A partnership between the city of Winter Garden and local health care stakeholders will turn Tucker Ranch into the first comprehensive physical and mental wellness park in the nation.
Golfers, debutantes, beef cattle and families have enjoyed for decades the land now known as Tucker Ranch. And once the city of Winter Garden fulfills its bold health and wellness vision for the property, many more folks can benefit from the natural space.
The city purchased the 209 acres of land at 100 Avalon Road in 2011 from Corinne Tucker. Judge C.M. “Pete” Tucker and his wife, Mary Matilda Thurmon Tucker, operated a cattle ranch beginning in the 1940s.
“When she finally decided to sell her land, she was concerned about the beautiful space being developed, so she approached the city of Winter Garden about purchasing the property for a city park,” City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said. “We didn’t want to miss this opportunity.”
The city spent $2.1 million for the land and obtained a state grant for $900,000 to preserve and develop the property as a legacy park.
“It will be the only park of its kind in the country,” Bollhoefer said. “You will see parks with many of the different elements, but no one has put all of this together in one park.”
Twenty acres will be transformed to a regional park with trails, fitness areas, multi-purpose buildings, canoeing, camping and a state-of-the-art working and teaching farm that will function as a regional food hub.
Key partnerships — between the city and physical and mental health organizations — are working together to bring this first-class health and wellness facility to Winter Garden. The goal is to capture the whole mind-body-soul concept and to create a culture of health and wellness.
Partners are Healthy West Orange, Advent Health, Orlando Health, Shepherd’s Hope, American Heart Association, Community Health Centers, American Diabetes Association, UCP of Central Florida, Mental Health Association of Central Florida and others.
The city has invested $5 million to date on a playground, restrooms, pavilions and infrastructure and to restore the primitive campground and canoe launch. Winter Garden is committed to spending $2 million over the next five years and also is working with hospitals for funding commitments.
A $6 million lead grant from the West Orange Healthcare District will primarily fund the new campus, which will feature a 5,000-square-foot retreat center, teaching and working farm, outdoor demonstration kitchen, greenhouse, gardens, trails, outdoor fitness and recreational areas.
The project will be developed in two phases, which each taking about 18 months to complete. Construction is slated to begin this summer with a completion date of summer 2023.
The budget for Phase 1 is $7.3 million, which includes construction of the entrance pavilion, production barn, farm store, outdoor kitchen, retreat center, greenhouse and out buildings, as well as landscaping. Phase 2 is budgeted at $4.16 million and includes construction of the pond pavilion and maintenance building, as well as stormwater/pond expansion and landscaping.
“This is a bold, ambitious plan to create lasting change in our community and make all of us healthier, inside and out,” said Rod Talbot, chair of the WOHD. “Tucker Ranch will engage residents in all kinds of activities that not only contribute to good health but have been proven to prevent chronic disease and addiction. It’s a true gift to our community.”
Bollhoefer said the initiative will focus on four main pillars: food and nutrition, fitness and rehabilitation, natural environment, and mental health.
Cooking classes in the kitchen pavilion will concentrate on healthy eating, and farming space will allow folks — especially those with health issues — to benefit from edible and interactive gardening. A trail system with a variety of exercise nodes will allow residents of all ability levels to participate, including space and equipment for the average exerciser, serious fitness gurus and people who enjoy obstacle course challenges, children, folks with physical disabilities and seniors.
The former campground space will allow primitive camping, as well as canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding on Johns Lake.
A wellness area for meditation, yoga, tai chi and other programs has been established, and the city will build off the health, nutrition and fitness programming at the Jesse Brock Community Center.
“The idea is when you’re trying to bring these classes to people, if it’s a beautiful setting … people will want to go to this,” Bollhoefer said.
“In our discussions with the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, (the area) is really lacking in mental health facilities and treatment,” he said. “So one of the things we’re doing is working with them.”
“The ability to reduce the anxiety individuals have who are impacted with mental health issues, and when you have a comfortable outdoor nature it’s sometimes the best environment for (healing),” said Tracy Swanson, CEO of the West Orange Healthcare District.
“It’s a behavioral pharmacy,” Bollhoefer said. “Many times a person will go to the doctor and they’ll be told … you need to change your lifestyle. … We want to work with the doctors and send them out to the programming.”
