Fort Christmas: “Old Florida” at its Finest

You might say I’m a sucker for places that preserve “Old Florida.” I like that feeling of stepping back in time to a simpler era and exploring what made Florida the state we all love today.

No place in Orange County does that better than Fort Christmas Historical Park. After stopping by last weekend, I regret not having checked out this fascinating and educational treasure sooner.

The centerpiece of the 25-acre park is a more-than-convincing replica of the fort that was built in the area on Christmas day 1837. European settlers constructed the fort during the Second Seminole War for protection.

When I hear about a place promoting itself as “historic” and then find out it’s a “life-size replica,” I’m often disappointed. That may be what kept me away for so long from Fort Christmas. My philosophy when it comes to forts — if the place didn’t see action, I don’t want to see it.

But I have to admit, Fort Christmas won me over.

Instead of trying to recreate what the fort must have looked like “back in the day,” the curators have done something a little more gutsy. Each of the towers house a captivating exhibit space. The tower closest to the entrance focuses on the Seminoles and early European settlers. The artifacts are displayed in such a way that you’re drawn into the period and suddenly find yourself immersed into learning more about the turbulent era.

Oversized glass cases showcase Indian and European dress in all of its vividness. Artifacts are sprinkled around the room along with written bits of information. Everything in the space works together to educate and humanize.

And that’s just one building.

The other tower focuses on the area’s history post Indian wars. You step through the door and seemingly into the old west. There’s cowboy statues and artifacts, a huge stash of antique weapons and items that have been found on or near the property. Upstairs is an exhibit about the pioneering lifestyle complete with intricate quilts and household items that were commonplace in the late 1800s.

Leave the fort and your trip back in time is just beginning. Much of the remaining 25 acres is filled with some of the best examples of cracker-style architecture this side of the Suwannee. Seven “Cracker” houses are scattered around the property and meticulously adorned with antiques that interpret pioneer life in Florida between 1870 and 1930. A warning to you shutterbugs out there. This section is a photographer’s dream and you can literally spend hours just taking photos inside the structures.

The park is operated by the Fort Christmas Historical Society and the Orange County parks and recreation department. In addition to the great history, visitors can play tennis, basketball and softball or enjoy a picnic on the property. A welcome center at the park’s entrance is stocked with informational materials, gifts and a clean set of restrooms.

Fort Christmas is closed on Mondays and has special events throughout the year. Check the park’s website for updated information.

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