Crayola's new tourist attraction draws on history Colorful: Makers of the famous crayons built a factory and museum just for visitors.

September 22, 1996|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, the town of Easton in eastern Pennsylvania was known for only two colors -- black and blue -- because this is where former heavyweight boxing champion Larry Holmes lives. But the home of the "Easton Assassin" soon will be known for a much broader palette.

This summer, Binney & Smith Inc., makers of Crayola crayons, opened the Crayola Factory, a combination children's museum/factory tour in a remodeled department store in Easton's downtown.

Binney had run group tours for 20 years in the factory where its famous crayons and other products are made, a few miles north of Easton.

But as demand outraced capacity -- the company was turning away two requests for every visitor served and had a two-year waiting list -- it decided to take up city fathers on their offer of a new tourism site downtown.

The resulting attraction merits the early praise it has received.

This is one museum where the parents are ready to go home long before the kids.

It's also worth the three-hour trip from Baltimore, especially if combined with other sights in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, a relatively obscure tourism destination compared with its neighbors to the north and west, the Pocono Mountains, Reading's outlets and Amish Country.

The crayon is one of the most engaging and enduring invention of this century.

In a Yale University study, adults ranked crayons among the 20 most recognizable scents, below only a few olfactory turn-ons such as coffee and peanut butter. Protesters picketed Binney headquarters a few years ago when the company decided to discontinue eight fuddy-duddy colors such as raw umber and maize for hipper shades such as fuchsia and teal. Even in an Internet age, no other tool coaxes creativity from kids so early as the crayon.

You also won't find a more politically correct product than this hunk of colored paraffin wax (although, amazingly, there is still a color called "Indian red").

Society may wag a finger at kids staying glued to the tube, but President Clinton won't be proposing a C-chip to cut down the estimated 28 minutes a day the average child spends coloring.

Binney estimates that a typical youngster wears down 730 crayons by his 10th birthday. American folk artist Grant Wood, best known for his couple with the pitchfork in "American Gothic," credited his childhood award in a Crayola drawing contest with encouraging him to pursue a painting career, or so the story goes. The big, apricot-and-duck-green box with the trademark squiggle is a powerful childhood symbol for many adults.

Crayola's new tourism center was overwhelmed by visitors in its inaugural summer. An effusive segment on CNN when the place opened didn't hurt, either. Binney anticipated drawing 700 people a day this summer. It averaged 1,600 and topped 2,300 one day. That created misery, with waits as long as three hours to get into the attraction and with day-trippers being turned away at noon because timed tickets for the entire day had already been allocated.

The Crayola people admit that they have bugs to work out. This winter may provide a breather to make adjustments.

Many attractions

Combine parts of the Maryland Science Center and urban children's museums, mix in some of the candy factory tour at Hershey, Pa., and you'll get a sense of the Crayola Factory.

On the August day I visited with my family, we were greeted by one of those dreaded three-hour waits -- one hour to secure a timed ticket, two more hours to get in.

It did not turn out as ugly as it sounded, but visitors should arrive before noon or they might not get in.

(Tip: Groups of 10 or more can make advance reservations, at a discount.)

My dad graciously agreed to wait in line for the tickets, while the rest of our party walked over to the adjoining Crayola superstore.

If you think you'll find bargains here, with the factory just up the road, think again. The prices are as huge as the selection. But that hasn't stopped products from moving off the shelves. The shop is raking in triple its projections. During my hour or so there, two cashier lines were always at least four or five customers deep. If cousins Edwin Binney and C. Harold Smith could see what their company (founded in 1885 to sell industrial pigments) had wrought in these aisles, they would be astounded. There are Crayola sweaters and neckties, computer accessories and, yes, even crayons -- crayons that smell, crayons with glitter, crayons that glow in the dark.

Our total wait turned out to be less than two hours, and visiting the superstore made the wait seem shorter.

After passing under a suspended, enclosed footbridge, we were inside the factory -- actually Two Rivers Landing, the name of the brick-and-glass complex that includes the Crayola attraction, a regional information center and the National Canal Museum.

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