About Michael Freeman

Michael W. Freeman is a veteran journalist, playwright and author. Born and raised in Fall River, Massachusetts, he has lived in Orlando since 2002. Michael has worked for some of Florida's largest newspapers, including The Orlando Sentinel. His original plays have draw strong audiences at the Orlando Fringe Festival. He is the author of the novels "Bloody Rabbit" and "Koby's New Home."

Holiday Gala helps raise funds for special children, the director says.

LOUGHMAN – There are folks who just can’t contain their excitement when they go to a major theme park like Disney, and act like they’re reliving their childhood all over again.

Then there’s the ones who save up all year to take a theme park vacation, and spend the entire time complaining about the long lines, crowding parking, and ticket prices.

For Rich Mergo, watching one young boy visit Disney recently turned out to an experience he’ll never forget. The boy couldn’t have been happier at the theme park.

“He was the happiest he could be,” Mergo said. “It was great to see him smiling and having fun.” 

Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation's Dream Village, says their recent holiday gala raised more than $30,000 to help children.

The boy had come to Central Florida to visit the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, where Mergo is the director of development. The Sunshine Foundation is a charitable organization that answers the dreams and wishes of chronically ill, disabled and abused children. This one young boy, though, left a very strong impression on Mergo.

“This little boy was really special,” he said. “He had come down with swine flu, and had both legs amputated on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, he’s been dealing with the depression and trauma of what he went through.”

The boy’s family brought him to Dream Village in the hope that a trip to the local theme parks would allow him to forget, however briefly, the agonizing medical challenges he was facing. And it seemed to work perfectly, Mergo. He was no longer a physically challenged child coping with a tough medical condition, but an excited boy ready to have fun.

“Everyone treated him like a normal kid,” Mergo said. “We let him ride every roller coaster there was. Some theme parks won’t let kids with prosthetics go on roller coasters, but this time they did. And it was great to see him so happy.”

The Dream’s Village recently held its first formal Holiday Gala on Dec. 4 at the Reunion Resort & Club, an event that Mergo said proved to be quite festive, with live and silent auctions for items that included an XBOX 360 with Kinect, round trip airfare on SouthWest Airlines and AirTran Airways, a ride for four people on the GoodYear Blimp, and dinner for two with a Limo ride and tickets to the upcoming Brad Paisley concert at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

It was also a fund-raising event for the non-profit agency, with a special Dream Auction that raised $5,000. That amount, Mergo said, was “enough to answer a dream” of another child hoping to visit Disney.

“There were 70-plus auction items, and overall we raised a little over $30,000,” Mergo said. “It was a great first step for us.”

He offered a special thanks to “all the volunteers that helped plan and run the gala. Without their help, this event would not have been possible. It was challenging  …  and turned out really nice.”

The event was attended by several members of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, including Mary Ellen Kerber, who manages the Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. Kerber said the gala gave the guests a truly unique opportunity to meet some of the children being helped by Dream Village. Anyone who attended the gala and took part in the auction, she added, knew their support was going to a great cause.

“It really touched our hearts that night,” she said.

Mergo said the “number one dream of the children we serve is to visit the Central Florida theme parks,” and that the folks who supported the gala also helped those kids.

“Since opening 20 years ago, the Dream Village has welcomed over 20,000 special children,” Mergo said.

For more information on the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village and its future events, email Mergo at rich@sunshinefoundation.org, call 800-457-1976, or log on to www.sunshinefoundation.org.

Business leaders question the message, delivery behind two sales tax defeats.

CHAMPIONSGATE – For municipal leaders in Osceola and Polk counties, it all seemed to make perfect sense: create a special taxing system to help fund much-needed road improvements and to expand mass ransportation to help people find jobs.

There was just one challenge: county leaders were asking voters to approve ballot referendums to raise taxes for these projects. With the economy still struggling and the unemployment rate stubbornly high, voters in both counties solidly defeated the two referendums, sending elected officials back to the drawing board. Where they go from here is still an open question. 

Cars and trucks zip along U.S. 27 in Polk County, but don't expect to see buses anytime soon in this area near Davenport and ChampionsGate.

Doug Guetzloe, leader of the grassroots anti-tax group Ax the Tax, noted that a third ballot referendum to raise taxes for a rail project also lost in Hillsborogh County, making it three in a row. Ax the Tax was involved in fighting all three referendums, Guetzloe said. 

