BRADENTON -- Drive from Georgia into Florida on Interstate 95, and watch all the drivers at the first visitors' center dart to the free samples of orange juice and grapefruit juice, a signal they have arrived to the Sunshine State.
So you could imagine my surprise when I arrived in Tropicana's hometown, Bradenton, and asked if the international juice company offered public factory tours or had some sort of gift shop. They don't.
It's a head-scratcher considering that the Yuengling brewery in Temple Terrace offers tours, and the beer maker's real home has been in Pottsville, Pa., since 1829.
I'm a fan of these types of tours with a treat at the end, even if it doesn't mean I'm in the actual factory. It's a fascination that lives in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where those lucky visitors were in a world of pure imagination. I can rattle off a few of my favorites where Golden Tickets weren't necessary: Hershey's Chocolate World, Sam Adams Brewery and World of Coca-Cola.
I can't tell you how many times I completed Hershey's Chocolate World tour, riding in the plastic Hershey's Kiss, just to hear the same presentation for a good decade, only to get my hands on free candy at the end of the ride. I still have the Hershey's Chocolate theme song stuck in my head from visiting all those times. (When I was young, full-size candy bars would be handed out by smiling employees. Now, there might be some fun-size Hershey bars in a bowl on your way out if you're lucky.)
Tropicana officials guard their operations as closely as possible, given the Pepsi versus Coke wars at the higher level. You don't have to worry about snoops like Charlie Bucket finding out trade secrets at these tours. Hershey and Coca-Cola's visitor centers aren't at chief production facilities.
At World of Coke in Atlanta, visitors learn about the drink's history, see a 4-D movie and taste Coke products from around the world. Heck, there is even a
large vault with all sorts of security measures around it that supposedly contains the handwritten secret formula for Coca-Cola.
It can be done here, too. Let's call Bradenton's version Tropicana Town.
A strong citrus scent can fill the hallways, as visitors learn about Tropicana history, juice their own orange, watch a movie on Anthony Rossi's journey, buy up all the orange juice and T-shirts they can, and get inspired to visit nearby Mixon's Fruit Farm for a different experience or The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, thanks to the exposure given to Florida citrus growers.
The tours also tell the story of the brand, and Tropicana's story doesn't get any closer to the American Dream. Anthony Rossi, an Italian immigrant, came on a boat at age 15 to New York with $30 in his pocket. When he came to Florida, he bought a Palmetto fruit shipper, and as the company evolved he moved the company to Bradenton in 1949 and transitioned into the fruit juicing business that eventually became Tropicana. He died in 1993, and PepsiCo bought the company five years later for $3.3 billion.
Tropicana can easily fill a building with nostalgic Tropicana products and ad campaigns, mixed in with education about orange groves.
"Any time you can partner with a company like Tropicana and it's a partnership that benefits both organizations, it's exciting," says Elliot Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's as simple as that."
People like to go where the action is. Visit Cape Canaveral to see the space program in person. Go to Disney World to hug Mickey Mouse. Why not come to Tropicana to learn about orange juice?
Debbie Meihls, executive manager of the CVB, shares some of my enthusiasm to rock these rinds for the betterment of Bradenton.
"You're right," Meihls said. "It seems like Florida is the little visitor center of the world, isn't it? People come down here to do tours."
Meihls says she trades ideas with PepsiCo and that the company was excited with some of the pitches she made to increase Tropicana's community involvement and raise its profile. She plans to meet with PepsiCo and Tropicana officials in the late fall.
"We want to tie more into Tropicana, and that would be beneficial, actually," she says. "When we travel to Germany for the trade shows, and talk to the tour operators, they have such an affinity for the orange trees and the oranges. Of course, we have Tropicana in our backyard. They love that."
Tropicana can develop up to 4 million square feet on its 283-acre campus, and could even buy more land. A new streamlined permitting process makes it easy for the juice maker to build structures as needed, as long as it fits in the guidelines agreed upon in the county-approved master plan on existing property. It shouldn't be too hard to find space and spruce up the entrance to shout it out loud that you've reached Tropicana Town.
Plus, it's not like there aren't workers nearby with experience in theme park-related attractions, creating video storytelling and managing these types of operations. This is Florida, after all.
Here comes the orange crush: Tropicana soured on the idea.
"We have no plans to create a public tour," Steve Lezman, Tropicana's director of governmental affairs, wrote in an email to the Herald.
Are you sure?
"While we do not have any plans at the present time for this type of facility and cannot speculate about the future, we are very proud to call Bradenton the home of Tropicana where it began more than 65 years ago," Lezman said.
Well, I've squeezed all the juice I could out of this idea. Let's hope Tropicana will bottle it.
Would you go on a Tropicana tour? Should Tropicana find ways to reach out more to the community? Weigh in at bradenton-herald-business.blogspot.com.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.