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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Ice cream fans celebrate sweet treat in July

  • Image: Obama's ice cream
    Wells' Dairy
    President Obama enjoys an ice cream cone from Wells' Dairy in Le Mars, Iowa.

    If you’re a fan of ice cream — and who isn’t? — July is the month for you.

    Back in 1984, President Ronald Reagan designated July as National Ice Cream Month and set aside the third Sunday of the month as National Ice Cream Day. So as you travel around the country during the next four weeks, you might consider it your patriotic duty to eat plenty of ice cream cones, ice cream sundaes and other frozen desserts.

    And while out on the road in search of that next generous scoop of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry ice cream, try to learn something about the sweet treat you’re about to eat. We found five factory tours that not only offer an ice cream education but, in some cases, a free sample.

    Vote: Which flavor do you favor?

  • Ben & Jerry’s — Waterbury, Vt.

    Image: Ben & Jerry's tour
    Jeff Pecor

    If you’re in New England and your travels take you anywhere near Vermont, make your way to Waterbury for a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory. The adventure includes an entertaining "moo-vie" about ice cream production and the history of the offbeat, socially responsible ice cream company that had its first headquarters inside an old gas station. After observing the ice cream factory in operation, visitors land in the “Flavoroom” to learn about the most popular flavors (Cherry Garcia is #1, of course) and taste the flavor of the day. During the summer, outdoor activities on the factory grounds can include everything from making tie-dye shirts and visiting a real cow to a walk through the Flavor Graveyard, where retired flavors such as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Frozen Yogurt (1994-2001) and Peanut Butter and Jelly (1998-1999) are memorialized.

    The scoop: Factory tours are offered daily (except for a few holidays), last about 30 minutes and include an ice cream treat. Cost: $3 adults; $2, kids 12 and under and seniors. Details at Ben & Jerry’s.

  • Blue Bell — Brenham, Texas (Broken Arrow, Okla.; Sylacauga, Ala.)

    Image: Blue Bell factory tour
    Blue Bell

    Named for the Lone Star State’s native bluebell wildflower, the Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell Company has its roots in a 1907 creamery whipped up to help farmers make marketable butter out of excess cream. Ice cream production started soon after and today Blue Bell ice cream is manufactured not only in Texas, but at plants in Oklahoma and Alabama as well. Each factory offers guided tours that explain the ice cream-making process, but the tour at company headquarters in Texas is longer and more detailed than the others. No matter which facility you visit, though, each tour ends with a complimentary scoop of Blue Bell ice cream and the opportunity to purchase additional scoops for $1 or less.

    The scoop: Tours are offered on weekdays at three Blue Bell plants: Broken Arrow, Okla. (southeast of Tulsa): $2 adults; $1 kids & seniors; Sylacauga, Ala. (45 minutes from Birmingham): $3 adults; $2 kids & seniors. Brenham, Texas: $5 adults; $3 kids & seniors. Hours vary. For more details see the Blue Bell website.

  • Blue Bunny — LeMars, Iowa

    Image: Blue Bunny
    Wells' Dairy

    Wells’ Dairy makes so much Blue Bunny ice cream in Le Mars, Iowa, and draws so many people to the company’s World Visitor Center there that in 1994 the Iowa state legislature declared Le Mars the Ice Cream Capital of the World. Few will argue once they tour the Blue Bunny ice cream museum, test their ice cream knowledge at interactive game kiosks and take a self-guided tour along a working mock-up of an ice cream production line. 

    So why Blue Bunny? The name comes from a “Name that ice cream” contest held in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1935. The winner took home $25 for his “Blue Bunny” suggestion, but what may have secured the prize was his drawing of a nattily dressed bunny character holding up a yummy-looking ice cream cone. 

    The scoop: Admission to the ice cream museum and visitor center in La Mars, Iowa, is $3 for adults and $1 for kids. Free samples are not included as part of the tour, but there is an old-fashioned ice cream parlor with an authentic soda fountain on site. For hours and more details, see the Ice Cream Capital of the World Museum and Visitor Center website.

  • Velvet Ice Cream — Utica, Ohio

    Image: Velvet Ice Cream
    Velvet Ice Cream

    Founded in 1914 in Utica, Ohio, Velvet Ice Cream is now run by the fourth generation of the Dager family. The ice cream factory makes more than 5 million gallons of ice cream a year in “small” (for the industry) 800-gallon batches and is located at Ye Olde’ Mill, a 20-acre site that houses an ice cream museum, a historic grist mill with water wheel, a fishing pond and other attractions. Factory tours do not usually include a complimentary taste of ice cream, but for National Ice Cream Month company president Luconda Dager has cooked up a special treat. Viewing gallery visitors who show up weekdays between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. will get to taste the flavor of the day as it comes off the line.

    The scoop: Free 30-minute public tours are offered weekdays from May through October; self-guided tours are available during the season on weekends. For hours and more details, see the Velvet Ice Cream Company website.

  • Graeter’s Ice Cream — Columbus, Ohio

    Image: Graeter's
    Courtesy Graeter's

    In business since 1870, the Graeter’s ice cream company makes just 200,000 gallons of ice cream a year between its two plants in Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the Columbus production facility, where they’ll see a short video about the history of Graeter’s company products and watch the ultra-dense ice cream being made in slowly spinning stainless steel French Pot freezers, just 2-gallons at a time.

    The scoop: The self-guided tour is available at the Graeter’s main ice cream shop in Columbus, Ohio, which also offers an ice cream-themed play area for young kids. The tour is free, but no free samples are offered. For hours and more details, see the Graeter’s ice cream website.

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