Orlando's Crayola Experience a fascinating wonderland of color, technology and nostalgia

Crayola celebrates its crayons and their powers at a theme park of creativity and nostalgia in Orlando.
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ORLANDO

Fred Rogers' sweater is a hue Crayola might call Forest Green, or maybe Aquamarine, or maybe Illuminating Emerald. He sketches a simple rainbow on an easel in his modest TV living room, the one decorated like childhood, and turns to the camera.

"Did you ever wonder," Mr. Rogers asks, "how crayons were made?"

What follows is a video tour of the Crayola headquarters in Easton, Pa., documenting in fluid, mesmerizing motion the birth of a wave of yellow crayons. Nearly 35 years after it first aired on PBS' Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the clip has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and countless more on pbs .org.

The factory tour is inherently fascinating to anyone who has ever held a crayon, life's first tool of artistic expression. Crayola is betting on that fascination and nostalgia to drive one of its most creative and immersive initiatives to date: the Crayola Experience, a 70,000-square-foot attraction at Orlando's Florida Mall and its first major outpost outside Easton.

It isn't a factory per se. It's more a hands-on wonderland of color and technology for anyone who has sketched a chalk hopscotch board, rolled a snake out of clay or peeled back a crayon wrapper to whittle its waxy tip.

"This is a place," said Crayola president and CEO Mike Perry, "where you get that times 1,000."

One might wonder why Crayola LLC, a subsidiary of privately held Hallmark Cards Inc., decided to turn the humble crayon into a sprawling "experience" in the land of Mickey, Harry and Shamu. The company produces 3 billion crayons a year — as much as 80 percent of the market, by some estimates — and a plethora of other art supplies and novelties, such as Silly Putty and Disney princess sticker sheets. Did it really need a theme park, too?

Pigment makers Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith could not have envisioned the Crayola Experience when they poured their first nickel box of eight crayons in 1903. But the company is confident its creators would love it.

"Brands evolve and change, and this brand has certainly evolved and changed," Perry said. "But that mission of sparking the creative spirit of a child has never changed."

The walls of the Crayola Experience are lined with poster-sized magazine ads from throughout the company's history. One from 1923 speaks directly to mothers, bemoaning games and playthings that "merely furnish amusement" rather than "actually develop, as well as amuse."

"Play-time, to children, means fun," the ad says. "They do not realize that this 'fun' can be directed."

That seems an apt encapsulation of the Crayola Experience. Occupying about half of a former Nordstrom, the attraction features some 25 interactive exhibits, most of which include free make-and-take crafts. There are stations for modeling clay and painting with wax, and kiosks that allow you to print your photo on a coloring sheet or your name on a crayon wrapper. You can melt a crayon into a wax ring, punch a sketch into a jigsaw puzzle or scribble with markers on three-dimensional whiteboard sculptures such as a dog and a car.

Many of these are activities parents and kids can do at home, on a much smaller scale, with Crayola technology available at Target and Toys "R" Us.

But what parents and kids can do, and what they actually do, are often two very different things.

"There's a big gap," said Victoria Lozano, senior vice president and general manager of Crayola's attractions and retail.

How many parents really want to spend their Saturdays setting up, taking down and cleaning up a home wax-molding kit? Who has the time?

"We focus on things that you can't easily do at home," Lozano said, "but also opportunities where kids can really have an experience with parents."

Crayola's product line has expanded and evolved with the times in clever, creative ways. Several of the Crayola Experience's digital attractions — all based on Crayola products — let kids to do things such as color and animate mythical creatures and design their own fashions or cars.

"The blend between the physical and the digital for kids is seamless," said Perry, the CEO. "Sidewalks are a medium for kids. Windows are a medium for kids. The paper, the canvas and, yes, an iPad is a medium for kids as well. We try to give them creative experiences throughout all those mediums."

Jenny Crowther began collecting Crayola products when she was about 10, drawn in by dazzling crayons introduced in the '90s: glittery GemTones, metallic Silver Swirls, irresistible Magic Scents with names such as Cedar Chest, Bubble Gum and Lilac. Her Kansas home is filled with Crayola products that she shares with her kids, ages 4 and 2, and she writes about her experiences on her blog, Jenny's Crayon Collection (jennyscrayoncollection.blogspot.com).

"It's reminiscent of childhood," says Crowther, 33, of her devotion to the brand. "You just have good memories associated with it."

For the Crayola Experience to succeed, it must appeal to parents like Crowther as much as it must to children. The company embraces and makes wise use of its nostalgic appeal, selling numerous retro souvenirs and lining the attraction's walls with fascinating murals that reveal how the company has evolved not only technologically but culturally. For example, in 1962, two years before the Civil Rights Act, Crayola renamed its "flesh" crayon the more inclusive "peach," "to recognize that not everyone's skin color is the same."

Crayola's Lozano said most guests spend four hours exploring the Easton Experience, and that should be the case in Orlando, too. The Florida Mall sits a good distance from Orlando's theme parks and International Drive, but it's a tourist draw in its own right, with a hotel and a conference center flanked by 250 stores and 1.8 million square feet of shopping space. To cater to the city's many Brazilian tourists, videos are subtitled in Brazilian Portuguese as well as Spanish.

Crayola is a good fit alongside the mall's other kid-friendly tenants — an American Girl store, M&M's World, a Disney Store. Its adjoining store features a few character-based products, such as coloring sheets with characters from the movies Frozen and Planes, and Perry said visitors might see more of that in the future.

"Our licensing partners will probably want to get more engaged in this Experience over time," he said.

But traditionalists needn't fear an overcommercialization of Crayola, at least not right away. However the company evolves — a third Experience will open in Minnesota's Mall of America in 2016 — its waxy heart and soul will always be its crayon, double-wrapped for strength and delivered in a yellow and green box with a sharpener built in the back.

"At the end of the day, it's not our only product," Lozano said. "But it's the most iconic."

Mr. Rogers himself poured Crayola's 100 billionth crayon on Feb. 6, 1996. The color: Blue Ribbon.

Salvador Flores was in the factory when it happened. For 22 years he drove more than 80 miles to and from Easton to pour Crayola wax for a living.

"Children used to huddle together to see me making the crayons," he said. "They gave me a name. They used to call me 'Mr. Crayola Man.' "

On his 72nd birthday on July 1, Flores traveled to the Crayola Experience's grand opening. He made personalized crayons for his grandchildren and said hi to the company executives who'd flown in for the occasion. He retired a decade ago and dearly misses his job in the factory.

A Yale study once found crayons to be among the most distinctive and powerful smells in the world, right up there with coffee and baby powder. So closely are crayons tied to childhood that a whiff from a fresh box cannot help but invoke feelings of nostalgia.

Flores found this all too true at the Crayola Experience, especially during a live show in which a "crayonologist" poured, molded and created a batch of colorful crayons right before kids' eyes, using the same equipment he used to operate on the Easton factory floor.

I wish I could be there, Flores thought. The smell brought tears to his eyes.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

   
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