For many who live in and around Clermont, Minneola and the rest of south Lake County, as well as those who traverse U.S. 27, the Citrus Tower is a given. After all, it would be next to impossible to miss seeing a structure that pierces 226 feet into the sky from one of the highest points in Lake County.
The tower has seen both boom times and periods of struggle. A renaissance has been underway the past three years, one that combines two aspects. Leading the charge is Scott Homan, who oversees operations of the tower and was preceded by his father, Greg, who purchased the facility in 1995. Taking over, Homan said, was almost serendipitous.
“My wife, Heather, said wouldn’t it be interesting if we took over,” Homan said. “We have two objectives. We want to be known as a community space and do so in a way that respects history.”
The tower was completed in July 1956. Its purpose, as expressed in newspaper articles dating back to that time, was to highlight the state’s booming citrus industry.
It was one of three attractions in the region known to people outside of Florida; the other two being Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven, and Silver Springs and its glass-bottom boats.
In its heyday, the Citrus Tower drew as many as 500,000 visitors per year, in great measure due to its location on U.S. 27. Considering the highway was a main national artery running all the way to northern Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, it makes sense people visited the tower to ride its elevator to the top, where they could view miles of Florida scenery.
That large influx of visitors began changing in the mid-1960s, as an extension of the Florida Turnpike was completed and routed traffic away. Attendance began to decline.
The completion and opening of Disney World in 1971, as well as construction of subsequent attractions, added to much of south Lake County beginning its conversion from agriculture and evolving into suburban bedroom communities of Orlando.
But those two factors were not the only ones contributing to the further decline. Three harsh freezes in 1983, 1985 and 1989 decimated the citrus industry, which in turn led to further drops in attendance. Looking out upon a “sea of citrus groves” was more compelling than looking at 360 degrees of housing developments.
Although attendance today is a shadow of what it once was, it still is impressive, according to Homan. Many of those, he said, visit the tower as part of a nostalgic trip back in time. But its appeal today is oriented to both those who visited Citrus Tower in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as well as today’s up and coming generations.
“We want to make sure their visit is memorable,” he said. “When tourists come in, we want them to enjoy their experience.”
Whether having visited Citrus Tower in decades prior, or if for the first time, tourists are greeted by a lobby filled with both memorabilia and current amenities. In addition to actual memorabilia and some reproductions, an in-house video plays, detailing the history of Citrus Tower.
A coffee house on the main floor of the tower is operated by Homan. In keeping with the citrus theme, Homan has, with others, custom developed distinct flavors, such as a flavor that isn’t even coffee: orange butter crème.
“When tourists come, they get to taste something citrusy,” he said.
Also, local in-house artwork adorns the reception area, which eventually leads to an elevator that takes people to the main attraction – the observation tower with its views of the surrounding areas, including buildings as far away as those in Orlando and at Walt Disney World.
Thanksgiving and through to New Year’s Day is a special time at Citrus Tower, when it is decorated with holiday lights that pulse to the beat of music, creating a light show.
To round out a visit to the Citrus Tower, visitors can head to Clermont’s area historic downtown area, located on and around Montrose Street and Minneola Avenue, south of Lake Minneola. There, you will find breweries, ice cream shops, restaurants, locally run stores, the Clermont Historical Village Museum and more, all within walking distance of one another.
The Citrus Tower, located at 141 North Highway 27 in Clermont, is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving and Christmas.