Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Guide To America's Best Free Vacation Tours

After driving down a bleak interstate highway for several hours my fnend and I were bored, beat, and worst of all, hot. It was one of those scorching July days when it feels as if the asphalt will turn to Jell-O right under your feet. As he shifted his body behind the wheel my companion let out a groan of despair. "I hope the next exit sign reads 'North Pole," he sighed. "I'd give anything to be buried in ice cubes."

"Would you settle for a blizzard?" I asked.

He turned toward me with a look that could kill. "This heat's really getting to you, huh? You've gone off your rocker for good this time."

"No. I'm serious," I chuckled. "How much would you give to be walking through a snowstorm? I can make it happen right here in the middle of July." Twenty minutes later we were walking through a blizzard. A blizzard of potato flakes. I got treated to one hell of a meal that night.

I was in second grade when I went on my first industrial tour. After an hour of watching cartons whiz by and seeing bottles filled and capped by fast-moving machinery I dutifully got back on board the school bus. Our teacher had promised us samples of some "very interesting ice cream." The would-be ice cream had a distinctly sour flavor.

Our hosts for the day did not manufacture ice cream - they made yogurt. While my classmates wrinkled their noses at the "melted gook" in Dannon's bright containers, I finished off a tasty free lunch

Since then I've watched dollar bills rolling off the presses. I've gotten soused on a tour of California wineries. At one point I even donned a hard hat and journeyed a mile below the earth's surface to an underground mine. I've watched cars and planes move down an assembly line; gotten free samples of fresh-made candy and watched executives swimming in the same pool where American Airlines trains its crew and cabin personnel in evacuation procedures in the event a plane makes a forced landing at sea.

If you're planning a trip of any kind rest assured that one of the best ways to see this country is to see America at work. Industrial tours are offered by many of the nation's manufacturers as an educational and promotional device. The tours are extremely popular with school and special interest groups and are talked about for months after they return home. Although the product identification pitch may get a little strong at times, industrial tours offer an interesting diversion from driving (and from the bedlam going on in the back seat of your car). An added bonus is that many of the tours are free of charge.

Industrial lours are rarely billed out as a general attraction. Nor are they commissionable to travel agents. Therefore it takes a bit of research to sniff out which manufacturing facilities are open to public inspection. But a short trip to the library and a phone call to the Chamber of Commerce or AAA tour desk is all that's necessary to open up the door to some of the most impressive sights you will ever see.

Can you imagine one room that is big enough to house four 747 jumbo jets? Check out the tour of Boeing's Everett plant just 30 miles north of Seattle, Washingon. After a brief film which describes the ways Boeing tests the 747 for safety and design, you will be taken on a tour of the plant where the giant 747s and 767s are put together. You'll see plant workers jogging through the special corridors which double as indoor running tracks and underground connections between buildings.

If you're passing through the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex be sure to contact American Airlines for reservations on the tour of their inflight training academy in Arlington, Texas. This is where the airline trains its own personnel, as well as employees of other airlines for work aboard the DC-10. You will be taken through classrooms where pilots learn how to read the complex instrument panels. A detailed relief map with a roving camera provides the films of takeoffs and landings which are shown to pilots training in the giant cockpit simulators. Then, sit back and try to relax in a cabin mock-up as smoke and fire conditions are brought into play to train cabin attendants. It's a great experience for anyone who is afraid of flying. By the time you finish touring the site you will have a far greater appreciation for the emergency and first aid training each flight attendant must undergo during the course of a flying career.

When passing through a town situated near a fresh water source always check the local directory for the presence of a brewery. From Texas to the Pacific Northwest. from Milwaukee
to Winston-Salem, beer is being produced from malt hops. One of the joys of touring a brewery on a hot day is the moment when you are taken past the huge cooling vats. Suddenly it's 30 degrees and you are surrounded by the aroma of fresh fermenting suds. It's a welcome relief from the outside heat.

Most breweries will lead you through a detailed description of the fermentation process and wind up the tour in their courtesy room Free beer is served to adults and root beer is usually available to children on the tour.

Some of these courtesy rooms are not to be believed. Olympia Breweries in Olympia, Washington has a nice, plush bar. You can hang around for several drinks as each tour deposits more people at the bar.

The Lone Star Brewinq Company of San Antonio, Texas has done its best to outdistance its rivals' hospitalitv. Lone Star has turned the grounds into a taxidermist s delight. Whether in the
Hall of Fins (which features a 1,056-pound black marlin mounted for display) or the Buckhorn Hall of Horns, one is awed by the variety of beasts on display. Animals from every part of North America have been stuffed and placed on display in the hall. In addition to polar bears, elk, caribou, and mountain goats a few steps into the African Hall brings one face to face with zebras, giraffes, and other species. Bird watchers will be fascinated by the variety of dioramas which contain birds from all over the world (including a pair of extinct passenger pigeons).

