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Citrus Tower

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

My first trip to Florida was in 1983. Last year, I pulled out my color slides from that trip, digitized them, and returned to the same spots at Walt Disney World for a series of “then and now” articles. (There are links at the end of this article.)

Walt Disney World wasn’t the only attraction I visited in 1983. Another was the Citrus Tower. I returned there too in 2011—my first visit since 1983. I paid for the elevator ride to the top and snapped “then and now” photos.

The Citrus Tower is still open for business, but oh how the view has changed in 28 years!

Werner Weiss, Curator of Yesterland, June 29, 2012


Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Seattle has the Space Needle. And Clermont, Florida has the Citrus Tower. Sure, the Citrus Tower is less famous than the other two—but it’s also much less crowded.

In 2011, I paid $4 (now $6) for the elevator ride to the top. I was loaned a spotting map, which I could have kept for an extra dollar. When the doors opened on the observation level, I discovered I was the only one there. I wanted to match two photos from 1983 with the same views in 2011.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

The enclosed observation deck

In 1983, I had a view of orange groves. This time, I had a view of suburbia. Seeing a Publix grocery store, fast food outlets, office buildings, and tract homes from twenty stories up may seem like big yawn, but I enjoyed it. It helped that it was a clear, sunny day.

There was also something rewarding about being in a historic landmark—although not an official, registered historic landmark. As an added bonus, display cases in the lobby are filled with early Citrus Tower souvenirs.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Spaceship Earth (left) and the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort (right)

On the horizon, I could make out some of the taller landmarks at Walt Disney World. Cinderella Castle blurred against Space Mountain, but Spaceship Earth and the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort were distinctly recognizable. There were numerous high-rise hotels that couldn’t identify. I wondered how the fireworks would look from up here.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Surprise! There’s still a citrus grove.

I also saw something that I didn’t expect to see: an actual citrus grove.

The other surprise was that the vaguely White House-like building next door, which had been there in 1983, was still there and still in business. It’s the Presidents Hall of Fame (although the sign in the front says “House of Presidents”), a museum of wax figures, miniatures, and memorabilia devoted to U.S. Presidents.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

The famous coin drop

A long-time feature of the tower is the coin drop. Writer Michael Browning described it particularly well in the Palm Beach Post on July 9, 2000:

The observation deck at the top is enclosed by glass and has a curious steel tube, which drops down the full height of the structure, and is equipped with two ear-tubes, one on either side. You’re supposed to drop a quarter in a slot, put your ear to the ear-tube, and listen to it fall, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, all 226 feet. The coin finishes up with a little bell-like chime at the bottom.

In 1983, I dropped a coin down the coin drop. I didn’t do so in 2011, but I was glad to see it was still there.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011 / Historic artwork from the collection of the Citrus Tower

Rendering of Citrus Tower, circa 1956, on display in the lobby

It must have seemed like a great idea for a tourist attraction in 1956.

It would be on U.S. Highway 27, Florida’s major north-south highway. (There was no I-75, I-4, I-95, or Florida Turnpike in Central Florida back then.) The location would be about halfway between the two top attractions in Central Florida—Cypress Gardens and Silver Springs. And by building on what passes for a hill in Florida, the top of the 223-foot tower might be the highest point in whole state.

The observation level at 425 feet above sea level would provide a 360-degree view of the gently rolling land covered with citrus groves and lakes, as far as the eye could see.

Citrus Tower

From the collection of Werner Weiss

Front of Citrus Tower brochure from 1983

In its early years, the Citrus Tower really was a great idea. Tourists on U.S. Highway 27 made it Central Florida’s third major attraction, joining Cypress Gardens and Silver Springs.

The tower’s fortunes began to decline in 1964 when the Florida Turnpike was extended north to Wildwood (between Ocala and Clermont). Tourists heading to Southern Florida had a new, fast route. Although, the Turnpike came within three miles of the Citrus Tower, for many tourists it might as well been a hundred miles away.

For some, however, the allure of the green citrus trees, their fragrant blossoms, and their brightly colored fruit was still enough to warrant a detour to the Citrus Tower.

Citrus Tower

From the collection of Werner Weiss

Map on the Citrus Tower brochure from 1983

In 1971, Walt Disney World opened. Magic Kingdom was a one-day park. Tourist attraction companies looked for opportunities to benefit from the surge of new visitors to Central Florida. In 1972, broadcaster Wometco, which also owned the Miami Seaquarium, purchased the Citrus Tower from the entrepreneurs who built it.

The 1980s would be particularly hard on the Citrus Tower. Disney guests no longer had to venture far to find things to do, especially after the opening of EPCOT Center (now Epcot) in 1982. Severe freezes, particularly those of December 1983 and January 1985, devastated the citrus groves of Central Florida. Visitors didn’t want to pay for a panoramic view of dead trees. Some growers replanted after each of the killing freezes, but the once-dominant citrus industry of Lake County, Florida was no longer viable.

