Winter Haven is like many other Florida towns: you have to get off the main highway to see the real town.
In this case the main Highway is US-17 that meanders across Florida from the Georgia border near Jacksonville to Punta Gorda in Southwest Florida on the Gulf of Mexico.
The town began to develop in the early 1880s in the days before highways when the Plant System built the first railroad across Polk County. It passed just north of current day Winter Haven.
The town was first called Harris Corners but was incorporated as Winter Haven in 1911. The canals connecting the chain of lakes were started in 1915, and the town boomed in the 1920s along with many other Florida places.
The 1920s saw many homes built in the colonial revival style, and more than 50 of these homes are on the National Register of Historic Places today. There are four historic districts in Winter Haven including the downtown area.
The first Publix supermarket was opened in 1930 by George W. Jenkins. His second store, the first stand-alone Publix, opened in 1935 at 199 West Central Avenue. The building still stands but is no longer used as a grocery store.
During the 1930s and 1940s, citrus pioneer John A. Snively operated one of the largest fruit packing plants in the world in Winter Haven. At its peak, Snively Groves Inc. employed more than 1,500 people. The town is still the center of a major citrus industry.
Mr. Snively was the maternal grandfather of musician Gram Parsons. The Snively mansion, known as Magnolia Plantation, is now part of the Legoland property and is open for special occasions.
In the years before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Winter Haven was the destination for more tourists than just about any other place in Florida. This is because of Cypress Gardens, known as the "Water Ski Capital of the World", that opened in 1936.
Many movies were filmed at Cypress Gardens and thousands enjoyed the Southern Belles and water ski shows until the park finally closed its doors in 2009. It was reborn under different owners as Legoland in 2011, and the new owners have preserved key elements of the beloved old Cypress Gardens attraction.
The numerous lakes in this city do not allow a strict north-south and east-west street layout. The canopied residential streets meander throughout the town around the lakes and offer lots of great scenery. Many of the lakes have streets around their entire shoreline and these make for great scenic drives. Several neighborhoods, including the downtown area, have been designated as historic districts and you will see many historic buildings and houses on your drives.
Winter Haven's nickname - "Chain of Lakes City" - has been earned because of its location among more than 50 lakes ranging in size from tiny to large. 24 of these lakes are connected by canals in the Winter Haven area, making Winter Haven a boater's paradise. Visitors can rent boats, kayaks, paddle boards, and pontoon boats and spend hours fishing or just enjoying the water. Winter Haven is also close to many other Florida attractions such as Bok Tower Gardens and Spook Hill.
RECOMMENDED RESTAURANT: Harry's Old Place
Winter Haven has always been a unique Florida town, with or without Cypress Gardens and Legoland.
The town is off the interstate highways in the rolling Central Florida land between Orlando and Tampa. Many tourists miss Winter Haven because it is not on the interstate route.
A scenic Florida backroads travel route is to exit I-4 a few miles west of US-27 and go south on County Road 557 through Lake Alfred. Then catch US-17 and go south all the way to Winter Haven. The town is about 11 miles south of I-4.