Back in the summer of 2011, I was selected to be an “Ambassador” of Skydeck Chicago, which is the attraction/observation deck found (mostly) on the 103rd floor of the building technically known now as the Willis Tower (but still called the Sears Tower by me and the majority of Chicago natives). I thoroughly enjoyed my summer two years ago, making multiple trips up there for various fun reasons.
Here’s the famous building in question:
Wait, let’s get a little closer:
See those four boxes all the way up there on the left? They make up “The Ledge”, which has kept visitors shaking in their boots (sometimes even from the ground level!) since their installation in 2009.
In addition to my experiences as a Skydeck Chicago Ambassador, I’ve taken my out-of-town visitors to Skydeck Chicago in the past couple of years. I am very familiar with the attraction, but when I was offered another VIP tour by General Manager Randy Stancik (one of the nicest guys out there, no joke), I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see what’s going on up at the 103rd floor and what’s in store for the future, so I took the train to meet with Randy last week.
An aside for locals: Union Station is just a (maybe) three minute walk from the Sears (Willis) Tower, and Ogilivie Transportation Center is just a little bit further (about a ten minute walk). It is TOTALLY EASY to hop on the Metra from any Chicago suburb and zip on over–on foot–to the Skydeck. Heck, go grab some lunch afterwards, before hopping a train bound for home!
The Skydeck Chicago entrance is off Jackson Street. When you’re walking from Union Station, you’ll see this first:
Keep walking down Jackson until you pass that, and you’ll run right into the proper entrance. Randy greeted me there, and we got right into the elevator to head down to the ticket area.
When we stepped off of the elevator, I was reminded of an “insider secret” that you should know about if you’re headed over for a visit: the Welcome Wall. If you want to impress your out-of-town visitors, you can notify the folks at Skydeck Chicago when you’re coming and provide a customized message of less than sixty characters (subject to management approval, of course) that will be projected on the wall right outside the elevators, FOR FREE. Randy says it really helps them a lot to have a time frame in addition to the date so they can make sure your message is up when you arrive but then they can take it down to make room for other messages at other times that day. Here’s a picture from when Momo and her daughter came to see me in 2011. They were super-excited to see their names up there on the wall.
Go to the Skydeck Chicago website to see how you can submit a welcome message of your very own.
After going through security, we bypassed the ticket booth (because I was on a VIP tour that day, remember?) and headed around the corner to the beginning of the attraction. On the bottom floor, Skydeck Chicago has all kinds of interactive, fun, and educational activities that will help enrich the visitor experience. You can read all kinds of facts and “by the numbers” information there, and you can get simulated Ledge views from above six Chicago landmarks (those are really cool: the tv screens are embedded in the floor and you watch as the camera zooms up-up-up!). You can get your fill of Chicago trivia, compare the 1,450 feet (not including antennas) of the Sears/Willis Tower with other skyscrapers around the world. Should there be a line on the day you’re visiting, you can get a gander at this really interesting wall of monitors that provides visual aids–weather, events, game scores, and pictures–on all kinds of Chicago-related things.
In fact, you can even submit your own pictures to be used on the wall! Check out how to do that on the Skydeck Chicago website.
One of my very favorite features on this floor is the nine-minute movie called “Reaching for the Sky”, which tells the story of how the Sears/Willis Tower came about. Did you know that the architect, Bruce Graham, was a smoker and that his inspiration for the building’s design (called a “bundled tube” concept) came from an open pack of cigarettes, out of which a few were sticking out at different lengths? FASCINATING, RIGHT?? You’ll never look at the building the same way again.
Randy told me that lots of visitors are in a hurry to get to the 103rd floor and don’t sit through the whole movie, but I HIGHLY RECOMMEND it. Think of it as added value to your ticket: I think that learning the background of anything, anywhere leads to a higher level of appreciation, so make sure you check it out on your next visit.
After the movie, it’s time to get into the elevator for a speedy trip up to the Skydeck, 1353 feet off the ground. The view from up there is simply breathtaking. On a clear day you can see four states (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan) and visibility is between forty and fifty miles. You’re probably not going to feel anything, but on any given day the average sway of the building is approximately 6 inches from true center. The building is designed to sway up to three feet.
I love looking out in all directions but my favorites are east and west. Everything at ground level looks instantly cuter when you see it from Skydeck Chicago. When I look to the east I always look for the Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park, and the Calder Flamingo statue that’s right outside the Kluczynski Federal Building.
Of course, when you look to the west it’s best to do so from The Ledge. The reason the Ledge faces west, by the way, is because it’s the only side of the building that has a straight view all the way down to street level.
By the way, in case you didn’t know, The Ledge was inspired by this scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”:
Here are some fun facts about The Ledge:
1. The Ledge’s glass boxes extend out 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s Skydeck on the 103rd floor. Each box weights 7,500 pounds.
