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Cable Car Museum

1201 Mason St.
San Francisco, CA 94108

If you have an hour before dinner with the family near the Embarcadero, or you want to work in a science and engineering field trip for an hour after wandering through Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf, go to the Cable Car Museum. If you're a San Francisco resident, you might have taken any number of Muni rides without really understanding the history of how cable cars and mass transit came to be, or the effect of the 1906 earthquake. Though it may not have the attractive sea power of the Aquarium of the Bay or the hands-on fascination of the nearby Pier 1 Exploratorium, you can't beat the price of the Cable Car Museum or its bathrooms: free. (Also, if you need more than an hour to occupy the kids on a Saturday, the outside exhibits at the Exploratorium are also free.) The upper level shows the cable wheels and working models, along with a video, and the lower levels let you see how the cables work close up. Engineers and small future engineers will be fascinated by the turbines and generators and drive wheels that all work together to move crowds of people from one area to the next. Future photographers will be fascinated by the black-and-white and tintype images that show San Francisco and the cable cars in their former glory. If you happen to be in the area in July, don't miss the annual Bell-Ringing Contest, dating back to 1949. Seven finalists are picked out of a group of bell-ringers who meet in the car barn (which shows the entry and exit of the cables underneath the street), and then they and non-profit organizers move to Union Square for a battle of the bells. Sometimes, just to change things up a little, bell-ringing happens in October too – so watch the website for further developments.

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Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory

56 Ross Alley
San Francisco, CA 94108

Maybe in a marketing move to prove its genuine historic flavor, the Fortune Cookie Museum (inside the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company) does not have its own website. This probably saves the company enough time and money to keep on doing what they've been doing since 1962 – letting people watch them make great fortune cookies by hand. San Francisco itself was named the Fortune Cookie Capital of the World in 1983, in a mock trial between representatives of Los Angeles and San Francisco at the Court of Historical Review. It's one thing to go to a museum and see artifacts, and it's quite another to see skilled artists throw down cookie dough and shape it expertly without machines. The round flat cookie is pulled off of a hot press, a fortune is placed on one side, and then the cookie gets folded around a steel rod to make the unique shape. All of this is done within seconds, and watching the process is something between Boudin's Bakery and the Exploratorium – although a tour of the tiny facility doesn't take more than ten minutes. On good days, the barber next door might play some tunes. Sadly, the location on Ross Alley is nowhere near as easily accessed as anything around Fisherman's Wharf, but reviews often state that the locals are helpful in pointing out the sign. Think Diagon Alley a la Harry Potter, and finding the Golden Gate sign down Ross Alley should be a cinch. You will have to walk there, and there's hardly room for two people, so newborns and strollers might be a difficult squeeze. However, you can buy bags of fresh fortune cookies between $1 and $3.50 per bag, after sampling some of the cookies made in front of your eyes. Messages can be customized, and the cookies retain their flavor days after they have been bought. The chocolate varieties can be really good. Getting a photo done with one of the workers should be easy unless the shop is crowded, and don't forget to pre-pay the stated price of .50 per photo.

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Jelly Belly Factory

1 Jelly Belly Ln.
Fairfield, CA 94533

Did you know that there is a magical land that gives out free sugar to children? Did you know that former California governor Ronald Reagan started a Jelly Belly habit to overcome his fondness for smoking pipes? Did you also know that the patriotic blueberry bean was developed for President Reagan's inauguration in 1981? All three of these facts are true. These are the sorts of fun trivia dished out along with free Jelly Belly beans at the free factory tour in Fairfield. At the Jelly Belly factory, they take their tours as serious fun. You can either get added on to one of the free 40-minute tours that start every 15 minutes or so (depending on the lines), or you can gather together a private tour and go through University-level beanology. The free tours are so popular, especially because the scents of created and polished beans are always wafting through the factory. It would be cruel to let the kids smell but not touch, so of course there are free samples – and 50% off bags of the factory rejects or Belly Flops. If you forget the camera, pay a small fee for souvenir photos – and maybe get a few Jordan almonds in the store. Of course, the popularity and free nature of the tours also means that there may be wait times around the holidays. If you try to get in on Martin Luther King Day, Easter or Spring Break, just make sure that the kids know you might be in line for an hour. (That's hardly more than they'd get at Disneyland anyway, even after paid admission.) Watch out for the every flavor beans like 'pencil shavings' and 'vomit', especially in bags of random Belly Flops. You can't miss the great Jelly Belly art in the lobby, and if you have a penny, try the penny press machine.

