This weekend my friend Jill & I went on The Ride -- a big tour bus with seats facing sideways, and one giant window like an imax screen looking out on the city. I'd seen the motorcoaches driving through Times Square, and ads on BroadwayWorld, but I wasn't sure what to expect -- how much can a local get from a tourist bus? But I quickly learned this is not just a facts-and-snapshots experience. It's more like being inside a virtual reality version of midtown Manhattan... except there is nothing virtual about it! Let's call it enhanced reality -- an energetic, showbizzy, glitzier version of a bus-about-town, where instead of being observers, the riders become part of the city experience.
Other busses have tour-guides; the rides have hosts. Ours were Scott, who recently spent a day walking the perimeter of Manhattan; and Jackie, whose claim to fame is that she's seen the musical Rent thirty two times (a girl after my own heart!). Instead of being hidden or pre-recorded, Scott and Jackie were visible and interactive. On The Ride, everything is rotated 90 degrees, so instead of turning your head to look at the window, the city is spread out panoramically in front of you. It's like looking at a movie screen, except it's actually a glass pane with the real city as the show. Jackie and Scott stood against the glass, facing the audience, telling stories about the sights and encouraging us to participate. Oh, and chatting back & forth with the bus. Did I mention that The Ride (the actual vehicle) has a personality and a voice? One more way this is not a traditional New York City bus tour.
We were on the first Ride of the morning and I'd been out late the night before, so the bright lights and the huge enthusiasm of the hosts was overwhelming at first. There is no blending in with the upholstery on this attraction! Instead, as The Ride traverses the city, the hosts lead trivia contests, tell jokes, and interview audience members about their jobs, families, & hidden talents. Being encouraged to "raise the roof" and yell out trivia answers with the other passengers right off the bat was a lot to take in! But Jill poked me and told me to get with the program, and before I knew it I was belting out "New York, New York" with the best of them.
Speaking of singing... The Ride is not just about the sights and what goes on inside the bus itself. There are actually singers, dancers, comedians, rappers and street musicians that pop up -- outside -- and every turn! At first blending in with the crowds, they "turn on" when the bus comes into view, like miniature flash-mobs designed just for The Ride. Because of the way the seats face out instead of forward, everyone has a front-row seat for the delivery-guy-turned-break-dancer, the freestyle beat-boxer, the prima ballerina, and the guy who says he is camping out, already claiming a spot in Times Square for New Years Eve. Not only do these folks address the audience inside the bus, they actually use information gathered in the aforementioned in-bus-banter to personalize their performances (in ours, the beatboxer worked in some rhymes about Jill's new puppy and another passenger's job as a bank manager in Omaha!).
The performances were my favorite part about The Ride. And not just because they popped up by surprise, and not just because the folks were talented. The most entertaining element of all was the panoramic view of the tourists & New Yorkers caught unaware by what was going on in the street around them. Can you imagine walking down 5th Avenue and suddenly having the business woman next to you start belting lyrics from 42nd Street? Tourists stopped to gawk, but the funniest were the jaded New Yorkers who didn't even bat an eyelash. As if it's the most normal thing in the world for a glass-walled bus to pull around the corner, and a multi-talented every-man to bust out an impromptu show.
I may have stepped onto The Ride a little lethargic, but Scott and Jackie made me laugh and the information I learned in the process was stuff I actually hadn't known before; like the identity of the sailor-kissing-the-nurse in the famous "war is over" pic (did you know she wasn't his girlfriend?). My energy was quickly restored as I let my guard down and participated in the fun on-board. And at the end of 90 minutes, I didn't just feel like I'd been on a tour; I felt like I'd been to a show. And we all know that is my favorite feeling in the world.