This past Sunday began as most vacation days do in my family. We woke up late, one of my kids wasn't feeling well, and it was raining.
On top of that, we were spring breaking at home in New York City, preparing to embark on what is perhaps the most infamously touristy experience in town: riding a double decker bus, in this case the iconically red, hop on/hop off tour bus operated by Gray Line New York.
The good news is that our late morning start made no difference, my child started feeling better, the rain went away, and the ride ended up being far more pleasurable for the five of us than I ever would have expected after a lifetime of avoiding the experience.
Here now, a few things we learned along the way.
Don’t stand while the bus is in motion. After we scrambled to the open-air top deck of the downtown loop bus (a tour lasting a shade over two hours) our tour guide cautioned riders not to stand while the bus was in motion, being as all the street lights in NYC have been hung at random heights. Should you be standing too close to an overhead traffic light, he said, you might get an “impromptu haircut or lobotomy.” Good stuff. And he was right about the random heights. Even as we remained seated (some of us, reluctantly) it was a thrill to brush so close to the underside of the lights, and we were remarkably unencumbered by traffic as the yellow mammoths flew by overhead.
Pay attention, you’ll learn something. As my younger set (and perhaps yours, too) appreciates superlative-packed factoids, they were happy to learn that they were passing the world’s largest McDonald's, the world’s largest store (Macy’s) and toy store (Toys R’Us), as well as the country’s largest post office. They had seen all these buildings before, but they enjoyed having them pointed out. And we all enjoyed passing them quickly.
Our two favorite hotel facts gleaned from the tour: The phone number of midtown’s Hotel Pennsylvania is the very same number Glenn Miller made famous as "Pennsylvania 6-5000" (aka PE6-5000). And, all New York City hotels must permit you to use a bathroom if you stroll in and ask. Of course they don’t have to be happy about it, but according to Gray Line, it’s the law.
Later on we were not as engaged by the narration on the uptown tour, though we did learn that you could fit the whole Statue of Liberty standing upright inside the nave of St. John the Divine (the world's largest Gothic cathedral). But I attribute our disengagement in part to the weather and scenery. It was all too easy to tune out the guide, given that leafy limbs were pleasantly sweeping by over our heads and Central Park North in particular is an ideal place to enjoy an open-air vehicle on a nice day.
About hopping on and off. After hitting the company’s midtown ticket office at 8th Avenue, off W. 47th Street (you can also buy tickets online) we walked one avenue over to 7th and caught the bus at 10:30am just as it was pulling up.
The buses on the downtown and uptown loops leave every half hour or so. As crowds build later in the day, as we noticed around 2pm, the company adds extra bus sections. Should you choose to hop off and linger at any stops along the way, you can pick up another section of the bus later exactly where you got off or at other designated stops indicated on the provided map. On our downtown tour, not too many people hopped off or on at once, and by the time we got to the Battery Park stop, the top deck was pleasantly sparse and remained that way as we looped back through the Lower East Side, the Village, and back up to Midtown.
About the costs. Online pricing is $39 for adults, $29 kids 3-11 for either the downtown or uptown loops, $10 more apiece for an “all loops,” two-day ticket including downtown and uptown as well as Brooklyn and night/holiday tours (tickets purchased in person are $5 more apiece). The tour guide will also solicit tips on his and the driver’s behalf; there's a tip box next to the driver.
About the crowd. Tourists, of course. But as you’ll find on this ride, there’s no shame in being one.
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