(Update: On April 5, Tavares City Council voted to approve negotiating a contract with the train operator and anticipates operations to begin by year's end. Routes will not include Orlando due to track's schedule.)
The community was left brokenhearted when its beloved excursion train, Orange Blossom Cannonball, departed the station for the last time. On Wednesday, the City of Tavares will have a chance to mend some of those hearts.
The city council will decide on April 5 whether to approve a proposal from Orlando Northwestern Railway LLC (ONR), a vintage train operator proposing weekend "Explorer" excursions connecting Tavares, Mount Dora and Eustis with adult ticket prices of $20.00.
The company will base its operations out of Tavares and also plans for two to four trips per month to Orlando for Magic games during the NBA season, plus trips to other Orlando sporting and special events with tickets costing an estimated $50.00 to $60.00. Those trips will depart from Tavares and take the western and southern route around Lake Dora.
Seasonal train experiences are also proposed that include a Polar Express Train, Dead Freight Haunted Train, Peanuts Great Pumpkin Patch Train, and a State Theater Wine & Cheese Train. Ticket prices for those trains will vary according to level of service.
"I hated to see the Orange Blossom Cannonball leave, but we turned lemons into lemonade," said Bob Tweedie, Economic Development Director for the City of Tavares. "We got really lucky. This is like no other train service the area has had."
ONR will have five coach cars ranging from 44 to 64 seats each, as well as a dining car and a dome coach car offering expansive views. All cars will be air-conditioned.
The train operator is owned by Mid America Railcar Leasing, a company built around its fleet of well-maintained vintage Amtrak passenger cars. Neil Baugus, long associated with the area's vintage excursion trains, will be managing the operation for ONR, according to Tweedie.
The projected first full year of ridership for the Lake Dora and Lake Eustis "Explorer" trains is 15,000 passengers.
If the city accepts the proposal, the operator will formalize an agreement with Florida Central Railroad, the owner of the tracks.
Carb junkies began clamoring to get their local fix immediately after rumors began swirling Panera Bread was coming to the area. Well, they won’t have to wait much longer to get their mitts on fresh croissants, warm chocolate chip cookies or crusty loaves of artisan bread.
The national bakery-cafe chain anticipates a mid June opening for its Eustis location on U.S. 441 across from Target.
The 4,783 square-foot cafe will feature a big selection of salads, sandwiches, soups and breakfast sandwiches. Libations include crafted coffees, an assortment of teas, and frozen beverages. The location will also have a convenient drive-thru.
The Eustis Panera Bread is owned by Covelli Family Limited Partnership, part of Covelli Enterprises headquartered in Warren, Ohio. The company is the largest Panera Bread franchisee with over 200 locations.
The hiring process for the approximately 90 employees needed for the Eustis cafe has already begun. Anyone interested in applying for a position can do so online at www.panerapeople.com.
The company’s journey began in 1987 as Au Bon Pain, a bakery-cafe. In 1993, the company purchased a chain of bakery-cafes in greater St. Louis and later renamed those locations “Panera Bread.” In 1999, the Au Bon Pain locations were sold so the company could focus on the success of Panera Bread. Today, there are over 2,000 Panera Bread locations nationwide.
Local bookworms went into mourning earlier this year when Mount Dora's bookstore, Barrel of Books & Games, announced it would close in the coming months. Today, a collective sigh of relief could be heard when it was announced the store would remain open.
"I've decided after letting it sink in for a few months, that I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I didn't have my bookstore," said Crissy Stiles, the store’s owner.
The independent book retailer opened over five years ago and quickly developed a loyal customer base for new and used books. The decision to remain open means customers can once again trade in their used books for store credit.
Stiles currently works in the store seven days a week, however her renewed commitment to Barrel of Books and Games now includes balancing it with her home life. As a result, the store’s hours will be reduced to five days a week. Beginning in April, the store will be closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
The new store hours will be Wednesdays through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m and Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The store is located at 128 W. 4th Avenue, downtown Mount Dora.
Wawa, a national convenience store and gas station chain, is slated to replace the small Shell station on the corner of U.S. 441 and Morningside Drive near Lake Gertrude. The chain has gained popularity for its variety of fresh food options.
Wawa, which requires a significantly larger footprint than the existing gas station, would also require the wooded parcel of land behind it.
On March 7, Mount Dora City Council began the process of annexing that approximately 1.25 acre property. That will be followed by a rezoning process from county residential to the city commercial zoning. Once the processes are complete, site preparation could begin later this year.
Wawa has over 730 locations in the eastern part of the U.S. with approximately 500 of those also providing gasoline. Wawa opened its first store in Florida in 2012 and now has over 100 locations in the Sunshine State.
The local strawberry season is still in full swing and is expected to continue through mid-March or early-April.
Oak Haven Farms & Winery, a family-owned U-Pick strawberry farm in Sorrento, has seven acres of their twenty-acre farm available for picking. Priced at $2.90 a pound, visitors can pick rows of berries, then head inside where fresh strawberry milkshakes and shortcake are made on weekends.
Karen & Harry Stauderman, along with their daughter Lynn, have owned the farm and for over twenty years. Strawberries have been a staple of the farm, and seven years a vineyard was added for making sweet local wines.
The farm is family-friendly and features a free obstacle course, playground, short zip line, as well as a hayride on weekends.
Visitors should call the farm in advance for the U-pick schedule due to varying availability. Oak Haven Farms is located at 32418 Avington Road in Sorrento. Weekend hours are Saturday 9-5 and Sunday 11-5. Phone 352-735-1996.