It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, one of the Orlando area’s finest.
Never expected to cross paths with the past of the celebrity who made the first part of that phrase famous, though, when we set out on the Scenic Boat Tour on the Winter Park chain of lakes.
It was just one of the surprises on a Mister Rogers sort of outing which falls into the category of fun for the whole family. Among the numerous extravagant and historic lakefront homes highlighted by the tour guide is one that Fred Rogers called home while a student at Rollins College before he became famous for his iconic children’s television program “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.”
Of the many attractions in Central Florida, the boat tour may be the most authentic. Whether or not it is the oldest in operation (according to our guide), it has maintained popularity across several generations since 1938.
It’s just a five-minute stroll downhill from the bistros and boutiques of Park Avenue to the 18-passenger pontoon boats that leave every hour (10 a.m.-4 p.m.) from the docks at the east end of Morse Boulevard on Lake Osceola.
Tour details: Price is $14 for adults, $7 for ages 2-11. They accept cash or checks only, no credit cards. They take reservations only for groups of 10 or more. Also, be aware that there is no covering on the boats, so hats and sun screen are recommended.
They do run multiple boats as dictated by demand. Four were filled for the 3 o’clock tour on a Saturday in April 2018, and a similar gathering of passengers was packed around the boat house for the day’s last tour when we returned.
The 12-mile tour loops through the three largest of the five lakes in the Winter Park chain (Osceola, Lake Virginia and Lake Maitland), which are joined by narrow canals that wind past residents’ backyards and boathouses under canopies of giant trees – among them majestic oaks and cypress standing 500 years and longer.
The boat ride and scenery were pleasant enough, and the vastness of the chain was a surprise. It was the history lesson about Winter Park and entertaining commentary by our guide that made the outing memorable.
That seems to be the consensus of those who have reviewed the tour on social media travel sites. The guides who run the boats are retirees from varied backgrounds who seem to delight in telling tales of an area with a colorful past.
History abounds on Winter Park lakes
Many reviewers mention the Fred Rogers story, standing out as a recognizable personality from the industrialists and Rollins College presidents who have made their homes on the lake shores. It’s also unexpected.
Really, Mister Rogers lived here?!
As our guide told it, Rogers was from a wealthy family and his parents purchased a red-brick lakeside mansion for him while he studied music composition at Rollins College, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1951. The guide mused about the potential for wild college parties that were likely never held at Mister Rogers’ house.
It’s a curiosity, but there are better stories on the lake tour. Such as the historic Capen House, circa 1885, that was moved by barge from one side of Lake Osceola to the other to become part of the Albin Polasek Museum. They cut it in half and transported it in two parts, each weighing 100 tons.
There was an anecdote about a Venician-style house that was originally built abutting the lake as if on a Venice canal. That changed after the owner came home and saw his kids leaping out of second-story windows into the lake. He had a buffer of land filled in between the house and the water so that now it sits back slightly, out of jumping distance from the lake.
While the tour is a tourist attraction, the lakes are a playground for residents. Jet Skis are commonplace flitting about the waterways, and waterskiing is a popular activity here.
It turns out the Winter Park chain of lakes was the cradle of waterskiing in Florida beginning in the 1920s when skiing pioneer Dick Pope Sr. put on exhibitions to promote real estate sales. Pope went on to turn Cypress Gardens into the “Water Ski Capital of the World.” (Alas, the once-prominent Central Florida attraction, where Esther Williams once filmed a movie, is now Legoland).
Pope’s son, Dick Pope Jr., was a Rollins College student who became a four-time world champion, winning one of them on his home lake in Winter Park. Rollins College remains a national power in collegiate waterskiing, training on Lake Virginia as Pope did.
Mansions have stories to tell
The hour went quickly as the guide sprinkled fun-filled facts and humorous observations to enliven the scenery. He pointed out the solitary cypress tree that is an island to itself in Lake Maitland and is decorated with Christmas ornaments that the tour captains hang on it.
The guide pointed out the 17,000-square-foot manse that former NBA player Horace Grant had built on the Lake Maitland shore in 2000 when he played for the Orlando Magic. The house was constructed to fit a 6-foot-10 basketball player’s lifestyle and specifications. So after Grant moved on and sold it, the new owner had to have various fixtures lowered and also converted the basketball court into a ballroom.
There was a larger property, which at 30,000 square feet appears more like a resort than a residence. While the tour captains have their own ways of highlighting lake attractions, our guide noted that it was a passenger who put this one in perspective.
The passenger’s young son wanted to know what 30,000 square feet meant. The captain paused his commentary to wait for the reply.
It means, the father said, “that we could fit our house 15 times into that one.”