Cereal City USA - Closed
Battle Creek, Michigan
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was chief medical officer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the late 19th century. He believed that diet was a key to good health. "Eat what the monkey eats," he told anyone who would listen. "Simple food and not too much of it."
In an attempt to create a substitute for bread, Kellogg turned wheat into flakes -- which his kid brother then packaged and marketed as the world's first breakfast cereal. To cut a long story extremely short, this led to Battle Creek becoming the "Cereal Capital of the World," and eventually to Kellogg's Cereal City USA, a $22 million breakfast food funhouse that opened downtown in 1998.
We toured Cereal City just after we had seen the American Museum of Magic, an attraction built by one man who ate peanut butter sandwiches and went without a car so that he could fund it. Cereal City was not built by people who had to eat peanut butter sandwiches. Slick and corporate, it's an attraction-by-committee that leases space to non-cereal advertisers, such as Lego blocks and Kellogg's Eggo Waffles. And then forgets to make any sort of Lego My Eggo joke. Battle Creek itself has had representations of its Red Onion Cafe and Bijou Theater built into this place's bendy-twisty, ToonTownish decor.
Cereal City really does try to be wacky and goofy, but its corporate roots are always showing. It has a mission statement posted at its ticket counter. It was voted "Best New Product" by The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. Imagine a Disney Store that charges admission, with a few video theaters and other diversions thrown in, and you'll have Cereal City.
Kids are the intended audience at Cereal City, making it a magnet for at-their-wits-end parents and a godsend to the cereal industry, which needs to court a new generation of breakfast product consumers. Representations of Tony the Tiger; Snap, Crackle, and Pop; and Toucan Sam are everywhere. We enjoyed the circlet of Tony faces around Cereal City's outdoor glockenspiel, tracing the evolution of everyone's favorite cartoon tiger. Poor Dr. Kellogg, however, is reduced to a colorless dummy in a second-floor Historical Timeline display. The snack bar that bears his health-nut name serves ice cream sundaes topped with Fruit Loops.
Fun? This place is a Brand Manager's garden of delights. "The Best to You Revue" sits visitors in a giant kitchen while video screens and animated Kellogg's characters tell "the story of cereal." "A Bowl Full of Dreams" in the Cereal City Cinema is another marketing homage, this one narrated by the late Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan. The Cereal Bowl of America Heritage Theater shows a history of Kellogg's TV ads on TV sets. The Famous Flakes counter is always busy, with visitors having their picture taken and placed on single-serving souvenir boxes of Frosted Flakes. Full-size boxes are displayed behind glass, graced with the faces of C-list celebrities such as Kevin Neelan (Saturday Nite Live), Tom Greene (former Mr. Drew Barrymore), and somebody from Survivor II.
Visitors to Cereal City quickly notice boxes of Corn Flakes moving along a conveyor belt near the ceiling. This advertises the sentimental highlight of Cereal City, its "simulated Cereal Production Line." At one time Kellogg's gave tours of its manufacturing plant in Battle Creek (Here's what a happy family looked like after taking the tour in 1985). That ended in 1986, "due to OSHA and espionage," according to our tourguide (Rival cereal giant Post was also in Battle Creek.).
Cereal City recreates the factory tour, or at least parts of it. One can almost see the focus group questionnaire that shaped its creation: What do you enjoy most about food factory tours? The answers: 1) the sanitary paper hat, and 2) the warm, "fresh-made" food sample at the end of the tour. And that's what you get here. But there is no food factory at the other end of the conveyor belt.
After an introductory video (where you're given your paper hat), you're walked past a dozen fake manufacturing stations -- fake machines, pipes, valves. Monitors show video of the real manufacturing, which takes place somewhere else. At the last station, with the conveyor-belt Corn Flakes boxes directly overhead, you're encouraged to twist a gumball dispenser handle and receive a Dixie cup full of warmed-up cereal. It isn't fresh-made. It's just warmed up. But the people on our tour waited in line to get it.
Kellogg's Cereal City USA is a faint echo of a lost time, an attraction geared to getting Americans used to the idea of NOT seeing things being made. Now that the factories have been outsourced to Mexico and China, we're being taught to redirect our consumer love toward the marketing, not the manufacturing. The kids don't know any differently. Cereal fans -- who long ago stopped eating what the monkey eats -- will just have to get used to it.