If getting a little exercise and fresh air while learning the area’s rich history and hanging out with an entertaining guy sound like a great way to spend a few hours, then consider signing up for a bicycle tour on a five-mile section of the West Orange Trail.
Jim Crescitelli, program director for the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, will take groups of people on a leisurely ride that lasts about two-and-a-half hours. As everyone pedals, Crescitelli shares the history along the scenic trail, which follows the old train tracks that carried produce and passengers through West Orange County. Tours begin at either the Winter Garden or Killarney stations.
“Natives or newbies, you should know the history of the area and know why you live here.” — Jim Crescitelli, WGHF program director and bike tour guide
“My whole passion is introducing natives and newcomers to their local history,” Crescitelli said. “So much survives … if you know where to look.”
He has been conducting these tours for about four years, not on a regular basis but as locals or guests to the area request them. He said Wheel Works, which operates out of the Winter Garden station, advertises locally and usually draws people who live in the area. Likewise, Bikes & Blades, in Killarney, tends to attract men and women who are in Central Florida for conventions.
Out-of-towners can ask some interesting questions, Crescitelli said, from “Are we going to see any alligators?” and “Will there be ticks?” to “Where are all the orange trees we've heard about?” and “Does Disney know about this place?”
Following the trail
Crescitelli tells tales about downtown Winter Garden, giving participants a glimpse of what it used to be like with its former railroad depots, Edgewater and Shelby hotels and movie theater. Just west of downtown Plant Street is Brayton Road and the old Bray packinghouse, which was once a stop on the railroad to pick up produce.
When the riders reach the Tildenville community, they can veer off the trail to see the old homes once belonging to Luther Fuller Tilden and his son, Luther Willis Tilden, as well as the South Lake Apopka packinghouse and the site of the Oakland-Winter Garden School.
Crescitelli will point out Mile Marker 801, which signifies that this spot is 801 miles from Richmond, Virginia. He said the Atlantic Coast Line railroad placed the sign there to signify the distance to the rail line's origins.
Further west, cyclists learn about the town of Oakland and its former heyday as a community hub full of shops, a hotel, an opera house and two railroad stations. They explore the parks and sometimes see an alligator resting under the Oakland pier at Lake Apopka.
The next stop is a history lesson in Oakland’s cemeteries and historic black churches.
Riders can peer through the fence at exotic animals at the Briley Farm and check out the adjacent Oakland Nature Preserve. Beyond, they can see Hull Island and the old Killarney Post Office. After crossing an old train trestle, cyclists arrive at Killarney Station.
The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation is always discovering new stories or pieces of history, so the tour is periodically updated to reflect that information.
“My mantra: If you've moved to the area, learn the history so you'll know why you moved here,” Crescitelli said. “There was a sense of the past that was appreciated because it stands all around you. Something drew you here.”