to also keep an eye out for Elvis, a 9-ft alligator that hangs out on the pier here. Don’t worry – he’s not so close as to be an issue for anyone wanting to saunter the pier. But he is a gem to look at!
While one side this hotel faces the lake, the other side is nestled beautifully in the historic Downtown Mount Dora district. Everything from shopping to restaurants to parks are conveniently located nearby.
The hotel offers free parking should you need to leave the area, (maybe to catch a seaplane with Jones Brothers in nearby Tavares or for a farm lunch at the cafe at Long and Scott Farm), but honestly, everything you could imagine is right within walking distance.
EASY WITH KIDS
Bringing the kids? Lakeside Inn is very family-friendly! When we weren’t exploring the area, the boys loved lounging in the pool. And we didn’t mind a bit, as the backdrop was Lake Dora and the adjacent Waterside Bar gave us a chance to sip on a piña-colada while we watched them splash.
Pro tip: While there is not a free breakfast here, we did receive vouchers for $20 off our meals because we booked directly with the hotel. There are great options here for kids including waffles, pancakes and more.
AN INTRIGUING HISTORY
In 1882 a group of Mount Dora citizens decided to build a hotel in order to attract visitors. It was finished the following year and named Alexander House, just in time as within a few years the railroad made its way through the town.
By 1903 the hotel had changed owners several times and was appropriately renamed to Lakeside Inn. Over the next decade, the number of buildings on the property grew as people made their way to charming Mount Dora for vacation.
After an enormous renovation in 1930, President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge arrived for a month-long stay following his retirement from office. The hotel’s most prestigious guest really put this hotel on the map.
Today, with new owners once again, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest continuously-operated hotel in the state of Florida.
The current owners continue restoration efforts continuously, lovingly nurturing this historic hotel. It’s no wonder it is such a beloved member of the neighborhood, for locals and guests alike.
7 MOUNT DORA RESTAURANTS TO SAVOR
The one place every person must dine at least once is Goblin Market. First, let’s talk about the aesthetic. There are a few perfect tables set up on the front and back patios, covered with large red umbrellas and tucked underneath humongous live oaks draped with moss.
We selected an inside seat, next to a wall filled with books and art. It felt like a much-loved library, and I half expected to see someone walking through with a whiskey, cigar and tome of Shakespeare.
The Goblin Market serves both lunch and dinner four days a week (Wed – Sat), with a focus on brunch on Sunday. The evening brings a fine dining feel, so we opted for lunch since we were with the kids, but it’s a fantastic romantic escape as well.
From warm salads to gourmet burgers to local fish or rack of lamb…you can’t go wrong here. Everything is scratch made from fresh ingredients. For example, the (unbeatable) French onion soup we enjoyed included a touch of thyme, freshly made croutons, and perfectly cooked onions.
There is no children’s menu here, as kids are not the typical tourists in Mount Dora, but they were eager to help us find something for them…and a plain cheeseburger and fresh squeezed lemonade did the trick.
If you can’t make it for dining (or you need a quick break) then stop into the lounge for a cocktail, champagne or sangria. There are beer and wine selections, too.
COPACABANA CUBAN CAFE
There are two restaurants in Mount Dora claiming “authentic” Cuban food so we asked several of the locals which they prefer. They were almost evenly split between the two, but with Copacabana Cafe having a small leg up that’s where we landed for dinner one evening.
If I could give the food 12 stars out of 10, I would do it! The menu is behemoth, with options for everyone including vegetarians and kids. I settled on the Churrasco – skirt steak marinated tender for 5 hours, then grilled and topped with chimichurri . As most dishes here do, it came with Spanish rice and a bowl of black bean soup.
Tamales, stuffed red peppers, plantains, pork ribs…everything was sensational.
The only tip I would give for visiting here is to make sure that you consider it an experience more than a quick bite. It took over 2 hours for us to get our dinner…it was more than 3 hours total between our entrance and exit. Was the food worth it? Yes. Just be prepared for the journey.
It’s really hard to pick favorites with all the delicious restaurants in Mount Dora, but Pisces Rising (like Goblin Market) was one of my favorite dining experiences. In addition to the sensational food, the outdoor dining room overlooking Lake Dora and the sunset make this a can’t-miss dinner option.
When we first arrived, the band was setting up in the far corner. It was a treat to listen to live music as we enjoyed a few cocktails and a plate of oysters.
