Made in America

Family trips to factories teach your kids the detailed steps of a start-to-finish project. And they're fascinating, too!
Find out how things work on a field trip.

It's exciting to see how something is made. Our minds naturally thrill to finding out the secrets behind familiar items. Many factories around the country -- some possibly in your own town -- allow the public to take tours. Make a day trip to a nearby factory or incorporate a factory visit into your next vacation, and you'll experience firsthand how much fun it is to see America's work force and machinery in action. Here are some obvious benefits:

  • Firsthand sensory fun for the whole family. Unlike many vacation activities that tend to be either mainly for the kids or the adults, visiting a factory is fun for everyone. Whether it's seeing a rainbow of colors added to Crayola crayons or watching robots bolt car parts on an assembly line, behind-the-scenes glimpses of production make for enjoyable education. York County, Pennsylvania -- the country's factory-tour capital -- understands the appeal of seeing some of your favorite products being produced right on the authentic factory floor. It's "the impact on your senses -- the sights, smells, and tastes of American ingenuity at its best."
  • Kids witness process, patience, and perseverance. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was on to this concept a long time ago, and the PBS show regularly features trips to see how people make things. The Mister Rogers' portion of the PBS Kids Web site proclaims the value: "Factory visits can help children understand that most things happen through a process -- with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When they make something, they will know that everything takes time to accomplish. Then they may not give up so easily when they're frustrated in the early stages."
  • Kids learn that raw materials are ingredients for finished products. Beyond teaching that doing things well requires time and a process, visiting a factory tells the fascinating story of taking raw materials and making something useful. It's the magic of manufacturing in a real setting -- and it often comes with free samples. You might visit a candy factory or an apple orchard and be treated to peanut-butter fudge or cider afterward.
  • Kids become curious and get answers. Factory tours pique curiosity and then deliver answers to burning questions like, "How does the fortune get in the cookie?" and "How does the hole get in the donut?" Your kids will be prompted to wonder more. You never know when an example of innovation and invention will spark the imagination of a future Alexander Graham Bell or Bill Gates.
  • Kids see craftsmanship. Factory tours help develop a healthy respect for the art, science, and engineering involved in making something. Kids see how many people it takes to make everything from a wooden shoe (Holland, Michigan) to a scoop of Ben and Jerry's ice cream (Waterbury, Vermont). When you're done with the factory tour and any freebies that come with it, you have a perfect springboard for talking about the importance of appreciating everyday products, and not taking them for granted.

How to Find Factory Tours

Coca-Cola offers fun factory tours.

Check out the book, Watch It Made in the U.S.A., by Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg (Avalon Travel, 2002). This is the definitive guide to companies that make our favorite products. Now in its third edition, this comprehensive book is an indispensable resource. Using a state-by-state format, it lists some 300 companies that allow the public to go behind the scenes to see everything from how toothpaste is put into tubes (Tom's of Maine in Kennebunk) to how the fizz gets in Coca-Cola (Kokomo, Indiana). The book offers advice for traveling and taking tours as a family. It also includes helpful itinerary planners, and practical information about tours, fees, hours, and nearby attractions. Perusing the index of factory tours available in any given state will give you unending vacation ideas.

Go online. Watch It Made in the U.S.A. also has an online component. There you can find information about the book (you can order it there or through a favorite bookseller), as well as videos of favorite tours, and a featured tour. When we visited the site recently, the featured tour went behind the scenes at Basic Brown Bear Factory in San Francisco, where kids get to see and participate in the making of teddy bears.

Visit Watch It Made in the U.S.A.'s website

Do an Internet search. A search for "factory tour" on a search engine like Google will produce numerous listings. Many of the listings are virtual tours that let you and the kids make factory visits via your own computer; you can also get information about visiting plants in person. When we did a search recently, we turned up many interesting tour possibilities that could fill a rainy day or round out a vacation itinerary.

Unique Tour Options

... See a jet airplane made at Boeing.

... See a sweater knit at Northeast Knitting Mills.

More about the Northeast Knitting Mills tour.

... Tour Cannondale's bike factory.

... Tour Rickenbacker's guitar factory.

... See how a wax figure is made for Virginia's Natural Bridge wax museum.

Additional Online Tour Info

More online tour information abounds at these sites:

Visit the Pfaltzgraff factory. Courtesy of York County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

York County, Pennsylvania Tourism: The county bills itself as The Factory Tour Capital of the World and provides information about the many tours there.

Marshall Brain's How Stuff Works: Behind-the-scenes tours of people making things or showing how something works in detail. Kids can check out how Centropolis FX creates visual effects, how 3DO creates video games, and how champ racing cars work.

Visit the Marshall Brain's How Stuff Works website.

BYG Publishing, Inc.: This site offers a good list of U.S. and Canadian factory tours recommended as great breaks during long car trips or on vacation.

Visit the BYG Publishing, Inc. website.

PBS Kids' Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: This site shows how people make things, including sneakers, wagons, plates, construction paper, crayons, and fortune cookies.

Visit the PBS Kids' Mister Rogers' Neighborhood website.

Discovery Channel Travel Channel's list of top factory tours, with contact information. Who makes the top seven? Hershey's Chocolate World in Hershey, Pennsylvania; Jelly Belly factory and Herman Goelitz Candy in Fairfield, Calif. and North Chicago, Ill.; Basic Brown Bear in San Francisco, Calif.; Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream in Waterbury, Vt.; Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville, Ky.;. Kellogg's Cereal City USA in Battle Creek, Mich.; Crayola Factory Tour in Easton, PA.

Visit the Travel Channel's website.

Call the Chamber of Commerce or visit it online. Your local Chamber knows the businesses in your area. With a few phone calls to interesting businesses with factories, you could find public tours just minutes away. It doesn't have to be something as sophisticated as a pop bottling plant to be exciting. A local bakery might be willing to arrange for a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of bread.

Flip through the Yellow Pages. The good old phone book can point you to all sorts of possibilities in your area.

Yellow Pages

Practical Considerations

  • Make arrangements in advance. When making plans to tour factories, make sure to call in advance and double-check days and hours of public tours. Whether you are arranging a private tour at the goat-cheese factory downtown or traveling cross-country on vacation and incorporating factory stops along the way, it's always a good idea to make reservations and confirm before you arrive.
  • Think safety! Factories are real working places that can be dangerous. Make sure children -- and you -- keep hands, clothing, jewelry and hair away from machinery, food, moving parts, etc. See that the kids never wander away from you, the group, or the guide. Always keep a close watch on your kids and be careful to follow any instructions you are given. It's a good idea to wear closed rubber-sole shoes and long pants. You might also want to keep on hand safety glasses or goggles as well as earplugs (the foam variety available at most drugstores is a good choice). If you have allergies or medical conditions, think about any ramifications those might have for tours you are considering. If you have specific safety concerns, contact the companies directly before you decide to visit. Stay safe, and you'll be sure to enjoy touring factories with your family.

Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Fort Worth/Dallas, Texas.

Editor's Note: makes no warranty, expressed or implied, regarding the safety of any of the tours mentioned in this story and assumes no liability with respect to the consequences of using the information contained in this story. If you have any specific safety concerns, contact the companies directly before you decide to visit.

Reviewed April 2004.


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