Those wonderful Mold-A-Rama machines


In the comments to the Burgie Beer UFO story, drkptt wrote: "I remember the Mold-A-Rama machines at the service plazas on the Florida Turnpike as a kid in the '70s. Here's a great story about their history and the last Mold-A-Rama service/sales man keeping his grandfather's business alive in Florida."

How can you resist?! You slip in your money -- $3 at Busch Gardens, $2 at Lowry Park and MOSI -- and watch the gee-whizzery thunk into place. That "H" stands for hydraulics. First, camshafts lock together two sides of an aluminum "mold": a cockatoo, T-rex, a girl on water skis, U-505 submarine; there are hundreds of molds available.

Polyethylene pellets, melted at 225 degrees, are injected into the mold. Air is blown into the sculpture (sounds like you're inside a bathroom hand-dryer now), making the once-solid toy hollow; if you look at the bottom of your sea lion, fighter jet, Harry S Truman, there are two holes, one for drainage, the other for a hold.

Coolant is then pumped into the mold, before that big dramatic scraper chisels free your prize, which kerplunks! into a sliding-glass chamber. The 3-inch toy is now hot and threatening -- but fun hot, fun threatening! After all, you made it!

And now for the best part, the part you'll remember years later, when you're grown up and your kids are no longer kids and you have the gray hair to ponder things like this: that Mold-A-Rama smell. That clean, chemical whiff of your new souvenir.

It smells like July, like freedom, like Mom and Dad and summer and youth.

When our family would go to the Denver Zoo, the Mold-A-Rama was the most-anticipated attraction for me and my sister.

Waxing nostalgic: In 30 seconds, Mold-A-Rama makes memories, toys to last a lifetime


  1. Those were so cool.
    We lived in FLA for a couple years in the early 70’s not too far from Tampa and used to go to Busch Gardens all the time. I wouldn’t leave till I got my molded plastic toy. I think they were a quarter then, but I’m not 100 percent sure.

  2. There’s one at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, or at least there was a couple years ago. It made lions.

  3. Sadly all mine are now gone mostly from the St. Louis Zoo or Planetarium while growing up there. Definitely cooler than a pressed penny.

  4. I remember getting these from the LA Zoo in the late 80s. No clue where the plastic toys are now. I still credit this machine with inspiring my fascination with machinery that led me to become an engineer.

  5. I have a red Mold-A-Rama locomotive from the San Antonio Zoo perched on the shelf above my monitors right now. I love those things!

  6. I believe there are still mod-a-rama machines running at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and possibly Brookfield Zoo

  7. They had these at the Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI when I was a kid. Loved, loved, loved these. I always had to get one when I was there…

    1. I grew up in Madison and just took my 6 year old daughter back for a visit two weeks ago. I was really hoping they still had one of these machines, but no. Just a few of the machines that stretch pennies. I wish I still had my gorilla.

  8. I’m pretty sure they still have these at the LA Zoo. I will never be too old to buy one.

  9. The Oklahoma City zoo still has several of these machines, probably about 6 or 7? They have been around as long as I can remember. A very cool souvenir indeed.

  10. I wonder if we’ll see machines like this when 3D printing becomes quicker and more reliable. (That is, the Reprap-like printers.) It’d be neat to have a small selection of printable objects as souvenirs.

  11. Don’t forget the milk-colored plastic dolphins at the Miami Seaquarium. All I remember is them and the manatees!

  12. One of my favorite memories of the Century 21 Exposition (otherwise known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) was getting one of these plastic doodads in the shape of the Century 21 logo. It’s long since gone, but I remember thinking it was one of the coolest things ever. The Pacific Science Center on what was once the World’s Fair grounds still has one of these machines; it dispenses dinosaurs nowadays.

    Another memory concerns getting separated from my parents at the Japanese Pavilion and ending up in the Lost Kids area, but that’s another story.

  13. I love these things.

    I spent many a rainy afternoon playing with my dinosaurs, then (relatively quickly) ripping the plastic apart from the holes in the bottom. I was more interested in their hollowness than anything else. (Yeah, I was that kid.)

    I filled another one up with paint and then let it sit on my desk and ooze out. Mom loved that one. Any I have left are filled with god knows what crud on the inside.

  14. I have the triceratops in the picture. I got it at the Field Museum in Chicago over spring break. :P

  15. Wow.

    I loved these things as a kid and had totally forgotten about them now that I’m an adult. There was something so great about them. The excerpt is great because my strongest memory of them is the smell.

  16. Thanks for this post! Awesome nostalgia … I loved these machines when I was a kid too.

    I was in Chicago a few summers ago and the Museum of Science and Industry still had one of these — it popped out a black plastic steam-engine train.