Citrus Tower

From the collection of Werner Weiss

The back of the Citrus Tower 1983 brochure when completely unfolded

Wometco sold the languishing Citrus Tower to a group of Florida investors in 1986. A Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel article on December 15, 1986 reported, “Exterior paint on the 226-foot-high tower has cracked and peeled; pieces of the landmark’s decorative glass are missing or broken.” The same article explained the buyers “paid at least $1.4 million for the attraction, county records show, compared with the $1 million Wometco paid for the attraction in 1972.” Despite grand plans to revive the attraction, it continued to deteriorate. To make matters worse, another killing freeze in 1989 discouraged even the growers who had replanted their citrus after earlier freezes.

Ultimately there would be something even more devastating to the citrus groves than freezing temperatures: the growth of the Orlando metropolitan area, turning Clermont from a small citrus growing town into a thriving sea of homes, office parks, and retail centers.

In 1995, Clermont real estate entrepreneur Greg Homan—a former citrus grower—bought the tower for just $750,000. The tower finally received the maintenance it needed. I spoke with Homan recently. I asked if he enjoyed owning a Florida landmark.

“I absolutely love it,” he replied, quickly adding that’s not why he bought the tower. “I bought it because it was on 12 acres of prime property.” But the tower and its history grew on him. “It’s loved by the community. It’s Clermont’s claim to fame. I feel I’m just the caretaker.”

The final photos in this article are three pairs of “then and now” photos.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 1983

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

Citrus Tower in 1983 (top) and 2011 (bottom)

The most obvious change between 1983 and 2011 is that the tower’s signature orange stripe is gone. I asked Greg Homan about it.

“I wanted to be different,” Homan explained. “To me, orange represented citrus, but citrus was not here any longer.” The tower is about due to be painted again. This time Homan expects to bring back the orange stripe. It could happen as soon as this winter.

Another change is that the outside deck above the enclosed observation level is no longer open to visitors.

“I’ve got some satellite dishes; it’s now commercial lease space.” Homan added, “I can’t trust the population any longer,” citing people throwing things from the top.

I learned from Homan that, in addition to the elevator shaft and stairs, the tower has floors, just like any other tall building. The space is leased out to his radio tenants and communications clients. With those leases, electronic equipment for cellular communications mounted on the sides of the tower, transmission antennas on top, and satellite dishes on the former outside deck, I realized that the tower’s telecommunications role is probably much more important than its tourism role.

Still, around 12,000 to 15,000 people buy elevator tickets each year. And others come the gift shop and banquet facility at the tower’s base. So it’s not just a telecom tower.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 1983

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

U.S. Highway 27 in 1983 (top) and 2011 (bottom)

The photos above show the same view in 1983 and 2011. U.S. Highway 27 still serves Florida, entering the state north of Tallahasee and ending in Miami. Even in 1983, it was serving primarily local traffic, having long given up its long-distance traffic to the Interstates and the Turnpike. In some ways, driving on Highway 27 is like driving on Route 66. In some spots, you can be rewarded with the feeling that you’ve gone back to a different era.

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 1983

Citrus Tower

Photo by Werner Weiss, 2011

View to the east in 1983 (top) and 2011 (bottom)

At first glance, it’s hard to believe that the two photos above are the same view. The 1983 photo shows a tram ride under construction or renovation, with endless citrus orchards behind it.

The history of the tram ride is not well documented. A rare reference to the tram ride was in an Orlando Sentinel article (“Citrus Tower Offers More than a View” by Debbie Manis, June 25, 1988):

A tram ride recently was open to the public. The 20-minute ride takes you through a 4.5-acre grove behind the tower, filled with 30 varities of oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, lemons and limes. “The tram is educational—not just going around looking at trees,” said a spokeswoman for the tower.

One of the most interesting trees is the variety tree, “it’s the perfect tree for your back yard,” the tour guide explains. The tree bears six varieties of citrus—from lemons to oranges, he says. As the tour comes to end there are two apple trees amidst the citrus “just to remind Floridians of the difference between oranges and apples.”

Greg Homan could not provide more details. When he bought the facility in 1995, the track was there, but there was no tram ride.

If you look at the lower left corner of the 2011 photo, you’ll see that the tram station is still there. Only now it houses L V Jewelry and Anthony’s Barber Shop.

I hope to visit Clermont again next year. I’ll allow time not only for the Citrus Tower, but also for the Presidents Hall of Fame, the Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, Historic Downtown Clermont, and the Showcase of Citrus—which dooesn’t have a tram tour, but has a “Monster Truck Eco-Tour.”

To find Clermont, I’ll turn off my GPS and just look for a tall tower with a bright orange vertical stripe on each side.

 

The Citrus Tower has an official website: Citrus Tower

 

The view from the Citrus Tower isn’t the only thing that changed from 1983 to 2011:

 

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Updated March 29, 2013.