SUGAR & SUSHI VS. US-27
The time we urbexed our way to Orlando and discovered the texture of US-27
Sushibomb meets gator lake | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
"If I have to see an alligator today with my own two eyes, I'm going to punch you," Sushibomb informed me as we pulled off to the side of the road into the former roadside attraction known as Everglades Gatorland.
The promise of LIVE ALLIGATORS displayed across the front of the building just made her stare even harder at me with her deadpanned expression, even as I made her pose in front of said sign. It's rare to get Sushi out in nature so you've got to memorialize it while you can.
Sushibomb at Gatorland | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
There isn't much to see in the main structure; any kitschy souvenirs that had once been displayed inside were long, long gone and even the roof had succumbed to the elements as pieces of it lay strewn across the bare floor. But at least Sushi got to experience Gatorland, thankfully with no gators so I was not punched.
The Everglades that had so nearly consumed the entire building had been shorn back at some point in the last year, even at the back of the property. From what had once been a back door, now only a hole in the outer wall, I could see a lake about 50 yards in the distance. This was the very same lake that the original alligators of Gatorland had been caught in, scooped up by an daring yet ingenious entrepreneur that saw a chance to turn his service station on the side of US-27 into a roadside attraction for curious tourists making their way through the state.
Not far from the main building stood a wooden enclosure that had definitely seen better days but was at least still standing. This had doubt once held some of the creatures on display at Gatorland. Not the gators, as their pens could be seen another short distance away, just visible beyond the foliage that became slightly thicker further away from the road.
Sugarbomb; the Invasive Species | Photo © 2017 Sushibomb
Sushi followed me outside and together we hopped our way further from the main building toward the lake, attempting to avoid the taller patches of grass and anything that may be hiding within them. Our shoes - a pair of flats and jelly slippers - were far from ideal for exploring the wilderness but we still got close enough to get a better view of the lake and gator enclosures.
On the way back to the car, we ran into a man in a high-vis vest, likely from the nearby power station and spoke to him a bit about the old shop, which he remembered from better days having grown up in the area. If we wanted to see some live gators in an place that wasn't the lake out back, he said, we should check out Gatorama up the road a ways. I remembered passing the place, a modern day tourist attraction, on the day I went to Arcadia. Surprisingly, Sushi had decided that she did, in fact want to see gators, so we resolved to check it out when we took this route to Orlando next time.
Welcome to Clewiston | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Our next stop was the old Dixie Crystal Theater in Clewiston, which we unfortunately found to be no longer abandoned, renovated and repurposed, anticlimactically, as a dentist office.
"What's our next stop?" Sushi asked, after we took pictures on the nearby statues. I consulted my hastily written urbex to-do list.
"The Palmdale Cracker," I replied, "Which is supposed to be an abandoned shop, not just me in Palmdale."
With Google Maps as our guide we continued north on US-27, which Sushi had decided she was in love with thanks to the lack of traffic. As we got closer to our next destination, Sushi slowed down a bit - which, for her, means letting her speed fall below the triple digits. The Palmdale Cracker couldn't be hard to miss since it was supposed to be right on the side of the road, but as we drew nearer we saw...nothing.
Sushi turned down a small rural road near where the indicated destination was to see if maybe we'd just gotten the exact location wrong but all we found was the town's main post office, based out of a camper-sized trailer, and beyond that a whole lot of wilderness. It's difficult to get lost in Palmdale, since the entire town probably has fewer buildings than my block. As we turned around and headed back toward 27, I just happened to look up from my phone's navigation and out the window and indicated for Sushi to pull in to the dirt patch to our right. Standing before us was all that likely remained of the Palmdale Cracker; a small two room structure that upon closer investigation had once been a bathroom and a charred wooden ramp. I took a few pictures and walked up the fire-scarred walkway but there wasn't much to see beyond that.
The Palmdale Cracker | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Onward and northward we went, the sugarcane fields abruptly transforming into orange groves. Our next destination was somewhere between Palmdale and Lake Placid and that was about as exact of a
JUICE | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
location as my many hours of googling could find. It shouldn't be difficult to spot, a giant pineapple on the side of the road would let us know that we'd found what we were looking for. I'd wanted to check this place out and almost had before deciding to turn at Highway 70 and go to Arcadia instead.
