I spent the afternoon today visiting the Empire State Building. I’m sure any sane New Yorker would recommend against visiting it, but like climbing the Eiffel Tour in Paris or the Space Needle in Seattle, it seems to me like it’s one of those things a tourist has to do once, if only to say he’s done it.
The visit starts off well, with the amazing art deco lobby inside the entrance on 5th avenue. But then begins the queuing. It took me at least an hour to get from ground level to the top, and judging from the unfilled expanses of crowd control mazes on the second floor, I don’t think this was a particularly busy day.
If the lines of tourists don’t put you off, the prices might: it’s US$16 just to get to the observation deck on the 86th floor. If you want to go to the very top — the 102nd floor — that’s an extra $14. And if you want the audio guide, that’s another $6. I figured I was only going to do this once, so I went for all three, for a total cost of $36. They were also hawking the “NY Skyride” attraction — some kind of multimedia moving-seats-and-video thing on the 2nd floor for an additional $18 including the combo discount, but I’m not that much of a sucker.
After you take the elevator to the 80th floor, walk past a large poster of New York where they annoyingly try and take your photo to sell you on the way out (I told them they couldn’t take my photo for religious reasons — those cameras steal your soul y’know), and pick up your audio tour device, you finally get on another elevator to the observation deck on the 86th, and the experience finally moves out of the aggravating phase. I flashed my upgrade ticket and hopped on yet another elevator — apparenly the highest manual elevator in the world — to the 102nd floor. The elevator attendant who ran the elevator was a nice old man who got a nervous laugh from the crowded tourists by starting off the elevator going down. Responding to the gasps, he chortled “Oh, you wanted to go up did you?” and send us on the way to the enclosed observation room at the top of the dirigible tower.
The observation room on the 102nd floor is a tiny, circular room with a narrow path on the circumference behind large curved windows. Visiting there was well worth the extra $14, because you got a significantly better view, out of the cold wind, and with fewer people to contend with. I spent about an hour up there, listening to the commentary on the audio tour. This was also well worth the $6, with an interesting and humorous “New York Cabbie” explaining the sights and history while taking you from landmark to landmark with careful and clear spoken directions. The only complaint was that the audio tour was clearly designed for the 86th floor, not the 102nd, where the numeric markers to select the audio track were absent. But there were only 7 tracks, and they all started by announcing the direction to look, so provided you can find your way around a compass it wasn’t much of a problem. The audio had obviously been recorded (or at least re-recorded) since 2001, since it was sensitively aware of the absence of the Twin Towers downtown, leaving the Empire State Building the tallest in New York.
I finished my visit by dropping back down to the 86th floor and heading outside to the main observation deck. It was cold, and I was very glad for the hat and scarf my colleague Joe had loaned me the night before as I was waiting for a cab in the financial district. It was about 5:15 by this time, so I wandered around for a while checking out the buildings in the failing sunlight. Bracing myself against the wind on the west side, I watched the sun finally set below Jersey, and then headed back down to ground level just as the lights of New York were coming alive.
All in all, I’d say it was worth the visit, although I mightn’t do it again. If you’re willing to pay the base cost to visit, the marginal costs of the upgrade to 102nd floor and the audio tour are well worth it. Just make sure you go on a clear day like I did, so you can appreciate the unobstructed views to every horizon. And if it’s cold out, bring a heavy coat, hat and scarf for the outside deck!