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By Anthony Romanello
County Manager, Stafford, VA
The signs were so tempting we had to stop.
On our way to Tallahassee, my son, Domenic, my daughter Anna and I were rolling along Florida’s Interstate
10. The road is flat, straight and unremarkable except for the large Florida Citrus Center signs every few
miles. The billboards show gigantic oranges extolling free samples of delicious Florida fruit and a “13‐foot
gator.” Ahead of schedule in our trip, I asked the kids if they wanted to stop to see the gator. As we closed in
on the Center, we began to imagine what we’d see: Where do they keep a 13‐foot gator? Can we fill up on
fruit samples so we won’t need to buy lunch? Finally, we arrived.
The Florida Citrus Center is about the size of a 7‐11 with a building and a parking lot demonstrating the
owner’s aim for quaint vs. modern. A man outside the store, cutting watermelon and oranges, greeted us. In front of him were small Tupperware bowls containing wafer‐thin orange slices and bullion‐sized watermelon cubes. A sign read “one sample per customer.” We savored our little treats and went in search for the gator.
Inside was a sea of key chains, postcards, and t‐shirts. There were pounds of “Pirate’s Booty” salt‐water taffy and solid chocolate alligators in a variety of sizes, including a two pounder. And then we saw the 13‐foot gator.
The length advertised on the billboards was no exaggeration. The gator was not in a pond or a tank; he was
unrestrained. As we moved closer we noticed he was not even alive. I told the kids well, maybe, a taxidermist preserved him. Closer inspection revealed that the 13‐foot gator, the pride of the Florida Citrus Center celebrated on signs every few miles on Florida’s Interstate 10 is – plastic.
We laughed out loud at the fake animal, took a picture, and left with a quart of Pirate’s Booty salt‐water taffy.
Our experience, at first, fell short of the wonder we imagined traveling along I‐10. Domenic, Anna, and I have
told the story of the Florida Citrus Center many times. A real gator with unlimited fruit samples would barely
be remembered today. Instead, our I‐10 journey with stops at no expectations, great expectations,
disappointment, and then laughter has been shared with many. I am reminded that some of my favorite
memories are times when things don’t go as planned. Sometimes, time can transform disappointment into
laughter. And when the laughter subsides, its residue leaves a wonderful memory.
The empty container of Pirate’s Booty salt‐water taffy sits on the kitchen counter like a trophy. It is plastic,
just like the gator.