My family enjoys Sunday outings and Atlanta being only 40 minutes away from our house (depending on the traffic in Henry and Clayton County) offers the greatest variety of places to choose from. We decided this past Sunday to revisit the World of Coca-Cola, an old favorite located in the downtown Atlanta area that we last saw about three years ago. As it was, the traffic was cooperative and the day was beautiful and pleasant, giving no indication whatsoever of the upcoming ice storm brewing in the days ahead.
We arrived by the usual route, which means to say that I spent the better part of twenty minutes meandering around through downtown. I admit that after 31 years of driving legally, I still could not give anyone directions to anything in the core of the city, yet I have always been able to find my way around by means of landmarks. Atlanta was not a planned city and there’s no order to speak of in its many streets but fortunately I have a built-in GPS that works pretty well with the sense of direction and usually I find my way to where I am going, enjoying the sights as I go.
It also helps that the World of Coke is pretty large and sits next to the Georgia Aquarium, which is pretty huge. Look for giant Coke bottles or a building that resembles some form of marine life and you’ll find it easily enough. Once parked and with tickets in hand, we entered the waiting area while an enthusiastic tour guide told us how the tour would progress.
The first part involved about ten minutes worth of speech in a room called the Coca-Cola Loft. This large, high-ceiled room is full of an assortment of museum quality pieces from the history of the company, including old Coke signs, vending machines, artwork and a drink mixing urn from the 19th century, the oldest genuine Coca-Cola artifact in the complex. We were surprised to learn during Q & A that many of the folks in the room were from all over the country and a few from other continents. After this, we were ushered into the theater for a short film called “The Polar Bears”, a cute animated show featuring Coca-Cola’s well-known white bears. From there we were on our own to explore the World of Coke.
We exited the auditorium into a large, two-story atrium filled with a number of exhibit sections and the first one I wanted to see was the “Vault of the Secret Formula”, a newer exhibit that had opened since the last time we visited. Entering through the fancy “vault” door (complete with a Coke bottle motif) and after going through a security scanner put in for effect, we were greeted by shelves of various bottles of stuff such as “Tincture of Silver Nitrate” and “Syrup of Ipecac”. The bottles were behind green glass and it was very reminiscent of an old apothecary or drug store, an homage to Dr. John S. Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist who developed the secret formula.
The glass itself was fascinating because when you look at it straight on, everything behind it is blurred and all you can see is the shapes of the bottles. To read the labels, you must move sideways and then the bottles and their labels are revealed. Put simply, you can read them as you approach or leave but never while standing directly in front of them. I think this must allude to the mystery of the ingredients in Coca-Cola’s formula, which have been closely guarded for over 125 years. You can read the ingredients in the bottles only a couple at a time depending on your angle but never all at the same time.
At the end of this exhibit, which features other interactive displays, we were led into a small circular room while images were flashed on both the wall and the floor. When the short film clip was over, the far side wall opened up to reveal the actual vault that houses the only written copy of the Coca-Cola formula in existence. All in all, I thought this was an interesting and unique way to cover the history of the secret formula and it was kind of neat knowing that the original document that is so integral to the company resided only a few feet away from where I was standing.
There were other things to do on the main level, such as view the bottle works production line where actual Coca-Colas are bottled. The system is totally automated but fascinating to watch as the empty bottles are filled with freshly mixed product, capped and inspected by a quality control person at the end of the line. I wasn’t sure what they did with the Cokes they bottled there but I would learn the answer to that later.
We visited other exhibits such as the “Milestones of Refreshment” display which has a variety of articles that correlate with the history of Coca-Cola. There one can see an assortment of Coke bottles from different eras and from different bottlers around the country. I looked for a bottle labeled “Jackson” on the bottom, from my hometown of Jackson Georgia but did not see one. My grandfather had several of them at his restaurant years ago from the time when Coca-Cola was bottled there.
There was also a lot of old signage, a vintage delivery vehicle, old vending machines, torches from different Olympic games that Coke has been a sponsor of and even a pristine, unopened bottle of TAB Cola, the original diet soft drink! Most people of adult age will see something on display that they can remember from their childhood and I was no exception having grown up around a barbecue restaurant that dates back 85 years and that has always sold Coke products.
On the second floor, we entered the 4D theater that is both fun and a bit jolting at times when you don’t know what to expect. Through the interactive feature that was shown, we discovered more about the secret ingredients in a Coke. I won’t spoil it by giving away the answers but it’s definitely worth checking out.
The Pop Culture Gallery is a small display room that features some pretty neat artwork about Coca-Cola, including some original Norman Rockwell pieces. Here we learned how “fans have made the brand an icon of pop culture” and we read some of their stories posted on a wall. You can even write and leave one of your own if you like.
The adjacent Perfect Pauses theater was a nice place to stop and relax a bit while watching some of the best commercials from the company over the years. Anyone my age will remember two particular commercials: one with “Mean Joe” Green, the football player, who accepts the gift of a Coke from a young fan and gives a gift in return; the jersey he wore during a pretty tough ball game. The other is the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial, featuring people of many nationalities gathered on a hilltop singing about peace and buying the world a Coke. Pure 70’s, yes, but part of our culture and history.
The last exhibit isn’t really an exhibit as much as a refreshment center where we could sample over a hundred varieties of soft drinks that Coca-Cola produces around the world. We certainly didn’t try to sample every one but I enjoyed a number of samples that included both familiar ones we have here in the United States and others you can’t find here. I had to have a sip of TAB, which was popular when I was a kid but very hard to find these days. There was a variety of foreign Fanta flavors, ginger ales, root beers and many more.
It was interesting to watch the reactions of some people who found a soda that they didn’t like or thought was strange. My favorite (hint to Coca-Cola) was Fanta Blue Raspberry and judging from the number of people who seemed to be hovering around the vending fountain, others must think the same. Hopefully I’ll find it in the store someday!
As we left the tasting area, we were each allowed to take with us a bottle of Coca Cola produced on site, which explained what they did with the Cokes they bottled on site. Mine went on the bookshelf in my office the next day; my son of course drank his sometime after we got home with it. We exited through the necessary gift store, which I admit is a fascinating place where you can buy all kinds of branded items and decided to head to the Varsity for dinner. The Varsity merits an article of its own which I hope to write soon.
For anyone interested in the history of Atlanta’s most notable and historic enterprise, the World of Coca-Cola is certainly worth the trip and spending a few hours immersed in well executed product promotion. You really learn a lot about the company, it’s history and how it has inspired and shaped our culture. Moreover, you realize that Coke is a pretty big part of the world and has been for a long time.
We have many different cultures, languages, beliefs and values, yet a product invented in Atlanta Georgia has managed to touch every part of the world and is universally enjoyed no matter what nation or continent. It is truly a world product and I’m kind of proud it came from my home state.