Taking you behind the veil of Lakeland’s most ambitious park and venue
Cardboard castles with half-dressed dolls as bridesmaids illustrate a reality where the only ceiling is the one rendered by pure and eternal imaginations of young girls.
Imagine an old railroad yard and brownfield on the outskirts of downtown Lakeland being transformed into an unprecedented sprawling ode to nature and architecture that is ready to present itself as a “Secret Garden” of sorts — a collection of interwoven, yet distinctive spaces where brides, grooms and wedding goers will feel as if they have escaped reality, all while being right at home.
Yet here it is, in our city, to behold and to celebrate as a backdrop for kids playing, laughing and learning, for people strolling along and stopping to enjoy meals — and as a place like Florida has never before seen to host weddings that are original, historic and modern, all in one.
Bonnet Springs Park is slated to host a grand opening celebration on October 22, 2022.
As a toast to Lakelanders for what this means, we decided to dream with you and host a mock wedding to show you the ethereal elegance and bountiful opportunities this place will offer.
As Laura Shannon, owner of Bloom Shakalaka, Ashton Events, and House 820, who partnered with “The Lakelander” to “host the first unofficial wedding” at the park says,
“This is like a dream becoming a reality, and this is the new Florida landscape.”
There are timeless chain links, clean polished stones, water features separated by magical step stones and a million little details to absorb. There are also landmarks, buildings with names of familiar local families and businesses who invested in this non-profit venture, and distinctive creative anchors to the property, like the open wooden arch at the end of the runway where bride and groom recite their vows.
The 168-acre park includes a modern venue featuring a lot of clean lines, natural wood and dark metal that can accommodate up to 400 guests with a large dance floor. It also has a lot of hidden nooks and crannies that will make for a perfect micro-wedding or more private ceremony.
Bill Young, Vice President of Revenue for Bonnet Springs Park, says one word that best describes the venue is flexible. He points to a gorgeous dock where parties could enjoy cocktails as an example of modern entertainment at its finest. He also notes there are 200-year old trees and a classic Florida foliage canopy over a long boardwalk that are a nod to “classic Florida.”
The wide open outdoor spaces, which can also be enjoyed from inside the venue through floor-to-ceiling windows, are vast and have a sense of symmetrical elegance with rows of budding trees, but also many of the region’s distinctive grasses.
“This is kind of an ethereal setting, but it’s still within the context of central Florida,” Young says.
When the first couple says “I do” at an actual ceremony within Bonnet Springs park, it will be an exhilarating moment preceded by daring dreams, lengthy delays and plenty of questions about the feasibility of pulling off what has turned into a $110 million investment.
It has been roughly seven years since Lakeland developers David Bunch and Bill Tinsley, a long-time director of the city’s parks, developed a vision alongside Barney and Carol Barnett, to revitalize an old, tired space into a delightful place that is accessible to the entire community with the purpose of being enjoyed by all.
“I think there were a lot of people who were skeptical about the fact that it would actually come to fruition,” Young said.
“There’s nothing like it in a lot of metropolitan areas, let alone in the state of Florida, and it’s a free experience (to enter the park) for people of all ages and demographics to come out and enjoy the space.”
Weddings are just one, albeit a very significant, part of what will make the Bonnett Springs experience memorable.
The park will also be home to Florida Children’s Museum — a new iteration of the amiable Explorations V Children’s Museum that has been downtown for more than 30 years — as well as the Harrell Family Greenhouse, Ruthven Family Playground, Kiwanis Cares For Kids Treehouse, and so much more.
For wedding parties, it will be a unique mix of one-of-a-kind celebrations being held alongside people going about their everyday lives – no different than many large city venues, but different than what Polk County has traditionally had to offer.
“Good behavior is really your ticket to admission here,” Young says. “We hope that those two kinds of guests could interact well — just your regular day visitors that are here to experience the environment or get some exercise, get some fresh air…with those here for a wedding or any other type of function.”