    1. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago had the machine that made the dinosaurs pictured when I last visited a couple of years ago. I actually went ahead and made one of all them.

  17. You can still get these at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, MN. I was just there with my techno savvy, machine loving seven year old nephew and he was totally fascinated by the machine. I am personally more a fan of the smashed penny machines.

    1. “I must have grown up in the wrong universe.”

      Oh, good. I’m not the only one. Who was on the $4 bills you had growing up?

      * * *

      But seriously . . . growing up in a cheapskate family, I don’t think we went to any attractions which might have featured these. I remember machines that flattened and stamped pennies.

      * * *

      The sight of the Peter Pan wall paper behind the toys fills me with nostalgia and creepy dread. The smell of a bedroom with a diaper pail in the corner. A wall by a bed smeared with snot nuggets. Creaking radiators in the dark of night.

  18. Vilas Zoo in Madison still had one 8 years ago, but it died. St. Louis Zoo had 10 of them, and I had one from each.

    The Field Museum in Chicago has 4, and the smell brought back fond memories- visiting the zoo , and talking to Marlin Perkins who was still at the zoo, and a friend of my dad.

  19. Like others have mentioned, the thing I can conjure up most readily from my memories of one as a kid is the smell. It was unique, and exotic, however toxic it might have been. Like crayons and Play-Doh, I could pick that smell out of a dense potpourri of other smells from thirty paces. I lived in Texas, and only experienced the thrill once, during a visit to California, but it left a lasting, wistful impression. If I only still had that Dinosaur toy today.

  20. O.M.G.
    I grew up in Florida near the turnpike, and I OWNED all of the dinosaurs in this photo except the brontosaurus on the far left, and the brontosaurus in the middle.

  21. Wow, flashback time.

    My grandma used to take me to the Como Park Zoo back in the early 70s, back in the dimmest recesses of my earliest memories. I remember a smell, but I can’t clearly conjure it.

  22. I have the lion that was sent out as a promo piece for the show Wonderfalls…
    It was sitting on an editor’s desk and I was saying “THAT IS SO COOL!”, and he said “Here. it came in the mail and it’s malformed. I was going to toss it.”

  23. obviously no one has been to the henry ford. they have these machines all over the place there.

    1. YES, I was going to mention the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit (I added the word “museum” just to bug people from around there. Never mind.) I think they have 3 of them, but they weren’t all working for my visit a couple years ago. One makes a Ford pickup, one a Mustang (sadly this one was broken), and one was Henry himself. My Henry Ford got busted up on the flight home, but he looked even a bit more awesome all patched up and glued together on my shelf, a FrankenFord! At the time I remember finding a website that listed the locations of all the mold-o-rama machines still going, but laziness prevents me from linking it here.

      Also very cool at the Henry was the last remaining Bucky Fuller Dymaxion House!

  24. I wish I still had the Brontosaur one of these machines made at the NY Worlds’ Fair. Gods only know what happened to it.

  25. As alluded to in the article, you can get your own Mold-A-Rama animal at the Brookfield Zoo.

    They have 7 or 8 of the Mold-A-Rama machines currently in operation, and periodically change the molds used.

  26. I still have my Henry Ford statue I got at the Greenfield Village IMAX five years ago.

    I had to buy two since the head on the first one didn’t stay affixed to the thing’s body and it’s weird having a headless Henry Ford statue.

    1. Wonderfalls FTW!

      But wow, that museum is gorgeous! And I just spent 12 hours on the website’s ‘virtual tour’ and it’s almost as good as going! Full stats on every vehicle, corporate background, pictures from every angle including underneath and the engine.

      That site reflects what we all felt was the promise of the web 1.5 decades ago.

      More the wonder that it’s an American, and a one-man operation, preserving a piece of (mostly) Europe’s built history.

      Also great for novelty dispensing machines, the metal typer! A little medallion with 31 characters round the edge, of your choosing, sort of labelmaker-jewely. There’s some pages for them too!

  27. As soon as I started reading this post I thought to my self “Self, this is just like Busch Gardens in the 70s”. I still have a couple of these toys. A gorilla and a parrot. I wish I had one of these machines!

  28. .
    just got one a couple of weeks ago at the science center in seattle

    an F16 in flight, plasticky stinky and awesome

    they have several machines: dinosaur, astronaut, maybe a bug, a couple more

    get ’em while they’re hot!

  29. I had two of these as a kid. One was of the Battleship Texas, and the other was of the Humble Building in Houston (now the Exxon Building), the tallest building west of the Mississippi, back then. I acquired each of them at the place they represented.

