Factory visits used to be the stuff of school field trips. Now more companies are opening their doors -- and planning their tours -- with grown-ups in mind.
Curiosity doesn't end with childhood. Grown-ups are just as apt to wonder "How do they do that? Where do they make this?" as their children or grandchildren. That curiosity is one reason that factory tours remain a popular part of school field trips and weekend or summer vacations.
While many manufacturers that open their doors to visitors cater to children, companies also offer fascinating tours and educational programs designed for adults.
Here you'll find a few of the many factory tours that you can experience across the country. Before you go, call to confirm tour hours. Some factories maintain seasonal hours, others offer tours weekdays only. Most tours are free; some are part of larger entertainment complexes and charge admission. Go prepared to shop: Many tours end at the door of a gift shop or outlet store, where you might find a great deal on factory seconds.
Click on factorytoursusa.com and find nearly 500 companies open to visitors in a state-by-state format that's easy to navigate. For more information, refer to Watch It Made in the U.S.A., a factory tour guidebook by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg (Avalon Travel Publishing; factorytour.com).
The Longaberger Company, Newark, Ohio. Watch the famous maple baskets being handmade by hundreds of artists at Longaberger in central Ohio. Snap photos in front of the seven-story corporate office, as impressive as it is unmistakable, built to resemble a huge basket. Try your hand at making your own basket ($57 each) at the Longaberger Homestead. Shops feature clothing, jewelry, gourmet food, and kitchen and garden accessories. On site there are several restaurants, entertainment -- even an 18-hole public golf course. For more information, call 740-322-5588, or visit their Web site at longaberger.com.
Pendleton Woolen Mills, Washougal, Washington. Get good walking exercise on the hour-long tour through the expansive millworks where retail and commercial woolen fabrics are manufactured. Visitors see the entire process of raw wool being carded, spun, dyed, and woven into fabric. The on-site outlet store has bargains prices on factory seconds and discontinued men's and women's clothing, blankets, and fabric. Call 800-760-4844, or visit pendleton-usa.com for more details.
Lake Champlain Chocolates, Burlington, Vermont. Get ready for your mouth to water on this factory tour. From a viewing platform, watch the chocolate process from bean to bar. In the production area, huge melting tanks hold 2,000 pounds of chocolate, while coating machines create a chocolate waterfall. At the conclusion of the tour, you'll be more than ready for a chocolate tasting -- from milk to dark to white varieties. In the cafe afterward, enjoy ice cream and espresso, or choose from five types of hot chocolate. The retail store features plenty of take-home treats as well as occasional demonstrations by master chocolatiers. Call 800-465-5909 or go to lakechamplainchocolates.com for details and hours.
Steinway & Sons, Queens, New York. If you've marveled at hearing a Steinway piano played, enjoy watching as these magnificent instruments are made. For 150 years, Steinway & Sons has produced high-end pianos in Queens. On the factory tour, visitors see craftsmen sanding, sawing, and bending layers of wood around an iron press to mold piano shapes. In the pounder room a machine bangs the 88 keys 10,000 times to test for flaws. Finally, see stringing, tuning, and voicing of the instruments. Tours are offered Mondays in fall and spring only; reservations are required. Call 718-721-2600 or visit Steinway.com.