October 23, 2014

Here & Now: King and Queen of Quirk

Tommy and PamelaTommy practically bounds out of bed at the crack of dawn each morning and goes out to play. Not just in summertime like ordinary kids, but every day, all year. There’s so much fun out there, he says, why waste time sleeping? In his playground are giant dinosaurs (fake) in a rainforest (real), and a whole pride of lions (once alive, now stuffed). Not to mention stingrays to pet and live peacocks with electric blue plumage that swish right up and stare you in the eye, bold as you please. Elvis is there in his gold lamé suit, and a giant plastic Betty Boop presides over the popcorn machine.

There are a million things to do before Tommy’s pretty sweetheart, Pamela, shows up later in her cute Pooh Bear and Tigger outfit. Her favorite spot on the playground is the little clubhouse. She gets so excited draping white gauze and twinkly lights in there for a fairytale wedding, or making Batman’s Bat Cave for a cartoon party, that she sometimes forgets to go home when the playground closes.

Tommy is partial to the daily hermit crab races, and once a month, he and his pack of buddies take over the clubhouse, No Girlz Allowd.

As you’ve surely guessed, Tommy and Pamela are grown-up sweethearts—and they own the playground. It’s called the Shell Factory—that quirky U.S. 41 roadside tourist stop north of Fort Myers with the huge conch shell out front. Tom, a multi-dimensional businessman who hasn’t a clue what the concept of retirement means, was born two years after it opened. He bought it on a whim 15 years ago. The vast millions of seashells, coral, pink flamingoes, snow globes, Christmas ornaments and shell/coral souvenirs came with the deal. Tommy’s daddy was a taxidermist, so that’s the story on the lions and roughly $5 million worth of animals and trophies. One creature looks a bit like a miniature wooly mammoth. Actually, it’s a musk ox that died in a battle with a collector on some remote arctic mountaintop. A sherpa carried them both down the mountain and the musk ox ended up in the collection.

Retirement? Not.

Grown up though they are, sweethearts Tom Cronin Sr. and Pam Cronin embody a childlike playfulness that ignites a spark in their vast circle of friends and about half a million tourists a year. At 73, Tom’s bounding out of bed has taken a bit more of a sedate turn, but still, he’s already working in his home office by 4 a.m. and on the road to the Shell Factory before most people pour their morning coffee.

“I have 18 acres and a service crew to dispatch,” he says, almost defensively. “I have 10,000 light bulbs to keep burning and 300-plus animals and birds to care for.”

“Not to mention the to-do list he leaves for me every morning,” Pam interjects.

I could swear she just batted her long dark lashes at her husband.

Smitten

After 17 years together, there still appears to be a lot of eyelash batting going on, and he blushes like a smitten teenager. Their constant flirting around town once caused a friend to stop by their restaurant table to ask, “Do you two realize you’re married?”

Besides the flirting, the Cronins share a home, an office and an offbeat sense of humor. So, do they ever fight? “Like cats and dogs,” she says. Usually he calls me Pam, but when he thinks he’s disciplining me, it’s Pamela. But all our battles are about what kind of crazy thing we might do next. With 150 events a year, it can be intense. Thousands of off-the-wall ideas get tossed around. When one sticks, the fun begins. Tom’s the daydreamer who draws up the outline, but I’m the one who gets to color it in.”
 
Quirky Mishmash

Within the walls of the Shell Factory, it’s still last century’s roadside souvenir stand on steroids. Outside, things are evolving. The Cronins are creating a heavily landscaped nature park, botanical garden and aviary connected by pristine paths. There are footbridges and touch tanks, and free-roaming, healthy-looking critters of various kinds. Nearby is the Cracker House, an old Dairy Queen building the Cronins salvaged and transformed into a cute event venue where Pam makes themed party magic for weddings and gatherings. Outside Tom and Pam’s window, local artist Sunny Lee Graebert is painting a mural for the nature park.

There’s Dog Heaven, a venue for such doggie activities as greyhound adoptions and wiener dog races. Oh, and on Sundays, you can bring Fido to Doggy Church, a non-denominational service in the chapel.

“We’re a quirky old mishmash attraction,” Tom says, “but in one way no different from Disney and the other big ones: If you don’t have continuous change and new experiences, you’re done.”

Survivors

Besides Tom’s being a three-time cancer survivor, the Shell Factory actually came very close to being “done” two years ago when their long-time bank decided to tighten its belt and call in loans. But after several decades of helping the less fortunate, giving of their time and resources, and enriching their community, a groundswell of indignation and unity inspired the bank to have a miraculous change of heart.

The gentlemen and the girlee girlz

On Friday afternoons, Tom slips off to join a group of friends dubbed The Gentlemen’s Club. “A bunch of curmudgeons playing cards,” Pam laughs.

“True,” Tom counters, “but 100 percent of our dues go to our new nonprofit Nature Park foundation. We hosted 4,000 children last year. Meanwhile, Pam and about 85 of her closest friends are members of the club she founded called the Girlee Girlz. About 30 of them get together once a month to giggle, support each other and plan over-the-top parties for charity. No Boyz Allowd.

Making a difference

While the Cronins clearly don’t take themselves seriously, the rest of Southwest Florida certainly does. Tom has been dubbed honorary mayor for his vast contributions to community-building in Fort Myers and Lee County. Pam, is among the most beloved movers and shakers in town. She has served in a Who’s Who of Lee County leadership roles, including president of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce and member of the Tourist Development Council. Together, they have helped raise millions of dollars for charitable causes.

One day—even here in Florida—there won’t be any more roadside tourist stops and family attractions like the Shell Factory. Some people love ’em and some hate ’em. But for now, playmates and sweethearts Tommy and Pamela are having a blast keeping a quirky slice of Americana alive.

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