The seat of Lake County is a lovely waterfront city among the Harris Chain of Lakes. With so much water all around, people needed an alternative way to travel long distances.
This is the seaplane, and Tavares has long been known as America’s Seaplane City, with a base right on Lake Dora next to downtown.
So naturally, one of the things I think everyone should do in Tavares is take a flight. You can take a quick aerial tour of the city, or head off in search of gators or to see the likes of Walt Disney World Resort from above.
Tavares also has a hopping and newly renovated downtown, a lot of fun events, and a fantastic paddling trail along the Dora Canal, which runs through the city.
1. Wooton Park
Visiting Tavares I found myself drawn to this lakefront park, across the tracks from the downtown area. By any measure, Wooton Park is beautiful, with venerable moss-draped live oaks and inspiring vistas of Lake Dora.
Injecting this spot with extra drama is the Tavares Seaplane Base. There were aircraft taking off every few minutes on my visit.
You can launch a canal at Wooton Park, while there’s a new playground, a fantastic splash park (more later), and a lot of places where you can pause and enjoy a picnic.
No surprise, given the scenic location, but Wooton Park is the city’s go-to venue for outdoor events, including the Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival in March.
2. Jones Brothers Air & Seaplane Adventures
I don’t think aviation fans can visit America’s Seaplane City without taking at least one flight. Based at Tavares Seaplane Base, Jones Brothers Air & Seaplane Adventures is a rare opportunity to take to the skies from the water.
There’s a wide choice of flights to choose from. If you don’t have much time you could take the Lake Dora Splash & Dash, which is all about experiencing the maneuver when the plane touches down momentarily before taking off again.
Other tours take in Lake Apopka and Orlando’s big amusement parks, or the unbridled natural beauty of the Harris Chain of Lakes or the St. Johns River.
3. Lake Apopka
The fourth-largest lake in Florida is a few minutes south of Tavares. For most of the 20th century Lake Apopka was something to avoid.
Decades of agricultural run-off and chemical dumping had turned the lake into an ecological deadzone. Fortunately things began to change in the 1990s, when the fields on the north shore reverted to marshlands.
Nature has returned to Lake Apopka in a big way. Over 360 bird species have been documented on these shores, more than any other single location in Florida.
You can make your way along the lakeshore via the 18-mile Lake Apopka Loop Trail. For a less strenuous alternative I’d try the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, taking about two hours, with narrated stops along the route.
4. Downtown Tavares
If you haven’t visited Tavares for a few years, you might be surprised by the transformation that has taken place downtown.
In the late 2010s the entire streetscape was redone, with brick-paved streets, palms, benches, shrubs and other pleasing improvements.
Behind Wooton Park you’ll find a small but growing collection of shops and restaurants. Dining options included pub fare, tacos, burgers, New American, Cuban, steaks, hot dogs, diner food when I was in town.
With Wooton Park as an event space, there’s often some kind of gathering going on. I was in time for Rocktoberfest, blending live music, food trucks, and seaplane competitions in October.
5. Adventure Outdoor Paddle
On Florida’s largest chain of lakes, Tavares is a wonderful place to do some paddling. What makes things even better here is the Dora Canal, which passes through the city just west of downtown.
Lined with marvelous bald cypresses draped in Spanish moss, the canal has been described as the “most beautiful mile of waterway in the world.” Birdlife abounds along the banks, with scores of herons, anhingas, cormorants and egrets.
The main tour company based in Tavares is Adventure Outdoor Paddle, on the Lake Dora waterfront. There’s a range of experiences to choose from, but the most popular is the Dora Canal Tour (2-2.5 hrs).
If you want to go your own way you can rent your own kayak and follow a suggested three-mile round-trip along the canal and back to the Lake Dora waterfront.
6. Lake County Historical Society
One of the most commanding buildings downtown is the Old Lake County Courthouse, built in 1922 in a Classical Revival style.
It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, and is recognized by the eight massive Ionic columns dominating the facade.
Head in for the Lake County Historical Society Museum, which occupies the first floor. When I took a look there were exhibits about citrus growing, Seminole Native American culture, military history, 19th-century domestic life, and fossils unearthed across the county.
7. Summerall Park
I adore this little pocket park, in a dense grove along the Dora Canal. Something that really adds to this place is the profusion of Spanish moss, flowing from the branches in thick strands.
You can bring lunch here if it isn’t too hot or wet, and can watch the boats go by. There are picnic tables in the shade, either under the tree canopy, or in little shelters.
