Some might say the Florida Citrus Tower is an early roadside attraction that’s sadly lost its purpose and relevance. And they would be correct – for the most part.
Ask anyone if they know where the city of Clermont is on the map and you’ll likely get a bewildered look. But say the name “Citrus Tower” and they might respond, “Oh yeah. I’ve heard of that.” Or, “I went up in that as a kid years ago.”
The Florida Citrus Tower is Clermont’s claim to fame. The brainchild of A.W. Thacker and Jack Toole, it opened on one of the town’s hilltops in 1956 as a tribute to the region’s citrus industry. From the observation deck, visitors were awed by the 360-degree views of the area and the bountiful supply of orange groves below.
In the years that followed World War II and before the development of Florida’s interstate system, U.S. Highway 27 was the main north to south route for vacationers desperate for sunshine. Attractions like Silver Springs north in Ocala and Cypress Gardens south near Winter Haven were already popular and a few miles off the highway.
The Citrus Tower became the third “must-see” stop along U.S. Highway 27. During the early years, the parking lot was always packed. Up to 500,000 visitors a year took the elevator ride up to the top of the 226-foot-tall building.
But in 1964, the Florida Turnpike was extended north providing a faster route through the center part of the state. Tourists started bypassing Clermont and the Citrus Tower. Attendance started to decline.
Perhaps the biggest blow came in the 1980s when a series of hard freezes severely damaged or killed many of the citrus groves. Growers were forced to move further south.
As the citrus industry continued to fade from the landscape, property around the once-proud tower fell into the hands of developers and the crowning jewel of Clermont became a relic.
Ownership changed many times over the years and small things were done to try to boost attendance – like adding a tram tour through the tiny orange grove behind the tower. The minor improvements were informative, but not enough to boost numbers and revenue.
When visitors stop in today, they’re greeted by an attraction that’s a shadow of its former self. The once massive parking lot that was always full during the late 1950s has been taken over by retail and office space. All that’s left is the tower, which was given a fresh coat of paint in 2015, and the building’s lobby that houses a gift shop, a meeting room and a few offices.
A ride to the top costs $6. The view remains spectacular. Out one set of windows, you can clearly see the Orlando skyline in the distance. Glistening lakes dominate the view looking westward. And if you squint real hard, you might be able to make out Walt Disney World.
Reality starts to hit when you look at the old black and white framed photographs posted on the support columns. Each one shows directional views from when the tower first opened. Miles and miles of orange groves have given way to commercial and residential development.
To the north, a Publix grocery store and shopping center. To the south, houses and subdivisions. Not an orange grove in sight.
What was built as a tribute to Florida agriculture is still scenic and educational in a different way. It shows what the region has become post-Disney. All of the change hasn’t been for the better. I would take hillsides covered in trees any day over another generic strip mall.
But that’s not the destiny the people of Clermont and this state have chosen.
Taking a ride to the top of the Florida Citrus Tower is the best history lesson there could possibly be. It’s still a relevant roadside attraction – just with a different purpose of reminding us what we once were and who we are now.