Like Everglades Gatorland, it had once been a roadside attraction attempting to draw passing tourists in with its promise of Floridian hospitality in the form of produce. In an effort to get a better idea of where we were going, or if our desired destination was even still there, I had meticulously traversed US-27 via Google Earth the night before, searching for the giant pineapple on the side of the road. I digitally traveled roughly 25 miles of road before finally finding what I was looking for just south of Lake Placid. Armed with GPS coordinates, I knew I could at least find it that way if we somehow managed to miss a gigantic pineapple towering two dozen feet in the air.
It turned out finding the giant pineapple wasn't a problem at all, we spotted it easily on the west side of the street exactly where I'd found it the night before on Google Earth. Sushi swung around and pulled in and we got out to explore "the pineapple place". Unlike Gatorland, this building was in amazingly good condition. Not only was the roof still present, but the
windows were also intact and unbroken, though hazy with age. A sign reading 'CLOSED' could be seen propped in a side window as we walked closer.
Pineapple Paradise | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
On the side of the building was a snowman made of oranges, showering himself in what I can only describe as citrus bukkake. It's a heck of an image, but it perfectly embodies what I find so endearing about these old Florida roadside stops. They are so kitschy and over the top about everything. From the suggestive citrus man offering to "squeeze you from Florida sunshine" to the ridiculously huge pineapple announcing the promise of JUICE to all passerby, vintage roadside shops were doing the most.
Florida Sunshine | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Fortunately for me, the only damage to the outside of the building was a shattered sliding glass door at the front of the shop, providing me with a convenient entrance. The inside of the building was just as miraculously preserved as the outside, to the extent that the original shelves and counters were still in place, though empty. Sushi elected to remain outside while I used the larger pieces of broken glass as stepping stones to cross a mosquito-ridden puddle on the floor by the entrance in order to more thoroughly explore the inside.
Fans and light fixtures still hung from the ceiling, thermostats sat dormant on the wall, a fire extinguisher was still hanging undisturbed by the door, and thick phone books still sat on the shelves behind the counter. This place was immaculate for an abandoned building. It's not often I get to explore something this intact so I was going to savor every moment. On the front counter was a stack of photographs that upon closer inspection turned out to be old postcards displaying the front of the shop itself, a sign reading ALOHA hanging above the front doors.
Aloha from Pineapple Paradise | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
I went through a doorway with large letters reading KEEP OUT above it to find the back room where the juices and preserves had been made. The large industrial sinks were still in place, old blenders sat on a
platter on a top shelf and below was a box stacked neatly full of souvenir containers for juices or preserves given out to passing patrons that read PINEAPPLE PLANTATION; where pineapples grow.
Another back room off to the other side of the main part of the building revealed boxes upon boxes of old postcards once I switched the flashlight of my phone on in order to see what I was doing. There were no windows in this room but what it lacked in natural lighting it more than made up for in mosquitoes, so I quickly checked out the variety of postcards before taking my leave.
Sushi waited for me at the door, happy to tell me about the weird Everglades diseases I was going to get from the rancid mosquito water that splashed onto my foot when a piece of glass I'd been standing on slipped and splashed me. We took a few pictures by the dumb pineapple because I honestly love the giant thing. It's vintage, it's extra, and JUICE - it is entirely my aesthetic.
I was pumped up from exploring such a great location but Sushi required fuel so we stopped by a Dunkin Donuts where she acquired doughy delights filled
Plantation Paradise | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
with cream while I photographed our next stop from a distance - which is really the only way you can photograph the entirety of The Placid Tower.
Pineapple Paradise | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Literally towering over the surrounding sleepy town of Lake Placid, the tower itself stands at 270 feet high and was the tallest concrete block structure in the world at the time it was opened. From the observation deck on the top of the tower, visitors could see up to 40 miles away on clear days.
Designed by A. Wyatt Howell of Lakeland and built by Sebring-based Ridge Builders at a cost of $350,000 ($2.7 million today), the tower opened to the public on January 1, 1960. It was another tourist destination built right along US-27 in Lake Placid, know - or unknown - as the "caladium capital of the world" because it contains so many elephant ear plants.
The Placid Tower was the southernmost of three tourist towers built on the Central Florida ridge, the colossal companion to the Bok Tower in Lake Wales and the Citrus Tower in Clermont. The Tower View Restaurant allowed visitors to grab a bite to eat and those who reached the top were encouraged to phone home on "Florida's highest pay phone."
