Monday, July 23, 2012

Daytrip: Babyland General

What began as a sunny Saturday with a 30% chance of rain turned into a raging 5-hour storm that downed trees and ruined our daytrip. I had planned to explore the legendary tourist traps of White County, Georgia, but was locked in at Babyland General, the faux maternity ward where Cabbage Patch Dolls are born.

The drive to White County from Atlanta is longer than you'd expect by looking at a map, but if you watch any 90 minute comedy on the way up, the drive will be over before you think to look at the road. You jump on highway 400 going straight north from the city and slam on your brakes as hard as possible when your 80 mile per hour drive on a limited access highway suddenly has a red traffic light in the middle of it. Meandering through Dawsonville, you decide not to stop at the outlet mall or get any fast food. Then 400 ends, and you continue straight up route 19 to highway 52, where you turn right for the first time, arriving in White County a few miles later.

It was at this point that my wife's iPod had randomly selected to play "East 1999" by Bone, a hilarious rap song I had ironically placed on it to remind her of middle school.

"Cleveland is the city where we come from so ruuuuun," it repeated, made even funnier by the "CLEVELAND CITY LIMITS" sign we passed on the way into our first intended destination of the trip.

Dark storm clouds loomed to the north. The plan was to hit up Cleveland first, visiting the incredibly cheesy doll factory, eat at the fabled Ma Gooch's home cooking restaurant, and then travel a few more miles up to the Bavarian city of Helen to browse chocolates and throw garbage into lederhosen-adorned trash cans. But the storm had other plans.

My son needed to eat, so we stopped in a drug store parking lot and fed him his lunch as I watched the storm overtake the sun and turn day into night. White County residents, all appropriately white, walked barefoot across the asphalt with dogs off the leash.

"Look! A mexican!" a small boy shouted. I looked, and saw a hispanic man riding a bike down the street.

"Look, a horrific storm," I said to my wife as I put the car in gear and proceeded toward Babyland General. The downpour began as we walked through the front door of the building and entered into a wonderland of marketing hell.

Wow! Quincy Jones!
In 1978, a 23-year-old art student named Xavier Roberts from Cleveland developed a line of baby dolls he called Little People, and began producing them in an old medical clinic in his home town which he named Babyland General. Despite being a relatively small operation, by 1982 the recently renamed Cabbage Patch Dolls were a nationwide fad in high demand. The utter popularity of the dolls brought visitors from across the country, including untold numbers of celebrities immortalized on the celebrity wall (now located next to the bathrooms). By the end of the millennium, almost 100 million dolls had been sold.

Of course, the fad slowly faded away, but Babyland General was always yet another thing for daytripping Atlanta tourists to see on their way to Helen. The centerpiece was its Magic Crystal Tree that a Licensed Patch Nurse would deliver a new baby from once an hour, pulling it from the cabbage patch and allowing the visitors to name it. I remember my trip there as a child, roughly six years old, with my friend Jared from Missouri.

"Who would like to name the baby?" the LPN asked. Jared raised his hand.

"Jared!" he shouted. The baby was then given a middle name by another audience member, and was eventually sold to someone who gave it its last name.

Babyland General also featured numerous other rooms, such as the nursery for newborn babies, the intensive care unit for premature births, the school house, a bridge over an indoor creek, glowing crystals everywhere, and many more things that are incredibly magical to a child and horribly cheesy to an adult.

Oops, the Earth disappeared
We were standing in the lobby, happy to have dodged the cold rain, inside of the new $2.5 million mansion that sits on 600 acres of land. If the old building was a tiny used medical facility near the Cleveland square, this massive compound just outside of the city limits would have to be spectacular, right? We moved through the entrance and into the nurseries.

Three small rooms contained rare Cabbage Patch Dolls, all for sale, generally in the range of $300. We passed through the nurseries, excited to see the Magic Crystal Tree and all the other fantastic treasures that awaited us.

Instead, we exited into the ultimate gift shop. If you've ever been to Disneyworld and ended up in a huge gift shop at the end of a ride, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It was a massive room filled with stuff to buy. Around the perimeter were glowing crystals with dolls in various states of birth from the cabbage patch, moving via electric motors. A school bus filled with dolls stood in the middle of the room. The birthing tree was visible from every corner of the room.

An announcement was made that a baby was dilated at eight leaves and that we should all head to the center of the room to witness the birth. An LPN gave the same speech that had been told for thirty years, birthed the baby, and then asked if anyone wanted to name the baby. An excited adolescent girl waved her hand vigorously in the air.

"BAAHHAN!" she shouted in excitement.

"Uh, I'm sorry, what was that?" the LPN asked.

"BAHHNK!" she again excitedly yelled.

"Hold on, I think I'm getting some feedback," he said, and turned his microphone down.
Banks and his unfortunate hair

"Banks," she quietly said.

"Okay, Banks? Banks, and a middle name? Simon. Everyone say hello to Banks Simon!" We all applauded, except for my son, who sat on my shoulders and had no idea what was happening.

We continued to peruse the gifts as the storm raged outside, held captive by its relentless downpour. Not everything was CPD-related; the store held Legos, Sesame Street characters, and a wide variety of third party merchants' products that had contracted to be held inside this gigantic gift shop. We went to the nursery to see young Banks Simon placed in the window, and then gave up, bought a $5 caterpillar that my son wouldn't let go of, and I pulled the car around to bravely rescue my family from the store and storm. It was a long drive home.

Both my wife and I had remembered a much better experience at the old Babyland General. There seemed to be more character, more things to be awed by, more of the spirit of the original shop that cranked out the fixed-gaze dolls with yarn-like hair. The new, $2.5 million mansion on 600 acres was a massive disappointment compared to the old medical-building-turned-doll-shop. But at least it was free.

Or maybe it's still magical to children.