9 behind-the-scenes Pittsburgh tours your kids will love
Photo: Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage comes to life at Carrie Blast Furnaces. Courtesy of Rivers of Steel.
We love getting out and exploring Pittsburgh. But sometimes we want to know a little bit more about the spots we’ve discovered. These cool behind-the-scenes tours will entertain kids – and their moms and dads.
Carrie Blast Furnaces
Now a National Historic Landmark, Carrie Blast Furnaces will wow kids with the might and power of this industrial site. There is nowhere else in the country where visitors can get this close to a blast furnace.
Under the leadership of Rivers of Steel, the two-hour Industrial Tour engages former steelworkers as guides. Their commentary ranges from manufacturing aspects to workers’ personal information to give an in-depth window into Pittsburgh’s steel heritage.
Kids can easily imagine the exertion required for working with this man-made volcano that produced 3,000-degree liquid metal. They’ll learn how sign language developed between supervisors and workers, partly due to the noise and partly to communicate with immigrants who didn’t understand English.
Workers and their families lived nearby under blood-red skies as low-lying clouds reflected the conflagration below. Occasionally an accidental “slip” would release a blast of dirty air and ash. When the women on the hill above heard the noise, they would rush out to their clotheslines to grab their clean laundry.
In later years, a form of night-time family entertainment was taking a drive to watch the slag heap. A byproduct of iron production, the slag was dumped onto a huge pile. The glowing red-hot slag would ooze down, exploding like fireworks.
Other stories are brought to life at the Iron Garden Walk, the Post-Industrial Arts and Grounds Tour, and Pittsburgh 101: Intro to Innovation aboard the Explorer Riverboat.
Kids love riding Pittsburgh inclines. Even more exciting is seeing the mechanics involved in keeping those creaky wooden cars moving up and down Mt. Washington. The Duquesne Incline, operating under Port Authority Transit, offers a behind-the-scenes tour that reveals all the secrets of the operation.
Just one car – the lead car – is computer operated. The other car follows along, pulled on the same cable. As one goes down, the other goes up. A slow-down switch on the track tells the computer to back off its top speed of 4 or 5 miles per hour as it approaches the docking area. Look for the metal boxes under the seats that hold batteries for the incline lights — and the yellow call box that allows riders to talk to the operator.
At the upper station, following an elevation change of 367 feet, kids can descend into the machine room below the tracks. Along with giant-sized tools, they’ll see the original hoisting equipment from 1877 that’s still in use. Safety measures include a second cable that would prevent disaster if the primary cable breaks.
Tours are offered year-round for groups of 10 or more, so why not make it a family affair? Be sure to save time for photos of the view, a pictorial history of Pittsburgh – and the gift shop!
Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers will get a little closer to their football heroes with a behind-the-scenes tour of Heinz Field. The 90-minute tour with well-informed guides covers about a mile of the stadium and close to 90 years of sports history.
A stroll through the Great Hall offers a wealth of trophies, memorabilia and sports lore. Myron Cope’s display tells the beginnings of his Terrible Towel and you can see the duct-taped telephone book he sat on to make him look taller.
Head to the locker rooms, and you’ll notice the visiting team’s space is about half the size of the Steelers’ room. The Pitt Panthers have their own beautifully renovated locker room, too. Take a glance at the giant washing machines in the laundry room. (How do they get those grass stains out?)
Visit the press boxes and learn about the silence required from working sportswriters. No cheering or booing? That would be one tough assignment.
Tours even allow visitors to walk along the field, but photo ops, sadly, are restricted to the sidelines. Do not go long – and stay off the grass!
Threadbare Cider House & Meadery
Threadbare Cider’s family tour is geared to kids but will prove just as entertaining and delightful to their adult counterparts. First stop: Kids work with mechanical apple peelers to peel and spiralize apples, providing a carry-along snack. Throughout the tour, kids sip sweet cider while moms and dads are treated to five delicious varieties of Threadbare’s popular hard cider.
The talk begins with the true story of Johnny Appleseed – the quirky Johnny Chapman in real-life. The tour mixes history and culture with additional hands-on activities, plus a cool science experiment. Johnny Appleseed did indeed collect apple seeds after they were pressed at Cider Mills along the Monongahela River. He used those seeds to cultivate apple orchards throughout the western territory of Ohio and Indiana.
Johnny holds a special place here. The Threadbare name is an homage to his barefoot trek from his Massachusetts home to Pittsburgh in threadbare clothing.
Family tours run at 11:30 a.m. Saturdays and finish with a cheese pizza included in admission.
Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium
At the Giraffe Wild Encounter, kids will get the facts on these 19-foot animals that sleep only 20 minutes a day and eat for 16 to 20 hours a day. It just makes sense that feeding a giraffe will be part of the activity.
Step into the red panda enclosure and learn more about the cute furry bear you can hold and feed. If sharks are your thing, shadow a zookeeper and see what it takes to care for these ocean beasts. Learn more about tending to big cats with an in-depth visit with the cheetahs, the fastest land mammals in the world. Other encounters include elephants, penguins and sea lions.
These closeup visits are for kids ages 8 and older. Those 16 and younger require an accompanying adult.
This fun behind-the-scenes tour of PNC Park will surprise even the most stalwart Pirates fan with Pittsburgh baseball history. The retro design of the stadium, which opened in 2001, offers nods to the ball club’s former homes. The seats are blue, for example, because that was their color in Forbes Field.
Your visit begins with a stop in Legends Theater, a little gem of a museum that is open only to tours. Learn about the Pirates many firsts. For example:
- First game to be radio broadcast.
- First World Series Game played at night.
- First to field an all-minority lineup.
- First to cover the field during a rain delay.
- First to wear batting helmets.
Walk down the service hall to the Pirates locker room. (It’s funny to see how some players’ lockers are neat, while others look like a teenager’s messy room.)
Stop in the batting cages where kids will appreciate how major league players practice with a batting tee – just like in T-ball. They also work with pitching machines and a new virtual reality headset. Check out the turf carpet there, which was repurposed from the field at Three Rivers Stadium.
Head out to the dugout and onto the ball field where you can walk on the absorbent volcanic rock of the warning track. Learn why the dirt around the bases is from Slippery Rock and why it’s so popular at MLB ball fields across the country. From there, tours head up to the top for a stop at the press box, a look through memorabilia on the Club Level, plus a peek at a luxury suite.
Happily, the one-hour tours operate year-round, well beyond baseball season.
The National Aviary in Pittsburgh
Kids enter the Wetlands habitat and climb through the jungle habitation to the beach during the Flamingo Trek. These curious birds are likely to step right up to kids, who will have a chance to feed them as they learn about their habitat. Hold an owl, dissect an owl pellet and learn what makes this bird such a great hunter during the Owl Encounter. Other encounters include non-bird creatures, such as the Southern Three-Banded Armadillo and the resident sloths, Vivien and Wookie.
More extreme and exclusive sessions are part of the fun. Visitors to the Penguin Lovers Experience will pull on boots and hip waders to climb into the outdoor enclosure. Kids age 8 and older will learn all about these tuxedo darlings and help feed them, face-to-beak.
Those 12 and older can be a Trainer for a Day and work alongside Aviary aviculturists and trainers for a full day. See the effort it takes to feed and care for more than 500 birds. Assist in a bird training session, prepare bird meals in the commissary, and work with lorikeets and the tropical rainforest birds. It’s a great way to view the Aviary from the inside out.
The oldest site of human inhabitation in North America is here in southwest Pennsylvania — in Avella in Washington County. More than 60 years ago, a farmer named Albert Miller found a curious-looking tool in a groundhog hole on his land. Having an interest in archeology, he recognized the tool as having serious significance to prehistoric study.
It took nearly 20 years before Miller found a paleontologist at the University of Pittsburgh willing to take a look. Within six years, more than 2 million artifacts and ecofacts were recovered, along with evidence that people gathered here some 16,000 years ago.
The work continues at Meadowcroft Shelter, which was named a National Historic Landmark. Kids can visit this active archeological site and watch scientists carry on the study of our ancient neighbors.
Get an even more insightful look with an Insider Tour of Meadowcroft Shelter led by James M Adovasio, Ph.D., who achieved international acclaim from his archeological excavation of the site. His special tour and lecture will take place on Oct. 13 and Nov. 12. Check the Meadowcroft calendar for additional dates.
It might not be the kind of tour on the average bucket list, but the behind-the-scenes tours offered at Alcosan give clear lessons in environmental science. The free group tours for kids are part of the Scholastic Outreach Education Program, which includes hands-on learning with a Science Summer Camp and the Clean Water Academy.
Alcosan treats a whopping 250 million gallons of water every day for 83 communities. The one-hour tour through the 59-acre facility gets kids thinking about where wastewater goes once a plug is pulled, a toilet is flushed, or a downpour of rain rushes through the street. They can then consider how that water is processed and treated before returning to rivers and streams..
The free educational tours are scheduled in advance, Mondays through Fridays, for groups of 10 or more. To plan your group’s visit, email Scholastic Outreach Education here.