The Best Factory Tours for Kids

Factory tours let kids witness the marvel of production, whether it's vats of ice cream or cold hard cash.

1 of 7

Made Right Here

See the world's biggest bat -- and take home a miniature one -- at the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory in Kentucky; Photograph by Whitney Neal

Made Right Here

Conveyor belts, hydraulics, robotic arms, secret potions, free samples, and men with hairnets on their beards: a factory tour more or less encompasses a child's list of fascinating things -- to say nothing of the parental perk of a low-cost or free activity that's at least vaguely educational. Sure, your kid can slurp a scoop of ice cream without ever learning about the automatic palletizer that stacks up pints in the warehouse, but there's something grounding and good about having seen it, about knowing how the products you consume are made and witnessing the work that goes into that making.

Mostly, though, what a factory tour offers is the behind-the-scenes magic of transformation, automation, and vastness. A packet of jelly beans is nice, but a ginormous rotating vat of jelly beans -- birthed from sugar! -- is beyond mouthwatering. Likewise, a two-pound block of cheese is a mere chip off the giant 40-pound one, which is a mere fraction of the thousands of pounds rolling past your viewing window. One thrill of a live tour versus a televised one is the possibility that things will, at least in some tiny way, go awry while you're watching. (At Jelly Belly, you can even buy a bag of irregular candies rejected from the production line.) It's real life; anything could happen.

There are many tours to choose from, so you might as well visit a factory that makes something your kids like. Money and candy are obvious choices, as is most anything else tasty or fun (free samples are a major draw). Here we spotlight a few of our favorites, but in truth factory tours are so inherently interesting that many kids will be rapt watching the production of toothbrushes or creamed spinach, if that's all you've got nearby. It will still be strangely, industrially dazzling.

2 of 7

Jelly Belly Candy Company

Photograph by Tim MacKay

Jelly Belly Candy Company

Fairfield, CA

Nothing delivers a Willy Wonka thrill like a candy factory does. For kids, this is pure confectionary alchemy: a little of this, a little of that, and -- presto! -- sparkling, fruit-scented deliciousness emerges. The tour does delightfully demystify the process. You'll learn how hot syrup becomes naked beans that, layer upon layer, get their final coating inside a rotating metal drum, the candies shined up like tiny Technicolor rocks in an enormous polisher. Other treats include bean-shaped pizza and burgers in the café and misshapen factory-reject "belly flops" in the gift shop. Parting gift: A sample of 20 jelly bean flavors. Free; jellybelly.com

3 of 7

American Whistle Corporation

Photograph by Tim MacKay

American Whistle Corporation

Columbus, OH

The iconic American brass whistle, indispensable to police officers, boy scouts, and referees everywhere, is made here and only here. Even if you've never pondered the nearly philosophical question: "How does that little ball get inside?" this tour will pique your curiosity. And the mix of vintage and state-of-the-art machinery on display, from the 30-ton presses to the soldering and buffing equipment, tells a shrilling tale of how a million or so whistles a year are produced. Parting gift: A shiny new whistle, of course! $4 ages 2 and up, free under age 2; americanwhistle.com

4 of 7

Ben & Jerry's

Photograph by Tim MacKay

Ben & Jerry's

Waterbury, VT

The introductory "moo-vie" may be a bit corporate-flavored, but the rest of the cow-to-cone tour is one cold, creamy pleasure after another. Machines with names like The Chunk Feeder and The Spiral Hardener produce 60,000 gallons a day. If you've ever churned your own quart or two, you'll be extra-impressed hearing about the scale of this enterprise: a 1,000-gallon megablender, 350-pound boxes of cocoa, and titanic barrels of flavoring. Speaking of: the dud-studded "Flavor Graveyard" is a self-deprecating delight (Holy Cannoli, anyone?). Parting gift: A flavor-of-the-day scoop. $4 adults and teens; free ages 12 and under; benjerry.com

5 of 7

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Photograph by Tim MacKay

Bureau of Engraving and Printing

Washington, DC and Fort Worth, TX

"Why don't they just print more of it, so everyone can be rich?" That is just one of the many questions this tour provokes in kids, and the ensuing conversations are priceless, as is the free thrill of sheets and sheets of currency, rolled out and cut like so much Monopoly money -- only, you know, real. (For coins, visit the Mint.) From the pallets of watermarked paper to the 70-ton presses and the billions in bills sent off to the Federal Reserve, everything here is rich and out of reach. Console yourself with a sack of shredded bills from the souvenir shop. Parting gift: Free money! (Kidding, alas -- just the thrill of proximity.) Free; moneyfactory.gov

6 of 7

Tillamook Cheese Factory

Photograph by Tim MacKay

Tillamook Cheese Factory

Tillamook, OR

This self-guided tour covers the cheese-making process in a factory that produces about 171,000 pounds of cheddar daily. Through viewing windows you'll glimpse the milk's transformation from curds and whey, separating in secret in vast, enclosed vats, into 40-pound gold bricks conveyor-belting their way to the aging room, where they remain for 60 days to three years. Packaging, the final frontier, scales the behemoth blocks down to more familiar sizes. Parting gift: Samples galore, including "squeaky cheese" curds, along the way. Free; tillamook.com

7 of 7

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Photograph by Tim MacKay

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Louisville, KY

After this guided forest-to-field tour, you may never look at trees the same way again. Before your very eyes, wood is whittled down into famous Louisville Sluggers, the same big-league bats the factory's been making since 1884, and everyone (especially fans) will have a ball watching the process. Beyond the lathe, there's the museum itself, including famously swung bats -- from Mantle's to Jeter's -- and the World's Biggest Bat: a lumbering 120-foot replica of Babe Ruth's. As the factory itself encourages: "Swing by!" Parting gift: A miniature Louisville Slugger. $12 adults, $7 ages 6-12, free ages 5 and under; sluggermuseum.com

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.