With ample vegetation and wildlife on its banks, the Summerall Canal is a fine watercourse paddling, and you can launch a canoe or kayak from this spot.
8. Lake Idamere Park
Next to one of the smaller lakes in Tavares, the picturesque Lake Idamere Park is managed by Lake County.
Spread across more than 40 acres, this property has a beautiful fishing pier/observation deck, where you can take a seat and survey the water for a while. There’s also a group of marvelous bald cypresses, as well as a playground, and picnic areas.
Another remarkable feature is the first Miracle Field in Lake County. This sports facility is designed with a special surface to allow people of all abilities to take part in a variety of sports.
Lake Idamere Park is also the anchor for the annual Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Faire, which I’ll come to below.
9. Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival
The largest antique and classic boating festival on the East Coast takes place on the Lake Dora waterfront every March.
A three-day celebration, the Sunnyland Antique Boat Festival has been running for more than 40 years, and has a lot going on.
When I visited, there were exhibits of beautiful old vessels on Tavares’s new docks, all competing for awards.
Added to that are antique boats for sale, a nautical flea market, a classic car show, a food court, beer garden, live music, and seaplane rides.
People from more than 26 states make the trip to Tavares for this event. Dogs are welcome on leashes, and there are activities for kids.
10. Discovery Gardens
The University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences maintains these show gardens in Tavares for hands-on training.
The garden’s distinct areas include more than 20 themed sections, with 700+ different plants, spread over nearly seven acres. There are usually a variety of items in bloom during the spring and early summer months.
With brochures and careful labeling, you don’t need to be a horticulturist to fall in love with this place. In particular, I was thrilled by the orchid house, and the fragrant rose garden.
The staff offer a number of classes and events throughout the year, so check the UF website for specifics.
11. Children’s Splash Park
In Wooton Park, the Children’s Splash Park is the perfect place for kids on hot days. The park is open from mid-May until the end of August annually, and admission costs just $2.
The splash park has all the fun amenities you’d expect and features a cool motif that goes well with the city’s heritage. There’s an accurate model of a seaplane here, with jets of water coming out of its pontoons.
For kids under four, swim diapers are required, and during peak times, the park often fills to capacity (59), so plan accordingly.
12. Tavares Community Theater Company
This local community theater company has only been around since 2014, but in that short time has become a cultural beacon for the city.
Right away, the Tavares Community Theater Company purchased a building west of downtown at 904 W Main St.
When I compiled this article, that building was gradually being transformed into a venue for audiences of up to 150.
At the time of writing, performances were at the Graceway Church in nearby Leesburg. A few selections from the most recent season included Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite and John Cariani’s Almost Maine.
13. Trout Lake Nature Center
Composed of more than 200 acres, the Trout Lake Nature Center in Eustis is an educational and natural attraction in nearby Eustis.
The lake is the park’s centerpiece, and the extensive grounds are best explored by the boardwalk and network of trails that are clearly marked and easy to navigate.
Along the way, there are picnic and covered seating areas, educational displays, bridges, and docks jutting out into the water. A true photo-worthy sight here is the Grandfather Oak tree, which blew me away.
It’s common to see a variety of wildlife too, and the center’s staff offer demonstrations, courses, lectures, and other educational and recreational activities.
14. Lady of the Lakes Renaissance Faire
Over two consecutive weekends in November there’s an enormous renaissance fair in Tavares. Setting up in the woods in the south of the city, Lady of the Lakes has a bit of everything.
For instance, live entertainment runs the gamut from fire eating to storytelling, Medieval music, sea shanties, magic, and theatre performances. There are also action-packed combat shows, with jousting, Viking raids, equestrian stunts, and more.
Meanwhile, dozens of vendors come to the fair, selling handmade wares like jewelry, hand-blown glass, clothing, bags, replica weapons, and headwear.
Of course, food is part of the fun, and there’s a lot of old-timey fair classics like turkey legs and Scotch eggs.
15. Hurricane Dockside Grill
Surrounded by an oak hammock on the Dead River Canal, Hurricane Dockside Grill is a laid-back eatery with an easy-going atmosphere, great views, and casual fare.
They’re particularly known for their burgers, tacos, sandwiches (Mahi Mahi is a go-to), going great with a cold beer.
There’s often live music in the afternoons and the evenings, while the dockside setting means you can get here by boat.
One of my favorite things about this place is the outside tiki bar. Here you may just get to hang out with some alligators, at a safe distance of course.