``Are you sure this is the right place?'' the kids asked nervously.
I wasn't sure myself. Down a narrow alley in San Francisco's Chinatown, tucked into a small, cramped room, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory didn't look like a business at all, much less a company that turned out 10,000 cookies daily.
But as we peered inside, there were two smiling Chinese women, their hands flying, folding the hot wafer-thin cookies into their familiar shape. The kids were flabbergasted at how fast they worked. I was grateful for the peek the tiny factory gave us into such a foreign world. We left snacking on ``reject'' broken cookies.
That morning turned out to be one of the most memorable adventures of our Northern California trip, one the kids still recall a couple of years later. (Next time you're in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Cookie Factory is at 56 Ross Alley and is open daily. Call 415-781-3956.)
Since then, I've tried to seek out other factories, both large and small -- where we could watch something being made: an open-air tortilla factory in Akumal, Mexico; chocolate-making at Ethel M's in Las Vegas; seeing how tea gets into those little bags at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colo., and the Federal Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington, D.C., where we watched reams of paper money being counted. (Call Ethel M's at 702-433-2500 or www.ethelm.com, Celestial Seasonings at 303-581-1201 or www.ctea.com and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing at 202-874-3188 or www.moneyfactory.com. Ask your congressman to get you tickets in advance to avoid the inevitable lines.)
Whatever they were making, the visit added a new dimension to our trip. It didn't matter if we stayed a few minutes or spent hours, we left with a new understanding of the effort it takes to make the product and of the people who do the work.
``Kids are so naturally curious that factory tours can be a special highlight of a vacation,'' says Karen Axelrod, mother of two young children and with her husband Bruce Brumberg co-author of ``Watch It Made in the U.S.A.,'' which chronicles some 300 factory tours around the country (John Muir Publications, $17.95. You can order directly from the Web site at www.factorytour.com.
Axelrod, who lives in Boston, is convinced factory tours are the best vacation bargain going because so many are free or require only a nominal charge. You don't have to pay for souvenirs, either, since many places give out free samples (except the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, of course).
Here's a way to slip a little education into the trip without that chorus of ``FORGET IT, MOM!''
What baseball fan could resist seeing how Louisville Slugger baseball bats are made in Kentucky? (Call 502-588-7228 or www.slugger.com.)
Dress-up fans would love Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World where you can try on costumes as well as see how the famous New Orleans parade floats are made. (Call 504-361-7821 or www.mardigrasworld.com.)
In big cities or small towns, factory tours can offer the perfect respite when you've run out of things to do at grandma's house. They're especially good bets when the bad-weather blues hit.
Raining in Orlando? Head an hour north to see how fire trucks are made at the E-One plant in Ocala. (Call 352-237-1122 or www.e-one.com.)
Not enough snow in Vermont? Stuff your own teddy bear at the Vermont Teddy Bear factory in Shelburne after touring the workshop where the bears are being sewn together. (Call 800-829-BEAR or www.vermontteddybear.com.)
When it's too cold for the beach next summer, go see how toothpaste gets put in the tube at Tom's of Maine in Kennebunk (call 207-985-2944 or www.Toms-of-Maine.com) or watch potato chips fried at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory in Hyannis, Mass. (call 508-775-3206).
Just make sure to phone ahead because advance reservations sometimes are required and tours aren't always offered every day, especially in winter.
Sometimes, you can create your own tour. Young children would be fascinated by a peek at the giant hotel laundry or a cruise ship kitchen. Often, all you have to do is just ask.
Check the local Chamber of Commerce to see what companies are headquartered near where you're staying. Newspapers and TV stations, for example, usually host tours.
I can't think of a better way to break up a too-long drive, either. If you're on your way from Yosemite National Park to San Francisco, for example, the kids certainly wouldn't mind a stop at the Hershey factory in Oakdale, Calif., where Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey's Kisses are made. (Call 209-848-8126 or www.hersheys.com.)
Some factory tours have gotten so popular, meanwhile, that they are sophisticated tourist operations, complete with gift boutiques. Atlanta's huge World of Coca Cola, for example, attracts more than a million visitors annually -- the city's biggest indoor tourist draw. The Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory tour is Vermont's top attraction, drawing 275,000 visitors every year. (Call World of Coke at 404-676-5151 or www.webguide.com/cokes. Call Ben & Jerry's at 802-244-TOUR or www.benjerry.com.)
Maybe it's the free samples. Maybe it's the chance to to get up close and personal with a product your family uses every day. Crayola was turning away so many would-be visitors from its Easton, Pa., factory that it built a 20,000-square-foot family Discovery Center two years ago as part of a downtown redevelopment project. (Call 610-515-8000 or www.Crayola.com.)
The idea clicked big time. More than 340,000 people came last year. ``People are coming in droves with their kids,'' said a very pleased Marta Gabriel, the company's community relations manager. ``Americans just have this fascination with how things are made.''