the north face etip gloves Experience Tilt and The Ledge
A trip to the top of the Hancock Center or Willis Tower can languish on Chicagoans’ to do lists for years nearly 20 on mine but a clear summer day is a fine one to round up the family and get it done. These landmarks also provide unique vantage points and splurge worthy packages for the upcoming Chicago Air Water Show.
Last summer, 360 Chicago, formerly known as the Hancock Observatory, upgraded its 94th floor with the Tilt attraction on the south face of the building, with eight individual bays that tilt outward from the top, from 10 to 30 degrees, so visitors begin to feel the gravity of their situation. As the first moving attraction of its kind in the world, it drew 100,000 visitors in the first 3 1/2 months.
Six years ago, the Sears Tower (now Willis) added The Ledge, four glass boxes on the western face of the 103rd floor, into which a small group can step and see the city underfoot (or underhead more on that later). More than a million do so every year.
The dilemma: Which tower to summit first?
Willis: The Ledge
Biggest thrill: After hearing about visitors spontaneously stacking themselves into pyramids for photos in the glass cubes, my daughter and her friend asked if they could perform side by side handstands for their souvenir photos ($24 for a 6×8). Staff even helped them to steady their legs, for a memory and view of the Chicago River that they will likely never match.
Surprise hit: The mini museum of Chicago landmarks at ground level. Though we arrived early in the morning, with no line to the elevator, the kids drank in accounts of the great Chicago Fire and stomped on the interactive floor projections of landmarks like Wrigley Field, which then zoom out to reveal the view of each from the height of the Skydeck 1,353 feet. An 8 minute movie “Reaching for the Sky” (with seating) held them rapt, covering the late ’60s and ’70s heyday of namesake retailer Sears, complete with groovy catalog images of mustachioed men in high waisted pants and footage of smoke filled meetings, accompanied by jazzy flute strains and an account of architect Bruce Graham bunching cigarettes together to illustrate his tube structure for the tower to fellow architect Fazlur Khan. “Very ‘Mad Men,'” said one of my adult companions, Susan Walker.
Teachable moment: From the north face, the triangle topped skyscraper is The Metropolitan Correctional Center, a jail with a rooftop exercise yard which parents sometimes point out to kids with a few words about law abiding living.
Don’t miss: The northeast view of Maggie Daley Park’s famous ribbon, climbing wall and lighthouse play garden.
Pop culture fame: “Transformers III” and “The Dark Knight” filmed here; David Letterman brought his son and wife; comedian Russell Brand performed a yoga pose for his photo. The coating bears the brunt of stiletto heels and scratches to protect the three half inch thick layers of glass beneath, laminated together to withstand up to 4 tons of pressure and to hold up to 10,000 pounds.
Concessions: Retail stores at entry level and on the Skydeck sell Willis Tower Lego sets ($29.99), a decorative mosaic tower ($29.99), T shirts,
taxi cab toys and other sundries. 15 with the Picnic in the Sky package. Boxed lunch is served on the 99th floor. $100 per person including Fast Pass entry and a visit to the 103rd floor Ledge. October March. Last entry 30 minutes prior to close. $19.50 ages 12 and up; $12.50 ages 3 to 11; free under age 3. Audio tour is extra.
360 Chicago: Tilt
Biggest thrill: At 1,000 feet above the Magnificent Mile, Tilt doesn’t stop at the first or even the second 10 degree angle outward. It’s when the attendant eases it out the full 30 degrees that gravity really kicks in and your handrail grip either tightens to a clench or your nose flattens on the outer pane. Or, like one of our giddy girls, you step out of the bay momentarily for reassurance.
Surprises since our last visit: Stadium benches have been added to the 94th floor for visitors to take a load off and watch the sunset while having food and drinks from the revamped restaurant there. The ground level has changed too. Before, visitors lined up and waited for their 40 second elevator ride to the observatory. Now they can watch a short historical video about Chicago and look at photos showcasing city neighborhoods, culture and history.
Teachable moments: A time capsule at entry level used to be on the roof; it contains a piece of the Eiffel Tower. Other interactive exhibits are planned for ground level. The Hancock was completed in 1969, before the Sears (1973).
Don’t miss: The Sun and Stars package, offered through Aug. 31, gives you two visits within 48 hours for a discount price: $21 adults (compared to $26), $15 for youths (compared to $20). See the city by glorious day and by sparkling night.
Trivia: The building was called the Hancock Center (not Tower or Building) because the original plan called for two towers, but the Casino Club next door did not sell the adjacent land necessary for a second tower. The 20 mph elevators are among the fastest in the world, rising 94 floors in 40 seconds. The Hancock’s below ground plaza once had a public ice skating rink.
Cautionary notes: Tilt requires 42 inch height and is not handicapped accessible, though the rest of the 94th floor is. The screened in Skywalk from the observatory to Tilt blows fresh air sometimes gale force and, in winter, snow through a mesh screen, so dress for an intensified version of the day’s weather.
Concessions: The observatory cafe sells coffee, pastries, paninis and salads, plus gelato, beer, wine and more. Round tables allow adults to sit and chat while kids explore the periphery (ours fixated on the souvenir penny smasher). Asked afterward what the most interesting or best part of the Hancock was, my daughter answered, “The most interesting thing I experienced was the watermelon gelato. The best part was eating it.” Shops in the observatory and at the below ground entrance sell T shirts, books, snow globes, jewelry, Lego sets and more. Souvenir photo packages are $25.
Bonus points: Panoramic touch screens share details on Chicago landmarks in seven languages, including Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese,
and offer day and night views and zoom capabilities. Challenge the kids to spot at least 13 buildings in the vicinity with rooftop pools.
Looking for more of the latest on parenting related topics and trends? Like us on Facebook or subscribe to our free weekly newsletter.