Taking the Kids to Crayola Factory and America on Wheels in Pa.

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

You could say that 1962 marked the close of a benighted era of cultural insensitivity -- at least in the Crayola box. It was then, "partially as a result of the U.S. Civil Rights movement" (as a company press release put it), that the crayon manufacturer finally renamed one of its more notorious colors: Flesh.

And so, just as the Easton, Pa.-based company had done in the case of Midnight Blue (ne Prussian Blue) and would later do with Chestnut (once Indian Red), Crayola took a stab at adapting its timeless product to changing times.

The result, of course, was Peach.

Be that as it may, Crayola has always taken seriously the task of naming its crayons. Not so its 12-year-old Crayola Factory, which is less a factory than a multi-station craft-studio-cum-playground, the bulk of the company's crayons being produced at a true factory several miles away (and closed to the public). The only thing manufactured at the Crayola Factory is brand loyalty, and judging by the faces of the under-10 crowd, Crayola is succeeding mightily on that score.

Crayola Bedlam: That's what I'd rename it if I could. This being the season for parents to cast a wide net for indoor diversions, consider yourself warned: Expect to wait 20 minutes just to buy tickets to the facility. The $9.50 admission charge (everyone age 3 and older pays) grants access to a "Factory Floor" that is frequently exciting, usually jampacked and always damn loud.

That's not to say that the little ones won't be engrossed, of course, especially by stations such as the Meltdown, where, as the name implies, kids can make paintings out of melted crayons. Another winner is Inside Out, in which they're invited to color on walls to their hearts' content, an employee regularly wiping the surfaces clean just in time for a new crop of vandals to arrive.

And even a child knows what "factory" really means; to that end, the Crayola people have built a demonstration theater. Before your eyes and from behind a glass wall, you watch as an amped-up host ("Let's make some crayons!") pours a bucket of red-tinted paraffin into a mold, vamps for a while, then extrudes more than a thousand little red cylinders to sincere gasps of delight.

No sooner has the presentation concluded with a short lecture on the intricacies of crayon-sharpening and labeling than it's time for a trip back to the battle stations. There, the kids can color or sculpt (Crayola doesn't make just crayons, ya know) or use construction paper and markers. Parents, meanwhile, are left to ponder once more the mysteries of crayon-naming.

To wit: This year, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of a milestone in childhood megalomania -- the box of 64 crayons -- Crayola introduced eight new colors whose names were chosen by 20,000 kids in an online survey. What can we deduce from these new hues? That kids are even more attuned than their parents to the possibilities of crayon as symbol. A magenta-ish creature has been given the name Famous, a red stick is Awesome and a wholly unremarkable gray crayon will no doubt gain star power from Bear Hug.

The lesson, of course, is that calling something whatever you want is no obstacle to its acceptance; hence the crowds at the Crayola Factory. A similar denominative lesson is on offer at another kid-friendly attraction, this one in nearby Allentown. It's called the America on Wheels museum, which suggests nothing less than one of those theme park exhibits GM used to sponsor back in the old, flush days. As with the Crayola Factory, the name is something of a misnomer, though in this case happily so.

Like its counterpart in Easton, America on Wheels was an urban renewal project of sorts, a what-the-hell effort in a perennially depressed part of the Lehigh Valley. But the 48,000-square-foot museum, which opened in April, is the real deal, boasting an impressive collection of bikes, cars, trucks and more, much of it thanks to the Mack truck people, whose own plant is nearby.

Car-crazy youngsters will love the simulated truck driving, the replica of Pee-wee Herman's Schwinn and especially the compendious collection of vintage auto magazines in the museum's library. America on Wheels is an unabashed shrine to the automobile in all its quirky variety, from the 1948 Chevrolet Fleetmaster to the 1970 Plymouth Superbird. But what sets the museum apart are its sober moments, the lonely star of "Who Killed the Electric Car?," for one, one of the few EV1s to survive GM's wrecking ball.

There's the hydrogen-powered vehicle and an exhibit that shows just what we're up against in producing them; a Toyota Prius afforded considerable attention, and then, a museum prized possession: an 1891 Nadig, one of the first vehicles in America built to run on gasoline. I know, I know, but hold on. The Nadig sits surrounded by its contemporaries, several of them steam- or electric-powered, all of them powerful reminders that burning fossil fuels for transport is not -- and never was -- our only option.

All in all, a great place. In fact, America on Wheels' only drawback is its location, Allentown, a name that, like Easton, isn't exactly synonymous with children's entertainment. But, hey, what's in a name, anyway?

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