From Kansas City's Harley-Davidson plant, where the rubber hits the road, to Atlanta's CNN, where the news is literally made, these company tours showcase American know-how.
From two open-air observation decks, tours at the massive Boeing factory look down on 747s, 777s, and the imposing new 787 Dreamliners (wing span 186 feet, max speed 560 mph) in various stages of completion. Workers crawl like ants over the planes, assembling fuselages, attaching wings, and installing jet engines. During peak production times, tours can pass a dozen or more airplanes-to-be. Outside the factory, a shuttle bus takes you to Paine Field, where finished planes are tested before delivery. You may even see a 787 take off—a rare treat, as the plane has not yet gone into commercial service. For obvious reasons, security at the factory is tight. Cell phones and other electronic gadgets are forbidden, as are purses and backpacks. Lockers are available for $1. 800/464-1476, futureofflight.org, tours daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., $15.50, reservations suggested. Children must be at least four feet tall to take this tour.
The highlight of the 55-minute, behind-the-scenes tour is a view into the newsroom, a huge glass cubicle that some reporters wryly call the fishbowl. Visitors watch from an observation deck high above as reporters monitor satellite feeds from around the world and piece together video stories. You also peek into studios, where broadcasts of HLN (formerly called Headline News) and CNN en Español are filming. News junkies will get a kick out of Studio 7E, a replica of a real set complete with prompters and green screens; pretend you're Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer before heading to the food court at ground level. 404/827-2300, cnn.com/studiotour, tours daily every 10 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, $13, reservations suggested.
At Kohler, many of the kitchen and bath fixtures are still made the old-fashioned way. In the pottery area, workers shape toilets and sink basins over fiery kilns that reach 2,250 degrees Farenheit. Inside the historic manufacturing buildings (the oldest dates back to 1901), visitors don the required protective goggles and head straight to the factory floor. Guides, some of whom have been with the company for 50 years, fill you in on how things have changed over the years. One new addition: Herman, the staff's affectionate name for the powerful machine that helps make many of the bathtubs. Molten iron is poured into molds, which the machine peels away to reveal clawfoot tubs that steam and glow a bright orange. 920/457-3699, us.kohler.com, Monday to Thursday at 8:30 a.m., free, reservations required.
Kansas City, Mo.
This is the only Harley facility where motorcycles like the sleek, liquid-cooled V-Rod model are assembled from start to finish. Over the course of the tour, pass through the fabrication area, where sparks fly as workers weld the halves of the motorcycles' fuel tanks together, and the assembly line, where hundreds of employees perform precise tasks like connecting the handlebars or fitting the engine to the bike frame. Lending a (metal) hand are more than 70 robots. One eight-foot robotic arm, mounted on the floor, mimics a human as it picks up and polishes the gas tanks before their first coat of paint; another lowers a huge crate (imprinted with the timeless phrase "Your Hog Has Arrived") over each motorcycle just before shipping. One motorcycle can be completed in 55 minutes—less than the hour it takes you to wander around the factory floor. 816/270-8023, harley-davidson.com, weekdays every half hour between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m., free, reservations suggested.
You can't miss the Louisville Slugger factory—a 120-foot-tall bat leans against the main building. (Unlike the wooden models made inside, this one is made of carbon steel.) The 25-minute tour takes you into the working factory, so close that you can smell the branding machine burn the company's name into each finished product. The lathe whittles a 37-inch-long cylinder of kiln-dried wood into a Slugger in just 60 to 90 seconds, spewing sawdust everywhere in a feat that's a favorite with kids. At the adjacent museum, take a swing with Mickey Mantle's old lumber, and then check out the notches Babe Ruth carved into his favorite bat for every home run he hit with it during the 1927 season. Batting cages are available, and you can take a hack at 10 balls for $1. If you want a Slugger of your very own, order one with your name on it at the beginning of the tour and pick it up at the end ($15 to $70, depending upon size and style). 877/775-8443, sluggermuseum.org, Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., $10, $5 for kids under 12, reservations not required.
New York City
If you're a fan of 30 Rock, you know the drill: NBC pages lead picture-snapping tourists around the studios (fun fact: Regis Philbin, Ted Koppel, and Willard Scott are all former pages). After watching a film covering the history of early radio and television, visitors are escorted to sets where programs like the Today show and Saturday Night Live are shot. The highlight for many on the hourlong tour is a peek of the NBC control center that oversees more than 100 hours of programming per day. Tours end with a chance to read from a teleprompter or have your picture taken behind an anchor desk. One note: Studios in use during tour hours won't be visited (for example, early morning tours may skip the Today show set). 212/664-3700, nbcuniversalstore.com, Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., $19.25, reservations suggested.
Steinway & Sons
Long Island City, N.Y.
This venerable company got its start in Germany, where founder Heinrich Steinweg built pianos in his kitchen. Today, more than 150 years after Steinway moved to New York City and started Steinway & Sons, the instruments are still fashioned by hand. See 22-foot-long maple planks being shaped into a grand piano's distinctive U-shaped body. Master technicians make subtle adjustments to virtually every part of the piano, weighting individual keys and threading each string through its own tuning pin. Along the way, every piano gets a distinctive sound—what the craftspeople call its soul. It takes a full year, from lumberyard to showroom, to make 990-pound grand piano. 718/204-3164, steinway.com, Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m. September through June, free, reservations required—call at least a month in advance.