Lake County 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 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 nine things to do in Mount Dora!
Grantham Point, 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 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.
One 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 locations 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 may 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!
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 Capitol 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 (and we are working on a story about our favorites) 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 it’s 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.
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 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, not open to the public…but a beautiful piece of history to take in on your way to the Lighthouse Park.
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Disclosure: Thank you to Lake County and Visit Florida for hosting me and my family. Opinions here are our my own – always.