This post was originally published in October, 2015.
My sister, Kate, lives in Valdosta, southern Georgia about 22 miles from the Florida border. As part of our visit we planned a girls’ get-away that would give us a taste of Atlanta and Savannah. (Valdosta to Atlanta to Savannah and back to Valdosta forms a triangle. The plan was a 3.5 hour drive to Atlanta, overnight in Atlanta with the next morning to sight-see Atlanta, 3.5 hour afternoon drive to Savannah, 2 overnights allowing a full day and a half for sightseeing Savannah, and a 3.5 hour drive back to my sister’s home in Valdosta.) Not enough time! Never enough time!
We started our get-away in Atlanta, a city known for its rich Southern heritage. Atlanta is the capital of Georgia, the site of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, and the birthplace of Coca-Cola. We arrived in Atlanta just before rush hour and did a self-guided driving tour of downtown Atlanta.
Downtown Atlanta is home to the city’s sporting venues and many of its tourist attractions. We circled Centennial Park, ohhed and ahhed over the Skywheel, passed the Georgia Aquarium (the largest aquarium in the world), and decided to spend the next morning at the World of Coca-Cola. We purchased our tickets for the 10 a.m. VIP tour over the phone. We planned for 2 hours at The World of Coca-Cola and then lunch at The Varsity before our drive to Savannah.
The World of Coca Cola is one of Atlanta’s top tourist attractions welcoming over one million guests each year. Located at Pemberton Place (named for Dr. John Pemberton who invented Coca-Cola in 1886) it shares a large grassy lawn with the Georgia Aquarium and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Pemberton Place also has a parking garage where you can park all day for $10.
The World of Coca-Cola is an interactive museum dedicated to all things Coke. It covers 125 years of the history of the iconic soft drink. You will learn how it helped shape American culture, and view thousands of artifacts from past advertising campaigns. (Coca-Cola practically invented advertising.)
We met our Coke Ambassador, John, in the Lobby. He gave us lanyards identifying us as members of the VIP tour and headsets so we could hear him during our tour. John was fabulous! (You’ve got to figure he does at least 3 tours a day in an 8 hour shift and he still manages to come off fresh and enthusiastic for each tour.) The cost of the VIP tour is a little less than double the cost of general admission but the benefits of the tour are worth ten times that. You move to the head of the lines for every exhibit and your guide points out things you might miss otherwise. You move quickly through the museum and at the end of the VIP tour you can go back to those areas you want to spend more time in.
Our tour started in the Coca-Cola Loft where another Coke Ambassador pointed out advertising artifacts, some dating back to 1896. (I can not say enough about the employees’ gracious hospitality and their Coca-Cola smiles.) From the Loft we moved to The Hub where we saw a 6 minute tear-jerking movie. (Yes, I cried. One of the employees told me it took her two weeks before she stopped tearing up every time she saw the movie so I don’t feel too bad.) The film is a key part of Coca-Cola’s current advertising campaign, “Open Happiness.” The movie set the tone for the entire happy tour. Of course my general euphoria after the tour might also have been fueled by the sugar rush of tasting massive amounts of Coca-Cola products from around the world in the Taste It Gallery.
Other highlights of the museum to check out: get your picture with the Coca-Cola bear, the secret formula exhibit (includes the vault where the formula is held), the pop culture room, and a 4-D movie.
The tour ends in the inevitable gift shop but even that is fascinating with all the coke merchandise you can purchase for souvenirs. (I will admit I succumbed to temptation and purchased a book, Coca-Cola Refreshing Recipes, but I did have a 10% discount with my VIP tour.)
And since we are on true confessions, I must tell you that I am not a Coke drinker. I rarely drink carbonated drinks anymore. But you don’t have to use Coke products to be amazed and fascinated by this museum. Coca-Cola advertising is pervasive in our culture and nothing brought this fact home to me more than viewing the Pop Culture Gallery while on the tour. You will see more than a dozen original paintings featuring Coca‑Cola by artists such as Norman Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom, the artist behind the Coca‑Cola Santa. Our guide explained that prior to 1931, there was no consistent depiction of Santa Claus. That changed in 1931 when Coca‑Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images of Santa Claus. Inspired by Clement C. Moore’s famous poem “’Twas the Night before Christmas,” Sundblom created the popular image of the warm and amiable Santa (with the Coca-Cola-red colored coat and hat) that we all know and love today.
“Open Happiness” is the current Coca Cola advertising campaign. It’s a good slogan for the tour of the World of Coca-Cola. Everyone who goes on the tour will exit with a smile and a souvenir 8 oz bottle of Coca-Cola.
We left the World of Coca-Cola for lunch at The Varsity. The Varsity is an iconic restaurant chain. The main branch of the chain is the largest drive-in fast food restaurant in the world. My introduction to The Varsity was on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.
Fun Fact: An interesting bit of history about the restaurant is that U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama all visited during their terms in office. Also, comedian Nipsey Russell began his career at The Varsity in the 1940s. Working as a car hop he would entertain the customers to earn bigger tips.
Over the years The Varsity has become synonymous in Atlanta’s folklore with a clever and unorthodox catchphrase, “What’ll ya have?” It appears on takeout boxes and cups as well as Varsity memorabilia and is the required greeting to all customers.
Along with ‘What’ll ya have?” the Varsity staff developed their own jargon when calling out orders eventually listing its items with both their conventional and jargon references on both their overhead and printed menus. I ordered a Yellow Dog (a naked dog with mustard only), an F.O. (a frosted orange shake), and Ring One (order of onion rings.)
The meal was unspectacular but the experience was enjoyable.
I would have loved to have had more time in Atlanta. We barely scratched the surface of things to do, but Savannah beckons.