No more orange juice is least of Florida welcome center’s worries

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A decades-long tradition of welcoming visitors to Florida with free orange and grapefruit juice has gone the way of roadside motels.

Now, the very fate of the state's welcome stations is in doubt as lawmakers prepare to do battle over whether to keep funding Visit Florida, which runs the stations.

Nearly 900,000 visitors walked through the door of the welcome station on I-75 just south of the Georgia border last year. These days, more often than not, they’re asking this question: Where’s the orange juice?

But the free orange and grapefruit juice is gone. The $500,000 for the juice was vetoed in 2015.

Florida’s orange growers picked up the slack, but smaller crops and disease have cut their harvests and profits.

“We always stop for the orange juice. There’s no orange juice,” said Kathy Boaz visiting from Chicago.

We’re told that taking selfies with the 'no juice' sign has become very popular, but the welcome centers face much bigger problems than no free juice.

One of the hottest battles this coming legislative session will be over the $50 million of funding for Visit Florida, the state tourism arm that runs the centers.

Fiscal conservatives believe people come to Florida, well, because it’s Florida, and the money for promotion is just wasted.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, one of the agency’s most critical opponents, only allowed funding to go through in 2019 to in his words, show the Governor “how unnecessary it is.”

Visit Florida initially came under fire for spending millions on TV shows that were only shown in Florida, but under the leadership of former Tampa State Senator Dana Young, supporters believe the agency has righted itself.

But supporters of the $50 million argue Visit Florida is most valuable when there’s trouble in paradise.

“There are certain things that we do have to message and mitigate. For example, whether its Zika that cost our tourism industry millions,” said Senate President Bill Galvano.

Dominic Calabro, President of Florida TaxWatch calls the tourism promoter a good value for taxpayers.

“Because advertising often works,” said Calabro.

Because the fight over Visit Florida’s money is going to be so bitter it will be the end of the session before its solved.

The governor included $50 million for Visit Florida in his budget proposal.