In my quest to find unusual destinations to visit in the Orlando area, I stumbled over a little town by the name of Mount Dora just about 45 minutes north of Orlando. I had read that it was a very picturesque small town located on a lake, and one of its main attractions was a scenic railway.
Mount Dora City Hall
Mount Dora is only 27 miles or 43 km northwest of Orlando. It has an elevation of 184 feet above Lake Dora, which makes it Florida’s only “mountain top town”. Indeed the rolling hillsides and winding roads are a welcome unique feature in the generally flat topography of Florida.
Mount Dora’s history dates back to the 1800s. In 1846 Lake Dora was named for Dora Ann Drawdy. She and her husband homesteaded two miles south of Mount Dora. In 1880 the town’s first name was Royellou, named after the three children of Postmaster R. C. Tremain – Roy, Ella, and Louis.
Then in 1883 the town was renamed Mount Dora. Incorporated as a town in 1910 with 370 residents, the town now has a population of around 10,000 people. The first railroad service through Mount Dora began in 1887 and by 1915 there were two passenger trains daily in each direction. At one time citrus was the major industry in the area, with a great deal shipped from Mount Dora, while today Mount Dora’s major industry is tourism.
According to the Local Chamber of Commerce, the town also has a number of claims to fame, including:
– The Friendliest Small Town
– Best Antique Shopping
– The New England of the South
– The City of Parks
– Festival City
– Top 100 Great Towns of America
– Best Romantic Escape
– Money Magazine “Top Places to Live Today”
What drew me here personally was the ride on the the “Herbie Express”, which is part of the Inland Lakes Railway, located in Mount Dora and Eustis, Florida. The ride I went on is a one hour train ride between Mount Dora and Wooton Park in Tavares. We departed in a Pullman sleeper railcar originally built in 1949 that was later refunctioned as a commuter railcar.
The route initially takes you along Lake Dora and later continues inland past shopping malls, and suburban residences. A young conductor explained the local sights to us and kept us entertained. The Lake Eustis / Mount Dora Railway also features other train rides, such as the Lake County Champion, the Blue Swan Dinner Train, and the Magnolia Sun Lunch Train. The Lake County Champion round trip is 2 hours and 20 minutes, with an opportunity for a short visit in Eustis to enjoy Ferran Park and area shops.
The oldest structure in Mount Dora is the Lakeside Inn, established in 1883. It features a wrap-around porch, gingerbread trim and a steep roof crowned with a corner spire. The grounds are beautifully landscaped.
Many of the walking and trolley tours through this quaint town start at the former 1915 Atlantic Coast Line Depot, home of the Mount Dora Area Chamber of Commerce since 1973. Mount Dora’s most renowned architectural jewel is the Donnelly House. This Queen Anne-style structure uses design elements characteristic of the Victorian Era.
The Donnelly House was constructed in 1893 by John Phillip Donnelly, the first mayor of Mount Dora. The home sits on Donnelly Street within walking distance from downtown Mount Dora. The Donnelly House is just one of the many restored 19th and early 20th century buildings in the Golden Triangle area.
This charming little town also features a whole host of specialty retailers and is one of Florida’s largest antiques and collectibles centers. Renninger’s Twin Markets is renowned for its antiques shopping. The town also features a large variety of gift shops, fashion boutiques, decorative art galleries, interesting cafes and restaurants as well as charming bed and breakfasts.
One of my favourite features of this town, which also refers to itself as “City of Parks”, are the many public green spaces by the water. Donnelly Park, located right downtown and dating back to 1924, offers free concerts and other civic events. The park also features a tennis court and shuffleboard facilities.
After my demanding stroll through Mount Dora’s winding streets I walked down to the waterfront to Evans Park, which is located across from the lighthouse. The view from the waterfront bench was magnificent and I relaxed on the bench as I soaked up the sunshine. The park is adjacent to the Mount Dora Lawn Bowling Club, one of the largest in the United States. Its 300 member association plays host to local and regional tournaments.
Simpson Cove and Grantham Point are adjacent to Palm Island Park and feature the only inland freshwater lighthouse in Florida. This lighthouse was built of bricks and donated by local residents. Gilbert Park features a public boat ramp, picnic area, croquet court and children’s playground along Alexander Creek.
Palm Island Park features a 1700 foot fresh water hiking trail and boardwalk through oak trees draped with Spanish moss. Other wildlife, including bald eagles, and local indidgenous plants can be admired here as well.
The City hosts many major annual events such as the popular “Mount Dora Arts Festival”. This event attracts over 150,000 people each year and has been ranked among the top art shows in the country. Other events include the Antique Boat Show, Antique Car Show, Golf Tournament, Bicycle Festival, Crafts Fair and Plant and Garden Fair.
While I was exploring this charming little town, my husband played golf at the Mount Dora Golf Association. He played a beautifully manicured full-size 18-hole course, and at $18 including cart, this outing was a real bargain. The Mount Dora area also offers a variety of other golf courses, including the Black Bear Golf Club, the Country Club of Mount Dora, Deer Island Golf Club, Eagle Dunes Golf Course, Heathrow Country Estates Redtail Golf Course, the Mission Inn Golf & Tennis Resort and the Pine Meadows Country Club.
I capped off my explorations with a delicious late afternoon ice cream on the patio of the Sunshine Mountain Bakery, soaking up the sun while waiting to hear about my husband’s golf adventures. Mount Dora is a great day trip from Orlando and we enjoyed our drive back through the countryside of rural Florida.