Considered both the first (and second) enclosed shopping mall in Florida, it was the site a dairy cow pasture just ten years before.
Located just east of downtown Orlando, Colonial Mall was named after Colonial Drive, the road on its northern border. Colonial Drive is also State Road 50 which runs from US Route 19 near the west coast to US Route 1 on the east coast.
Dedicated on October 22, 1962, it beat the Coral Ridge Mall in Ft. Lauderdale to the finish line to be the first in Florida, even though Coral Ridge was the first to start construction.
Parts of the mall predated 1962, including a strip mall built in 1956 containing a Publix grocery store. That was built at the intersection of Colonial Drive and Bumby Avenue, on what was the property of the TG Lee Dairy. To this day, the dairy has a milk processing plant located just south of the mall property, and the neighborhood, including the Colonial Mall property is known as the Milk District.
The interior part of the mall began in 1962 with a corridor extension south to Jordan Marsh of Florida, a four story department store. The corridor was lined with stores. A second enclosed corridor and stores was opened in 1973. That one extended to another “anchor” department store. This created an unusual situation where shoppers would have to walk through the center of one department store to go from one part of the mall to the other. In the 1990s I remember when Jordan Marsh closed and a long plywood tunnel was built, lit with construction lights through the empty building to allow shoppers to continue walking end to end. Definitely the strangest thing I’ve seen in a mall.
A new mall opened nearby in 1973. While offering different stores, the new Fashion Square Mall was direct competition with Colonial Mall. Not surprisingly, this is when Colonial chose to expand as seen above.
Colonial Mall expanded once more in 1983, but the age of the mall appeared to be catching up. For some reason, the public likes new malls and as successive malls are built, older ones struggle to remain profitable. By the 1990s, Colonial Mall had entered its declining years. This was helped by the struggle of classic “department” stores, but regardless of the reasons, by 1995 the mall was at its end.
Cousins Properties purchased the property, tore down much of the mall and developed a “power center”. Power centers are much like malls in that they contain large anchor stores as well as small shops, services like hair salons and restaurants. The big difference is the lack of enclosed space that allows customers to walk from store to store unaffected by the weather.
The new Colonial Plaza Marketplace opened in 1996 and remains reasonably popular to this day.
Without a doubt the most famous and most talked about business in Colonial Mall was Ronnies Restaurant.
From the outside, Ronnies appeared much like any other coffee shop in the South, but once you entered, it became obvious that it wasn’t a typical coffee shop. While it’s often been described as a Jewish delicatessen, that was only part of the story. It was a full-service restaurant with very good food. Some of the menu certainly was eastern European comfort food: borscht, potato soup, latkes, corned beef and cabbage and lox, but mainstream American food was always on the menu too.
Ronnies also had a fantastic bakery that not only served the restaurant, but had a take out counter that supplied cakes and other sweets for thousands of Orlando weddings, birthdays, office parties and holidays.
Over the years, Ronnies became an Orlando institution. For many locals, the day it closed, in conjunction with the closing of Florida’s first mall, was a sad day.