By Travel columnist
updated 10/3/2005 2:58:13 PM ET 2005-10-03T18:58:13

Men are all little boys at heart. They just love big machines that spit steam and engines that make too much noise. Vroom, vroom! Here are three larger-than-life factory tours for all those not-quite-grown-up boys who still thrill to massive trucks, giant planes, and shiny-red fire engines.

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Mack Trucks Factory Tour, Macungie Assembly Operations, 7000 Alburtis Road, Macungie, Pennsylvania; (610) 709-3566.

“Built like a Mack truck” — we’ve all heard it, and many people refer to any big rig on the road as a Mack truck, no matter who makes it. That’s how large these colossal trucks loom in America’s collective imagination. Macungie, Pennsylvania, about two hours west of New York City, is where all but four models of Mack trucks are built.

This is a factory tour that really feels like a factory tour. The plant is massive - almost a million square feet - and the tour requires safety glasses, closed-toe shoes, and a mile-and-a-half walk. It’s worth the walk to experience all the sights and sounds of big rigs being banged together.

Tools hang from every rafter. Machines hoist engines and chassis overhead. The assembly lines clank and rumble nonstop, and the whole factory is filled with the pungent smells of grease, gas and paint. All around you, workers scramble to bolt bumpers, attach gas tanks, paint finished trucks and then test them.

One of the favorite stops on the tour is the dynamometer, a massive machine that tests trucks on different simulated road conditions. The truck sits stationary on giant rollers while a driver tests the drive train and instruments. The wheels are spinning, and tremendous energy is being released, and yet the giant truck isn’t moving.

The free tour takes is available most Tuesdays and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. The minimum age for the tour is 7. Call ahead for reservations.

Boeing Everett Tour Center, Highway 526, Everett, Washington; (800) 464-1476.

This is a truly gigantic operation. In fact, the Boeing factory just outside Seattle is the world’s largest-volume building. Rising 11 stories high and covering more than 98 acres, it contains more than 472 million cubic feet of space. This is where the company builds its wide-body airplanes: the 747s, 767s and 777s.

After checking in at the information center, visitors take a bus across the airfield to the plant. Here the group is led through a long tunnel and then up an elevator to an observation deck overlooking the factory floor. Below, you can see about a dozen airplanes in various stages of completion, all being worked on at one time. It would be hard to take in the scope of the operation from the floor, so this aerial view is awesome.

Workers swarm over semi-assembled wings and fuselages. Rivet guns blare, cranes crisscross the factory, and small trucks pull trailers piled high with parts. Boeing assembles one plane in about four or five days, using components brought in from around the world. Looking out across the factory floor, it is easy to imagine how the different parts of the planes will come together.

On the ride back to the visitors centers, the bus passes the painting hangar. Planes destined for many of the world’s airlines are parked outside the hangar, waiting to be delivered.

The plant is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (the ticket office opens at 8:30 a.m.). Tours depart hourly, except at noon, and take about an hour and a half. During school holidays and in the summer, Boeing often adds tours to handle the crowds, but the tours still tend to sell out. Cost is $5 for adults, $3 for children younger than 15 and $3 for seniors 62 and older.

E-One Plant Tour, 1601 S.W. 37th Avenue, Ocala, Florida; (352) 861-3521.

Ocala, Florida, is home to Emergency One, also called E-One, one of the country’s largest producers of fire trucks and emergency vehicles. In fact, many of the fire trucks and emergency vehicles that speed down our streets with their sirens wailing and lights flashing are made here; the company also sends emergency vehicles all over the world.

After putting on safety glasses, visitors are allowed on the factory floor to see different first-responder vehicles being built. Some are pumpers and big hook-and-ladder trucks destined for big cities. Others are vehicles specially designed to fight fires at airports and chemical plants. E-One also makes ambulances and EMS vehicles.

Chassis are fabricated in one section of the factory complex; engines are assembled in another (they will be dropped into the trucks in one of the last steps of assembly). Giant aerial ladders are built here, too, and then bolted to the truck chassis. The mass of wiring that runs through the trucks is amazingly complex, as it is designed to control everything from lights to ladders to pumps and hoses.

Sparks fly from the arc welders’ stations. Red paint is sprayed everywhere (though some trucks are painted yellow). At the end of the tour, guests get to climb into the fire engines and sit on the padded leather seats. They play with the controls, caress the steering wheel and pretend they are firefighters. Almost every man leaves the tour with a plastic fire helmet on his head and an ear-to-ear grin on his face.

Tours are offered Monday through Friday at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Admission is $6 for visitors ages 13-54. Seniors pay $4, children ages 6-12 are admitted free (and so are firefighters). Kids younger than 6 are not permitted to tour, but their dads can tell them all about it when they get home.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.


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