When they’re not partying or parading, visitors to New Orleans can enter a setting where they feel like Lilliputians in a land of giants. Some people who go to Pennsylvania immerse themselves in a chocolate-lover’s dream world. For travelers to Arizona, descending into a once-thriving silver mine brings back the glory—and sometimes gory—days of the Wild West.
These folks are experiencing slices of American life by exploring places where things were, and still are, made and found. Compiled for convenience under the heading “Factory Tours,” these destinations actually include a wide variety of products, produce, and at times pageantry.
Some demonstrate the ingenuity that has driven this country to become the innovative leader of the world. Others explain how imaginative individuals saw a need or niche and succeeded in filling it.
New Orleans has been the site of the most famous Mardi Gras parade since 1837, and Mardi Gras World offers an opportunity to experience the wonder of carnival festivities without the wildness. Floats for the parades have been made there since 1947. In a studio so vast it could have its own ZIP code, guests see artists, sculptors and painters constructing lavishly decorated floats and the wonderful, often whimsical figures that will ride on them.
The scene is set in a video, followed by a taste of king cake, a treat closely associated with Mardi Gras. This sweet cinnamon indulgence, which is believed to have been brought to New Orleans from France, is served throughout the carnival season.
My wife, Fyllis, and I were dwarfed by larger-than-life likenesses of cartoon figures, movie personalities and fantasy creatures. Oversized animals and flowers as tall as trees loomed over us. Along with imaginary figures, we got up-close and personal with the likes of Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe and Louis Armstrong.
A statue of Batman welcomes guests to the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, and people walking or riding in a tour cart can spot real-life celebrities. They also might come upon an active shoot and see sets they recognize from movies or TV shows. A short film offers a sampling of Warner Bros. productions over the years, and displays at the museum include costumes, awards and scripts.
Food is the focus of many factory tours, and at Hershey’s Chocolate World in Pennsylvania, that includes the warmth of roasting cocoa beans and the rich scent of candy. A simulated experience begins in a tropical jungle where cocoa beans are harvested and ends with the creation of the confection. Guests can pay to invent their own candy bar, and they receive a free sample of the plant’s production as their visit ends.
The flavor of chocolate is echoed in one of dozens of varieties of cheeses that are made at Arena Cheese in—Where else?—Wisconsin. A visitors’ viewing area overlooks artisans at work, and samples are offered to the observers.
The Herschell Carrousel Factory in North Tonawanda, New York, has been in business at the same location since 1919. Tour groups see the carving shop, music-roll production area and a collection of merry-go-round animals.
Real-life animals that include mules, burros and draft horses provided the power for hoisting precious materials from mines to the surface before being replaced by steam engines. When Edward Lawrence Schieffelin discovered silver in Arizona in 1877, after being warned that his gravestone was all he’d be likely to find in that remote region, he named his mining claim Tombstone. That eventually became the name of the brawling, bawdy town that evolved there.
A year later he filed a claim for the Good Enough Mine, explaining that the precious metal was “good enough” to satisfy him. Today tourists don a miner’s helmet and safety vest before following tunnels that lead to large areas where ore once was dug and blasted out of walls. Other options include gold and gem panning, a mining mini-museum and a historic trolley tour through the town.
“Ultimate Driving Machines” rather than mules are the focus of those who drop by the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The tour includes stops in the main body shop where high-tech precision robots build vehicle frames, an assembly hall and the paint department.
At several Toyota plants people board tram-driven trains to see how vehicles, engines, transmissions and other car-related parts are manufactured. In-person tours are offered at plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Texas, and virtual visits provide introductions to other facilities.
When You Go
The Factory Tours website lists more than 550 outings throughout the United States, including those described here. Categories range from agriculture and airplane manufacturers to vineyards.
There also are some unexpected listings, such as the Columbus Washboard Co. in Ohio and Hoegh Pet Casket Co. in Gladstone, Michigan: www.factorytoursusa.com.