Souvenir Of The Week: Mold-A-Rama Figurines

Decades before the dawn of 3-D printing and resulting wonders like self-portrait gummy bears, Mold-a-Rama vending machines were pressing hot wax into tiny figurines delivered in seconds. These vintage contraptions still exist at zoos and other attractions, where miniature keepsakes cost only a couple of dollars and smell like melted crayons.

At the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, machines magically make models of Rosa Park’s bus and wee wax Weinermobiles before your eyes:

Zoos are hotspots for Mold-a-Rama machines. At Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo, several generations of visitors have taken home 3-inch-tall wax gorillas. The city’s Brookfield Zoo has 13 machines, currently spitting out dinosaurs.

According to the fan site, other zoos proffer macaws, dolphins, manatees, panthers and killer whales. The bust of Frankenstein and tiny space capsules can be found if you’re lucky. Hundreds of molds existed back in the technology’s heyday (the original was invented in the 1960s and spawned several imitators). Back then, Disneyland delighted park-goers with figurines of favorite characters, ready in 30 seconds.

Cheap? Check. Packable? Check. Better than a gummy bear in your likeness? You decide. Here’s a list of Mold-a-Rama locations.

Do you have Mold-a-Rama memories from childhood?

[Photo credits: Craft*ology and Sarabeephoto via Flickr; video credit: Mark Frauenfelder via YouTube]

One week in Chicago: Animals

I love animals. Not in the way the the guy in the photo to the right does, but I do enjoy seeing exotic animals. That’s why I tend to get pretty giddy when I have the chance to check out a zoo or an aquarium. So, you can imagine how excited I was to visit Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Lincoln Park Zoo. Why are they so special? Well, the Shedd was once the largest aquarium in the world and remains the most visited aquarium in the United States. And the Lincoln Park Zoo is the largest free zoo in the world.

Between eating and sightseeing, I enjoyed visiting the Shedd and the Lincoln Park Zoo because they provided me with a chance to relax, enjoy some amazing creatures and lose myself in the wonder that is the animal kingdom. When you’re watching sharks and rays swim around a giant saltwater tank, you tend to forget all about how awful that deep dish pizza was.
When I mentioned to friends that I was going back to Chicago once again, without fail they all said that I should finally visit the Shedd Aquarium. I thought it was odd that people would encourage me so strongly to take time out of my sightseeing to visit an aquarium, but once I arrived, it all made sense. While the statue outside the building (see photo above) is a tad odd, it does send the message that the people of Chicago love fish. And respect them, for that matter.

The Shedd Aquarium opened in 1930 and the building was heavily influenced by Greek architecture. It doesn’t lookat all like an aquarium. Instead. it resembles an art museum or government building. But inside it’s all about the animals. You’re immediately greeted by a 90,000 tank reproducing a Caribbean reef. All manner of tropical fish coexist while divers feed the animals and take questions from visitors. That’s what impressed me most about the Shedd. It wasn’t just about displaying these creatures and letting people “ooh” and “ahh.” The staff at the Shedd truly seem to cherish the opportunity to teach people about the animals and to respect them, as well. I sat with a Shedd employee for 10 minutes as he showed me a rather large tarantula. He patiently answered my questions and assuaged any fears I had that such a creature would one day kill and eat me.

The Shedd’s Oceanarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. Sadly, it was closed for renovations when I visited. However, when it reopens later this summer, it will once again feature beluga whales, dolphins and sea otters.

I found myself near Lincoln Park late on a warm afternoon and, on a whim, decided to go to the zoo that I’d heard so much about. I’ve long been a sucker for zoos. Ever since, as a child, I went to the Bronx Zoo and rode an elephant, I’ve found zoos to be magical places. So when I heard that the Lincoln Park Zoo was not only amazing but free, I knew I had to spend a few hours there. I spent nearly an hour in just the ape and monkey houses marveling at how these amazing creatures swing through trees, interact with one another and hamming it up for visitors. Children frolicked throughout the zoo eating popcorn, snapping photos and giggling at how long a giraffe’s tongue is.

There’s something simple and endearing about a good zoo. It allows a domestic trip to become more international. It turns your afternoon into a safari. It transports you to back to your childhood and to different places in the world. The Lincoln Park Zoo is a vast collection of animals that is well organized, professionally run and, well, free! It’s a must-see for anyone visiting Chicago with children. But if you’re a single 30-year-old writer traveling alone, you’ll enjoy it too.

Read all about my Chicago food adventures here and some of the best sights to visit in the Windy City here.