No road was more synonymous with Florida tourism’s golden era in the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the name Orange Blossom Trail is reserved for the part of US Route 441 that runs the south to north length of Osceola and Orange Counties between their borders with Polk and Lake Counties. This, however, is just the bare remnants of a quazi-offical road system that ran from Georgia, all the way to Key West. As such, it took visitors past dozens of tourist attractions in the center “spine” of Florida.
The Orange Blossom Trail was a construct of the Orange Blossom Trail Association. Founded in 1934, it used established roads – mostly federal and state routes – to create a trail from the town of Jennings, near the border with Georgia, south to Ocala, on to Orlando, Lake Wales, Sebring, and Clewiston. The trail then skirted around the east side of the Everglades to Miami and headed into the Keys, winding up at Key West. Attractions, motels and restaurants on the trail could join the association for promotional benefits. There were even towns and cities that joined.
With offices located in Orlando and later, nearby Winter Park, the non-profit Orange Blossom Trail Association functioned much like the Florida Attractions Association. It was self-described as creating a “select-highway route” through the “heart of the citrus growing country”. It provided mutual travel development for its members. Association information states that there were constant checks on how members conducted business to ensure high standards for Florida’s visitors.
Florida’s citrus growing region ebbed and flowed in size, especially in the northern areas where colder winters could damage the valuable crop. While citrus can be grown as far north as Jacksonville, it was generally only a commercially-viable crop from the Ocala area south to Lake Okeechobee. South of there, the rich black soil that makes up Florida’s mucklands, was better for annual crops, especially sugar cane and tomatoes. As the 20th century progressed, the citrus region’s northern border moved south, so that today little commercial citrus production is done in Orange County, once the unofficial capital of Citrus Country.
The Orange Blossom Trail Association operated through the 1970s, but the construction of Florida’s Turnpike and the interstate highways effectively reduced its importance. Few tourists wanted to travel for hundreds of miles on the old roads that were slow, confusing and passed through cities. Likewise, many of the businesses in the association were struggling since there were so few tourists still visiting them. Today, an organization like the Orange Blossom Trail Association makes little sense.
In its heyday, however, its members read like a list of of Florida’s most popular and most successful attractions: Cypress Gardens, Bok Tower Gardens, Silver Springs, Highlands Hammock, the Stephen Foster Memorial, Venetian Gardens, Sanlando Springs, Miami Seaquarium, the Citrus Tower and of course, US Sugar’s massive processing plant in Clewiston.
The Orange Blossom Trail can still be followed today. Other than expanding and getting more traffic, the roads are still there and many of the attractions have survived as well. Today Cypress Gardens is Legoland, Florida, but the gardens continue to be maintained. Sanlando Springs is now a housing development, unfortunately. US Sugar is still in Clewiston and the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce offers history-focused bus tours of the area that includes sugar production.