2. The Ledge’s glass boxes are comprised of three layers of half-inch thick glass laminated into one seamless unit.
3. The Ledge’s glass boxes are designed to retract into the building, allowing easy access for cleaning and maintenance.
4. The Ledge is built to withstand four tons of pressure and can hold 10,000 pounds! (and that’s why it’s safe to be out there with a bunch of other people, and why you can jump on it!)
I am actually very scared of heights (as in, I don’t even like ladders), and pre-2011 was one of those people who exclaimed “You can’t pay me ENOUGH to go out on that thing!” Here’s some real talk: it’s not only not bad once you get out there, but it’s actually very enjoyable. The first time I stepped out onto The Ledge was on my first VIP tour with Randy two years ago, and although I’ve had a little hesitation each time I’ve stepped out since then and actually need to hold onto the side wall at first (Randy says he sometimes has to do the same thing!) to get my bearings mentally, once I’m out there and can let go, it’s pretty exhilarating.
And the views? Oh wow.
Still with me?
If you’re really into sky-high adventure, you can even eat Breakfast on the Ledge. I did this with D in 2011 and it was great fun. This special, private event used to be popular mainly with celebrities, but Randy tells me that they have breakfast reservations nearly every day with people from all walks of life. (The celebrities are still coming, too: I got to hear some great tales about a late night talk show host, a comedian, and a singer who recently visited!) You can get more information about Breakfast on the Ledge at–where else?–the Skydeck Chicago website.
Soon it was time for us to get back into the elevators and head down. The experience wasn’t over, though: what famous attraction is complete without a visit to a gift shop or two? The gift shops at Skydeck Chicago are some of my favorites because they are full of unique items. In fact, Randy says it’s their goal to fill the shops with things you can’t just pick up at the airport or any other generic souvenir store.
The first gift shop you’ll hit has t-shirts, books, and plenty of other items: there’s something for everyone. If you’re hungry, you’re in luck: they also sell candy and Chicago hot dogs, among other things.
The second gift shop is a partner venture with the Chicago Historical Society and features vintage-look posters and souvenirs that have to do with the music of Chicago, the architecture of Chicago, and all kinds of other awesome. I found some stained-glass-looking Sears/Willis Tower sculptures that I adored.
On the way out, there’s an arcade section that has photo booths, a Mold-A-Rama (who doesn’t need a plastic, blow-molded Sears/Willis Tower??), and pressed penny machines.
Just a quick aside: When we walked through this area last week, Randy recalled a conversation we had two years ago during which he told me he was considering getting rid of the pressed penny machines because “Who actually wants that as a souvenir?” My response was, “Well, I DO.” I told him that when my boys were little, pressed pennies were their favorite souvenir from any place we visited, and the bonus for me as a parent was that even if I couldn’t afford a t-shirt or some other “better” keepsake, I could always come up with the fifty-one cents it cost for the pressed penny. He told me last week that as a result of that conversation he bought an additional pressed penny machine. WIN! Thanks, Randy. I bet lots and lots of other families appreciate that, too!
Just as I knew I would, I had an amazing visit with Randy and Skydeck Chicago. Before we said goodbye, we picked up my favorite picture of the day (and one of my favorites, ever in all time):
I posted this picture on Facebook the other day and you wouldn’t believe the passionate responses I got, mostly about how crazy I am. I am happy to accompany any and all of my friends out to The Ledge. Also, I am now decreeing that all pictures of me must be taken from this angle.
Skydeck Chicago is open 365 days each year. Hours are 9 am-10 pm April through September and 10 am to 8 pm October through March, with the last entry being thirty minutes prior to close. General admission tickets are $18 for adults 12 and up and $12 for kids ages 3 to 11 (Children under 3 are free). You can follow Skydeck Chicago on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, YouTube, AND Pinterest. Go ahead, do it.
I nearly forgot! I have a set of four Skydeck Chicago passes to give away. I like to make this simple, so here are the simple rules:
You must be 18 or over to enter, and you must live in the Chicagoland area or plan to visit before the end of this year. To enter, leave me a comment telling me either why you want to check out The Ledge OR tell me something you’ve done lately that scared the living daylights out of you. One entry per person. You have until 11:59 p.m. this Saturday, August 17, to enter. I will select the winner randomly on Sunday, August 18. Easy peasy! Good luck!
Thanks so much to the folks at Skydeck Chicago, and special thanks to General Manager Randy Stancik. Randy, I so appreciate your time and your stories about your awesome workplace. (Also, that story you told me about your neighbors who became empty nesters kept me laughing for days.) I look forward to seeing you again soon!
Disclosure: I received a VIP tour of Skydeck Chicago and a lovely photograph when I visited, but the post was not a condition of either of those things. All words and opinions are my own, as usual!
EDITED 8/19/13: Congrats to commenter #2, Shannon! You won the tickets! Woo hoo!