‘It’s really happening’: Citrus Bowl demolition finally begins

An artist's rendering of the exterior of the reconstructed Citrus Bowl. Demolition began Wednesday, and work is scheduled to be completed by November.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Umbrellas, ponchos and civic optimism were all in full evidence Wednesday morning at a ceremony to signal the start of the long-anticipated and long-needed renovations to the Citrus Bowl.

The scoreboard at the north end of the stadium came crashing down in one large chunk, followed by a fireworks display that lasted longer than the first act of the scheduled 10-month reconstruction project. Almost as if on cue, the combination of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures which caused those in attendance to be able to see their breaths came to a halt.

Although it wasn’€™t replaced by sunshine and blue skies, the vision of a facility where 80 percent of what is expected to be in place will be brand new remained intact. The cost of the project has been estimated at close to $200 million.

”Oh, wow, it’s really happening,” Florida Citrus Sports president Tony Massey said, alluding to the gap of nearly seven years between now and when the city of Orlando and Orange County approved the public building venture to renovate a stadium which opened in 1936.

The Citrus Bowl is scheduled to reopen in November with the annual Florida Classic between Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, followed soon thereafter by the state football championships and the Russell Athletic and Capital One bowl games. But Massey and his group have even bigger things in mind — namely, the possibility of Orlando hosting a college football national championship game as soon as 2020 or 2021.

The only time the city has had a game where a national championship was at stake took place in 1991, when Georgia Tech capped an undefeated season by beating Nebraska for a share of the mythical title in what was known as the Florida Citrus Bowl. Capital One assumed sponsorship of the New Year’s Day game beginning in 2001.

After the scoreboard was knocked down by a crane and the dust had settled, people were asked to leave the stadium so work could begin on demolishing the seating in the lower level. While the upper decks on the east and west sides will stay in place, fans will get an extra six inches of leg room in the lower bowl as well as access to additional restrooms and elevators.

Seating capacity will be more than 65,000, including more than 6,000 club seats and 34 suites with 1,000 available seats. The lack of modern luxury boxes was seen as a major deterrent in Orlando’s attempt to be part of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series.

”We did make sure that it was ready to host a national championship game if we wanted it,” Massey said. ”So we needed the amenities and such. There will be some more suites we’ll have to build out in the end zone. But other than that, it will be ready.”

Expansion on the west side of the stadium will cut into the outfield part of Tinker Field, which was once the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins but has gone unused for years. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he is pushing for a replica baseball facility with a seating capacity of no more than 600 not far from where Tinker Field stands.

This is the third major expansion to a facility that was originally constructed with funds under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The most recent project caused what was then known as the Tangerine Bowl to be held in 1973 at Florida Field, where Florida was defeated by Miami of Ohio.

Dyer couldn’t help but laugh at the contrast between the weather Wednesday and what it was like in July 2007 when ground was broken for the Amway Center, which the Orlando Magic have called home since the 2010-11 NBA season.

”Remember when we did the Amway groundbreaking and it was 107 degrees? This is the antithesis of that,” he said.

You can follow Ken Hornack on Twitter @HornackFSFla or email him at khornack32176@gmail.com.