    The Humble Building was white, while the battleship was, appropriately, gray. I discovered that they would glow, if I set them over my reading light, and turned out all the other lights. Cool! Sadly, I left the battleship on the lamp too long one day, and my reading light managed to do what the combined might of the Japanese Navy could not.

  30. In the mid-90’s I worked for Mold-A-Matic, the west coast Mold-A-Rama. The machines I serviced were at the LA Zoo, Universal Studios, Travel Town, Mann’s Chinese Theater, and the Griffith Park pony rides. At the zoo, the Mold-A-Matic machines were often more popular than the animals.

    The machines I worked on were built in the 1950’s and required constant maintenance to remain operating. They were originally used at Disneyland, so in the shop we had numerous Disney molds on the shelves, as well as some of the original exteriors painted with Disney themes.

    I loved the machines as a kid, but working on them wasn’t so much fun.

    1. One of my fondest childhood memories is my father buying me a See No Evil-Hear No Evil-Speak No Evil mold from the Mann’s Chinese in about 1978. I’d give almost anything to have that thing back. I still remember watching the machine make it for me.

  31. They have these at the Field Museum in Chicago. I used them for souvenirs for my friends. Truly awesome old-school things.

  32. The Milwaukee County Zoo still has a bunch of these scattered throughout the grounds. They also have numerous molds for when they have a dinosaur exhibit or something.

  33. during a trip to chicago earlier this summer, my husband and i collected a triceratops and a brontosaurus from the field museum (they also offered a tyrannosaurus and a stegosaurus), a train from the museum of science and industry (which also featured a submarine, which our nephew got), and a gorilla fron the brookfield zoo (where we also saw machines for an alligator and a bear). $2 was the going rate.

    my grandmother has some dinosaurs from sinclair oil’s “dinoland” exhibit at one of the world’s fairs that were similarly made, but are larger (unless i’m just remembering them as being larger through the magic of kid-o-vision).

    the minicar museum vespabelle mentions had several when we went there, but none were operating, alas!

  34. Yep, no trip to the Oklahoma City zoo in the 70s was complete for me until I got one of these. Like others, I remember that distinctive smell of the animals when it was hot. But the coolest thing was that you got to watch it being made before your eyes (sort of).

  35. There are many of these machines still in operation at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Right around this past 4th of July, we took our daughter there while we were in town visiting family. Our girl is now the proud owner of a lion, a giraffe, an elephant, a tiger, a “speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil” set of three monkeys, a polar bear, a gorilla, and possibly a couple more that I’m forgetting about. We would have had a bat, too, but that machine was down for maintenance.

    Watching these machines in action is really nothing short of joyful if you have the least bit of mechanical curiosity. You can watch so much of the process of the formation of the toy, enough for our four year old to send a barrage of questions about it our way. She learned a lot because of those machines!

  36. These things are awesome! My favorite as a kid was from Universal Studios – I got Frankenstein!

    Right now I’m looking at a black plastic gorilla from the LA Zoo. Spankbot, get your lunchy self over there, because I got it just a couple of years ago…

  37. If you look in the alcoves of the Mann Chinese – there may be one or two of the machines that survived … one was by the hand and foot prints …

  38. Well, I seem to be trailing in this discussion. I’d love to know if they are still making new molds. Seems like a market waiting to be tapped!

  39. Thanks for posting this. My brother and I got some of these from Busch Gardens in Florida as kids. I still remember the machine making them and feeling how hot they were when they came out. We took them back to PA and had them for years and years.
    What was it about this experience that everyone, myself included, looks back so fondly on? Are there things like this today for kids?

  40. The Henry Ford has a few, as mentioned above, but one they have that wa not mentiond makes Oscar-Mayer Wienermobile replicas in an orange-red wax. Neat!

  41. Mark, you grew up in Denver?

    As a kid we didn’t often go to the zoo, but I practically grew up in the Denver Museum of Natural History (as it was known then).

    I do remember a dinosaur Mold-a-Rama from the mid 60’s.

    Sadly, the nearest thing commonly available today are the penny mashing machines. I save my true copper pennies just for use in said machines while on road trips.

  42. The Hery Ford has 10 in total! My brother is the new maintennence person for the machines now. They are not easy to maintain due to their age and dificulty in obtaining parts.

  43. Nice to see so many Chicago locations for these, as mine, also, were from The Museum of Science and Industry, and Brookfield Zoo, as a kid. I saved ’em for many years, and even made paintings of them later.

    Highlights included: an alligator, a dolphin, an elephant, a monkey, a lion, and a panther(?). I don’t recall if I had any non-animal ones, which perhaps shows where my interests were, and maybe shows I didn’t plunk down my quarters at the MSI.

  44. As of a couple of years ago, they still had some at the Knoxville Zoo. We got a black bear and a giraffe.

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