Illustration by Jason Crosby
Experiencing some of Milwaukee’s most unique tours can’t be done in one week. Segways don’t have skis, a boat cruise on an icy Milwaukee River would be miserable, and the Third Ward ghost tour shuts down from December to April (the ghosts must head south). So my quest to try all of these tours took nearly a year. And I’m still taking it all in. The Jelly Belly sugar rush is wearing off, and I needed time to recover from the camphor smell at Carmex before embarking on a brewery boat tour. And let’s just say I needed an even larger recovery period after the suds. But it all got done, and I found my venture into “extreme tourism” fun, enlightening and, occasionally, exhausting.
Spin Your Wheels
Milwaukee Lakefront Segway: Veterans Park, 414-273-1343, milwaukeelakefrontsegway.com. Price: $45.
I’ve always wanted to ride a Segway but have been frankly embarrassed to admit it (like seeing Wicked or molding a cereal bowl on a pottery wheel). But I got my chance, complete with an it’s-for-work excuse, on the Milwaukee Lakefront Segway tour. I watched the required instructional video, strapped on my helmet and awkwardly motored around the Veterans Park grass for 10 minutes. After that brief practice, my guide, an expert rider named Ryan, led the way – a two-wheeled mother goose taking our meandering and weaving tour group around Veterans Park and as far south as the Summerfest grounds. The 90-minute ride was like a leisurely stroll around the lake, only quicker, and it included the thrill of the wind rushing by my face as I blazed down the concrete at a top speed of around 12 miles an hour.
Lakefront Brewery Tour: 414-372-8800, lakefrontbrewery.com. Price: $7, beer and glass included.
I knew Lakefront Brewery makes good beer, but I didn’t know how environmentally conscious it is until taking its environmental tour. The standard Lakefront tour is legendary and not all that unusual (except for the sizable amounts of beer they let you “sample”). The eco-friendly version, held every Friday at 3:30 p.m., begins with a beer, of course, and a short lesson about Lakefront’s green commitment. It gained certified organic status in 1996 (the first brewery to do so), uses wind energy, has Travel Green Wisconsin certification and even uses cups made of biodegradable corn to hold its beer samples. The rest of the visit is like the standard tour but with one major difference: It’s hosted by affable owner Russ Klisch.
Drink Like a Sailor
Riverwalk Boat Tours: 414-283-9999, riverwalkboats.com. Price: $29.
You bond with shipmates over four hours on a pontoon boat during a Pub & Brewery Tour. By the end of my trip down the Milwaukee River, I was singing the “Laverne & Shirley” theme song with a group of boat tour veterans dressed like the cast of the iconic TV show. Then there was the bad liquor drunk straight from a shotski at Rock Bottom Brewery, the last stop. There’s free beer at each bar (Molly Cool’s, Milwaukee Ale House, Rock Bottom), and learning about the brewing process is not required.
Forest Home Cemetery: 2405 W. Forest Home Ave., 414-645-2632, foresthomecemetery.com. Price: Free for the living.
I pulled into Forest Home Cemetery with the Dawes tune “When My Time Comes” playing on the radio (how appropriate) and headed for the office. The beauty of the tour is that it’s self-guided, so I grabbed a map and jumped back in the car. A narrow road winds through well-marked sections of grass dotted with ornate monuments and small headstones. And there are some seriously old headstones bearing the names of Milwaukee legends such as Kilbourn, Pfister, and both Marshall and Ilsley. I stayed in the car until I hit the brewers section where the massive Blatz mausoleum sits across the street from the Schlitz site and the Pabst complex. If only I had a tallboy to crack in their honor.
The Walking Dead
Milwaukee Ghosts Tours & Investigations: 414-807-7862, milwaukeeghosts.com. Price: $10.
“We’ve never actually seen a ghost on the tour,” explains tour guide Mike while standing in front of the Milwaukee Public Market, the starting point of this ghost walk through the “Bloody” Third Ward. “We’ve had creepy things happen, but no ghosts.” Despite the lack of ghouls, the 90-minute stroll through the neighborhood on a brisk fall evening is fascinating. The Third Ward oozes history, and Mike tells the group of 30 or so all about it. I had no idea, for instance, that a fire at the Newhall House hotel (which stood on the corner of Broadway and Michigan) claimed scores of lives in 1883, or that trains on tracks where the Italian Community Center now stands may have ended the lives of poor immigrants. Some might still be wandering the ICC bocce courts. Alas, we saw no spirits but did pass a large bachelorette party with revelers dressed like witches, which was decidedly far more frightening.
Jelly Belly warehouse: 10100 Jelly Belly Ln., Pleasant Prairie, 866-868-7522, jellybelly.com. Price: Free.
Jelly Belly in Pleasant Prairie is not a manufacturing facility, but a warehouse, so the tour uses video screens to show how those tasty tiny creations are made. Naturally, the quirkiest of jelly beans presents several bizarre elements during the 30-minute Jelly Belly “train” ride around the joint. Jelly bean mosaics of icons such as Ronald Reagan exist, as do inflatable jelly beans floating overhead. Strange decorative dioramas are also positioned along the way, employing everything from frogs to blue faceless mannequins sitting on lawn furniture. It all makes you wonder if perhaps Oompa Loompas are hiding within the warehouse, taking control of the interior design. Finish the tour, and you get a free pack of delicious jelly beans.
Carma Laboratories: 5801 W. Airways Ave., 414-421-7707, mycarmex.com. Price: Free.
A real-life Wonka of sorts does exist at Carma Labs, and he gives the tour. Nothing is regularly scheduled, but president Paul Woelbing will take Carmex fans around the plant if they set up a time in advance. Woelbing guides visitors through the facility, which is draped with that distinct camphor smell, and past massive vats of Carmex, with stops at some of the Rube Goldberg-type machines that put the lip-friendly stuff in the company’s signature jars. Someday, the tour might even include a visit to the massive pipe organ slowly being installed at Woelbing’s office in a nearby warehouse. But don’t expect this wide-eyed Wonka to take you in the Carma-vator and offer you the plant. He’s too energetic to be letting Charlie Bucket take over anytime soon.