A family-run business has been ferrying visitors around Winter Park’s Chain of Lakes for nearly eight decades.
Tourists come by the busload and families bring every generation to take the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, just two blocks east of Park Avenue. The 18 pontoon boats leave on the hour from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Christmas.
“People come from all over the world to see our beautiful lakes and canals,” said Ron Hightower, the current owner whose grandfather bought the business in 1995 after working as one of the tour guides.
There are six lakes in the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. The tour visits the three largest lakes, Osceola, Maitland and Virginia. Led by a gang of mostly retirees who relate tales about the city’s history, the guides weave the boats through narrow canals that tower with cypress trees and long leaf ferns.
The tours began back in 1938, when the boat-building Meloon family moved from New Hampshire and decided to show off Winter Park’s scenic backyards. Ralph Meloon was the CEO of Correct Craft and persuaded the city to dig the canals that connect the lakes deeper for boat travel.
Today’s tour guides continue to point out pricey real estate along the waterfront and give some background to make the city’s history come alive.
Visitors learn that the city’s founder, Loring Chase, came to the central part of the state in 1881 after his doctor urged him to find a warmer climate to heal his chronic bronchitis. The Chicago businessman was enchanted by the sparkling lakes and lush foliage and decided to develop a winter escape for wealthy northerners.
“As we rode along the lovely shores of Lake Virginia, Osceola and Maitland I was delighted, and having been in the real estate business for many years, had an eye for town sites and built not a castle in the air but a town, never thinking it would materialize,” Chase wrote in a letter to a friend.
The wealthy came and continue to make Winter Park their home. The tour guides point out the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens on the shores of Lake Osceola, where world-famous sculptor Albin Pokasek retired at the age of 70 and brought many of his best works, including “Man Carving His Own Destiny” which can be seen from the water’s edge.
The tour winds past opulent homes, exquisitely landscaped estates and an egret rookery at Kraft Azalea Garden, where the Exedra Monument tells visitors “Pause friend. Let beauty refresh the spirit.” The boats pass Rollins College as coeds sit poolside and wave to passengers. The guide points out the lakefront house that Fred Rogers’ parents bought while he attended the liberal arts school and before he became known for his television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“Nice digs for a college student,” the guide tells his riders.
Even the locals have taken a shine to the tour. Many say they bring relatives to see the real Florida, even when they come with the primary goal of visiting Mickey Mouse.
The best part of the tour is the price – $14 for adults and $7 for children ages 2-11.