20 Behind-the-scenes tours that take you straight to the source
Take a detour from your vacation to check out what the rest of the world is doing: working. Behind-the-scenes factory tours are the perfect wake-up call after the lullaby of historic house visits, shopping, and sightseeing. There's lots to choose from, with countless places clamoring to show you what that good old "Made in the U.S.A." slogan really means. Best of all, many tours are free and provide plenty of samples. Here, our top picks.
Things That Go
In 1966, Boeing set out to build the world's largest jet, but first it had to construct a massive manufacturing complex. Hence, the Grand Canyon of factory tours, housed in the world's biggest building—472 million square feet, 11 stories high—about 25 miles north of Seattle. You'll see as many as 13 jumbo jets in progress, but don't expect any start-to-finish drama: it can take nine months to make a 747.
3003 W. Casino Rd., Everett, Wash.; 800/464-1476 or 206/544-1264; adults $5, kids and seniors $3. For safety reasons, children must be at least four foot two.
Calling all future fire chiefs! Emergency One, the nation's innovator in high-tech firefighting equipment, is 70 miles northwest of Orlando. Groups wear safety glasses as they tour the plant, ending with a look at the completed fire engines—the Stradivariuses of their field.
1601 S.W. 37th Ave., Ocala, Fla.; 352/237-1122; adults $6, kids under 16 free.
The end of June at Vanguard is like the week before Christmas at Macy's—the manufacturer of the popular Sunfish runs overtime to fill summer orders. Someone in khaki shorts and Topsiders will show you around the production line, from the molds for wet fiberglass to the psychedelic-hued Dacron being made into sails. Vanguard's doors close promptly at 3:30. As vice president Chuck Tuttle says, "You don't expect us to miss an afternoon of sailing, do you?"
200 Highpoint Ave., Portsmouth, R.I.; 401/683-0960; free, by appointment.
In 1969, fed up with city life, Burt Shavitz moved to northern Maine and began tending his own bees. His roadside honey stand has grown into a multimillion-dollar company that produces some of the country's best-smelling and most smartly packaged beauty products. The recently relocated factory in North Carolina exudes the same offbeat charm. You might see workers filling those trademark tins with lip balm, blending avocado-honey-butter hair treatment, or mixing buttermilk soap.
8221A Brownleigh Dr., Raleigh, N.C.; 800/849-7112, ext. 111; 919/510-8720; free.
Tom's of Maine
In a small red barn in Kennebunk, about 30 employees manufacture Tom's all-natural toiletries. Depending on what's being produced that day, the plant might be redolent of spearmint or strawberries. Pass through a room filled with raw ingredients—chalk and kitchen pantry items like olive and coriander—and see the oversize cake mixer that holds 3,000 pounds of toothpaste-in-the-making; watch the finished product sploosh into aluminum tubes.
Railroad Ave., Kennebunk, Maine; 800/367-8667 or 207/985-2944; free, call for reservations.
Founded in 1964 by Roger and Billy Christian, both Olympic gold medalists, Christian Brothers manufactures many of the hockey sticks used by the NHL. Hockey buffs can follow along on a step-by-step guided tour and watch as workers hand-press the curved blades—each made to meet a player's exact specifications.
Hwy. 11, Warroad, Minn.; 800/346-5055 or 218/386-1111; free.
Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum
The smell of freshly cut northern white ash permeates the air in this baseball landmark, where a Louisville Slugger is carved every 15 seconds. Watch as the logo and model number are branded into each bat. Everyone leaves with a 16-inch-long miniature bat. The adjacent museum is also part of the tour.
800 W. Main St., Louisville, Ky.; 502/588-7227; adults $5, kids 6-12 $3.
Dedicated employees and volunteers work to maintain Lionel's factory near Detroit and its multi-level, linking model train layout. During the 40-minute tour, kids can push buttons that operate a sawmill, a crane, a crossing gate, or—on the mini tracks for the smallest visitors—their own train or handcar.
26750 23 Mile Rd., Chesterfield, Mich.; 810/949-4100, ext. 1211; free, call for reservations.
Vermont Teddy Bear Co.
