MISSION & HISTORY
The Magic of McKee
The History of McKee
McKee Jungle Gardens was the vision of land developers Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton, who purchased the 80-acre tropical hammock in 1922 with the intention of cultivating citrus. The property’s natural beauty was deemed too special in its native state to disturb so McKee and Sexton identified a new purpose for the land. The two land developers employed landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, from the esteemed firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, to design the basic infrastructure of streams, ponds and trails while they focused their efforts on assembling one of the most outstanding collections of waterlilies and orchids – augmenting native vegetation with ornamental plants and exotic specimens from around the world. By the 1940’s, more than 100,000 tourists were visiting the Gardens each year, deeming it one of Florida’s earliest and most popular natural attractions. The Garden’s award-winning orchid collection, unusual fly-trapping pelican flowers and exotic wildlife captivated visitors.
As central Florida developed in the 1970s, attendance at the Gardens waned and the family owned establishment was unable to compete with the lure of far bigger tourist attractions in central and south Florida. McKee Jungle Gardens closed in 1976 and was sold to condominium developers. All but 18 acres were developed. These 18 acres, once the heart of McKee Jungle Gardens, lay dormant for 20 years.
A group of community visionaries understood the imperative of preserving these 18-acres and in 1994, with the help of The Trust for Public Land, launched a fund-raising campaign to buy the land from the developer who was finalizing plans for a shopping center. With bare hands, basic tools and unimaginable heart, volunteers of every age cleared the trails to reveal once again the jungle’s treasures. This community effort touched so many that even a young girl gave her weekly allowance to help rescue the Gardens. November 18, 2001 marked the formal dedication of the saved, restored and newly named McKee Botanical Garden.
Today, McKee Botanical Garden remains true to Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton’s vision. There are over 10,000 native and tropical plants to behold and one of Florida’s largest and most celebrated collections of water lilies. Several restored architectural treasures such as The Hall of Giants and Spanish Kitchen have been meticulously restored to Sexton’s original vision.
More than just a destination for horticultural enthusiasts, McKee now hosts internationally renowned exhibits such as the Return of Dinosaurs, or sculpture exhibits by Hans Godo Frabel and Seward Johnson. Members and visitors enjoy a wide variety of cultural and educational programs, with particular emphasis on exciting the wonder and imaginations of children.
In January 2020, McKee unveiled its most ambitious undertaking: the new Children’s Garden. Designed by landscape architect Emmanuel Didier, the mission of the Children’s Garden is to create a fun and whimsical outdoor destination that inspires imagination and curiosity in children through interaction, education and exploration, nurturing a powerful bond between families and children and nature.
Now a Florida Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic places, and recognized by the Garden Conservancy as a preservation project of national significance, McKee Botanical Garden is, as its founders envisioned, a wild place of natural beauty.
We invite you to experience the extraordinary beauty of McKee Botanical Garden.