In Central Florida, Haines City rests in a landscape of rolling sandy hills, lakes, and citrus farms. This place has a social calendar that would put most towns twice its size to shame. A lot of the annual events go down at the stunning Lake Eva Park.
If you’re around outside of the summer months, I think you have to visit a local fruit farm, and Ridge Island Groves is a great place to start.
The name of this farm comes from the string of sandy hills that form the Lake Wales Ridge. As well as offering the perfect soils for growing fruit, the ridge has some of the most beautiful rural scenery in Florida.
One way to encounter this is on the The Ridge Scenic Highway, which starts in Haines City and heads south through an idyllic piece of ‘Old Florida’.
1. Lake Eva Community Park
To my mind, scenic Lake Eva Community Park is the heart of Haines City. That’s especially so for those who value its wide-open spaces, natural scenery, and abundant amenities.
There are tons of typical park amenities, including a public pool, workout machines, a splash pad, tennis and basketball courts, and walking trails.
Lake Eva is key to the park’s appeal, with a beach area, benches with scenic views, a boat launch, and a long fishing dock.
The park also boasts a contemporary live event center that can accommodate more than 1,300 people.
I’ll talk about a few of the annual events in Haines City later in my list. What they all have in common is this beautiful park as their setting.
2. The Ridge Scenic Highway
Haines City is right on the hump of the Lake Wales Ridge, which runs along the spine of Central Florida for around 100 miles.
The ridge is composed of a chain of rounded sand islands, isolated by glaciation and the rise and fall of the oceans. This scenery bears almost no resemblance to anywhere else in the state.
The rolling landscape creates awesome vistas over the low-lying regions all around. Also remarkable is the amount of agriculture along the ridge, with numerous citrus groves around Haines City in particular.
The result is countryside that looks a lot like the Florida of old, and my ideal way to discover it is on the Ridge Scenic Highway. This byway runs for 38.7 miles along US 17, and starts in Haines City at the northernmost point.
3. Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park
To get out onto the Lake Wales Ridge and get to know this landscape on foot, I’d head for this state park to the southwest of Haines City.
The Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve is sizable, at more than 8,000 acres, but there’s a manageable section, on the eastern shore of Lake Pierce.
Awaiting you here are six miles of hiking trails and seven miles of equestrian trails through a steep sandy landscape. The white sugar sand is loose, which can make for some tough climbing.
To go with a vigorous workout, you’ll see communities of rare plants, like pygmy fringe tree, scrub plum, and cutthroat grass.
4. Haines City Theatre
Haines City has a formidable community theater group, performing for more than 40 years when I compiled this list.
Since 2014, the Haines City Theatre has been based at Lake Eva Park, in the old municipal library building.
In the true spirit of community theater, this is a non-profit enterprise that benefits everyone. Audiences will get high-quality performances of famous musicals, comedies and dramas. The Sound of Music was on when I was in town.
In the meantime, the group’s participants have the chance to develop their skills, both in front of and behind the curtain. Keep an eye out for regular fundraising events, located around Haines City.
5. Egg City Diner
Two local dining icons are side-by-side in Haines City. Sharing the same strip as Manny’s Original Chophouse is a neat 50s-style diner.
Decor-wise Egg City Diner features two-tone leatherette chairs and booths, images of 50s icons like Elvis and Marilyn, and all kinds of memorabilia, from a jukebox to a motorcycle.
As you would guess, the menu is full of indulgent but satisfying old-school fare. I’m talking, old-fashioned pancakes, four-egg omelettes, biscuits & gravy, stuffed French toast, and a slew of lunch options.
If you’re here for a hearty breakfast I’d look no further than City Mush. This is a big bowl of grits, topped with sausage gravy, bacon, cheese and scrambled eggs.
6. LEGOLAND Florida
Located in nearby Winter Haven, LEGOLAND Florida is just minutes away. In fact, a lot of families use Haines City as their base for visiting this park.
Now part of a resort with three parks, LEGOLAND Florida took over from Cypress Gardens, a theme park that was open from 1936 to 2009.
The beautiful botanical gardens, planted nearly a century ago, remain at the heart of the new theme park.
Elsewhere you’ve got a variety of carnival-style rides and games, primed for kids up to around 12 years old. Something special is the daily water ski show at Pirates’ Cove, a long-term tradition continued from Cypress Gardens.
7. Fantasy of Flight
Since 1995, Fantasy of Flight has been one of central Florida’s premier aviation attractions. It’s located in a hangar at an airfield in Polk City, just up the road from Haines City.
The main attractions are the restored aircraft, spanning generations of aviation development. Among the highlights for me are a World War II-era P-51 Mustang long-range fighter escort, and a German Buzz Bomb.
In addition to its impressive collection, the museum features many interactive exhibits. All areas include historical documentation on the machine’s history, performance, and when and where they were used.