Most industrial tours involve a prolonged time on your feet. Some companies will start off with a short film describing their product and condensing the manufacturing process in front of you. You will then be taken through the plant, passing through areas that do not interfere with workers on the assembiy line. Safety precautions are top priority here. You may be asked to don special eyeglasses, wear protective wraps, or be told that certain clothing will not be considered safe within the factory area.

Follow the instructions. They are for your own protection.

Some industries are seasonal, so it is wise to check with the company in advance. Fruit harvesting is limited to certain months. Thus cannery tours are subject to changes in schedule. Check with lumber mills to see if you are arriving during slack season. Most importantly, if you have made reservations for a tour be sure to show up on time or the tour will leave without you. And by all means, wear comfortable walking shoes.

Although some food processing tours open up the realm of a child's imagination, the overwhelming odor of the product can take the romance and joy away from some adults. A tour of the Hershey chocolate facility may be sheer ambrosia to a youngster. An adult, however, may find the aroma more than he can comfortably handle for a long priod of time.

Conversely, I'll never forget the day my parents took me on a tour of the Armour Star Meat Packing plant in Kansas City. It was a hot, sweltering summer day and the stench was overwhelming. Although I was fascinated as I watched butchers cut up hog carcasses with giant buzz saws, my sister and I couldn't wait to get back to the motel and "wash off the smell."

Some of the most fascinating industrial tours are found in unlikely places. Just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the Shidoni Art Gallery. Run by a collective of artists, the grounds around the bronze foundry are a showcase for some of the most exciting sculptures you will see. Saturday afternoon is pouring time and molten bronze is used to fill the sculpture molds before an audience of excited travelers. The superheated bronze turns a brilliant, eerie orange with the consistency of cream!

Just a stone's throw from the Santa Monica freeway in Los Angeles is the Page Museum,. Situated next to the famed La Brea tar pits, the curators will gladly offer a superb film and demonstration of how scientists have been able to use carbon tracing to determine the age of specimens brought up from the tar and from fossil fields in Utah. The tar is still bubbling away in the heart of downtown Los Angeles where, in prehistoric times, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths drowned and were preserved in the sticky matter.

Los Angeles is also the heart of the telecommunications industry and offers a qood chance to peek inside the entertainment business. Hollywoood is, after all, the center of the movie and television world. Universal Studios' tour of their grounds has become a must-see item on the lists of most California tourists. An airy tram ride takes people through a display of the illusions created at the studios for their motion pictures. Visitors receive a detailed explanation of how certain special effects are created. You might be attacked by a robot great white shark, travel through an avalanche, or see the waters part around your tram car (just as they did for Moses in The Ten Commandments). Makeup artists entertain the crowds with the tricks of their craft. Stunt men show how to take pratfalls off balconies of Wild West saloons and come out smiling. It's a full day's entertainment and well worth the price of admission.

How about a peek at the inner workings of an art form that is over 400 years old? Perhaps the best kept secret among industrial tours is the backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York's Lincoln Center. Conducted through the Metropolitan Opera Guild's Education Division, the tour lasts almost two hours and takes the viewer through every phase of producing grand opera for the stage. As one looks at the Opera House from the fountain in Lincoln Center the building is a masterpiece of deception. It is as large and complex within as a major city hospital. Inside the marble and glass edifice are shops which build wigs, costumes, sets, electrical special effects and some of the greatest illusions you might see on a stage. Styrofoam is transformed into mountain passages. Vacuform molds help furnish the balustrades which line the "marble" balconies of Venetian palaces.

The Met also has some of the most advanced stage machinery ever built. Its stage area actually encompasses five substages. In addition to the main stage there is one stage which houses a turntable, and one which can be raked or angled for special effect. A third stage splits into two horizontal segments which can be rolled onto the main stage separately. Beneath the main stage are a series of giant elevators which can bring up the sub-basement below the stage with an entire set. This allows the Met to achieve magical transformations required by some operas. As you travel through the depths and back corridors of the opera house there is a strong likelihood that you will be able to peek in at rehearsals being conducted with some of the top musical artists of the century,

By the end of the tour you will have had a chance to see the inside of the auditorium from control center: the stage manager's console. If your timing is good, you might be able to brag to friends that you, too, once sang on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Reservations must be made far in advance by calling the direct line to the Met Tours at (212) 582-3512. If you are planning to be in New York between October and July, put this tour on your must-see list!

Have I whetted your appetite for industrial tours? I hope so. You'll find they provide a thrilling education as well as fascinating entertainment while you're on the road. Most are free or reasonably inexpensive compared to major tourist attractions. As you watch cars come together like magic on an assembly line or taste fresh candy as it rolls off the conveyor belt you will have a rare chance to see America from the inside. Investigate the sights, sounds and smells of the forces of industry and you will learn what really makes this country tick.

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This article originally appeared in a 1981 issue of Saga.

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