No debates or fundraisers needed to become President of the United States at the Florida State Fair

Debbie Newman, 58, of Land O’Lakes photographs her husband, Dan, 66, while he “takes a call” from Vladimir Putin in the replica of the Oval Office in the White House exhibit at the Florida State Fair.
Debbie Newman, 58, of Land O’Lakes photographs her husband, Dan, 66, while he “takes a call” from Vladimir Putin in the replica of the Oval Office in the White House exhibit at the Florida State Fair.
Published Feb. 7, 2016


Dan Newman of Land O'Lakes sat in the Oval Office and issued a stern warning to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

"Go ahead," the 66-year-old Marine and Vietnam veteran growled into the phone and hung up.

Debbie Newman, 58, took a photo of her husband to capture the historic moment.

The Newmans were among the first of thousands who will get to pretend they're running the country at the White House Exhibit at the Florida State Fair, which opened Thursday and runs through Feb. 15.

This Oval Office, of course, is a life-size replica of the real thing in Washington, D.C. Nearby, a podium and backdrop mimic the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House. There, parents coaxed their children to stand on the tips of their toes and brief the press — or just their parents — as they snapped pictures.

The White House Exhibit is the result of more than 50 years of work by Orlando resident John Zweifel, 79, who collects presidential memorabilia and has even created lifelike miniature dioramas of all the rooms in the White House.

"Welcome to the White House!" says Zweifel as he greets guests entering the political wonderland he created at the Florida Center at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

He and his wife, Jan Zweifel, 79, have been working to create this exhibit since President John Kennedy took office in 1961. They also operate the Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont.

They have collected presidential artifacts including campaign gear, news articles, letters and even a complete White House state dinner dish set.

"I'm just trying to share my love of America with everyone," John Zweifel said. "I want to get people to have more appreciation for our house, our country."

Their exhibit fills a third of the Florida Center with statues of all 44 presidents, displays of presidential dishes, former first ladies' gowns and those detailed dioramas.

The prized pieces of their collection include President Franklin Roosevelt's custom car; a chair from Ford's Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, and the dresser of President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, which has a diorama of her White House bedroom sitting atop it.

Zweifel also created "selfie" areas — the White House press room, the podium in front of the Capitol, the Oval Office and a replica of the famous Resolute desk — so guests can feel like a president, or at least look like one on Instagram and Facebook.

"We are giving the White House to the people," Zweifel said, "and trying to create enthusiasm and love for the presidency."

He started crafting scale models of the circus and fairs when he was a child, and never lost the love of the art. He was inspired to create dioramas of the White House during his first visit to the real thing while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. His studies eventually led him and his wife to become consultants for Orlando's theme parks.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

His dream of building the dioramas was also fueled by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's televised tour of the presidential quarters in 1962. But his dream was stifled by tightened security at the White House after President Kennedy's assassination and through the administration of President Richard Nixon (who apparently thought it was a dumb idea.)

It wasn't until President Gerald Ford took office in 1975 that Zweifel gained access to the measurements and photographs needed to complete his work, thanks to former White House usher Rex Scouten. Zweifel finished the White House dioramas just in time to mark the country's bicentennial in 1976.

The dioramas sit inside a miniature White House that measures 60-feet by 20-feet, weighs 11 tons and has traveled to all 50 states. The Zweifels even put together a book about it: The White House in Miniature.

John Zweifel does his best to keep his exhibit and White House replicas — big and small — as authentic as possible. That means making significant changes every time a new president moves in. When President Barack Obama took office in 2005, the wallpaper in the miniature White House master bedroom had to be changed.

One day, John Zweifel even wants his replicas to smell like actual rooms in the White House.

As he put it: "All we want to do is to make people happy and proud to be Americans."