“We did some direct mail and some robo calls down there in Polk,” he said. “We figured it would go down anyway, but we helped add to that.”

The Polk County referendum would have imposed a half-cent sales surtax to create a single mass transit system that would serve the entire county. It lost solidly, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Tom Harris, a member of the Polk County School Board, said it was proposed because bus systems exist in cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, but do not reach out to more rural parts of Polk County.

“There’s not a countywide bus system, so it’s real difficult for people in remote areas to get around,” he said.

Creating a bus route that serves all of Polk County, he said, would make it easier for residents to find jobs, regardless of where they live.

“If you solve the transportation issue, you can help solve the economic issue,” Harris said.

Polk County leaders also pushed the referendum because the county’s mass transit systems are now funded by the federal government. But solid population growth in Polk County over the past decade means Polk is now classified by the federal government as an urban county, while the federal transportation funding it gets are intended for smaller, more rural counties.

Harris said Polk’s municipal leaders are looking at the possibility of putting the issue back on the ballot in 2012.

“There is a conversation in Polk County on addressing it two years from now,” he said.

But Guetzloe said the defeat of all three measures should send a pretty loud signal to county commissioners that voters already feel taxed enough and don’t have faith in these proposals.

“Look at Osceola County,” Guetzloe said. “They lost. In Osceola, it was 72 percent again. We had an active Ax the Tax effort down there, too.” 

Doug Guetzloe says Ax the Tax delivered the right message: No new taxes!

Sonny Buoncervello, a Realtor in the Celebration area, said Osceola leaders didn’t get the message out that if voters raised their sales tax, tourists would pay a good share of the tax hike, and that the road improvements are desperately needed.  He noted that the business community actively campaigned against a statewide referendum, Amendment 4, which would have required voter approval before land use plans could be altered to allow more commercial development. Amendment 4 lost statewide in a landslide.

But business leaders were not as vocal in supporting the Osceola road tax, Buoncervello said.

“Amendment 4 had a lot of exposure, and we all knew to vote against it,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a strong enough effort to get the average voter to understand  (the Osceola tax hike referendum). You really had to get into people’s psyches to explain it. I don’t know if we really educated the public that tourists would pay a large share of the tax.”

Gene Terrico is the manager of Street Outdoor-Osceola County, a program founded with the West 192 BeautiVacation Project to address advertising needs along West U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Walt Disney World to Kissimmee. He said while road improvements are needed in Osceola County, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been worse.

“It was a bad year for a tax,” he said. “No new taxes, it’s a one liner that works. It’s awkward, because I’m not sure there was a listening side to the message. People were just not interested, and that’s the day we live in now.”

Harris said a new law prohibiting elected officials from spending money to promote or defeat a ballot referendum has made it more difficult for county leaders to get out the message about how the tax hike would help the community. That means they have to rely more on private sector supporters to get the message out.

“Legislatively, the landscape has changed,” Harris said. “It kind of ties our hands.”

In a sea of active theme parks, Bok Tower Gardens is a quiet oasis.

LAKE WALES – Having the designation of being the best at something – or, in this case, the tallest in your field – can be great for business if that reputation draws people to your site.

But even Cassie Jacoby is the first to admit it isn’t quite true.

“It’s not the highest, but it’s close,” Jacoby said. “But I hope people don’t come just for that.” 

In Central Florida, tourism is king, and the leading theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World are constantly looking for something new to draw in visitors. At the same time, new theme parks are still getting built here – the Wizardening World of Harry Potter opened to long lines last June, and Legoland Florida opens in Winter Haven next fall.

Bok Tower Gardens, though, is happy to stay just as it is. Billed more for its quiet solitude than for thrill rides, Bok Towers is for those who enjoy getting back to nature.

“You can actually come here and pick a piece of fruit and eat it,” said Jacoby, Bok Towers’ director of communications. “We let it fall naturally for the animals. Our president says as long as you don’t back up a truck and fill it, it’s okay.”

A National Historic Landmark that was voted Florida’s Best Garden by readers of Florida Monthly magazine, Bok Towers Garden is at 1151 Tower Boulevard in Lake Wales. It offers nature walks, landscaped gardens, history, music concerts, special events … and the Singing Tower Carillon. Philadelphia architect Milton B. Medary designed the original 205-foot carillon tower, which holds inside it bells ranging in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. Brief recorded carillon music fills the gardens every 30 minutes, and there are daily concerts at 1 and 3 p.m.