However, the Placid Tower never matched up to the popularity of it's counterparts. The Bok Tower, built in 1929, advertised itself as a peaceful sanctuary for contemplation and the Citrus Tower was closer to a more densely populated area. By comparison, the view of countryside, lakes, and caladium fields, while serene, left something to be desired for tourists.
In the late 1960's, the tower's name was changed to "The Happiness Tower" in order to attract visitors, advertising it as providing visitors with a state of bliss when looking out from the top.
The Placid Tower | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Simultaneously, the tower was also known as "The Tower of Peace," which further added to confusion for tourists. Ultimately, the tower was closed in 1982 after declining ticket sales and the owner's refusal to pay the IRS taxes on the property.
The tower reopened in 1986 but still faced the attendance issues that had caused it's closure four years earlier. Passing from owner to owner over the following years, the tower and accompanying restaurant managed to remain open until the early 2000's. As a testament to its lack of popularity both locally and statewide, no one has actually been able to pinpoint when exactly the tower closed.
Contrary to the giant red letters painted on the side of the tower, the Placid Tower has sat abandoned for the past decade or so. While Sushi enjoyed her donuts and coffee, I got out and went to check out the tower. The thing is giant, which should be obvious when you read the height of the tower, but in person it just seem so much taller. When it was open, visitors would ride an elevator to the top and, while intimidating, I was willing to climb 270 feet of stairs to get there if I had to in order to get pictures - that is, if I could find a way inside.
From the doors, behind printed signs announcing that the tower was closed, I could see the entrance hall to the tower and part of the restaurant. Try as I might, though, I couldn't find a way inside - at least, not without breaking a window.
The Placid Tower | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
As I lamented not being able to get into the tower, my gaze landed on a very abandoned-looking building next door. I sprinted over to take a closer look. Once a restaurant and/or bar judging by the now-barren counters set up inside, the only thing gracing the surfaces now were thick layers of dust. Around the front of the building, I found a large sign that had once read RESTAURANT lying on the ground, split in two with its letters strewn about. One side of the building had been a diner style restaurant, while the other that boasted a single, long counter had been a lounge.
Heron's Garden Restaurant & Lounge | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
The Heron's Garden Restaurant and Lounge, as it was once named, is located at 501 US-27 in Lake Placid and sits in the shadow of the Placid Tower. It closed sometime in late 2010 or early 2011, as the last inspection date listed for the restaurant took place on November 22, 2010 and cited an uncomfortable amount of critical violations, including not having a certified food service manager on duty with four or more employees engaged in food preparation, slime observed on soda dispensing nozzles at waitstation, bare hand contact of ready-to-eat food by employees, and raw animal foods not properly separated from each other in holding unit/during preparation. As a food safety manager, and a damn good one if I (and Ecosure) do say so myself, I can say that it's probably for the best that this place is now closed.
An Incoming Glades Storm | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
My intention was to return to where Sushi's car sat a parking lot away. The dark clouds moving in from the west were now much closer than they had been when I'd approached the restaurant, but just when I was about to sprint back to Sushi, something caught my eye from the opposite direction. On the other side of Heron's Garden was another, larger building with an empty parking lot that looked pretty damn abandoned. I really wanted to check it out but the thunder I could now hear from those approaching clouds was trying to convince me otherwise, like the proverbial angel and devil debating on my shoulders.
Obviously, urbex won out and I convinced myself I'd just take a quick look, just to see if it was abandoned or not. The very mild disrepair of the outside and empty parking lot indicated that yes, it probably was, but Sunrise Cinemas and Pahokee taught me that things can look WAY more run down yet not actually be nearly as abandoned as you thought.
Gateway to Urbex | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
The sign in front of the building was long since busted out of its frame, giving no hint of a name or indication as to what it might once have been. The single-story line of rooms that ran behind what looked to be a lobby-type area in the front made me think that it might have once been a motel. I approached one of the jalousie covered doors and gave the slightly weathered knob a turn, surprised to find it unlocked.
A quick peak inside revealed a studio-type room with a vanity counter separating the front entrance way from a larger bedroom area. The room itself was shockingly clean and I would have assumed it was occupied and I had just accidentally broken into someone's home if it wasn't completely bare of any furniture or signs of life.