The tour at this candy-colored warehouse near Lake Champlain costs only $1, but almost no one gets off that easily. Moving through the somewhat-macabre cutting, sewing, stuffing, and fluffing phases, you'll watch fabric turn into full-fledged bears. Then you'll land squarely in the gift shop, whose biggest draw is the Make a Friend For Life Cubhouse, where you can stuff your very own bear.
6655 Shelburne Rd., Shelburne, Vt.; 802/985-3001; $1.
Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream
Decked out in Ben & Jerry's dairy-country look—murals of turquoise skies, powder-puff clouds, and staring cows—the factory seems a bit self-consciously public, but ice cream is definitely made here. During the 30-minute tour you'll see the ice cream works, hear about the farmers who supply the company, and observe the lucky devils whose job it is to invent new flavors. At tour's end, sample some of the work in progress.
Rte. 100, Waterbury, Vt.; 802/882-1260; adults $2, kids under 12 free.
Carr Valley Cheese
Twenty-five miles from the Wisconsin Dells, the Cook family still makes cheese the old-fashioned way, starting with milk in vats that look like narrow swimming pools, adding culture and rennet, and doing a lot of stirring. Fourth-generation cheese makers, the Cooks turn out 10,000 pounds a day. There are fresh curds to try for free, warm and squeaky on your teeth.
S3797 County Rd. G, LaValle, Wis.; 800/462-7258 or 608/986-2781; free.
Jelly Belly Factory
An immaculate family-run operation between San Francisco and Sacramento produces 40 million jelly beans a day, in 40 flavors, from cantaloupe to jalapeño. As many as 2,000 visitors arrive daily to don paper soda-jerk hats and take in the action: Hear the rainlike sound of the candies as they're sugar-dusted in metal barrels; smell the pungent aromas in the flavoring rooms; and at the end, of course, eat the beans.
Herman Goelitz Candy Co., 2400 N. Watney Way, Fairfield, Calif.; 707/428-2838; free.
Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Co.
Behind an unmarked door on a narrow alley in San Francisco's Chinatown, watch three women and two machines stamp and roll 10,000 cookies a day under the protection of a red lacquer altar to Buddha. Visitors can sample cookies still warm from the oven at the end of the tour.
56 Ross Alley, San Francisco, Calif.; 415/781-3956; free.
McIlhenny Co. Tabasco
The scent of hot capsicum peppers from plants that survived the Civil War pervades Avery Island, which actually sits on top of a subterranean salt dome thousands of feet deep. The pepper mash ages for three years in salt-coated oak barrels before being mixed with vinegar and then bottled. The island is also home to the lush Jungle Gardens, where you might spot a colony of snowy egrets (established by the naturalist McIlhennies themselves), alligators, black bear, and nutria.
Hwy. 329, Avery Island, La.; 800/634-9599 or 318/365-8173; free.
It would be nice to think that every person who contributes to our daily diet is having as good a time as the staff at Stonyfield. In a laid-back, warm (yogurt requires high temperatures) atmosphere, employees squirt fruit and then the yogurt-milk mixture into plastic cups. Next come the caps and the nifty laser-inking of expiration dates on the packages. But it's not all fun and games: the guy testing the yogurt in the quality-control lab looks very serious. The factory is a 45-minute drive from Boston; the staff can point you to the Metamorphosis, a nearby children's museum.
10 Burton Dr., Londonderry, N.H.; 603/437-4040; $1 (kids under five free).
Here are the old standbys—great fun, but often more like amusement parks than factories. • Crayola Factory 30 Centre Square, Easton, Pa.; 610/515-8000; $7. • Hallmark Visitors' Center 2501 McGee Ave., Kansas City, Mo.; 816/274-5672; free. • Hershey's Chocolate World Park Blvd., Hershey, Pa.; 717/534-4900; free. • Kellogg's Cereal City U.S.A. 171 W. Michigan Ave., Battle Creek, Mich.; 616/962-6230; adults $6.50, kids 3-12 $4.50. • World of Coca-Cola 55 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., Atlanta, Ga.; 404/676-5151; adults $6, kids 6-11 $3.