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Junior Center Art and Science

558 Bellevue Ave.
Oakland, CA 94610

The Junior Center may be an under-appreciated Oakland gem. It's located just next to Lake Merrit's bird sanctuary, the still-popular Children's Fairyland, and the Oakland East Bay Garden Center, less than a mile away. It can be hard to find educational places that are open for free during the week, also offer science and art classes, and act as a drop-in center or camp during the summer. You and the kids can overlook the lake while looking at frogs and lizards, in the Animal Discovery sessions on Tuesdays and Fridays (free), or bring a picnic basket so that you can really explore the area around the lake. It's also fun to look around the room at the display of artwork and posters about the various animals, done by all of the kids who have explored their way through the Center. There are baskets of crayons and helpful staff who can show you how to draw, explain how the lizard can regrow its tail – and of course this will inspire your kids to add their artwork to the walls. Gary the tortoise is a real hands-on highlight. He's middle-aged, and a little slow, but his rescue story is inspiring – especially as he is now quite hale and healthy. It's also allowed to hold Tyler the bearded dragon, and the toads, but you might want to just admire the Madagascar hissing roaches from afar. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, parents of preschoolers can come and help their 'Little Leapers' get ready for a learning environment, doing art and science and music classes in groups. The after-school and summer courses can be taken for a very affordable fee, whether your kids want to build a bookcase and a chicken coop for the backyard (Carpentry for Kids) or become the next Calvin and Hobbes creator (Cartooning for Teens) with a side interest in charm bracelets (Jewelry/Metal Arts for Teens). The Rockets and Robots class is also very popular.

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Randall Museum

199 Museum Way
San Francisco, CA 94114

* The Randall Museum is under renovation and has temporarily reopened the Live Animal exhibit at Mission Art Center at 745 Treat Avenue, as well as the Art, Ceramics and Science studios. Read more on their official website. The Randall Museum is the jack-of-all trades of entertainment and education for younger kids and pre-teens. It's something between a zoo, a science fair, a theatre, and an all-around field trip extravaganza – and it's free! The rescued animals and pets, such as the monkey-faced eel and the legless lizard, are odd but not lethal – and the petting area is always a favorite. (There are also birds and bees, which can provide much educational opportunity.) The Middle School Science Fair in February is quite famous, and allows entries by public, private, and homeschooled kids alike. The models and replicas, from 'Riding the Rails' to the earthquake shack, can be really fascinating. The new Windswept exhibit shows arrows pointing which way the wind blows, ideal for kids working their way through Earth Science programs. Any kids who have gotten intrigued by the Cable Car Museum must go on a Saturday to see the Golden Gate Model Railroad, which was upgraded to digital controls and realistic sounds on a working track. If you're not too tired from the uphill walk to get to the museum, there's a nearby trail with good views overlooking the city and Bay area. The theatre has really broad-based appeal. It opens in the evening, and shows anything from “A Clockwork Orange” to “Lawrence of Arabia”, though the Museum doesn't require any admission fees or age restrictions, parents are told to use their best judgment. That also goes for the free astronomy lecture at 8 pm on every third Wednesday, and other one-off events such as explanations of animal mating strategies. Classical concerts and choirs free and open to all ages (though donations are appreciated), and the low-cost ($8) Buddy Club outings on Sundays for magic shows or ventriloquism.

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