Highway 50 Revisited (Part Two)
by Dave Mitchell
I don’t know how long the Presidents Hall of Fame has shared a parking lot with the Citrus Tower. My earliest recollection of it, in its original incarnation as the Presidents Wax Museum, dates back to the mid-seventies, so perhaps it was a response to the Bicentennial, or maybe a Hall of Presidents rip-off (There were a few seventies attractions that tried to mimic specific Disney rides. I recall a pseudo-Pirates of the Caribbean place across the street from Busch Gardens in Tampa that must have been keelhauled by Disney’s lawyers). Whatever the case, I suspect it wasn’t around in the sixties or my parents, who were very keen on attractions that promoted History and Patriotism, would have taken us there at least once. Whenever I’ve gone to visit Citrus Tower in the last decade or so, the Hall has been closed with no signage to let you know why or when to expect it to be open. You can imagine my excitement when, on my most recent trip to the intesection of SR 50 and US 27, I saw people going in!
From the outside the Hall of Fame looks like an average two-story home, just with a White House-style facade, a Statue of Liberty replica on one side, a fiberglass Lincoln Memorial statue reproduction in front, and a weatherbeaten limousine parked out front. Turns out the limo was used by Nixon, Ford and Carter in the mid-seventies. The tires are all but flat, and the paint job could use some compounding. The ambience is very reminiscent of the late great Tragedies in American History Museum of St. Augustine and its own rusty Detroit hulks. As it turns out, they share one thing: both museums were the testament to one man’s patriohistoric vision, just not as creepy in the case of the Hall of Fame.
Turns out that the old Wax Museum was bought out by Orlando resident John Zweifel, an Art Institute of Chicago grad with an amazing lifetime project: a roughly 1/18-scale model of the White House. The model measures sixty by twenty feet, and features every room in scale, including all the furniture and artwork, crafted by hand, with working lighting and electronics, including the televisions in the studies and bedrooms. Built by John, his wife Jan, and family and friends over several decades, it tours the country constantly, though we were told John will be retiring from the road soon. As administrations change, each room is redone to reflect decor changes, but the previous editions are saved and displayed here, as is a Christmas-decorated room (complete with falling snow outside the window!)
Actually, the museum is a hodgepodge of presidentially-related items – if not related to a presidency, displays have some historical context. Before you enter the turnstile into the museum, there is a dining party display with real service from a past administration (don’t ask me whose) and FDR, Abe Lincoln and George Bush (!) waiting to be seated. To the left as you enter is a display case of books on Lincoln and a presidential banner from the Kennedy years (you can, naturally, buy a poster of the Amazing Lincoln/Kennedy Coincidences, though not of the Amazing Lincoln/Kennedy Differences). To the right are enormous model ships from the Spanish-American War, which I presume were from an early 1900’s circus recreation of the final sea battle of that war. There are old circus posters promoting that show, but no informative signage or plaques to confirm that these models are the real deal.
At this point you are seated before a TV and may watch a videotape documentary on the White House model and its history. This is not some folksy bashed-out model; it was intensely researched, with the cooperation of most administrations from the Kennedys on, and produced in a painstakingly accurate manner. Furniture, chandeliers and decorations are all hand-crafted. Lamps and chandeliers are all functional, as are the little televisions in the bedrooms and the meeting rooms. The film shows all the rooms, as well as the process of breaking it down, shipping it to malls or museums for display, reassembling it … oy!
Once you are through with watching the video (many guests gave up midway through and elected to start touring the museum), you wind along a chronological display of life-sized wax presidents, along with the occasional first lady. There is a smattering of artifacts to go with the time line presented; the amount of souvenirs picks up as the years progress.
When you reach Abe Lincoln, you can press a button and “hear” Lincoln “speak”. The actor portraying Honest Abe’s voice is cheery enough, but doesn’t have that resonance you associate with, say, Disney’s Hall of Presidents’ Honest Abe. Similarly, the technology is limited to Abe’s jaw opening and closing in an arhythmic manner. Milli Vanilli it ain’t, and I went ahead and passed on a similar opportunity to invoke the presence of FDR later in the exhibit.
You enter the main exhibit hall as you reach the pantheon of 20th century presidents. The centerpiece of this room is a White House model of the same scale as the touring version, only this one is of the house while it was under construction during a visit from George Washington. If you peek through the doorways and windows, you can see little model craftsmen working on the woodwork and masonry. The display is ringed by the aforementioned Oval Offices of a dozen or so past administrations, and a ton of souvenirs of recent administrations, ranging from Easter eggs from the famous lawn rolls to Nixon’s subscription copy of Sports Illustrated (with an O.J. cover)!
The exit predictably takes you through the gift shop, which, while heavy with patriotic souvenirs, has a much higher ‘cheepnis’ quotient than its neighbor, the Citrus Tower. A lot of the items for sale are really old, and some are from other attractions (notably the Circus Hall of Fame). Lots of books for Democrats and Republicans alike, including a documentation of Elvis’ visit to the Nixon White House. Lots of miniatures, tiny statuary, Bill Clinton boomarks … much patriotic festiveness for you!
Thing is, this is such a sincere little spot, all but the most jaded anarchist will leave feeling like a little kid at a Fourth of July fireworks show. Well worth a stop on any West Central 50 thrift store run.