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Fun day exploring the Historic Downtown Square in Ocala, Florida

Florida

Ocala and Marion County: Arts and Culture in Florida’s Horse Country

By: Christi Womack

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  • States:
    Florida

In the center of the Sunshine State, discover an area known as The Horse Capital of the World™, where visitors can enjoy a range of cultural offerings.

Tucked inside Ocala/Marion County, a region flush with sprawling horse farms, natural springs and a national forest, you’ll also find artwork and historic artifacts illustrating local history and culture amid nature. Visit landmarks, browse museums and watch talented performers at several venues. You’ll be surprised, enlightened and entertained in this pastoral setting full of small-town delights.

Ocala Cultural Attractions, Past and Present

Begin with an introduction to the area’s roots at the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology, where items like photos, pottery and arrowheads cover 13,000 years of local history. Stop to peruse the library, sit in on a lecture and stretch your legs on the McPherson Fitness Trail that loops the grounds.

Pick up the pace at the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, where you can see nearly 300 cars, tour the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and learn all about “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, considered the father of drag racing. Want to meet Garlits? Arrange in advance for a behind-the-scenes tour; don’t forget to ask him for an autograph and to pose for a selfie along the way. He tends to oblige.

A third stop takes you to the Italian travertine marble-covered Appleton Museum of Art, which houses about 18,000 objects of fine art and artifact collections as well as rotating exhibits. Among the treasures are works by Florida artists that depict the history of the region and an art library. After exploring the exhibits, take some time to reflect in the serene courtyard and the picturesque grounds of this former thoroughbred horse farm.

Viewing fine art inside the Appleton Museum of Art

Viewing fine art inside the Appleton Museum of Art
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Take Advantage of the Natural Setting

One of the crown jewels of the region is Silver Springs State Park, where for more than 100 years visitors have hiked trails and cruised on glass-bottom boats over the crystal-clear water. Plan to visit on a weekend or holiday to go inside the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center for its Florida history displays. Stroll the grounds, see the 1800s pioneer village and one-room schoolhouse, and peruse research library items.

There’s more local history at Fort King. A U.S. Army fort built atop a hill in 1827, it was attacked by the Seminole Indians in 1835 at the beginning of the seven-year Second Seminole War. A rebuilt version of the fort previously served as Marion County’s first courthouse. Today, interpretive trails, a freshwater spring and picnic spots surround the National Historic Landmark. Listen to audio narration while exploring the fort replica and grounds, and see artifacts in the Visitors Center.

For local arts, admire the massive sculptures, some permanent and some on loan as part of a sculpture competition, on the west side of Tuscawilla Art Park, located five blocks from Ocala’s Historic Downtown Square. Among the steel, concrete and metal pieces that have been displayed include a space capsule monument to astronaut John Glenn, a dancer in an arabesque pose and boats seemingly ready to launch. View more public art at the Discovery Center and Citizens’ Circle.

Installation of large-scale sculptures at Tuscawilla Art Park

Installation of large-scale sculptures at Tuscawilla Art Park
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Exciting Performances on Local Stages

Performing arts are equally celebrated in the destination. See high-quality shows year-round at the Ocala Civic Theatre near the Appleton Museum. About a dozen live productions a year – ranging from serious dramas to carefree musicals – are staged in the intimate theater. Treat your ears to concerts by the Ocala Symphony Orchestra at the Reilly Arts Center on the north side of Tuscawilla Park. The orchestra, sometimes joined by a chorus for special events, gives more than a dozen performances a year at the arts hub. Check out the Reilly’s calendar for other theater and music programs in a variety of genres. Across town at the Circle Square Cultural Center, catch shows by top-notch entertainers, from classic singers and comedians to traveling tribute bands.

Theater and music programs staged at the Reilly Arts Center

Theater and music programs staged at the Reilly Arts Center
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Getting There

As the northernmost county in Central Florida, travelers can reach Ocala/Marion County by a two-hour or less commute from international airports in Jacksonville (JAX), Tampa (TPA) and Orlando (MCO and SFB).