For dinner, I opted for the Porcini Mushroom Ravioli, which was made locally by Massimo’s Artisan Pasta in Orlando. Dan went with the Herb Marinated Pork Chop…both were absolutely perfect and were served just as the sun was dancing over the lake, creating waves of pink, purple and orange across the sky.
Cooper declared this was “the best meal of my life” and he noshed on Caesar salad, a grilled cheese and sweet potato fries. I know, it sounds unimpressive. But I sneaked a bite, and I assure you it was beyond ordinary.
OLIVE BRANCH MEDITERRANEAN-ITALIAN GRILLE & BAR
After a morning of flying over Central Florida with Jones Brothers Seaplanes, we were ready for a huge lunch, and Olive Branch delivered.
There are light bites and salads, but Dan and I splurged on a Gyro Wrap and the Tortellini Bolognese. The. bolognese. was. awesome. It was the perfect balance of meat, sauce and cream…and dressed with a twist as it was served untraditionally with stuffed tortellini.
Dan gave his Gyro two-thumbs up, but I couldn’t attest to this because I was not about to “cheat” on that bolognese sauce. I wanted every ounce of it in my belly!
We skipped cocktails at lunch, but want to let you know about their popular Happy Hour that begins at 5pm Mon – Thurs. Several cocktails, house wines, and a domestic selection of beers are only $3.
MAGICAL MEAT BOUTIQUE
During our last full day in Mount Dora we had an hour to spare, so Dan and I headed to Magical Meat Boutique to check it out and grab a drink. I am so glad we did; what a cool vibe there is here.
MMB is a British gastropub serving authentic British cuisine like British sausages and bacon – even a full English breakfast (and lunch, too!). And the locals tell us they have the best Haddock and Chips in the US.
We opted for drinks though…they offer a huge assortment of British beers served extra cold with glycol chilling taps, but I went for the Pimm’s Cup. It just seemed right…and it did not disappoint!
ALLYSON A BAKESHOP
An Instagram friend recommended Allyson A Bakeshop when we were there, and I’m so glad she did! We stopped here as we headed out of town, grabbing a few cups of coffee and some treats right when they opened.
First, the coffee was strong and exactly what I needed. Second, the desserts looked so good that we left with a bundle because we couldn’t pick just one. A jumbo chocolate chip cookie, a few pumpkin chip cookies, a lemon scone, a few enormous blueberry muffins…everything was so fresh and moist and beautiful to look at – and to taste!
Lakeside Inn is the beloved historic hotel that sits on Lake Dora, but we have to include them in our list because the food is great, the view is great, and the restaurants are open to the pubic.
The Beauclaire Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with options that offer a little Southern flair. This is where we enjoyed breakfast, selecting from a full spread of warm-plate options.
Dining at The Verandah is a favorite because of the views of Lake Dora. We tried to eat here a few times, but it was always full – just a note that you might want to come early for a seat.
Tremain’s Tavern is ideal for an afternoon cocktail or casual meal. Nightly live entertainment makes it enjoyable. We sipped on an ice tea, listening to the pianist for a bit one afternoon, and it was very soothing.
Finally, Waterside Bar offers cocktails, beer and wine down by the pool. It was the perfect perch as we watched the boys make a splash!
MOUNT DORA FAQ
What is Mount Dora known for?
The charming town of Mount Dora is known for its small town feel, beautiful lakes, its annual events, and historic buildings. It’s the perfect place to experience some good, old-fashioned fun.
What movie was filmed in Mount Dora?
The 1981 film, u003cemu003eHonky Tonk Freewayu003c/emu003e was filmed in Mount Dora. In fact, many of Mount Dora’s buildings were temporarily painted pink for the film’s set.
How long do the Christmas lights stay up in Mount Dora?
Mount Dora is well-known for its annual Christmas Lights Festival, which is held each year from Thanksgiving weekend through January. During this time, the town of Mount Dora is lit up with more than 3 million lights and they have special events along the way. It’s one of the best light festivals in the state.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO FLORIDA
- YOUR FLORIDA VACATION
- CENTRAL FLORIDA: 43+ Unique & Awesome Things To Do In Central Florida
- ORLANDO FOR ADULTS: 27 Super Fun Things To Do In Orlando For Adults
- COCOA BEACH: 16 Awesome Things To Do In Cocoa Beach, Florida
- KISSIMMEE: 26 Amazing Things To Do In Kissimmee, Florida
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