Courtesy Edsel and Eleanor Ford House
A visit to attractions such as zoos, gardens and candy stores can be much more meaningful and entertaining with a look behind the scenes.
Groups can go beyond gawking at the size of a giraffe; they can feed it. They can do more than just admire roses; they can learn that these delicate beauties were planted in remembrance of a local citizen.
Although they will always have to debate between the truffles and the caramels as a delicious souvenir, they can watch them both being handcrafted on an old-time assembly line.
A behind-the-scenes tour is always a crowd-pleaser.
Edsel and Eleanor Ford House
Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan
Located on the shore of Lake St. Clair, the private estate of Edsel and Eleanor Ford was planned to shield them and their four children from the rigors of public life.
“The home, designed to resemble a cluster of Cotswold village cottages the Fords had admired in England, was completed in 1929,” said Ann Fitzpatrick, vice president of communications for the house.
Edsel, the only son of Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Co., became president of the company at age 25 and served in that capacity until his death from cancer in 1943 at the age of 49.
“Eleanor stayed here until her death in 1976 and left nearly everything, including their collection of art and antiques,” said Fitzpatrick.
The house offers a variety of behind-the-scenes tours, and considering the massive gardens, the renowned architecture, and the impressive collection of art and antiques, Fitzpatrick encouraged groups to pick their favorite niche.
However, she added that one of the most popular tours is the Staff Life Tour, which takes visitors to places where the staff lived and worked.
“The tour includes time in the attic, where the children played and an infirmary was located; the basement, where wine and furs were stored; and a tunnel that connected the house and the powerhouse.”
With 9,000 animals representing 800 species, the Toledo Zoo is known as one of the world’s most complete zoos. “In addition, we are leaders in conservation and animal breeding. In recent years, four out of the five polar bear clubs born in the United States have been at the Toledo Zoo,” said Andi Norman, director of marketing and public relations.
After a nose-to-nose visit with the polar bears in the public area, groups get a peek behind the scenes at the Arctic to Africa Encounter, where the saltwater is kept in pristine condition for the underwater exhibits. “You get to see the life support and what it takes to maintain these exhibits. It’s like swimming pool filters on steroids,” said Norman.
The VIP area in the Arctic is a holding area for polar bears. “It’s a place for them to swim, play and dig and not be on display — like actors when they’re offstage,” explained Norman.
After taking advantage of this photo opportunity, groups are ushered to a veterinary hospital to see where tender loving care takes place, from tooth extractions to immunizations.
An add-on to this tour is a giraffe-feeding opportunity. “What an impact this has on people,” said Norman.
This passionate animal-lover suggested that groups arrange a lunch at one of the zoo’s wild areas, from the African Overlook to the Wolf Cabin.
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Jewelry, pottery and chocolates
Rapid City, South Dakota
Known for Black Hills Gold jewelry, a style of tricolor gold jewelry featuring distinctive grape and leaf designs, Rapid City now promotes factory tours for visitors to see firsthand how this popular jewelry is made.
“Each piece is made entirely by hand, and the process of soldering and welding the rings, pendants, necklaces and watchbands is a process that has changed little in the past century,” said Michelle Thomson, tourism director of the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Although Landstrom’s Original Black Hills Gold Creations and Mount Rushmore Gold Jewelry are two group favorites, a variety of factories offer tours.
Groups can meet the artists and see how Sioux Pottery is made at the Sioux Pottery Factory. “For decades, this small plant has been making and handpainting this colorful Native American pottery formed from the red clay that circles the Black Hills,” said Thomson.
Next door to the pottery factory is Mostly Chocolates, the place to end a day of behind-the-scenes tours. Visitors not only get to indulge in truffles, fudge and chocolate-covered cherries, but also get to see how these sweet treats are made.
Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory
A family business since 1919, Rebecca Ruth Candy is known worldwide as “the inventor of bourbon ball chocolate candies.” Although wafting aromas in the parking lot have groups salivating before they walk in the door, the candy on this tour is simply a backdrop, according to owner Charles Booe, grandson of Ruth Hanly Booe, who founded the company with friend Rebecca Gooch.
