Before there was Disney, there was McKee Jungle Garden in Vero Beach, a magical roadside attraction featuring exotic tropical flowers that drew 100,000 visitors a year in the 1940s.
Today few outside its Vero Beach home know about McKee, and if you haven’t visited, you’re missing out on spectacular beauty.
McKee Botanical Garden preserves some wonderful Old Florida elements from its history in an exquisite setting that presents fresh beauty at every turn.
It features one of the biggest outdoor displays of water lilies in the United States, with lilies blooming in lagoons, streams and around waterfalls on paths that wind through the jungly property festooned with orchids. McKee’s collection of waterlilies includes more than 80 varieties with more than 300 potted and 100 free-range plants, including night-blooming and day-blooming varieties.
The newly completed Children’s Garden is a delight for all ages. Adults will wish they were kids who can clamber down the rope-mesh slide from the pirate ship and splash in the fountains.
One thing that delighted me was all the history preserved here. McKee was founded in 1928, closed in 1976, and then reopened in 2002. Reviving and now improving the garden has been a Vero Beach community project.
Six things to see when you visit McKee Botanical Garden
- The Hall of Giants. Vero Beach’s eccentric genius, Waldo E. Sexton, who founded what he called McKee Jungle Garden with business partner Arthur McKee, designed this building because he fell in love with a table. The huge mahogany table – a single slab 35 feet long and 10 feet wide – is the centerpiece of this historic cypress and heartwood pine building designed to be a Polynesian ceremonial palace. Sexton first saw the table in 1903 at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition. He tracked it down nearly 20 years later to the basement of a New York City warehouse and shipped it by boat to Vero Beach.
2. The Stone Bridge. The graceful bridge overlooking the water lily ponds has been the setting of thousands of group photos over the years. But when the garden reopened in 2002 after many years of neglect, it was so overgrown with vines and invasive Brazilian peppers that nobody knew the bridge was there. It was discovered when a worker hacking in the brush hit the stone bridge with a machete.
3. The waterfalls. There are several waterfalls along the water maze and ponds, which are fed by wells. All are manmade, lined with sand, rubber, metal mesh and concrete. Some 800,000 gallons of water circulate around the waterways several times a day. Look in the water for small fish – they are all native varieties introduced to replace an exotic species that once dominated the waterways.
4. The stickwork structure. Called Grand Central, a structure woven out of willow reeds twists and arches through a grove of royal palms forming rooms and spaces to explore. Internationally acclaimed artist Patrick Dougherty and his son Sam designed and built by hand this artwork with the help of a few dozen McKee volunteers. Dougherty designed a previous stickwork creation at McKee that succumbed to a hurricane after two and a half years. These organic sculptures are made of natural materials designed to break down eventually, and thus are meant to be temporary.
5. The pirate ship in the Children’s Garden. When we visited, a graying grandma climbed up the stairs to explore the ship, explaining to me: “We’re all still kids.” The ship, which looks like it is marooned in a tree, is one of more than a half dozen spaces that beckon to children. The Children’s Garden opened in 2020, designed by landscape architect Emmanuel Didier. Its mission to “create a fun and whimsical outdoor destination that inspires imagination and curiosity in children.” Indeed, I immediately started figuring out how soon I could bring my granddaughter here.
6. The giant cypress tree trunk. It’s easy to miss this because it’s in the parking lot, but I love this story. There’s a massive cypress tree trunk, said to be 2,000 years old, that was moved from elsewhere in Florida to be part of the original McKee Jungle Garden in the 1930s. It’s hard to imagine “losing” such a colossal thing, but during the years when the garden was closed, it became so overgrown that it had to be rediscovered.
The story behind McKee Botanical Garden
When Waldo E. Sexton and business partner Arthur McKee bought this property, their plan was to clear it for citrus groves. Thankfully, they realized this place was too beautiful to plow under.
Instead, Sexton, the man behind the fanciful Driftwood Inn on the beach in Vero Beach, 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.
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 Botanical Garden is 18 acres – a quarter the size of Fairchild Botanical Garden in Miami, for example – and takes perhaps two hours to tour thoroughly. But it packs tremendous beauty into that space and as you explore, you can’t help but be inspired that it has been preserved and is now lovelier and more interesting than ever.2022-7-21-McKee-Garden-map
Map of McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach
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.
There is a café open at lunch the serves quiche, salads, wraps and items for children.
McKee Botantical Garden special event: Water Lily Celebration, June 15, 2024
In June, the waterlilies are in full bloom and McKee Botanical Garden celebrates the event. On the day of the festival, the gardens open 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 close up in the sunshine. (It’s also great to wander the gardens before the day heats up.)
A few years ago when we visited, the water lily event occurred on a cloudy day and the night-blooming lilies stayed open until late morning. Once those lilies closed, however, there were still plenty of water lilies to admire, as there are year round.
The lilies come in a splendid range of vivid colors and the lily pads are just as interesting – some three feet across; some with scalloped edges and various textures.
More things to do near McKee Botanical Garden
- Florida Rambler on things to do in Vero Beach
- Florida Rambler on Driftwood Inn Vero Beach, funky historic hotel
- 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.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.