Mouth to Mouth

Mouth to Mouth

“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 before you embark 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 earliest 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.

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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 US 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 since, from the fictitious (Homer Simpson, Kermit the Frog, Frodo Baggins, Charlie Brown and so many more, including Avengers and Justice Leaguers) to the famous (presidents and rock stars, to start). If it’s an American cultural icon, it likely 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, and just past that, large windows offer a view of the factory floor, which typically operates on weekdays. 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, for $5.99, you can fill a tin by mixing and matching 14 flavors, from PEZ’s six fruity staples (cherry, strawberry, raspberry, lemon, orange and grape) to the more savory chocolate and cola to four sour options (watermelon, pineapple, green apple and blue raspberry).

There are also plenty of dispensers to purchase, like collections of US presidents, the Star Wars collection and Star Trek, too. Holiday options range from glow-in-the-dark Halloween pumpkins to the Easter Bunny to that first (and all-time bestselling) heady PEZ dispenser, Santa Claus.

A “Collector Spotlight” display case features a different PEZ collector each month. “People’s stories are as interesting as the dispensers themselves—how they got interested, and what makes PEZ special to them,” Peterson says. A collector himself, Peterson’s personal stash of dispensers numbers in the thousands. His 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,” Peterson says. “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 US headquarters and help launch the visitor center, which officially opened in December 2011. The Orange location (“They didn’t have a ‘Grape’ or ‘Lemon, CT,’ so we figured Orange would have to do!” Peterson jokes) opened as a factory in 1974 and produces the candy only—not the dispensers, which are made in China.

To this day, PEZ considers ideas 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 conceiving new PEZ dispensers. “It needs to be tried and true, something with staying power.”

PEZ Visitor Center
35 Prindle Hill Rd, Orange (map)
Daily 11am-4pm, with masks required; production floor active Mon-Fri except on holidays
$5 admission, with discounts for kids ≤ 12 or seniors ≥ 60
(203) 298-0201

Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore. This updated article was originally published on January 29, 2013.

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