The displays are up in the Visitor’s Center, Nature Center, and Florida Children’s Museum; tables and chairs are in place in The Depot restaurant, Rooftop Bar, and Event Center; the train play station is complete and playground equipment is installed and ready for kids to climb on; and items are for sale in the gift shop.

Bonnet Springs Park is just about ready for a soft opening this weekend for invited guests and its grand opening extravaganza on Oct. 22 and 23 for everyone.

“It will be the biggest party in Lakeland’s history,” said Josh Henderson, BSP chief executive officer.

The park survived Hurricane Ian with only minor issues – heavy rain pushed up and cracked a handful of sidewalk sections, and strong winds tilted some light poles and toppled one tree that provided shade to a part of the treetop walkway. Repairs were being completed last week when Henderson gave a tour to LkldNow.

“I thought it was going to be much worse,” Henderson said about the storm damage in Lakeland.

BSP is a 168-acre, privately funded park that will be free and open to the public once the gates officially open. It is situated west of the railroad tracks and Sikes Boulevard/Kathleen Road, east of Lake Bonnet, and north of George Jenkins Boulevard.

“We have everything the theme parks have, except rides,” Henderson said.

They have hired 80+ employees to take care of everything from horticulture, security and cleanliness to education, food service, sales and events.

Florida Children’s Museum and Great Lawn at Bonnet Springs Park

Following the grand opening, Henderson said visitors will be allowed to bring their dogs, as long as people are fastidious about cleaning up after them.  Cyclists can utilize a bicycle trail around the park’s perimeter at a slow pace.  And those who need help getting around can enjoy a ride on one of the park’s 23-seater trams.  Kayaks and paddle boats will be available for rent eventually at the boathouse.

There are also two workout areas in the park that include elliptical machines, stationary bikes, push-up and pull-up stations and squat/lifting machines. Visitors can interact with the machines using cellphone apps to determine strength, distance, and how many calories they’ve burned.

Henderson said the soft opening will give him and other officials a chance to see how guests interact with the areas in the park and allow their food and beverage personnel to go through a trial run.

The park was the final gift to the city of philanthropist Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of the late Publix founder, George Jenkins. Mr. George, as he was known, died in 1996. Jenkins Barnett passed away in December from Alzheimer’s Disease, but not before giving the go-ahead to fund what its developers liken to New York City’s Central Park.

A huge live oak tree

“When the park opens this month, it will be the culmination of seven years of hard work and selfless contributions from volunteers and donors in our own community,” said Barnett’s elder son, Wesley Barnett. “This is such a great asset for Lakeland and Polk County; it won’t be long before we look back and almost forget the landscape of the city without this unifying location. Whether you have been in this community for generations or you recently moved here, this park is for you.”

So far, Bill Tinsley, the retired Lakeland Parks and Recreation director who has helped develop the park and is its current president, has overseen the planting of 3,700 trees and 28,000 plants, along with clearing out tons of garbage left behind from when the area was a homeless camp called “The Jungle.”

The transformation has been nothing short of magical. 

Primary colors adorn the new Florida Children’s Museum and you may hear a passing train will blow its whistle as you listen to the rhythm of metal wheels on the tracks.

Gallery – Click any photo for a slideshow of larger images

The Rooftop Bar has established plants growing up a trellis, and the Visitors’ Center display highlights the area’s history, including railroad workers, citrus and agriculture, and the phosphate industry. It includes LED-lit maps in different colors to show the evolution of the property over the years.

The Nature Center has displays that tell visitors about Bonnet Springs, Lake Bonnet, and the flora and fauna in the park. Henderson asked that no photos be taken inside the Nature Center or butterfly pavilion so visitors would be pleasantly surprised. “I want to hold something back,” Henderson said.

The Nature Center displays, part of which take visitors into an underwater world, were designed by Creative Arts of Sarasota. Henderson said the designers asked what the park wanted and talked with educators about what should be included.

View from the Hollis Family Welcome Center

The grand opening schedule has now been announced, although not finalized.   It includes concerts from national artists like Hunter Hayes, Sister Hazel and the Spin Doctors.  Well-known local performers include Kimmy Gabriela, an American Idol contestant who will also be singing at LkldNow’s Nov. 10 News Aid fundraiser. DJ Lady Shay will be spinning tunes to please the area’s diverse crowds. Organizers are working to sign several more artists.

There will be children’s activities throughout the park on opening weekend, including train rides, animal encounters from Busch Gardens and Gatorland, mascots from various sports teams, birdwatching, along with face painting and the creation of a live mural. Saturday night’s festivities will be capped off with a fireworks show.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.


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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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