I’ve long had a fascination with “Roadside Attractions” in the USA. I caught glimpses of some of these places while on a coast to coast rail trip a couple of years ago. However, a recent trip to Florida allowed me to take to the roads and discover some of these famous historic tourist traps for myself.
I could see my first stop long before I arrived as I drove along the I-27, mainly because the Florida Citrus Tower at Clermont is the tallest freestanding structure in the area. The 22-storey tower was built 60 years ago (long before the famous Mouse arrived in the region) to allow travellers, on what was once the central highway through the state, to stop and get a birds-eye view of the thousands of acres of citrus groves that central Florida was so famous for. The complex housed a restaurant, gift shops, a glass-blowing factory and other tourist paraphernalia and was surrounded by a huge carpark that was rarely empty. Whilst, in the distance, it is possible to see the central business district of Orlando, some 35 miles away, due to the demise of the citrus industry in the immediate area, those making their way to the top of the tower are rewarded with a spectacular view of a nearby shopping centre, a huge unused car park and the rooftops of suburban sprawl. The sole remaining gift shop is run by an elderly lady who was quite bemused to find me landing through the door early one morning. Surprisingly, she told me that the tower is very quiet in the summer months and the main tourist trade starts in October when the road-trippers make their way from the Northern states to escape winter. Many of those who stop by do so for sentimental reasons with memories of family holidays of years gone by. Others do so because it is situated in the geographic centre of the state and is next to a useful petrol station. I only really appreciated the history of the tower after my visit when I stumbled across home videos of the tower on Youtube which had been filmed over the years. Indeed, I discovered some people who only visit the tower as they relish using the 60 year old lift as it is one of the only original “Otis Traction Elevators” left in the country. The views from the top are an afterthought.
Stopping at the Citrus Tower actually enabled me to tick two roadside attractions off my imaginary list. As I stood admiring the view from the top, I was drawn to a very ornate building, just next door, which looked both out of place and entirely normal (for Florida) at the same time. The addition of a scale version of the famous Presidential Heads sculpture at Mount Rushmore was the clincher. So, a few minutes later, I found myself being addressed by an animatronic version of Abraham Lincoln while a mannequin Barack Obama watched from the sidelines. The Presidents Hall of Fame was a labour of love by an Orlando couple who created a scale model of the White House, which has toured the world and come to rest in this exhibition. The building is full of intriguing items, from a toy George W Bush, to a tray of preserved cookies as offered at a White House function, to a seat that was once in the theatre where Lincoln was shot. The model of the White House is worth the admission fee in itself. The detail is astonishing and the individual models of the Oval Office, as decorated by each president, is fascinating. There are souvenirs of presidents in office and presidential campaigns as well as a well-stocked book and gift shop. Again, I was the only visitor, which was to the detriment of those who were driving by as they were missing a treat.
Driving across the bridges heading west from Tampa, you cannot escape the feeling you are heading somewhere different. Our destination was Clearwater Beach, and in particular, the daily Sunsets at Pier 60 event. When we arrived in late afternoon, most folk were sunning themselves on the vast beach or taking a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. The most activity we saw was a rather huge Pelican trying to steal catch from the fishermen on the pier. As fascinating as these birds are to watch, they are quite intimidating if you have something they feel they should have. Soon however a small army of folk arrived and started erecting stalls along the pier and various “acts” started rehearsing along the boardwalk. Sunset festivals are minor institutions on this side of the state. For many stallholders and entertainers, those few hours offer their sole source of income and for holidaymakers, it is a great chance to enjoy the festivities.
Whilst not a “roadside attraction” per se, the community of Celebration is worth a visit. A planned community, created as an urban utopia by the Disney Corporation, the town reminded me of the set of The Truman Show. Residents have to agree to a lengthy list of ordinances and are encouraged to enjoy neighbourly activity to enhance the sense of community. To assist this, garages are not visible from the street and are accessed from a rear service alley. Bins and containers have to be kept out of sight (apart from on morning of collection) and lawns and picket fences have to be uniform. I visited on a weekday afternoon and found the place oddly deserted which only added to the “movie set” feel. It transpires that most folk who live in Celebration don’t work there so the town centre only comes alive in the evening. The Main Street is populated by independent boutiques and gift shops. The architecture is a mix of styles, from the Caribbean to post-modern to 1950’s, whereas the residential areas are designed in Colonial, Victorian and Mediterranean themes. Whilst on paper it reads like an odd mix visually it works as the town is a fascinating place to wander around.
Sadly I don’t have space to write about other roadside attractions nearby, like Spongeorama at Tarpon Springs where you can feast your eyes on the worlds largest selection of natural sea sponges, or indeed the Airstream Ranch where 8 of the mobile homes are artistically upended into the ground. The Tupperware museum at their international headquarters at Kissimmee might even be of interest! At least there is proof, should it be needed, that Florida has no shortage of quirky attractions that could be worth your time if you need to get an escape from the theme parks and beaches.