Weddings are all about the people, the place — and the details. As Shannon coordinated everything, from the flowers to the apparel to the table settings for The Lakelander photo shoot at Bonnet Springs, it served as a reminder of all of the pieces that fit together to make “the big day” the most special day.
Young, who has decades of experience in the restaurant and theme park industries, said the Bonnet Springs team is developing a premium standard of customer service, and they will highly recommend each wedding party have at least a wedding coordinator for their event, if not a full-blown wedding planner.
Bonnet Springs is working on a list of preferred vendors to provide soon-to-be bride and grooms options for vetted planners, floral providers, photographers, etc. But one place Young said Bonnet Springs is ensuring excellence is through its authorized caterers, which currently includes eight vendors with various price points and cuisines.
“When someone inquires about our space we say, ‘Here’s our list of approved folks who we’ve met with, who understand our expectations and we feel good about the quality they have delivered,’” he said. “We are a little more rigid with that because all of the guests are experiencing the food and the catering…but for some of the other stuff, we will be more flexible with specific vendors for your function, as long as they are a legitimate business and our license can insure them.”
During our mock wedding, we had some fun on the vendor’s side – asking the bartender to craft several Florida-centric cocktails and integrating a cake that blended right in with some of the traditional beautiful aesthetic of the Florida outdoors, greenery with splashes of bold color.
The venue can incorporate seating on the lawn, underneath the protection of a metal roof, or inside the large multi-use facility.
Bonnet Springs Park is also within a short drive to a number of highly-recommended hotels that can accommodate out-of-town guests.
The grand opening of the park in October means your wedding or the wedding of a friend or family member could soon be just a quick bike ride away from so many other Lakeland restaurants, businesses, sights and sounds. But what price point is Bonnett Springs at, and how can someone start the process of seeing what their own peek into the local “Secret Garden” might look like?
Young said they are not going to publicly release prices, in part because of how it can widely vary. He revealed it’s going to be competitive with the Orlando and Tampa markets, and “it’s going to be on a sliding scale that slides toward the weekend being the most expensive dates.”
He said that while a certain level of wedding on a Saturday evening at Bonnet Park may not be in a couple’s budget, that same level of wedding on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday may be affordable for them.
Revenue from events, such as weddings, will help offset the need for donations to make up for the park’s operating expenses.
Part of what gets Young most excited is that as time goes on, the park will not only grow more beautiful with more mature foliage and flowers, but his team will be able to incorporate new ideas and experiences based on ideas that customers ask them to bring to life.
Shannon concurs with that line of thinking.
“The flexibility of the space is just so incredible, and for photography the options are endless.”
Several weddings and other events have already been booked before the park’s grand opening, but Young said he anticipates really ramping up the marketing and accessibility of the venue in early 2023 when his team will have had a chance to develop best practices and know how to bring the best experiences to life for guests.
VENDORS WHO MADE THIS FEATURE POSSIBLE
Venue: Bonnet Springs | @bonnetspringspark
Planning & Design: Ashton Events | @ashtonevents
Florals: Bloom Shakalaka | @bloom.shakalaka
Photography: Dan Austin | @danaustinphoto
Photography: Rachael Osborn | @rachaelosbornphoto
Bar: Nineteen61 | @nineteen61
Paper Goods: Stationery Loft | @stationeryloftgifts
Catering: Millenia Catering: | @millenia_catering
Furniture Rentals: Vivant Rentals | @vivantrentals
Tabletop Rentals: Treasury Rentals | @treasuryrentals
Linens: Nüage Designs Inc | @nuagedesignsinc
Jewelry: International Diamond Center | @shopidc
Cake: Jaime Cakes | @jaimecakesfl
Gowns & Hair Accessories: Bridal by Crown | @bridalbycrown
Makeup: Beauty by Melissa | @melissakinsey
Men’s Attire: Marc Nelson Denim | @marcnelsondenim
Hair: Chelsea Mansfield Hair | @chelseamansfieldhair
Vintage Car: Tommy Thompson
Models: BMG Models | Conner Huseman, Megan Caban, Belinda Nicole Osego