My family and I have spent the past two weeks both in a minivan and on a cruise ship covering much of the United States. In fourteen days we drove 4,200 miles across ten states (eleven if you count Oklahoma, the state I live in) and also visited Alaska and Canada via the cruise ship. It was a wonderful, amazing vacation.

On the way home the four of us drove through Yellowstone National Park. It was the first time any of us had been there, and we were amazed at all the wildlife we saw. Although we saw no bears there, we did see wild bison, elk, mountain goats, wolves, and deer on our way to visit Old Faithful. As we were leaving the park, my wife and I mentioned that Yellowstone could really benefit from some Mold-A-Rama machines!

Mold-A-Rama machines made their debut in the early 1960s. My first exposure to them was at the Oklahoma City Zoo, which still has several of them. Mold-A-Rama machines are vending machines that create plastic vacuum-molded toys while you wait.

At our zoo (and I suspect many others), the machines are strategically located by the animals they represent. The gorilla machine is located just outside the primate exhibit, for example. I don’t remember how many different machines there are, but as a kid I remember wanted to collect them all. Along with the gorilla, I also had a lion, a tiger, a dolphin, and an alligator, among others. Each mold is a single color of plastic, and comes out of the machine not hot enough to burn you, but pretty hot (at least to a little kid).

The only Mold-A-Rama molds I have seen are animals (mostly found at zoos) and vehicles (mostly found at museums). There’s a tractor available at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. There are 10 different ones available in the Henry Ford Car Museum in Detroit.

Unfortunately for us, there were no Mold-A-Rama machines available in Yellowstone National Park, and we will have to rely on our pictures and memories to remember all those animals!

For more information on Mold-A-Rama machines, check out Mold-A-Rama-ville, which has some great pictures of vintage molded toys.

Thanks to Flickr users Jinx! and kclockhart for the photos.

Rob O'Hara

I'm into old video games, old arcade games, old computer games, writing, photography, computer/network security, and of course, the 1980s!

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25 thoughts on “Mold-A-Rama

  1. Drahken says:

    I’ve seen these machines mentioned online before, when I was checking out old arcade games, but I’ve never seen an actual one.
    Aside from watching the molding process though (which you don’t have to actually use the machine for, you can just stand around & wait for someone else to use it & watch over their shoulder), I don’t understand that draw of such a machine. I could understand if you could customize it somehow, but when everyone who uses it gets the exact same figurine….

  2. Rich Gott says:

    The San Antonio Zoo has Mold-A-Rama machines. Once the molding stuck, was heated longer than it should have been, and we were lucky enough to receive a mutant elephant!

  3. @Drahken: maybe you have to be a kid, or be there, or both. The draw for me as a kid was, for example at our local zoo, you could see an elephant, then right afterwards plunk fifty cents (I’m sure they’re more now) into a machine and get your own elephant toy made right in front of your eyes. I’m sure if you just found one of these plastic toys in a thrift store they wouldn’t mean much to you, but to have a toy that you remember seeing it get made and then associating it with seeing that specific animal in real life was pretty cool. I can still remember the smell of the melting plastic as I held those freshly molded toys in my hands, hoping desperately they would cool off quickly!

    Also, I’m pretty sure each toy was customized or at least localized. I think all mine said “Oklahoma City Zoo” on them, but I could be wrong about that. I’ll have to go out digging in the garage to be sure. :)

  4. angela(toao) says:

    > I don’t understand that draw of such a machine.

    It’s like a tiny episode of How It’s Made that you get to watch in real life. And you get a “toy” to boot! :)

  5. mwentworth says:

    I would love to run across one of these; never seen one. I think it fills the same consumer space as the flattened penny machines you see in touristy places. I love those things.

  6. Donny says:

    This one is dear to my heart. My first encounter with one was when I was 4 years old at a zoo in Orlando. I can still remember that melted wax smell when I got my yellow elephant. 30 years later, I was at the Henry Ford Museum and smelled the wax before I saw the machine…I think I spent $20 that day to get every figure :)

    It’s a fondness for my childhood that I’ll never forget. I actually tried to purchase one of these machines, but the Mold-o-Matic company retains the ownership of the machines and only leases them to parks and museums.

  7. Drahken says:

    @flack: Even if all the gorilla machines at the “joe smith zoo” have “joe smith zoo” stamped onto the toy, while the ones at the “bob johnson museum” have “bob johnosn museum” stamped on them, the fact remains that every person who gets a gorilla at the “joe smith zoo” will have an identical gorilla to everyone else who got one at the “joe smith zoo”.

    What I meant by customized is individual, personalized, like the dog tag machines where you pick the style of tag, then pick what you want it to say, then it’ll stamp out a custom tag saying what you told it to say.

  8. You know, I am a big fan of Mold-A-Rama from a nostalgia POV. I love watching these machines at work and though simple looking, they seemed like a magically made treasure to younger me. That aside, I think a Mold-A-Rama 2.0 with newer tech, maybe some sort of mix and match molds or even something with a Makerbot would be really mighty — Make-A-Rama!

  9. Drahken says:

    With present tech, they could base it on 3d printers, let the customer make almost anything they want (of course, if they did that it’d probably wind up costing $10 for a little 3″ plastic figure, but… *shrug* :p ).