Because of COVID-19, “people have either embraced the time to get their health in order or they’ve let it deteriorate,” Swanson said. “But the mental health on either side, we’re going to need solutions like this. I think as people feel comfortable getting out of this lockdown, this space will encourage them.”
In a presentation Winter Garden created when it was seeking grant money, the city estimated up to 20,000 students would take school field trips to the park and farm, and officials put the number of annual attendees at close to 50,000. The city expects to host four health and wellness events annually, about 16 certified classes in nutrition, 16 more in fitness and 10 farm-to-table classes.
The property lies in City Commissioner Bob Buchanan’s district, and he said he has heard many stories about the Tuckers and their ranch. He hopes the city will install plaques throughout the property that tell some of these tales, maybe even the one where a cow got stuck in the mud and a mule team had to pull it out.
“The history goes way back,” he said.
Even the cattle-crossing tunnel under the Florida’s Turnpike is still there.
“The favorite part to me has always been the site where the campers used to be and that boat ramp back there in the back,” Buchanan said. “It is just so tranquil and so beautiful under those oak trees … I always thought those were the luckiest people in the world to have campers and be able to stay out there.”
Buchanan is excited to see the camping return and to see the rest of the ideas come to fruition.
“I love them; I think they’re fantastic,” he said of the extensive plans and how all the phases will benefit the community.
“The biggest thing you can do for any affliction, any issue — reducing stress is the best,” Bollhoefer said. “The goal is to get people into nature. … In a beautiful setting with the gardens and plants, it will make you feel like you want to go, not like you have to go.”
TUCKER RANCH HISTORY
The Tucker Ranch property on Avalon Road in Winter Garden and adjoining lands were used as the original West Orange Country Club in the 1910s. The country club closed in 1924 following several years of heavy rains that caused Johns Lake to rise and flood the property and destroy the golf course.
The Tuckers bought the land in the 1940s for cattle grazing and citrus groves. They renamed it Tucker and Son Ranch and amassed about 150 head of commercial cattle, a Brahman-Hereford mixture that were sold at local livestock auction markets.
During World War II, folks were sent to work at Camp Kent, which was housed at the West Orange Country Club. Officers and scientists tested different types of new radar. The old country club banquet room was used as the officers club. They used a boat owned by Ford dealer Hoyle Pounds and tested their experimental radar on Lake Apopka. The scientific team also tested several kinds of mosquito repellent on the Camp Kent guards.
Pete Tucker demolished the old country club building in 1950.
The campground was called Tucker’s Ranch Campground and opened on the eastern shores of Johns Lake in 1969. Folks were allowed tents, tent trailers, travel trailers or truck campers.
In October 2018, the city welcomed its first visitors to Tucker Ranch Recreational Park and Nature Preserve. First phase amenities include a community-built playground, picnic area and nature trails.
Last year, the Bloom & Grow Garden Society, city of Winter Garden, Healthy West Orange and Cherrylake Tree Farm partnered to plant 1,000 bald cypress trees in the 209-acre park and preserve. The Tuckers’ 1950s block house will be preserved and will be home for a full-time caretaker.
The city’s purchase agreement stipulated that “Tucker” be included in the name of the new park and the historic archway at the park entrance stay onsite. It is listed on the National Register of Historic places.
A. The Retreat
B. Labyrinth Glade
C. Sound Garden
D. Fragrance Garden
E. Story Circle
F. Meditation Garden
G. Old Florida Garden
H. Trailhead Gateway
I. Wildlife Garden
J. Floating Pavilion
K. Expanded Pond
M. Family-Friendly Exercise
O. Round Pavilion
P. Great Lawn
Q. Bus Drop-Off
R. Great Arbor
S. Crossing Terrace
T. Demonstration Gardens
U. Pollinator Mixed Border
V. Historic Arch
W. Demonstration Kitchen
X. Farm Stand & Restrooms
Y. Viewing Terrace
Z. Edible Landscape
AA. Pole Barn
BB. Orchard Grove
CC. Sculpture or Fountain
DD. Reconfigured Wetland & Buffer
EE. Path for Events
FF. Service Yard & Parking
GG. Staff/Park Service Yard
HH. GateII. Enhanced Trail Gateway
JJ. Advanced Fitness Area
KK. Box Truck Parking
MM. Advanced Fitness Node
NN. Advanced Fitness Lawn
OO. Greenway Connection
PP. Bike Storage