“We have a favorite saying here: ‘You’re not famous until your head is on a PEZ dispenser,’” says Shawn Peterson, manager of the PEZ Visitor Center in Orange.
Of course, PEZ itself is a cultural icon, and the center has its own in-house idol: Tall Boy, the world’s largest PEZ dispenser. As you enter the 4,000-square-foot space, he stretches into the second story, automated head bobbing to greet you. Though you can’t reach into his mouth to retrieve a piece of candy, you’re invited to take a few mini-packs of PEZ available in the six classic flavors—cherry, grape, lemon, strawberry, orange and raspberry—before embarking on your self-guided tour.
You’ll soon discover that the company launched in 1927 as a breath mint company in Austria, the name a combination of the first, middle and last letters of the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz. The first dispenser was designed in 1948 and was introduced at the Vienna Trade Fair a year later, modeled to resemble something near and dear to that generation: a cigarette lighter.
Fruit flavors and creative dispensers—shaped into ray guns, space robots and the very first character, Santa Claus—were introduced in the 1950s to appeal to the U.S. market. In 1961, PEZ acquired a license from Disney (the second one Disney ever issued) and Mickey Mouse debuted shortly thereafter.
Oh how the heads have rolled in since, from the distinguished to the notorious, the fictitious (like Homer Simpson, Kermit the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, Batman, Frodo Baggins, Charlie Brown and so many more) to the larger-than-life (presidents and rock stars, to start). If it’s a cultural icon, it has a place in PEZ history, and in the PEZ Visitor Center.
The center’s layout is open, encouraging play and exploration from the first step. A colorful timeline hits the highlights of each decade, with interactive, knee-high Q&A puzzles for the little ones to discover, inviting them to open boxes and slide doors and levers to reveal fun PEZ facts.
Just past the timeline exhibit, large windows offer a view of the working factory floor. When I visited, a demonstration was underway for a Girl Scout troop gathered around a noisy machine, watching tablets fly out of the whirring silver gears, like a scene out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The PEZ factory produces a million rolls of candy a day, 12 tablets to a roll (the same number as the originals), five days a week.
On the second floor, PEZ vending machines from various decades line the wall, and you can check out the PEZ motorcycle built by the Orange County Choppers, who incidentally have a PEZ collector’s kit in their image.
Back on the lower level, you can star in your own PEZ video and personalize a PEZ dispenser head (a blank canvas awaits, with plenty of markers and crayons to decorate your masterpiece). You can also mix and match a tin of your favorite flavors, which now total 14, including the more savory chocolate and cola; blended flavors raspberry lemon and strawberry vanilla; and four sour options—watermelon, pineapple, apple, and blue raspberry.
There’s also plenty to purchase: collections of U.S. presidents, the limited edition KISS collection, the Star Wars collection (and Star Trek, too), the Hello Kitty collection. Holiday options range from glow-in-the-dark Halloween pumpkins to the Easter Bunny to that first (and all-time best-selling) heady PEZ dispenser, Santa Claus.
A Collector Spotlight display case features a different PEZ collector each month. In January, it highlights Bill Hellemes and his collection of 15 gold regulars—“regulars” are the lighter-type, headless dispensers—that were made for a mail-in premium offer from 1952-53. The company simply painted other colored dispensers gold; looking closely at the various gold regulars on display, flecks of kelly green and beige peek through.
As a collector himself, this exhibit is especially important to Peterson, whose personal stash of dispensers numbers in the thousands. “People’s stories are as interesting as the dispensers themselves—how they got interested, and what makes PEZ special to them,” he says.
Peterson’s own PEZ story started with a random trip to the flea market, not in search of anything other than an entertaining afternoon. He doesn’t remember which ones were his first dispensers, just that he paid $5 and walked away with a dozen. “They were fun, inexpensive, nostalgic, and I liked the way they worked.”
That was in 1991, “before the Internet,” says Peterson. “You had to ask, talk to people, take pen to paper and write letters.” Then in 1992, he learned that a collector’s guide was being released, “and I was on a mission from that point forward.”
In 2010, Peterson relocated from Kansas City to join PEZ’s only U.S. factory and help launch the Visitor Center, which officially opened in December 2011 and has already welcomed more than 100,000 visitors. The Orange location (selected, Peterson jokes, because “they didn’t have a ‘Grape’ or ‘Lemon, CT,’ so we figured Orange would have to do!”) opened as a factory in 1974 and produces the candy only—not the dispensers, which are made in China.
To this day, PEZ considers carefully before committing to a new dispenser line, as it takes about a year to go from concept to marketplace, and trends can easily come and go in that time.
“We look for familiarity and recognition, something people know and love,” says Peterson of the criteria for PEZ dispensers. “It needs to be tried and true, something with staying power.”
PEZ Visitor Center
35 Prindle Hill Rd, Orange (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12-5pm
Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.