On my way to Gatorland in Orlando, Florida, in the spring of 2017, I stopped at the Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center hoping to see manatees; I only caught a faraway glimpse of one, but I didn’t leave disappointed—or empty handed. Like any proper attraction, the federally-designated sanctuary has a gift shop, where visitors can pick up a stuffed animal or postcard, and squish a penny. But my favorite souvenir came from a vintage vending machine outside of the gift shop—and I made it myself, in a Mold-A-Matic machine.
Patented by an American inventor in the 1950s, the free-standing injection-mold-making machines were leased to Aramark under the name “Mold-A-Rama.” Starting in the early ‘60s, visitors to museums, zoos, and World’s Fairs could put money ($3 to $5 today, depending on location) into a machine and “make” their own plastic figurine to take home. The customer doesn’t actually do much, aside from providing the funds and pushing a button, but decades before 3D printers and overnight shipping, watching a souvenir appear out of thin air (or a metal mold) in just a few minutes must have felt like magic.
Aramark sold and split its machines in the ‘70s and today they’re owned and operated by two separate companies. More than 60 years after their debut, Mold-A-Ramas (concentrated in the Midwest) and Mold-A-Matics (primarily in Florida) can still be found in gift shops, near soda machines, and outside of restrooms in attractions across the country. Although both family-owned companies maintain their molds and machines, it takes a certain amount of patience and understanding to love this antiquated technology.
I was just as excited to find my first Mold-A-Matic as I was disappointed when I saw the “out of order” sign. Luckily, the Manatee Viewing Center has two machines—as does Gatorland—and within a few hours, I had the beginnings of a collection and a new lifelong mission: to find them all.
Mold-A-Rama figures aren’t as practical as a floaty pen or as personal as a photograph, but every time I look at my miniature manatee, it’s not the disappointment I remember—it’s the excitement of finding a working machine, the molten plastic’s waxy scent, and the thrill I felt as I pocketed my own DIY souvenir while it was still hot.
Here are 10 of the best places to find Mold-A-Rama or Mold-A-Matic machines around the U.S.
1. Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, is home to an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and the chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was assassinated. It’s fitting that a space described as “a world where past innovations fuel the imagination of generations to come” also houses 10 Mold-A-Ramas.
I’m not sure how Henry Ford, the pioneer of the assembly line and mass production, would have felt about the DIY-component of the machines, but the magnate is honored with his own figurine, along with miniature versions of Ford’s Model T, Mustang, and F150, as well as the Weinermobile, Parks’ bus, and a bust of Lincoln.
2. Field Museum of Natural History
Now headquartered in Brookfield, Illinois, Mold-A-Rama Inc. was resurrected in 1971 when William A. Jones purchased his first machines from Chicago. The Windy City is full of top-notch cultural institutions, including one of the largest natural history museums in the world. The Field Museum’s vast collection of specimens, fossils, and artifacts originated from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; today, visitors can take home several small versions of now-extinct giants, including a light blue Quetzalcoatlus, red T-rex, and green Apatosaurus.
3. Milwaukee County Zoo
In operation since the late 1800s, the Milwaukee County Zoo has nearly 2,000 animals spread across 200 acres in Southeast Wisconsin. The zoo has been home to several “celebrity” animals over the years, including Samson the gorilla and Gertie the duck, and one of the largest groups of bonobos living outside of their native Africa. Leave the live animals inside of their enclosures and make your own bat, elephant, gorilla, lion, panther, eagle, or penguin to take home from the zoo’s 13 Mold-A-Rama machines.
4. San Antonio Zoo
If you’re looking for an elephant, flamingo, or giraffe in Texas, you’ll find both the plastic and real-life versions at the San Antonio Zoo. With eight Mold-A-Ramas, the 50-acre zoo has something for every one of its 1 million annual visitors, including one machine featuring three green monkeys—designs with a single figure are most common, but molds are infinitely customizable for each location.
5. Weeki Wachee Springs
Weeki Wachee Springs has been luring travelers to Central Florida with river cruises, animal shows, and, most famously, live mermaids, since 1947. Take in the classic attraction’s signature show, which features finned performers and underwater tricks.
Then make two more mermaids (one riding a shiny blue wave and the other atop a green seahorse) at the two Mold-A-Matic machines located near the gift shop and front entrance.
Mermaids are the main attraction at Weeki Wachee
6. Universal Studios Florida
While all of the individual figures are unique due to the injection-molding process, the seven Mold-A-Matic machines at Universal Studios in Orlando may be the most distinctive. The entertainment-industry theme park offers miniature versions of specific pop culture characters (the Grinch, Jaws, and the Creature), Santa, and the clock tower from Back to the Future.
Less than 2 hours east of Weeki Wachee Springs, you’ll find two more Mold-A-Matic machines at Gatorland in Orlando. Both of the molds at the “Alligator Capital of the World” are inspired by exhibits: A white alligator represents the park’s leucistic and albino residents, and a green figure wrestles a gator—something visitors can see twice a day at the nearby “Alligators: Legends of the Swamp” show, where “Gatorland’s brave gator expert” shares an arena with full-grown, live gators.
8. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
The decades-old machines might be frequently (and frustratingly) out of order, but the odds are in your favor at Busch Gardens in Tampa. The 335-acre animal theme park has 12 Mold-A-Matics, 11 of which feature animals—including an orangutan, kangaroo, and cheetah—and one is branded with the logo for the Iron Gwazi, a steel-track hybrid roller coaster with a 91-degree drop top speed of 76 miles per hour.
9. Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Center
When Tampa Bay reaches 68 degrees or colder, manatees congregate in the power station’s warm (and clean) saltwater discharge canal. Open daily from November 1 through April 15, the free attraction is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail and home to a 50-foot observation tower, an ADA-compliant walkway, and butterfly gardens.
Even if you don’t spot one of the estimated 6,000 manatees left in Florida, you can take one home thanks to two Mold-A-Matic machines located by the gift shop (the other makes a dolphin).
Top 10 things to do in Florida
10. Oklahoma City Zoo
The International Rhino Foundation’s 2022 State of the Rhino report counts the world population of black rhinos at 6,195. Although still critically endangered, there’s good news for rhino fans: The African animal’s population is increasing in more ways than one. Visitors to the Oklahoma City Zoo can see their Asian counterparts and make their own Mold-A-Matic version outside of the zoo’s Indian Rhino Viewing Area. Seven other machines can be found around the 130-acre zoo, including a purple cockatoo and green walking bear.