Free factory fun for families


By Catherine Learned

Photo: Courtesy of Jelly Belly

Giant jellybeans hang from the ceiling at the Jelly Belly center in Wisconsin.

t’s easy to get cabin fever during a Chicago spring, but it can be difficult to find affordable ways for the whole family to beat the boredom.

Fear not. There is a great family activity available year round, perfect for parents on a budget: factory tours. Besides being a great way to get free samples, factory tours can be fun and educational as well.

A tour through a local candy plant can show your kids just how much work goes into making that jellybean while a visit to the Post Office demonstrates how long it takes to sort and send the thank-you notes they write. When they see something produced from start to finish, they will know that everything happens through a process and takes time to complete. Maybe it means they won’t give up so easily the next time they’re frustrated in the early stages of a project.

Unfortunately, the factory tour is a dying breed. When we set out to find factory tours for families in the Chicago area, we found but a few. Out of the 60 factories and manufacturing plants we called, only 12 currently offer public tours. Many, such as the Revell Monogram Plastic Model plant in Morton Grove and the Gibson Guitar Strings and Accessories factory in Elgin, stopped offering tours due to safety concerns. Security concerns in the wake of Sept. 11 mean it is no longer possible to tour the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Board of Trade, Chicago Stock Exchange or Jardine Water Purification plant.

But some factories still open their doors to strangers, assuming you follow a few rules. Most tours require kids to be able to walk on their own, so leave the toddlers with a sitter or call ahead to make sure the plant can accommodate strollers. Leave cameras behind as well, because most don’t allow photography. And don’t forget a coat, because sometimes temperatures from room to room can change drastically. Also, many places require advanced notice, so give the factory a call to let them know you’re coming.

Here’s a list of Chicago factories that want to show you how they do what they do:

JELLY BELLY FACTORY AND HERMAN GOELITZ CANDY CO., 10100 Jelly Belly Lane, Pleasant Prairie, Wis., (262) 947-3800, (866) TOUR-JBC; 9 a.m.- 5p.m. daily.

The Jelly Belly Center in Wisconsin is taking up the slack after discontinuing tours at the North Chicago factory. This is a distribution center, not a factory, but it’s still a fun introduction to the jellybean making process. The Jelly Belly Center in Pleasant Prairie offers free 30-minute rides on the Jelly Belly Express train, which travels through the company’s warehouse and distribution center. Along the way, you and your kids will learn the secrets of making jellybeans via video presentations. Of course, no one leaves without trying a few of the delectable beans.

ELI’S CHEESECAKE CO., 6701 W. Forest Preserve Dr., Chicago, (773) 736-3417; 20-minute tours at noon daily, Mon.-Fri., $3 adults, $2 children.

At Eli’s Cheesecake factory you can watch a cheesecake be created, from the first squirt of batter to the final sliced packaged confection. After donning a hair net and sampling the buttery crisp shortbread cookie crust used in the cheesecakes, guests tour the plant where sugar, vanilla, sour cream, cream cheese and eggs become more than 70 varieties of cheesecake. Watch your step on the slippery floors as you wander through toasty rooms where a 75-foot oven bakes the cakes and icy-cold rooms where workers on an assembly line decorate the frozen delicacies. At the end of the tour, everyone gets to feast on a slice of cheesecake in the factory’s cafe. For individual families who want private tours, reservations are required.

GREAT AMERICAN POPCORN CO., 205 S. Main St., Galena, (877) 777-KORN.

The company has created more than 160 flavors of popcorn and always has at least 30 flavors available in its retail store. Owner Dave Lewis invites families to “stop on in anytime” to see popcorn being made and enjoy a warm handful of fresh caramel popcorn. Lewis will tell you all about how popcorn is made and what the process entails. Groups of more than 10 should call ahead. Plan to visit sometime after 11 a.m., when the popcorn making is in full swing.

FERMI NATIONAL ACCELERATOR LABORATORY, Wilson and Kirk Roads, Batavia, (630) 840-8258.

A basic research lab that is part of the Department of Energy, Fermi Lab has an adjoining Lederman Science Education Center open to the public from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free, but call ahead if your group has more than five people. Sundays from 1 to 3 p.m. Fermi hosts “Ask the Scientist Program” on the 15th floor of Wilson Hall, where the public can ask two scientists from the lab any questions they like. There is also a reconstructed tall grass prairie that is open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays.