“We are steeped in history, beginning with Rebecca and Ruth, who named their operation using their first names — a bold move when you remember this was before women even had the right to vote,” he said.
The tour highlights the women’s story and their candy furnace and hand-stirred copper kettles that are still used today. An educational video and a view of the candy production line are also highlights.
“We make over 120 confections, so tour members simply get to see what is happening that day. You never know,” said Booe.
Called the Hershey Theatre Spotlight Tour, the experience takes groups through this historic building that was built as part of Milton Hershey’s Great Building Campaign during the Great Depression. Throughout the decades, the theater has been center stage to the world’s leading performers and shows.
“This is really a balcony-to-basement tour,” said Sara Ensminger, communications and public relations specialist for the Hershey Foundation. “Groups are led through and given the details on the grand lobby, the balcony, back stage, the dressing rooms, secret passageways and more.”
In the grand lobby, views include four types of imported and domestic marble and a series of arches. In the auditorium, visitors are awed with scenes from Venice, Italy, including a winged lion and a six-ton curtain displaying a watercolor picture. The theater’s 4,000-pipe Aeolian-Skinner concert organ, commissioned by Hershey, is also part of the tour.
Two of Ensminger’s favorite sights are the mosaic lobby and the balcony/projection booth area. “The lobby’s ceiling is completely covered with gold tiles. It took two men two years working on their back to create this magnificent sight.
“In the balcony/projection booth area, you see where the work really happens. The fun part is that those who have been behind the scenes in their work have left their mark — everyone who works there signs the walls. It’s like a big autograph booth,” she said.
Ensminger suggested that groups combine a Spotlight Tour with a Broadway show. The 2011 schedule includes “Hair” and “The Color Purple.”
Huntsville Botanical Garden
During an aromatic tour over the 120 acres of the Huntsville Botanical Garden, groups are given the dirt on all 12 gardens.
“First, what stands out to me — and I can only guess, to our guests as well — is that most of our huge venue is taken care of by volunteers. Volunteer groups claim each garden and make it their own. We only employ 35 people here,” said Nicole Hogan, director of communications.
Although a typical visit to the garden allows groups to visit each area, read the plaques and appreciate the beauty, a behind-the-scenes tour tells personal stories.
“Our Garden of Hope is dedicated to cancer survivors, and each flower has a different meaning,” said Hogan. “Every six months, they plant for three cancer survivors. This is also a place that many come to get out of the house after a loss of a loved one.
“Our garden in the Nature Trail is all wildflowers. It’s shaded and even cool in the worst of heat. It includes one of the largest trillium collections in the nation.”
Hogan added that the stories visitors hear may be told by one of the Garden Grubbers, a volunteer group that includes an 84-year-old woman who drives 20 minutes one way to take care of her posies and talk to people.
“She’s passionate about her job and maintains that the beauty she creates keeps her going. After hearing her perspective about the world, she’s the one who keeps us all going,” said Hogan.
The Field Museum
The Field Museum, renowned for biological and anthropological collections from around the world, offers a half-day experience that is more than just a behind-the-scenes tour, according to Aimee Willetts, manager of tourism and group sales.
“Not only do groups get to peek behind the curtain, but they are introduced to special exhibitions and have an orientation to our main collection,” she said.
That peek behind the curtain, however, has some astounding views. The museum has more than 26 million artifacts, and the public typically gets to see only 1 percent of those items.
“On this tour, visitors walk through hidden doorways and past 50-foot shelves. Some of those shelves are filled with vivid blue apothecary bottles, bronzed bathtubs and tablets from Mesopotamia,” said Willetts.
“They’ll even see our room filled with flesh-eating beetles and hear the reason why these bugs are so important in our business.”
The museum is divided into four areas: anthropology, botany, geology and zoology. Willetts stressed that with such a wide variety of behind-the-scenes collections, they are happy to tailor a tour that suits any interest.