Playing with Caterpillars _ machines, not insects

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) — Here's a place where the word caterpillar does not refer to fuzzy little insects. The new Caterpillar Visitors Center is all about the roaring black-and-yellow machines that dig and lift at massive construction and mining sites.

Caterpillar Inc., maker of the heavy machinery ranging from bulldozers and excavators to tunnel-boring machines and giant generators, is based in the central Illinois town of Peoria. The company opened a nearly 50,000-square-foot (4,645-square-foot) visitors center last fall, investing more than $52 million dollars in the center and the Peoria Riverfront Museum nearby.

My wife was a little dubious about my plans for a family day trip to the Caterpillar center, but my 4-year-old-son and I couldn't wait. My parents tell me my first word was "book" and my second word was "truck." I've been a big fan of both over the past four-plus decades. Now, with a little boy of my own, I had a perfect excuse to satisfy my mania for powerful engines, giant wheels, sturdy shovels and other nifty machines that dig, pound, push, flatten and otherwise manipulate materials in ways that seem beyond the strength of mere mortals. And I'm not alone: The center attracted 50,000 visitors within just four months of opening.

First thing you experience when you enter the center is a movie in a theater that's built into the bed of a giant truck used for mining. At 24 feet (7 meters) tall, the 797 Mining Truck is the biggest in the industry. When loaded, this truck can carry well over a million pounds (over 450,000 kilograms). The tops of the wheels are higher than an NBA basketball hoop.

The theater fits 62 people comfortably, and shows a short movie about Caterpillar, its products and some of the jobs that have used Cat equipment. The seats vibrate to the sound of a revving diesel engine and the action-packed movie really makes you feel like you've ridden in one of these behemoths.

After the movie, it's time to hop into the cabs of an excavator, roller, bulldozer and a handful of other giant heavy vehicles. My son had to be pried out of a backhoe. I was doing the prying, since I wanted a chance at the controls.

The wide open main floor area teems with kids (and adults) grinning for photos while perched inside the giant buckets or scoops of the different vehicles. You don't get to drive them around, of course, or actually cause the equipment to move. But that doesn't stop fans from having the time of their lives while playing with the controls and letting their imaginations do the digging.

All the while, the giant mining truck towers above.

Alongside all the black-and-yellow machines are four computer simulators where you can see what it's like to drive an excavator or bulldozer, using the same controllers you would use in the real equipment. These simulators are used to train operators before they take out the pricey machines. I managed to damage the virtual pipeline I was trying to cover up.

Off the main floor, there are extensive exhibits about the company's history, engineering innovations and environmental efforts. The displays are media-rich, with many monitors showing neat footage like molten steel being formed into engines.

One of the big surprises to me was Caterpillar's attention to environmental sustainability. Engines are designed to be rebuilt and interchangeable. The center has several displays showing how a worn-out engine can be born anew with new steel fused to old and rebuilt parts added on.

Kathryn Spitznagle, the Caterpillar Visitors Center's manager, says increasing its energy efficiency — both in its equipment and in this new facility — is a point of pride for the company. The Visitors Center was built with solar panels that supply up to 75 percent of its energy on a given day, mechanical and electrical systems that use 35 percent less energy than a similar-size building, and rain water retention and irrigation systems that reduce potable water usage by 85 percent. The innovations won the building an LEED gold certification, which is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council to buildings that meet certain standards for energy and environmental design.

Last stop at the center is the gift shop, where you can buy Cat clothes, model equipment, toys and other gifts featuring the familiar yellow-and-black design — though the company also offers items in pink and camo if you prefer.


If You Go...

CATERPILLAR VISITORS CENTER: 110 SW Washington St., Peoria, Ill., Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., with last ticket sale and entry at 3:30 p.m. The average visit is 90 minutes to two hours. Closed Sundays and holidays. Adults, $7; children 12 and under accompanied by an adult, free (limit four children's admissions per one adult ticket; call 309-675-0606 to arrange school or group visits). Located about a three-hour drive from St. Louis, Chicago or Indianapolis.