Monday, February 28, 2011

Special museum offers a pause that refreshes

I watched it being built several years ago, but the World of Coca- Cola just seemed a little too fizzy once it was built to actually visit. It’s one of those touristy sites that’s a must-see destination, however, when out-of-town guests come calling.

So it was that I found myself playing tour guide over the weekend, showing my wonderful niece Arlene some of the hot spots that make the Land of Cotton such a special place to live. Fortunately, the entire Grebnief clan – the lovely Miss Wendy, Lauren and Josh – came along for the ride.

The World of Coca-Cola – along with the Georgia Aquarium, Centennial Olympic Park and CNN Center – is ground zero for most tourists visiting the city. The area is a synergistic blend of civic pride and politics, private enterprise and public funds. Just 15 years ago it was all a seedy mess – empty buildings, cracked and crumbling sidewalks and roads, vacant lots filled with garbage and weeds.

The ’96 Olympics – not necessarily a high point for me or the Land of Cotton – was a turning point for this area of downtown. If the world was coming to visit that special summer, the city needed somewhere for the masses to hang. A park filled with expansive green spaces, statues and monuments, fountains, flags and soaring light towers seemed a good way to go.

It all worked magically for a few weeks and the hope was that other developments – shops, condos, and additional tourist destinations – might locate nearby. Much planning ensued. But it would take a decade and the dreams of one man, Bernie Marcus – yes, that Bernie Marcus – to make good even better. He funded the Georgia Aquarium and the rest, as they say, is history.

But I digress. Coke officials, knowing a good thing when they see it, decided to move their marketing effort where the action was playing out. Today the marketing museum – hey, let’s not kid ourselves; the place is one huge advertisement that people actually pay to enter – draws thousands of tourists a year.

The good news is the World of Coca-Cola offers a fun, entertaining and informative way to spend a few hours. It’s filled with a dazzling array of things to do and see – pop art and culture, films and paintings, trinkets and tchotchkes. For those of us of a certain age, the whiff of nostalgia – magazine ads and TV commercials from the 40s, 50s and 60s – is worth the price of admission.

There’s even a very special room where visitors get to try out coke products from around the world, enough flavored sugar water to keep you high for hours. And the pièce de résistance? Why, that would be the 8-ounce souvenir bottle of coke you’re presented as you make your exit from the tasting room into the World of Coca-Cola’s retail annex. Here you can purchase tee shirts, jeans and caps; posters and artwork; glasses and mugs; key chains, paper weights and other trinkets – all, of course, tastefully sporting the Coca-Cola logo.

Truth to tell, it turns out coke was once again the real thing as we made our way home. Arlene was jonesing for another specialty offered only here in the Land of Cotton. So I make a quick detour just a few blocks from downtown, hanging a left onto North Avenue and into – drum roll please – the Varsity.

This Land of Cotton institution was just about a perfect way to end a perfect day; chili dogs, fries and onion rings, all washed down with the pause that refreshes. Up next? Grits and the Waffle House. Stay tuned!

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