Though I was born in Chicago, from an early age I’ve been an ex-pat dwelling in the suburbs. I may have a family feeling for my home city, but when I’m exploring its streets, I’m still very much a tourist.
So, even though the Willis Tower’s Skydeck could not be more easy to spot when stepping off the Metra, I’d never been. Given Skydeck’s 2009 Ledge opening (for which the attraction was completely re-done), meeting general manager Randal Stancik for a complimentary guided Go Girl walk-through only left me wanting to return for a personal visit.
A dedicated entrance on Jackson Boulevard opens to an elevator attendant kindly warning you of visibility before you ascend to buy your tickets. Even though my foggy Tuesday early morning visibility was only less than a mile (when sometimes SkyDeck can promise up to 50), I would have happily paid full ticket price for the experience.
Sure, in off-season and/or during less busy hours, you could feasibly breeze through the attraction in 30 minutes with a burst of an elevator ride to the top and a quick look over the city. But you won’t want to.
Every inch of Skydeck is optimized for entertainment. When the attraction is packed and you’re waiting in rope-created lines to enter the security checkpoint, there are half-a-dozen video screens on the walls — each displaying different vintage footage of Sears Tower history, accompanied by interactive trivia games and statistics about the building that kids will especially appreciate (993 toilets throughout the Tower . . . what kid could resist that factoid?).
For this child-free adult, appreciation definitely went to the production values of these mini-videos, as well as the nine-minute film screened in a sit-down theater (optional when Skydeck is crowded) that absolutely resists the urge of promotional fluff that one often sees at major attractions and focuses on legitimate historical record (did you know that the nine bundled tubes that make up the Willis Tower were prototyped with a group of stacked cigarettes?!).
Apparently, only 17% of visitors go through all the exhibits (even more of which await you at the ultimate 103rd floor to supplement your viewing). Boggles the mind!
Upstairs, numbered maps attend each window to help the viewer pick out iconic Chicago buildings. Once you’re up that high, the beauty and power of such a view can make you forget that below there are real buildings and neighborhoods that you’ve walked and driven through. For someone unfamiliar with the city (like myself) the contextual details added by Skydeck really make the experience.
Now, I didn’t inherit my father’s fear of heights, so I was perfectly ready and willing to venture out onto a Ledge, one of four retractable boxes comprised of three layers of half-inch-thick glass laminated into a single unit. Many visitors go so far as to sit, lay and jump on the Ledges — flexing their fearlessness for all to see (and especially for Facebook and Instagram photo ops). But if you are squeamish, trust me, there are views aplenty at the other windows.
Since the Skydeck is open until 10pm in the summer and 8pm through the rest of the year, the attraction actively encourages date nights (with local restaurant recommendations on their dedicated date night page) and even proposals on The Ledge . . . having witnessed a whopping 400 of them at last count.
Something that was clear on my visit was Skydeck’s commitment to the joy of their visitors. There are endless opportunities for visitors to interact with the attraction without being pushed to buy something in order to do so. The Welcome Wall, a pleasingly curved wall that greets visitors when they step off the first elevator on the 99th floor, is equipped with a computerized feed that spits out messages 60 characters or less free of charge. Simply e-mail your message and approximate arrival time at least two days prior to your visit and you’re wishing Nana a happy birthday in style.
And yes, I was graciously offered my official Ledge photo free of charge for my visit and it is beautiful (if I do say so myself). But visitors on a budget and with a simple cell phone camera can take equally beautiful and memorable pictures themselves with no interruption.
And, you bet, there are extensive gift shop offerings, but there are also (and this just warmed my vintage Go Girl’s heart) Mold-a-Rama machines offering two dollar souvenirs — either a blue Abraham Lincoln or a black Willis Tower. There are those exceptionally patinaed long-distance viewing machines offering views as far as the eye can reach in exchange for your quarters (Mr. Stancik confessed that he had fought for these to remain when, horror of horrors, computerized 3D machines had been considered as replacements).
Simply put, the Skydeck embodies the “something for everyone” cliché. Neither overproduced nor haphazardly designed, the attraction strikes a welcome balance that makes the visitor feel at once relaxed and constantly entertained. A definite “must” for any local or tourist’s Chicago Bucket List.