8. Ridge Island Groves
Despite the changes of the last half-century, Central Florida remains a big citrus-producing area. Haines City is right at the center of that, and fruit growing is still a significant part of the local economy.
Ridge Island Groves is a U-Pick farm, which means it’s time to grab a hat, some gloves, and a basket and hit the groves. Citrus, blueberries and peaches are available in season.
The farm is open October through June, and welcomes guests Monday through Saturday for in-depth farm tours.
You can also stop by for some of the freshest orange juice you’ve ever tasted, as well as pre-picked fruit, marmalade and other locally-sourced items. Maybe best of all is the soft-serve ice cream, with delectable fruit flavors like orange, peach, and blueberry.
9. LEGOLAND Florida Water Park
A multi-park ticket will give you access to a LEGO-themed water park. Previously known as Splash Island, this park initially opened at Cypress Gardens in 2005.
Now completely reworked, LEGOLAND Florida Water Park has enough attractions for kids to fill a whole day. There’s a wave pool, multiple water slides, a build-a-raft lazy river, and the giant Joker Soaker interactive playground.
One part I found especially neat was the Creative Cove, where kids can build and race their own LEGO boats. Children up to six years old will adore the DUPLO Splash Safari, with littler slides and large interactive DUPLO creatures.
10. Peppa Pig Theme Park Florida
When I was in the area, this theme park dedicated to the children’s show, Peppa Pig, had just opened at LEGOLAND Florida.
Aimed at preschoolers, Peppa Pig is steeped in the world of Peppa Pig, George Pig, Daddy Pig, Mummy Pig, Rebecca Rabbit, and more.
What you get is a tapestry of themed play spaces, shows, rides, and splash pads. One of the things I really liked about the park is that parents/caregivers can usually take part.
In that spirit is Peppa’s Pedal Bike Tour, leading into the woods and icy mountains, with tricycles available for littler riders.
11. Ribs on the Ridge
One of the largest BBQ festivals in Central Florida takes over Lake Eva Park every February. Officially sanctioned by the Florida BBQ Association, Ribs on the Ridge has been an annual highlight for more than a decade now.
There are prizes for amateur backyard Barbecue teams, as well as professional smokers. The level of competition is fierce, as this event is a qualifier for major national competitions.
Among them are the historic American Royal in Kansas City, MO, and the Jack Daniels Invitational (the superbowl of BBQ competitions) in Lynchburg, TN.
For newbies like me, Ribs on the Ridge is a chance to browse the vendor tents. You can chat with experts and pick up products that will take your BBQ game to the next level.
12. Manny’s Original Chophouse
Another perennial contender in the central Florida food arena is Manny’s Original Chophouse. Manny’s is part of a growing local chain known for tasty grub, efficient service, and world-class steaks, BBQ Ribs, and seafood.
I have to say, I was unprepared for the giant portions at this spot. On the side you get these fresh-baked yeast rolls, which come with a fabulous cinnamon butter.
A word on the decor too, which is homey and rustic. There’s a crowd of neon signs on almost every surface, as well as an ever-growing collection of license plates from all over the United States, and the world.
13. Southern Dunes Golf & Country Club
Featuring 18 scenic holes that play about 7,200 yards, Southern Dunes Golf and Country Club has been open since the early ‘90s. The flowing design, with large greens, is in the traditional links style.
Unlike almost every other course in Florida, Southern Dunes features impressive natural topography. This dramatic hillside layout creates an elevation differential of more than 100 feet.
In addition to its rolling fairways, multi-tiered greens, and strategically placed sand and water hazards, this landscaping makes for a truly memorable round.
The driving range here is a great way to loosen up, and has TopTracer technology, which adds a new dimension of fun to a practice session.
14. Ironman 70.3 Florida
Closing out the year in Haines City is an epic ironman triathlon, taking place in Lake Eva and then in the countryside around the city.
The lake course has a unique M-Dot configuration, and then the cycling and running legs take place in rolling orange groves and pine hammocks.
Whether you’re a competitor, or have an interest in endurance sports I reckon it’s an exciting time to be in town. Spectators can pick a spot along the route, or watch the competitors come in on the great lawn.
More than 2,000 take part, swimming (1.2 miles), biking (56 miles), and running 13.1 miles.
15. Thunder on the Ridge
The largest firework show in Polk County takes place in Haines City to mark the 4th of July. My pick of the city’s annual events, Thunder on the Ridge happens at Lake Eva Park, and goes back to 1998.
The fireworks happen after dusk, but there’s much more happening during the build up, starting at 3:00 pm.
You’ve got bands playing all afternoon/evening, cold beer, food booths, craft vendors, and a wide variety of activities to keep kids happy.
Among the food and drink choices when I attended were chili dogs, BBQ, nachos, kettle corn, fresh squeezed lemonade and shaved ice.