Vero Beach’s McKee Garden preserves vintage roadside attraction
VERO BEACH — Before there was Disney, there was McKee Jungle Garden in Vero Beach, a magical roadside attraction featuring exotic tropical flowers and animals that drew 100,000 visitors a year in the 1940s.
Today, only a corner of the once large garden has been saved. And while June is a steamy time to visit the gardens, that’s when water lilies bloom and McKee Botanical Garden has one of the largest outdoor collections of water lilies in the United States.
Vero Beach’s eccentric genius, Waldo E. Sexton, founded what he called McKee Jungle Garden with business partner Arthur McKee because they realized the property they bought to turn into citrus groves was too beautiful to plow under. Instead, Sexton brought in well-known landscape architect William Lyman Phillips to design a series of ponds and waterfalls and vistas. Good friend David Fairchild (of Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Miami) supplied exotic plants. And soon, newly mobile Americans driving down U.S. 1 to South Florida were stopping and visiting McKee Garden by the thousands.
Sexton, also the man behind the fanciful Driftwood Inn on the beach in Vero Beach, built a cypress-and-pine-log structure designed to be a Polynesian ceremonial palace. In it, he placed a huge table made out of a single 35-foot piece of mahogany. The Hall of Giants, as it is called, is a highlight of any visit to McKee Botanical Garden today.
Like most mid-century roadside attractions, McKee Garden could not compete with the likes of Disney. With freeways, few drove by its gates and in 1976, McKee Garden closed.
Most of the land became condos and golf courses. A mere 18 acres, including the historic McKee Garden Hall of Giants, lay dormant until a citizen campaign in the 1990s succeeded in raising money and purchasing it.
Since then, McKee Botanical Garden has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and devoted Vero Beach donors and volunteers have helped preserve, restore and replant.
McKee Garden isn’t large. It takes about 45 minutes to tour it– thoroughly. But its beauty is great and its story inspiring, so if you are visiting Vero Beach, McKee Garden makes a nice short stop.
Annual event Saturday, June 17: Water Lily Celebration
As the garden’s lilies come into full bloom, McKee Botanical Garden annually hosts a celebration. To allow visitors to view and learn more about the collection, gates open early at 8:30 a.m., allowing visitors a rare opportunity to enjoy an early morning self-guided stroll through the garden to view night-blooming specimens before they retreat.
The event includes talks and demonstrations as well a plant sale and the annual water lily photo contest. Plant experts will also be on site to answer questions.
Visiting McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach
Admission to McKee Botanical Garden in the summer is $10 for adults and $5 for children 3 to 12. From Oct. 31 to April 30, admission is $12 adults and $5 children.
McKee Botanical Garden is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and Sundays noon to 5 p.m. McKee Botanical Garden is closed Mondays and major holidays.
Find more information on the website for McKee Botanical Gardens.
More things to do in Vero Beach:
- Nearby is the UDT Navy Seal Museum.
- Explore Hutchinson Island.
- Stop at Archie’s, a classic beach bar and burger joint.
- Visit the McLarty Treasure Museum, with artifacts recovered from the shipwrecked Spanish Plate Fleet of 1715.