Really going behind-the-scenes
January 18, 2010 7:02 AM   Subscribe

What are some great behind-the-scenes tours that aren't just mocked up for tourists, but are open to the general public?
posted by smackfu to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Metropolitan Opera here in NYC has an amazing backstage tour. Seeing how the sets are made and used in production on that scale is totally worth it.

There's also a tour of the old Atlantic Avenue train tunnel in Brooklyn.
posted by mkultra at 7:18 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I mean things like the Met Opera tour, and concentrating on the ones that are worthwhile. Everyone has a backstage tour nowadays, but half the time it's just "watch this movie, then we'll walk you around the public areas and maybe you can look through a window at something interesting". Waste of time. Especially when places also have a good tour that runs less often and requires advance booking. (Sydney Opera House is a good example of this.)
posted by smackfu at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2010

Tom's of Maine factory tour

Haven's Candy in Westbrook Maine has a tour on Columbus Day where they show how they make some candy, then you get to make your own candy by running some things through the chocolate-covering process.

Cold River Vodka (I haven't done this one, but I doubt you get samples)
posted by mikepop at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2010

The Boeing factory tour in Everett, WA is pretty cool. If you go on a weekday you'll get to see a lot of activity on the floor.
posted by shrabster at 8:25 AM on January 18, 2010

Not sure if this is what you want, but there's a recent book called Toxic Tourism that explores tours of toxic sites as advocating for social justice. The author's site lists some tours that are available online. Those may lead you to other worthwhile tours you could do in person.
posted by BlooPen at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2010

Not sure if it fits your definition of 'behind the scenes', but insofar as you get a look inside places not generally seen by the public, you can tour the Freemasons' Grand Lodges in New York NY, Boston MA, and Philadelphia PA. (And probably most/all of the other Grand Lodge buildings in the US.)
posted by usonian at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2010

Not sure how it was arranged or if it is open to anybody who wants, but during a recent trip to Israel, my group was given an underground/hidden tour of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2010

I also thought the tour of (the old) Yankee Stadium, the one Ruth built not George, was pretty cool. You got to go inside the locker rooms, press box, dugout and other places you would not normally go. The only difference was that the tours are only held on non game days so you don't get to see the folks who work in the locker/dugout/outfield.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:53 AM on January 18, 2010

I freakin loved the VIP Studio Tour at Warner Brothers. We were there on a weekend so apparently there was less going on, but it was a pretty long tour and we got to see the set of Friends!

I feel like I'm always recommending this, but Mardi Gras World in New Orleans is all sorts of awesome. You get to see people working on Mardi Gras floats!
posted by radioamy at 9:03 AM on January 18, 2010

I thought the Guinness brewery tour in Dublin was pretty good.

I've done some good distillery tours in Scotland too. My favourite was the Highland Park tour on Orkney.

The tour of the New Zealand parliament building is really interesting. As is the UK Parliament tour.
posted by jonesor at 9:03 AM on January 18, 2010

The Stanford Linear Accelerator is reinstating its tours in a few days - you're just in time! You can't go anywhere dangerous, of course, but you get to see a lot of the hardware. And the main tunnel is interesting from an architectural/artistic perspective (heh), since it's the only man-made enclosed structure that's long enough and straight enough to create a true vanishing point perspective.
posted by Quietgal at 9:07 AM on January 18, 2010

Be in Pittsburgh on 18 September this year and you can visit the Alcosan Open House---that's visitor day at our municipal sewage facility. They'll take you all over the plant. Those guys love wastewater treatment!
posted by tss at 9:24 AM on January 18, 2010

I toured Bill Smith Custom Records in LA years ago, and it was fascinating.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2010

Cabot Creamery in Vermont is in the real deal creamery - unlike the Ben + Jerry's tour which is mocked up for tourists. Plus you get to eat cheese.
posted by k8t at 9:44 AM on January 18, 2010

Tillamook Creamery in Oregon is fun, plus you get to take home a mini loaf of cheese.

Many small craft breweries offer tours. Berkshire Brewing Company is one near me in Western Massachusetts. (The Guinness tour in Dublin was disappointing because it wasn't actually a tour of the brewery.)
posted by apricot at 10:28 AM on January 18, 2010

Several of us from work took a (specially arranged - they don't routinely do this) tour of the engineering spaces of a Washington State Ferry, complete with meeting the Captain, Chief Engineer, and an engineering department guy. I got to shoot the breeze with them about what day-to-day life was like, how's the pay, what do you like, what do you hate kind of stuff. They explained how the propulsion system and all the aux equipment worked together. It was pretty awesome (to me, a propulsion plant geek. YMMV.)

The same group of us also did a physical plant tour of the King Dome (before they smashed it, obvs.) back through the boiler rooms, A/C plants, rigging gear up high, that kind of stuff. Again, the best part was getting to hang out with the building manager and equipment guys for a while and talk about their jobs.

Here at PSNS, the inactive ships guys sometimes give a tour of an old decommissioned sub or aircraft carrier - we have tons of old 688s and several conventional carriers (Constellation, Kittyhawk)

Sometimes you just have to call and ask instead of looking for a real "tour". I know I'd be happy to tour you around my submarines and aircraft carriers - it would be just as fun for me, if it didn't happen every day. (Unfortunately, that's not possible - classified material issues.) Find someplace you'd be interested in seeing and just call. Worst they can say is no, right?
posted by ctmf at 11:17 AM on January 18, 2010

+1 to Tillamook. It's educational and delicious.

