Like many of those who live in Central Florida, I am not a native Floridian. As such, my education was lacking in Florida history (quite frankly, if it didn’t directly involve Virginia and/or Massachusetts, we probably didn’t learn much on it – lots on the American Revolution and the Civil War, but little else.) Honestly, I didn’t think Florida had much history to speak of beyond Saint Augustine. After all, there are reasons why this area wasn’t heavily populated until the invention of air-conditioning. Most of the homes and buildings I pass every day were built in the 1990s or later. However, a few years ago I had an environmental policy class field trip to the Orlando Wetlands Park which took me through the town of Christmas for the first time in my life. As I drove along this little country road, I was surprised to see what looked to be an actual FORT on the side of the road in a local park (fittingly named “Fort Christmas.”) I made it a goal that day to start learning more about the history of Central Florida and to eventually make my way back to this park.
The first thing you should know about Fort Christmas – it’s FREE to visit! That’s right! Completely 100% FREE. No admissions fee, no parking charges. This was a total relief for me. It’s occasionally difficult to find affordable activities in Orlando.
Second – the fort is not the original fort. This was a little bit of a bummer for me, but also understandable. After all – it IS Florida. I can’t imagine it would hold up well over the years. A wooden fort in a swampy, bug-infested, humid area is only going to hold up for so long. Plus, it would make sense for any local inhabitants to tear it down and use the materials for their own purposes once the fort is deemed no longer necessary. It still looked really neat (plus they were able jack up the A/C in some interior rooms, which is always a bonus here!)
Fort Christmas park itself is really cute though. There are a number of old houses one can explore, actually walking through some of them and getting an idea of how people lived once upon a time. There was one in particular that impressed me – it had two rooms on one side, two on the other, with an open-air covered hallway between. It seemed like a great idea to both help create a feeling of privacy as well as to allow a breeze to come through their living space. The open-air hallway was still usable and protected from the rain, but didn’t have the walls to help trap the humidity/block the wind. I’d like to go back in time and shake the designer’s hand. (I’m sure this is probably fairly common in Florida, but there was only one house like this on the property and, as someone new to Florida history, the only one I had ever seen. The rest were fairly standard cabins.)
They even had an old schoolhouse on the property, which was really neat to explore. The schoolhouse included a separate building for the cafeteria (currently housing a display of stoves throughout the ages), a theater, and the one-room classroom designed for kids of all ages. (I can’t even imagine trying to balance the educational needs of such a large variety of ages in one room like that.)
The entire visit took about two and a half hours. We went on a Tuesday and the entire place was empty. We saw one school trip later in the day and one older couple while we were exploring the fort, but that was it. It was kind of nice – we were able to explore at our own pace without feeling like we were getting in anyone’s way. We took our time, venturing into every little building and reading information on the walls when available. However, going on a weekday like that means we miss out on some of the special events. On certain weekends during the year, Fort Christmas hosts a number of historical events with re-enactors on site to give you more of a taste of what life was like in Florida’s past. Some of the events are listed on their website; for a full list, I would recommend either calling or stopping by the visitor’s center.