Sweet Suite | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Before going inside to further explore some of these rooms, I went to check out the front lobby area, just to make entirely sure it was as abandoned as I suspected. Once again, the door gave way easily, having been left unlocked. I'm not used to it being quite this easy to get into the buildings I explore.
Inside, I found a large kitchen and food prep area with two regular household stoves sitting across from a large industrial sink. Tucked into the corner was two refrigerators and old, unused cooking utensils were scattered here and there on counters throughout the room. In the hallway that led to the front, shelves were lined with glasses carefully arranged on serving platters, now collecting dust. Beyond that, the front entrance area looked like a restaurant-style setup, with circular wooden tables still sitting surrounded by matching chairs here and there and a box-y big screen TV - the type which had been popular in the 90's - sat in the corner against the wall. They apparently don't have too much crime in Lake Placid. In Miami, that would have been long since stolen, possibly before the building ceased operations.
The Lobby | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Satisfied that this place was abandoned, I returned to investigate the rooms behind the front lobby/restaurant area. I went into a different room than I'd first investigated and found this one equally vacant, save for some furniture scattered throughout the main living area - multiple metal bedframes, a single mattress on one of them, and a wooden table that matched those that I'd seen in the front. Where I'm from, this would be a homeless person's heaven.
On side of each room, opposite the front door, was a sliding glass door that led into a central courtyard that had looked like it had been well manicured not too long ago, though now small mountains of fallen palm fronds had begun to form beneath each of the trees.
Nice Digs | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
I went into another room and found it to be an identical setup to the previous two I'd seen, just with a different selection of random abandoned furniture pieces. The furniture looked to be in good condition and, like the TV, would have been long since stolen down in Miami. A small, simple bathroom with a standing-room-only tiled shower adjoined the front entry way with the vanity and this one contained two mattress-less bed frame and another one of the wooden tables, though this one contains the remains of a half-eaten plastic container of mashed potatoes and a pile of discarded cigarettes. I guess at least one homeless person had discovered this place after all, but they were nowhere in sight. Thankfully.
At this point my phone began to vibrate in my hand. I guess Sushi had finished her cream-filled disaster and realized I was no longer in sight. I went back out front to go meet up with her, only to find that the rapidly approaching storm from before had arrived and the rain was falling with increasing volume by the minute. Not wanting to get my camera wet, or my hair for that matter, I waited under the flimsy roof outcropping of the former-motel until the storm was more of a steady drizzle than a downpour. When I was satisfied that I wouldn't get completely soaked, I sprinted out from my hiding spot to a nearby covered area next to the tower and dived into Sushi's car as she pulled up to meet me.
Flowerbed painted with flowers | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
Later research led me to discover that I was both right and wrong about the building I'd just explored. According to Trulia, the property had once been a motel but it's most recent incarnation had been a senior living facility named Rosewood Senior Care Villas. It featured 29 studio apartment-style units and a dining area. The reviews of the facility report that the staff was caring, the maintenance and cleanliness was superior, and that the staff would host fun activities for the residents such as ice cream socials. Despite this, the renewal of the facility's license as an assisted living facility was denied on October 1, 2012 and the facility officially closed a month later on November 1, 2012.
We had explored and discovered - both accidentally and purposely - a lot of new buildings on this everglades road trip, but as we approached our destination, there was still one more thing that Sushi and I needed to explore; an orange grove! Driving through Lake Wales, which is apparently the Florida's Natural orange juice capitol of the world, made it abundantly clear that to become true Floridians we not only had to drive back country roads and stroll near gator-infested water, but we must now be baptized in the juices of a thousand oranges who have died for the sins of all Floridians. I'm exaggerating a little, but Florida is so weird that most Floridians wouldn't be shocked if I were saying that unironically.
Orange Juice Tower | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
A grove north of Lake Wales shortly before our turn off onto I-4 offered us the citrus-y adventures we'd been looking for. Sushi pulled off once again to the side of the road and we took off into neatly arranged rows of fruit trees that stretched for miles around us. From above, the dirt paths we were walking look like pinstriped amongst a sea of lush, green orange trees. We checked out a few oranges, took pictures, and even plucked a few to take home for Kaine.
The Grove | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb
On this day, we entered an orange grove and came out true Floridians. Now we're ready to fight a gator.