It is, as Jacoby noted, a quiet oasis in a region that’s seen its share of rapid development in the past decade, where so many miles of citrus groves got plowed over to make room for new residential or commercial subdivisions.

There was so much development going on during the building boom between 2004 and 2006 that the region even got a nickname: Orlampa, suggesting that the area between Orlando and Tampa had virtually merged into being one large suburb.

At Bok Towers, though, the view from 205 feet up is spectacular – and hardly looks like an urban building in the midst of a bustling city. The tower is surrounded by acres of ferns, palms, oaks and pines – flowering foliage rather than newly built subdivisions.

“People are so surprised – especially the Brits who come to Four Corners – that we have rolling hills with citrus groves,” Jacoby said. 

Cassie Jacoby, the director of communications at Bok Tower Gardens, says local residents are surprised at how tranquil the location is.

Started in 1927 and dedicated on Feb. 1, 1929, the Singing Tower was crafted from natural materials of Georgia marble, Florida coquina stone and brick.

You can become a member of the Bok Tower Club, which includes six additional guest visits per year, and private guided Tower tours for up to six people. But it’s not inexpensive: it costs $1,000 per person.

Bok Towers Garden continues to host special events that are much more affordable. In October, it was the Boktoberfest Plant Sale featuring German food, craft beers, tree climbing and a Pumpkin Patch for kids. On Nov. 6, it was the 9th annual Sunset & Symphony Concert with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. This month, it’s the Christmas at Pinewood Holiday Home Tour, where designers have decked the halls of the 20-room, 1930s Pinewood Estate with holiday decorations.  

Bok Tower Gardens celebrate the holiday season with this Nativity scene at the Visitor's Center.

“It’s not your grandmother’s Bok Tower anymore,” Jacoby said. “We had 8,200 people here for the Boktoberfest plant sale. It was an opportunity for people to be able to enjoy the towers from a different perspective.”

The Singing Tower has been a part of a lengthy restoration project. Although built to weather all the elements, rust has corroded the steel structure that supports the massive colored tile grilles surrounding the carillon. The eight cast iron grilles are 35 feet tall, ten feet wide and about six inches thick. Work on two of the eight grille panels on the northeast and east sides is part of a pilot restoration project that’s going to help determine how the work on the other six grilles will be handled in future years.

Despite that, “It still looks brand new,” Jacoby said.

The tower was the brainchild of Edward W. Bok, editor of the Ladies Home Journal, who grew up in the Netherlands and was charmed by the majesty of old world carillons in Europe and decided a similar Singing Tower would be perfect for the gardens. The view from the top is incredible, and looks like you’re surrounded by paradise — and are so high up that you could almost reach out and touch Heaven.

That’s appropriate, because the repousee panels on the entrance Door contain the story of Genesis.

“This has the Biblical story of Creation on it,” Jacoby said. “It’s 1,000 pounds. Mr. Bok wanted it to be for all religions, and not any particular one.” 

The brass door of the Singing Tower is surrounded by peace and serenity.

Panels one through six show the Creation of Heaven and Earth — “The Earth without form and void. The cloud is used here as the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. Dividing the light from the Darkness. The could is used as the symbol of Jehovah.”

Other panels show the Separation of Land and Water, Creation of Trees and Fruit, Creation of Light, Creation of Birds and Fishes, Creation of Animals, and finally, in palnels 27 through 30, the story of the Garden of Eden.

The tower also even includes a plaque dedicated to Bok’s favorite saying, the one he lived by.

“ ‘Make the world a better place’ – that’s our motto here,” Jacoby said.

Inside, the property is a marvel to behold.

“It’s really kept very private for our members,” Jacoby said. “It’s neo-Gothic and Art Deco. I don’t know if there’s another building with that. There’s only four in Florida like it, and we’re considered the greatest in the world.”

The carillon is on Level Seven, the highest, with the carillonneur’s studio one level below it and the Anton Brees Carillon Library on Level Five.

“We have an archive, also,” Jacoby said. “Carillon students come and study here.”

Bok Towers is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission is $10 for adults and $3 for ages 5-12.

Members of Bok Tower gardens and children under 5 are admitted free.

“We’re just still the best kept secret,” Jacoby said. “We’re off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.”  

To learn more, call 863-676-1408 or log on to www.boktowergardens.org.

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