And this might not be exactly what you're thinking of but what about zoos? The zoo where I work offers behind-the-scenes tours (prices vary depending on the area) that are pretty cool. Not sure if all zoos do this or even most but if you're interested in exotic animals or convservation it's a real neat experience. Worth asking about at your local zoo, or anywhere you might end up visiting. (And definitely not touristy, at least at our zoo.)
posted by Neofelis at 11:18 AM on January 18, 2010

Most opera houses, ballet companies, public TV stations (there's one you may not have thought of) will do this if they think you might donate money. We're talking real money though, not ten bucks; however, you may get to get in on the coattails of some million-dollar donor's tour that's already going to happen if you call. Plus, its fun to talk to a millionaire for a couple of hours - I don't know about you, but it's not the kind of person I normally hang out with.
posted by ctmf at 11:30 AM on January 18, 2010

Behind-the-scenes stadium tours are cool. I've done the Fenway Park tour and the Rogers Centre (then Skydome) tour. I'd love to do the Wrigley Field tour, but haven't yet.

I've also heard good things about the Eli's Cheesecake tours in Chicago.

For scientific stuff, Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory have tours.
posted by SisterHavana at 12:01 PM on January 18, 2010

I once went on a Patrick O'Brian themed tour of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. A woman who worked there was a fan of the Jack and Stephen books and led a group of us around pointing out various things they would have seen. Maybe not quite what you had in mind, but it was very cool -- and not the standard tour.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:28 PM on January 18, 2010

The Jameson distillery in Dublin. OK its not where they actually make it anymore, but they have miniature mockups of the equipment, and for the first time I actually understood physically how they make whiskey. It was much more personal and far superior to my experience of the Guinness brewery tour, though that could just be me.

If you go, and they ask who wants to volunteer for some fun at the end, put your hand up. Trust me.
posted by Admira at 2:31 PM on January 18, 2010

The Stratford Festival in Ontario has tours of both the backstage of the Festival Theatre and their costume warehouse. Both of these are great fun - the costume warehouse is huge and you get to try costumes on at the end and the theatre is truly amazing.
posted by leslies at 3:06 PM on January 18, 2010

I will second the Jameson tour over the Guinness one.

Also, this is a little different than what you may be going for, but I can't help giving a shout-out to to tours of the U.S. Capitol plus a stop into either the House or Senate gallery while they're in session. If you can arrange to be there while some controversial issue is on the floor, all the better, but even if it's just one random guy talking to an empty room, you're still really watching the legislative process in action. I recommend getting a tour from your representative's staff/interns rather than the official Capitol tour guides, if you're planning ahead. The nice people in the red coats may have a better handle on historical details, but a staff-led tour will be more personalized (you may get a tour all to yourself), will call attention to things from your home state when possible, will be more willing to point out any bigwigs you may pass in the halls, and in general will give you more fun dirt.
posted by naoko at 4:14 PM on January 18, 2010

I've thought of some more.
The zoo where I work also has tours, they call it "Keeper for the Day". I've heard good reports but it's pretty expensive.

I'm not sure if it's exactly what you're after, but there's a place in the UK called Butser Hill Ancient Farm. It was set up as an educational and research resource for achaeology, so you get so see behind the scenes of ancient Britain (or at least the work of an experimental archaeologist). It is actually a working farm with crops and animals - it's brilliant!

There's also a yearly free event in London called Open House Weekend. It's purpose is to celebrate architecture and there are a huge range of buildings that take part so you can go behind the scenes of everything from the Olympic construction sites, historic lidos and landmark buildings (like Lloyds of London) to social housing projects etc. Most of the sites (there are >700) include guided tours, quite often led by the architects involved so you get to ask them all about the buildings.

Lastly, the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum is an odd one. It's a proper museum, with all the exhibits you'd expect. However, the museum scientists actually work there too and are effectively exhibits (!), so you get to see them at work (they're mostly taxonomists I think).
posted by jonesor at 3:45 AM on January 19, 2010

fermilab national accelerator in batavia, illinois does something called 'ask a scientist' on 1 sunday per month. it includes a science lecture and a tour of the building containing the accelerator, as well as a visit to the main building.
posted by lester at 7:10 AM on January 19, 2010

Disney World has a number of behind-the-scenes tours that can be pretty cool. Keys to the Kingdom is popular, so if you want something less crowded, try one of the others like DiveQuest or Wanyama Safari. Disneyland also has tours but they're not as cool as Disney World's options.
posted by etoile at 5:49 PM on January 19, 2010

We have an excellent book called Watch it Made in the USA, and have used it until it's falling apart. A couple of the best tours we found in there were fortune cookie factory tour in Oakland CA. I felt like I had stepped into 1930's Shanghai. Also we toured an RV factory in Riverside CA and they took us right out onto the factory floor, so that was pretty incredible. The Harley Davidson tour in Yorktown PA also has you out on the floor for part of the time. I am very excited to hear about Stanford LA being opened back up again - we did that several years ago and it was AWESOME. Also have to vouch for the Tillamook tour as being pretty swell.
posted by jvilter at 7:44 PM on January 21, 2010

Response by poster: The Metropolitan Opera here in NYC has an amazing backstage tour. Seeing how the sets are made and used in production on that scale is totally worth it.

I actually did this last weekend, and it really was a great example of what I was looking for. They pretty much show you everything you could think of, from the star dressing rooms to the costume / carpentry departments to the scenery storage in the sub-basement to the wings of the stage.

(Incidentally, they offer it on Sunday and on weekdays and I'm not sure which is better. The Sunday one you get more access since only a skeleton crew is working, but you probably see more of the activity on a weekdays.)
posted by smackfu at 8:54 AM on January 25, 2010

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