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A Lot More Than Just Shells

by Carol DeFrank

SHELLING ON THE BEACHESS of southwest Florida is a natural pastime. Some wonderful treasures have been found, but you take your chances because often there’s nothing new to retrieve. Instead, head for the Shell Factory where you take the chance out of the equation and always find thousands of shells, fossils, sponges and treasures from around the world.

The North Fort Myers landmark is the brainchild of Harold & Mildred Grant, who fell in love with the area while honeymooning in the early 1950s.

The original Shell Factory was built in Bonita Springs, where it flourished until a fire destroyed it in 1952. The Grants rebuilt it at the current location where in spite of enduring several hurricanes, a second fire, several owners, bankruptcy and foreclosures, it still stands today.

Tom & Pam Cronin purchased the Shell Factory in 1997 when it was almost defunct. According to Pam, it was in a sad state of affairs. “There wasn’t much there besides a dollar store, the fudge kitchen and about a tenth of the shells that are available today.”

Most people wouldn’t have even tried to make a go of a business in such dire straits, but it was a natural for Tom, who is the managing partner in a real estate development corporation and makes his living buying and retrofitting depressed properties for his company. Pam gives him a lot of the credit for their success. “My husband is the mastermind behind most of the new features. He has an incredible vision and a creative, childlike imagination.”

One reason the Shell Factory is thriving is nostalgia. So many Floridians and snowbirds have vivid childhood memories of the place. “People are always telling us they know they’re close to home when they spot the Shell Factory sign. We’ve heard stories about birthday parties held here and families who would spend their Sunday afternoons having fun feeding the fish or riding the rides.”

Over the years the Cronins gradually added 40,000 square feet of retail space, including a restaurant, Natural History Museum, Money Museum, year-round Christmas Shop and 200 animals.

Now the attractions are just as responsible as nostalgia for drawing crowds.

The miniature golf course is popular, as is the video arcade, bumper boats, water wars, retail shops, millions of shells, coral, jewelry, toys, and a shelling beach.

No one should miss the nightly presentation of Waltzing Waters, a patented array of individually moving nozzles also known as liquid fireworks. The Cronins discovered the closest similar attraction was in Orlando. “We were surprised because it’s a spectacular production of engineering and artistry and is manufactured right here in the Cape,” Pam said.

Kids and adults enjoy the Nature Park & Botanical Gardens, inhabited by animals that have relatives all over the world. It’s surrounded by 7,000 square feet of lush trails. The Lorikeet Aviary, Touch & Feel Center, and the Rainforest Aviary each house a different species of animals that are interesting and for the most part, friendly.

Also on the grounds is a small animal museum that houses a plethora of animals from bunnies and guinea pigs to baby alligators, as well as a reptile room and a primate pavilion, the dwelling place of ring-tailed lemurs and skunks. Children love the petting zoo, where llamas, goats, chickens, turkeys, sheep and other friendly farm animals roam.

No outside attraction would be complete without a butterfly garden. This garden grows everything necessary for breeding wild colonies of native butterflies including the native Zebra Long Wing.

After all the sightseeing, shopping, petting and general good times, there are several restaurants and coffee shops available to help guests relax and refuel. There’s even a special café for pets who have been brought along by their masters.

“And we’re not through yet,” Pam says. “We just started to construct a new pirate exhibit and are in the process of renovating the Christmas Shop, the education center (Eco Lab) and classroom area, as well as several of the other displays.” The Shell Factory now boasts a total of 68,000 square feet of adventure, as well as a post office and the North Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center. It is one of the largest employers in Lee County,

Tourists have no problem finding the place; they just follow the signage along the highway. “Our sign on US 41 is truly a landmark,” says Pam. “It’s been in place since 1954. We’re not sure who designed it, but Harold was quite a marketer so we think that if he didn’t create the actual design, he probably had a lot of input. It was also his idea to place the strategic billboards visible all the way up the state of Florida announcing the number of miles left till you reach us.”

The Cronins are happy to report that as many as 800,000 people have visited in one year. This year, even in a down economy, they’re on track to entertain 720,000 visitors.

The Shell Factory sponsors 60-80 events per year including a Gumbo Fest, Seafood & Country Music Festival, Oktoberfest, Swamp Fest, and Motorcycle Rally, to name a few.

The first annual Latin Fest will take place October 3 & 4. The event is being co-sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Southwest Florida and Suncoast Beverage Sales. Attendees will enjoy Latin music, folkloric dancers, authentic Hispanic food, arts & crafts, and a Nina Mas Bonita contest (‘prettiest little girl’). The Cronins are currently recruiting for every aspect of the event including dancers, entertainers, food venders and little Latin girls age’s three to six.

All of the proceeds from this and the other events are earmarked for charities such as cancer programs, environmental education, agencies that feed the hungry and other social issues.

The Shell Factory is open daily, but the hours vary. •

from the September-October 2009 issue

"People are always telling us
they know they're close
to home when they spot
the Shell Factory sign."
"We started to construct
a new pirate exhibit
and are in the process of
renovating the Christmas Shop,
the education center,
as well as several
of the other displays."