No O.J. for you! Florida’s welcome centers aren’t so welcoming without free juice

The state supplied complimentary juice for about 70 years.
Florida no longer provides free juice at welcome centers. [Times (2015)]
Florida no longer provides free juice at welcome centers. [Times (2015)] [ Tampa Tribune ]
Published Jan. 7, 2020

For decades, Florida provided orange juice to anyone who stopped at a handful of welcome centers.

The freebie was a liquid hello designed to get visitors’ vacations off to a memorable start. Countless families made the welcome center a mandatory stop, toasting their arrival in the Sunshine State with 4-ounce paper cups filled with orange juice.

For many, the tradition marked the start of vacation, whether they were headed to Pinellas County beaches in the 1950s or to Disney World for the latest multi-million-dollar attraction. Kids from faraway states knew pulling over for juice meant the long drive was nearly done, and fun was about to begin.

The juice also reminded returning residents that they live in a special place, one where citrus fruit flourishes, even at a time of year when snow buries many northern states.

No wonder so many people miss it. The free orange juice stopped flowing in July, though a lot of visitors didn’t notice until the recent holiday travel season.

RELATED: Tampa Bay area lags behind peer cities in important ways.

T.J. Gilliam is the assistant manager at the welcome center on Interstate 95 north of Jacksonville. How often do visitors ask, Where’s the juice?

“All day, every day,” she said.

Is the number of complaints waning?

“Not at all,” said Gilliam, who has worked at the welcome center for 16 years. “Some people aren’t that nice when they find out about it.”

Florida first opened what was then called a “hospitality house” near Yulee in the northeast corner of the state in 1949. Several others followed and the complimentary orange — and grapefruit — juice tradition took hold.

The custom came under scrutiny in recent years, including from then-Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed money for free juice in 2015. Soon after, the Florida Department of Citrus agreed to absorb the $250,000 annual expense.

But the citrus industry isn’t flush with cash. The department’s budget was nearly $46 million in 2005. Now, it’s closer to $15 million, after the Legislature slashed another $4 million. The budget cuts prompted citrus department officials to stop providing free juice, a spokeswoman said.

Visit Florida, which runs the welcome centers, saw its budget get chopped last year to $50 million. The tourism agency had to lay off 44 people, and lawmakers rumble about making deeper cuts this year. Given the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising the agency decided against picking up the tab.

Officials from both agencies said they hadn’t heard of any legislative plans to bring back free juice. Both received written complaints from visitors and residents.

Wade Wagnon, a fifth-generation Floridian, wondered in an email to Visit Florida how a state with a budget of $91 billion couldn’t find room to keep a valuable tradition alive.

“I can’t imagine that budgeting in Florida is so bad that we can’t afford OJ for visitors,” he lamented.

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Michele Kelly of Colorado wrote about visiting Florida for the past 60 years, always knowing she had arrived when she stopped at the welcome center on Interstate 75 near Jennings for a cup of juice.

“How sad and short-sighted to eliminate this symbol of Florida sunshine, beaches and beauty,” she wrote. “Not a wise way to make budget cuts.”

Another disappointed visitor was more succinct.

“No juice? Bummer.”