    Setting aside taking that step, it wouldn’t be too hard to redesign the machine so that people could put a little text onto the object, or just from different colors of plastic.

  10. Yeah the draw was watching the figure be molded rather than the figure itself. I frequented the Brookfield Zoo in the Chicago area when I was a kid and it had these machines. I couldn’t wait to buy one just to watch the machine do it’s thing.

    Why do zoos have a monopoly on these anyway?

  11. Flack, this is yet another awesome thing you’ve shared with us…that I didn’t realize I was missing in my life. Ha, ha. I just wish I could have seen this beauty in action for myself. :)

  12. As mentioned in the post, the Museum Of Science And Industry in Chicago does indeed have a green tractor in the farming section. They also have several others throughout the museum that are all working. We recently visited and I introduced my son to the magic of the mold making wonder.

    However, my favorite one is the machine that was brought into Santa’s Enchanted Forest in Miami — the creepiest mobile carnival ever known to man. They had a snowman Mold-O-Rama and I still have it!

  13. Drahken says:

    Apparently the things currently cost $2, there are some videos of it on youtube:

    I’ve worked in some different plastics factories, so maybe I’m just too jaded on the whole idea of watching plastic get shaped. I’ve seen lots of plastic things pop out of injection molds, I’ve also done vacuforming, where you truly get to watch it take shape before your eyes.

  14. Drahken says:

    Also, being familiar with the plastic molding industry, I can understand why the company would choose to only lease the machines instead of selling them. The molds have to be machined to a very high quality, making them extremely expensive. A 2’x2′ mold with even a simple shape costs thousands of dollars. I would guess that the molds used in those machines would be worth a minimum of around $500, just for the actual mold. Then there’s the whole melting & injecting apparatus, and the maintenance on it. While those machines are obviously designed to require only minimal maintenance, you’d still be screwed if something did go wrong, plus the extra engineering needed to make it low maintenance would add significantly to the cost.
    Then there’s the issues surrounding the raw material. It would be difficult to find & expensive to buy (I’m pretty sure you’d have to buy it in bulk). There’s also the issue of making sure you use exactly the right material. There are many different kinds of plastics, each with different melting & molding properties, plus there’s recycled content. While you can mix recycled plastic in with fresh stock, the repeated heating processes change the structure of the plastic, essentially making it a different type even when it’s the same type. This will of course alter the molding properties. If you use the wrong type of plastic, or too much recycled material, you could effectively destroy the machine. The cost of repairs could far exceed the machine’s value.

    All in all, it’s way better to merely lease such a machine, and let experts worry about all the details.

  15. The best part of the Mold-A-Rama machines is the weird plastic / melted crayon smell they give off while making the toy.


  16. plcary says:

    Great retro goodness! I do remember getting one of those at the St. Louis Zoo many, many years ago.

  17. I am glad so many of you have cool memories of these too — I didn’t know how widespread these machines were.

    I am sure at some point this summer we will visit our local zoo. When we do, I’ll get some video of our zoo’s machines in action.

  18. Mold-a-rama was all over the major Chicago attractions when I was a kid…especially the Brookfield Zoo. It was a tradition that on every visit we would get a new one. These machines were all over the zoo, so there were plenty to choose from. I also remember getting a train one from the Museum of Science of Industry and a mold of Abraham Lincoln’s head…but not sure where I got it from.

    I was like a kid again when I saw the Mold-a-rama machines at the San Antonio Zoo during our vacation visit there 3 years ago.

  19. Fuze44 says:

    Wow! I also first discovered these machines at the OKC Zoo as a child. I remember how all of the kids on field trips wanted one, but there was never enough time because of the molding process. Out of the few who would get one, some poor kid would inevitably drop theirs before it sufficiently cooled, and a chunk of plastic would break off. Tears would flow.

    I ran across a Mold-A-Rama for the first time since then in Chicago a few months ago. You can get little Sears Towers at the Sears Tower! Best $2 spent the whole trip.

  20. Fuze44 says:

    Drahken, sorry you missed out on this at a younger age, but your adult reasoning cannot diminish the appeal for those of us who had first-hand experiences.

    So, I went back to the Zoo last weekend for the first time since I was 10. The Mold-A-Ramas are gone! So sad — there was mention of them in the Zooseum. I did some searching on the Web and found this at the Mold-A-Rama site:

    After a long equivocation, the Oklahoma City Zoo has made a decision not to keep Mold-A-Rama as a part of their Zoo’s experience. The machines have been removed and will be rehabilitated and then placed in a new location where the machines and their history will be fully appreciated. If you are looking for Mold-A-Rama and are in the Oklahoma area, San Antonio, Texas would be your nearest location. The San Antonio Zoo has ten machines and is a great place to bring the family for a full day of fun.

  21. They have several working mold a rama machines at the Knoxville Zoo. Elephant, Giraffe, Otter, skinny loin, Gorilla, Tiger, Bear, … I recently made a bunch and send to my friend who was super excited in Seattle. :o)

  22. Rhino Rally Rider says:

    Busch Gardens in Tampa has several of these machines throughout the park and they will change the plastic colors to Christmas colors in December. A highlght of the trip to the park is getting a new model!

  23. Jeffrey Harrell says:

    Weeki Wachee State Park in Weeki Wachee, Florida has two. that create mermaid figurines.

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