Big Spender: A VIP tour of New York’s Empire State Building costs as much as a monthly car payment

The pitch

As it recovers from the pandemic, New York City is welcoming back more tourists these days and is particularly making a push for international travelers. Those visitors who do come will find options aplenty for enjoying a sky-high view of the Big Apple.

Earlier this month, One Vanderbilt, the recently opened Midtown office building, started welcoming guests to its Summit observatory, located on the 91st to 93rd floors. Another relative newcomer is Hudson Yards’ Edge, a key attraction at the mega office/residential/shopping development. There’s also the rebuilt World Trade Center in lower Manhattan and its One World Observatory.

But don’t forget the Empire State Building, which is owned by the Empire State Realty Trust
At 90 years old, it’s the granddaddy of New York skyscrapers, an edifice that has been made all the more famous through its appearances in countless movies, from the original “King Kong” (1933) to the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romcom “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993).

It’s also a tourist destination that makes a particular push for the money-is-no-object set, with a VIP viewing option that could qualify as the city’s most expensive observatory experience.

Called the ESB All-Access Tour and priced at $460.06 ($500 with tax) — or about the cost of the average car payment — for a party up to four, it allows you to visit the building the way celebrities do — through a private entrance. From there, you spend time in the building’s green room, where you can partake of Champagne or other beverages and snacks. Of course, you also get to take in the views from the building’s two observation decks — on the 86th and 102nd floors — with the rest of the non-VIP visitors, but you’ll have the advantage of a personal guide (you’ll also skip any lines for elevators).

“It’s about the connection we’re creating. We have incredibly talented hosts,” said Jean-Yves Ghazi, president of the Empire State Building Observatory. He added that the tour is an experience for “visitors who thirst for more knowledge” about the iconic building. Others who work with the observatory say tours can easily be customized — for example, a group of engineering-minded individuals can use the tour to learn about that aspect of the building.

One final bonus: The tour comes with a 90th-anniversary edition Empire State Building tote bag — while supplies last.

A moment with the big ape: Even non-VIPs can partake of the Empire State Building’s many exhibits and attractions, including this interactive one featuring King Kong.

Empire State Building

The reality

A trip to the Empire State Building does indeed come with amazing views, especially because of the building’s location in the heart of Manhattan on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue — meaning you can seemingly take in all of New York. But those views can be had for a fraction of the cost with regular admission — prices start at $42 for adults for a visit to the 86th-floor deck (the cost increases to $75 if you want to add the 102nd-floor deck).

And while the tour does allow for customization and insights into the famed edifice, visitors who go the non-VIP route still get plenty of opportunities to learn all about the Empire State Building’s history, construction and internal workings. As part of an extensive revamp just prior to the pandemic, the observatory now offers what amounts to a museum experience as part of the admission: Think exhibits on everything from the Empire State’s elevators to its depictions in popular culture.

Plus, as already noted, it’s not as if the Empire State Building is the only game in town. Other observatories have their own viewing advantages since you’re seeing the city from different locations and from different perspectives. Hudson Yards’ Edge, for example, puts the emphasis on its uniquely designed sky deck — it’s a platform that juts out from the building and is intended to give you the feeling of floating up high.

And these other observatories have even lower-priced adult admissions: the Edge starts at $36, One Vanderbilt $39 and the World Trade Center $38. All also offer their own forms of VIP packages. The Edge just announced a VIP experience of a different sort — a City Climb offering, priced at $185, that allows you to scale the outside of the building (with “specially designed safety harnesses,” naturally).

Finally, as many a wag has noted, other observatories afford you a great view of the Empire State Building.

Still, the Empire State seemingly has fans for its $500 VIP tour. Officials with the building won’t give visitor numbers, but Siobhan MacShane, a VIP host, said she’s conducted more than 100 of the tours. She said what makes them special is the long window of time that guests are given (and the glass of Champagne doesn’t hurt either, she added). She also said that the tours are popular with families that have children with special needs. “These tours (are) conducted in an entirely different manner to ensure their comfort and expectations are met,” she said.

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