LONG GROVE CHOCOLATES, 333 Lexington Dr., Buffalo Grove, (847) 459-3875.

Long Grove started offering 30-minute tours of its chocolate factory last fall. Visitors watch a 10-minute video on the history of chocolate and then stroll past big windows to watch chocolate being hand-made and hand packaged. The tour wraps up with another short video. You get to take your factory hat and a goodie bag of chocolates home with you. Admission is $2. The factory is open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday, and is handicapped and stroller accessible. Reservations are required.

CHICAGO MERCANTILE EXCHANGE, 30 Wacker Dr., Chicago, (312) 930-1000.

Visitors can watch the trading floor from the fourth floor observation deck in the Mercantile Exchange. Pamphlets are available to explain what’s going on. The visitor observation deck is open from 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily, admission is free although visitors are limited to a one-hour visit. Guided tours are available for groups of 10 or more with advanced reservations.

MARGIE’S CANDIES, 1960 N. Western Ave, Chicago, (773) 384-1035.

Owner Peter Poulos provides more of a hands-on candy making experience than a factory tour at his candy shop. Call ahead to tell him how old your kids are, and how many of you will be coming down, and he can custom design a candy tutorial for your group. He might teach your kids how to roll pretzels, dip strawberries in chocolate, make fudge or make candy canes. “I find children a lot of fun,” says Poulos, who tutors children in candy-making techniques free of charge, “they’re really beautiful to work with.”

U.S. POST OFFICE, 433 West Harrison St., Chicago, (773) 483-7550.

Free 90-minute tours are conducted at 10 a.m. and noon Monday-Friday. Visitors get to see “some of the most modern sorting equipment in the world” according to tour guide Archie Culvertson. You and your family will get to trace a letter from its arrival at the post office, through the sorting process to its final departure. After strolling through the two floors of processing and distribution, and learning exactly how mail is sorted and sent out, visitors can grab lunch at the cafeteria. Call ahead from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. to reserve spots for your family in a tour. All ages are welcome. No cameras, backpacks, large purses or large items are allowed.

FEDERAL RESERVE, 230 S. La Salle St., Chicago, (312) 322-2400.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago offers guided tours for older teens and adults by reservation. Families with younger children are welcome to take a self-guided tour and wander through the Visitors Center. You can see what $1 million looks like in a rotating cube, try your luck at detecting counterfeit currency or take a stroll across the Money Pit, which is filled with 143,000 coins. A 9-minute video called “The Power of Money” explains the Chicago Fed’s operations and an 8-foot “kinetic sculpture” shows the lifecycle of the dollar bill from creation to shredding. The Visitors Center is open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. Admission is free. For security reasons, all adults will need to show photo ID before entering the Visitors Center. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or visit

CHICAGO BOARD OPTIONS EXCHANGE, 400 S. LaSalle St., Chicago, (312) 786-5600.

The fourth floor observation deck is open from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Visitors can watch the action on the trading floor and read posters on the wall explaining what’s going on or pick up a telephone and listen to an explanation. There is no time limit for how long visitors can stay, and all ages are welcome, although older kids will probably get more out of this trip than the young ones.

HAEGER POTTERIES, 7 Maiden Lane, East Dundee, (847) 783-5420.

Visit the outlet store and watch a 16-minute video tour of the step-by-step manufacturing of Haeger ceramic products. There also is a nine-minute video on the history of the company under the leadership of the Haeger family. Then view the factory from the showroom as workers load the Haeger pottery into the kiln area to be fired. An adjoining free museum showcases historic pieces of pottery dating back to 1912.

OBERWEIS DAIRY, 951 Ice Cream Dr., Sweet 1, North Aurora, (630) 801-6100.

Tours are at 10 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday through the end of May. The tour lasts 45 minutes and begins with a video that shows how milk is taken from the farm, processed, bottled, stored and delivered. Visitors also see the ice cream mix tanks, freezers and the packaging process at the factory. At the end of the tour, sample a free serving of Oberweis ice cream. Tours are available only for groups of 15 or more so unless you have an unusually large family you’ll need to recruit a few friends to bring their kids along and make an excursion of it. Children must be at least 7, and the tour costs $3 for adults and $2 for children 17 and under. Reservations are required.

Catherine Learned is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and former Chicago Parent intern.



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