When I was growing up in the Midwest, our family vacations and weekend outings invariably included show and tell stops at factories that manufactured everything from cookies and candy to light bulbs and model rockets. In retrospect, I realize that my parents undoubtedly loved the price tag of admission (almost always free) and the fact that we usually walked away with free samples to further augment our limited family budget. That we were also getting a painless (if sometimes rather superfluous) educational experience was icing on the cakes coming off the conveyor belt.
As kids, all we knew was that these tours were the best part of almost any trip. Still to this day, at family gatherings, we fondly recall our tour guide "Three Fingers Fred" at the meat packing plant we toured in Chicago, and we laugh at the dog-eared snapshot taken of our family at a pickle factory in Ohio, with each of us proudly sporting the pickle shaped paper hats like those worn by the plant's workers. We never got to a single Disney park when I was growing up, but when it comes to good times with family, I'll take our dream factories over the Magic Kingdom any day.
Unfortunately, fewer factories today open their doors to visitors. I suspect that's because of increased liability concerns and, sadder still, the growing belief among Americans that if something doesn't cost a lot of money, it can't be fun or worthwhile. Nonetheless, many factories still do offer tours, and most of them are still free.
For only the cost of a smile, you can see dolls being made at the Turner Doll factory in Heltonville, Indiana, sample otherworldly teas at the Celestial Seasonings plant in Boulder, Colorado, and see Harley-Davidson Motorcycles roar off the assembly line at the factory in York, Pennsylvania. The tour of Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory in Waterbury, Vermont is a hit with more than a quarter of a million visitors each year, particularly the sampling stop in the FlavoRoom (adults $3 and kids under 12 are free). You can even take a virtual tour of the Spam Factory at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota.
Check out FactoryToursUSA.com for a comprehensive list of tours by state. And, my upbringing on factory tours has carried over to adulthood. Here's where to look for information on brewery and winery tours: RateBeer.com, AllAmericanWineries.com, and WineAmerica.org (become a WineAmerica Trailblazer for $25 a year and get access to special VIP tours and tastings).
Jeff Yeager is a freelance writer and public speaker with a humorous approach to personal finances. He has appeared on the NBC Today Show and can be contacted via his website UltimateCheapskate.com.
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