Monday, July 13, 2009

A Glass Half Full

After a previous post about its name change to Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and a proposed new paint look for the iconic Windy City building, I was pleased to learn via several national July 1 news reports and wire photos that "The Ledge" -- the building's newly installed glass cube observation ports on the Skydeck (103rd floor) level -- would open to the public just in time for my July 4 Weekend visit to Chicago. Some must-see video from NBC5 in Chicago was a big incentive to learn more about "The Ledge" first-person.

My girlfriend and I previously signed up for Chicago 2016 Olympic bid volunteer duties in the World Sport Chicago kids zone at Taste of Chicago for July 3; how better to wind down from a day of catering to kids than to walk in the steps (and beyond) of Matthew Broderick as "Ferris Bueller" and stand 1,353 feet above downtown city streets?

When my lady and I pulled into Chicago during sunrise July 3, we spotted "The Ledge" looming above and paused to reflect on the sheer height above us (see photos -- about a quarter-mile up!).

Throughout our on the ground volunteer shift, we joked about stepping off high rise Terra firma and the possible sensations awaiting our afternoon visit to the tower.

In general, I am OK with heights provided my feet are planted at least a few feet back from the glass (outdoor heights are OK, too, when tethered, as during the Sydney Harbour "Bridge Climb" high above the Sydney Opera House). I was both apprehensive and exhilarated by the prospect of being among the first to stand on the clear flooring of "The Ledge" during the start to a Midwest sunset.

Getting out on The Ledge is exhilarating, indeed!

Naturally, Donna (my girlfriend) fearlessly walked out on the 1.5-inch-thick glass, which was jammed full of locals and international visitors taking turns with cameras and squealing with delight. It took me a bit of time to "warm up" and admittedly I procrastinated, winced and whined a lot, before inching out onto The Ledge for real (first a toe or two, then one leg, and finally "all the way." It was at once terrifying and fantastic! Looking down is the real issue -- for the first and only time in my life, my eyes and head spun as did Jimmy Stewart's in that endearing Hitchcock film (among my all-time favorites).

My first visit to the Sears Tower, during a college spring break Amtrak stopover in 1994, was amazing. The Ledge takes the Skydeck beyond that "amazing" experience, and it appeared to be family friendly as a range of kids to seniors made their way into the small rooms of light on the building's western wall. The Ledge is definitely worth a visit for a first-timer or for those who previously put their foreheads on the windows.

I have to admit, we were taken aback by the extremely crowded labyrinth of hurry-up-and-wait lines to get upstairs. Granted, it was Day Two of the grand opening on a holiday weekend, so not entirely a surprise.

But we did overhear a number of fellow visitors [justifiably?] griping about the hours-long wait, and "bait and switch" stages before you even got close to the elevator to get upstairs (visitor hint: there is a winding path from the ticket window, to a waiting room queue filled with Chicago history lessons/exhibits, to another waiting room, to a small cinema for a "preview" movie, to yet another waiting room, and then another queue, and then a revolving door and FINALLY the elevator to the top -- WHEW! -- so plan accordingly if you are visiting Willis Tower and The Ledge on a busy weekend or holiday). Fortunately, the line (yes, there is another, final line) to get from the Skydeck back downstairs moves a bit faster, and there were only 1-2 minute lines to get into The Ledge glass areas.

On a bright note, we found every single employee of the Skydeck to be friendly, professional, patient and even entertaining -- they kept things interesting even when the necessary wait was presented.

Thanks and kudos to the Skydeck team at Fleishman-Hillard, the P.R. firm where I interned in 1995, as they accommodated our party for our visit. They secured some amazing coverage for The Ledge -- including phenomenal preview coverage and breathtaking post-opening reports, including a New York Times Science section cover story and graphics that would possibly bring some publicists to a place near Woody Allen Sleeper heights -- but I have to wonder whether they tried to get Broderick and fellow cast members of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" into the Skydeck or if that may be part of their publicity encore for the tower (if so, would love to be there to share a look at Cameron Fry's dad).
Though there is a song from that film with exactly the right title, though I'd prefer this one for that someday publicity event.

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