Highway 50 Revisited (Part One)
by Dave Mitchell
In the days before the superhighways, the Numbered Routes were the main tourist thoroughfares as well as the main commercial routes. 441, 27, 92, 17 all led to the pre-behemoth tourist centers, and were strewn with little one-note stops along the way, mainly to take advantage of the need for relief from aching bladders and screaming kids. Your ultimate destination may have been Six Gun Territory or Florida Wonderland, but half an hour at See The Walking Catfish would let the kids wind down and the folks defuse.
State Road 50 is one of these grand old highways. It bisects the state neatly from the Space Coast to the Gulf. At its smallest it is a narrow two-lane blacktop knifing through stands of slash pine scrub; at its widest it’s a multi-lane monster crusted with the major malls of Orlando proper. At its dead center – literally and figuratively – is tiny Clermont and its testaments to Old Florida Tourism, Citrus Tower and the Presidents Hall of Fame.
These attractions share a parking lot one mile north of 50 on U.S. 27. TRAVEL ADVISORY: If you plan to visit from the east coast or Orlando, you might want to dig deep and pay the tolls for the Turnpike or Highway 408 (a/k/a the East-West Expressway) to avoid the truly hideous and dangerous Highway 50 traffic through Orlando. I could devote a whole column to describing the mutant driving behavior I observed on one afternoon alone on this stretch of concrete. Travelers who take the stretch that runs through Winter Garden should be alert to the 20-foot tall Tire Girl on the south side of the road in a boat store parking lot. This bikinied fiberglas babe is on of a rare few remaining from the Golden Age of Giant Roadside Statuary, and really ought to be put into a museum.
If you had driven out to Clermont 20-25 years ago, you would have gone through miles of rolling hills green with orange trees as far as you could see. Now, thanks to some major freezes in the 1980s, you will drive past a couple of scraggly groves and a lot of bare-scraped scrub and sand, much of it in the process of development, the rest clearly for sale as potential bedroom communities. The Citrus Tower still stands above, now overlooking K-marts instead of trees, a tombstone instead of a landmark.
In its heyday, Citrus Tower was owned by Wometco, which also owned most of the major pre-Disney Florida attractions as well as a movie theater chain. Then as now, it was basically a 22-story tower with an observation deck reached by elevator. At the base was a restaurant and a gift shop. In the sixties, though, the novelty of seeing miles of lush orange groves from hundreds of feet in the air was worth a stop on the way to Homossassa Springs or Miami. You could buy fresh fruit, homemade candy and tacky souvenirs. Out back was a miniature grove garden with various species of citrus trees on display. Essentially, it was a very tall, tropical-themed Stuckeys.
The view, while not as spectacular as during its fruit salad days, is still impressive — until one realizes that higher views can now be had from downtown Orlando’s new courthouse, as well as several of downtown’s office buildings. From the viewing platform you can see the Orlando skyline, the motel strips, and some Disney landmarks. The old coin-operated telescope/binocular gadgets are long-gone, but signs still helpfully give distances to cities and oceans in each direction, as well as factoids on Lake County’s lakes. I’d imagine it’s a great spot to view shuttle launches or thunderstorms. Your elevator ride is $3.50, and you can stay up as long as you like until closing. TRAVEL ADVISORY: There’s a brochure rack by the restrooms which features a coupon book with $1.00 off coupons for the elevator ride, so by all means make a pit stop before heading up.
The citrus garden is long gone, save for an oval of blacktop in a grass lot. I have no idea how the Choctaw Bay restaurant is – the “specials” board announced several fried food baskets and I’m trying to cut down. Lilly’s Citrus Tower Gift Shop has changed dramatically since my last visit five years ago or so; for the better is a matter of one’s taste. I like tacky tourist sleaze, so I was disappointed. The shop is now dominated by Country Collectibles for your home and garden, lots of beanie bears and vanilla candles and wind chimes. Very Shania Twain country, if you will. A couple of shelves in the back have some old-school goods like pecan logs, fudge alligators and weird marmalades, but no snow globes or goofy ashtrays or plastic Orange Birds are to be found. Bonus points for the minimal presence of Disneyana.
Did I mention that it’s the Citrus Tower Centre? Oh yeah, there are little stripmall shops around the complex and a business center under construction. A barber shop, a pizza shop, a youth center.
The elevator’s hours of operation are 8:00 am-5:00 pm Monday through Saturday (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) and 11:00 am-6:00 p.m. Sundays. You can check out their website at www.citrustower.com for more news and information.
NEXT: The Presidents Hall of Fame