Last updated on July 30th, 2020 at 07:13 pm

Group of water lilies at McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
Group of water lilies at McKee Botanical Garden, Vero Beach. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

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.

Mahogoney table at Hall of Giants at McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
The mahogany table in the Hall of Giants at McKee Botanical Garden is the world’s largest table made of a single piece of wood. It’s 35 feet long. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

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.

Water lily at McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach specializes in water lilies. (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

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 a 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.

Water lily pond at McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
Water lily pond at McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach.  (Photo by Bonnie Gross)

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 in June: Water Lily Celebration 

As the garden’s lilies come into full bloom in June, 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.

Read more about the event.

The historic buildings at McKee Botanical Gardens, Vero Beach
The historic buildings at McKee Botanical Garden (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visiting McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach

350 US Highway 1
Vero Beach, FL 32962

Admission to McKee Botanical Garden is $15 adults and $10 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.

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