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Taking the Grand Tour: A Review of Grand Central’s New Audio Tour

Observant commuters may have noticed something new in Grand Central in November – a little booth by the ticket windows labeled Audio Tours. Or you might have seen it mentioned in the Mileposts, or perhaps in a poster on your train or at your station? Either way there is a new way to tour Grand Central – and I’m not talking about a giant tour group where you have to strain to hear the tour guide. Grand Central now has an official self-guided audio tour. While I was at Grand Central the other day I took the time to give the tour a shot – a review of sorts.

 
Audio tour booth, Metro North employee Patrick mans the booth during my visit

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much. I know a lot about Grand Central, and I figured that I wouldn’t learn anything new. But I was a tad curious to know what would be included in a tour of Grand Central, and how it would be described. There are a lot of things I know about the history of the place. And I am also aware that there are folks in the hardcore railfan community that are of the opinion that there have been some… shall we say, anecdotal embellishments added into the lore of the Terminal. But there is just so much that can be said about the history of this building, what exactly do you say to fit into an hour, and what parts do you leave out?


Handheld device for the audio tour

I must admit though, I enjoyed the tour. The technology used is great. If you don’t want to borrow the device and headset for the tour you can download it to your own mp3 player – or at least you’re supposed to. I’ve been unable to purchase it on the website, not to mention it lists the prices only in Euros, which irrelevant if the company that made the tour may be foreign, it just looks poor in a US market. The actual devices that you can borrow for the tour are not only audio devices, they have a small screen in which to show a photo of where you currently are on the tour. I love the fact that it really is a self guided tour – you enter the number of the location you currently are in to hear about it. If you don’t want to hear about it, you can always skip that location. Or you can go in whichever order you please. Plus if you want to learn more about something, you can hit the green button. You can customize the whole thing and do whatever you want to.

Plenty of important places are described on the tour – from the obvious 42nd Street façade, to the clock and sky ceiling to the somewhat lesser known whispering gallery, spiral staircase in the information booth, and the walkways in between the glass panels. I loved that there were mentions of the 20th Century Limited, as well as Jackie Kennedy and the fight to save Grand Central. There were also plenty of things that I thought the tour could mention, but didn’t. Since the tour sends you outside anyways to see the façade, why not make another outdoor stop to see the majestic eagle – older than the Terminal itself – which once stood on the original Grand Central Depot? I also don’t recall hearing anything about William Wilgus. Wilgus was the railroad’s chief engineer, and the conceptual mastermind behind Grand Central. The tour briefly mentions that the Terminal ushered in the era of electric trains, but fails to mention why – and this is important! Would the railroad have undertaken such a massive project if steam locomotives were not banned on Manhattan island? Would the massively expensive project have been considered if not for Wilgus’ concept of air rights, of covering over the formerly open-cut railroad tunnels and building on it to recoup expenses and make money?

The tour does fall more on the side of artistic/architectural than railfan. But just the fact that the purpose of the building is for servicing rail, I think more of that rail history ought to be thrown in. What makes Grand Central a great railroad station, and not just a pretty building? (and I am talking more about dual levels and loop tracks, as opposed to ramps, which were mentioned)

 
Eagle originally from Grand Central Depot

For the most part the main narration of the tour was great. It was informal, like you were listening to an actual tour guide as opposed to reading one of the many books on the subject of Grand Cental. There were amusing little anecdotes thrown in, like the person asking the person at the information booth where to rent a horse. A lot of the extra details and stories on the “secrets” were recited by Dan Brucker… and I mean no insult to Dan, but there were times where it was tiresome to listen to his voice. He spoke loud and slow, perhaps as one would speak to a non-english speaker, hoping that over-enunciating words will help them understand. “This. Is. Not. A. STA-TION. It. Is. A. TER-MI-NAL. Be-cause trains. TER-MI-NATE. Here.” Now although I’ve never formally met Dan Brucker, I’ve overheard him doing tours. He is animated and it is obvious that he loves this place. But I don’t think that gets through in the tour. (Sorry Dan, please don’t be insulted, I’d still love for you to give me a tour any day!)

One option on the tour, which I believe was called Visual Experience has not been completed yet. The device mentioned that it is being worked on and will include clips from shows filmed in Grand Central. I hope they’re talking about audio clips and not video clips, because even though the device has the capacity for video the screen is so small. And if I had a hard time seeing what was in the tiny picture, then I am certain the little old ladies that took the tour right before me would have a major difficulty. Something on the other hand that might actually work would be a small companion brochure or booklet that accompanies the tour. Right now you just get a big clunky sheet of laminated paper with a map, which you can’t keep. I’m sure tourists would love something that can actually be kept. If cost is a prohibitive issue I’m sure an extra dollar or two could be charged for the nicer booklet.

Well, this certainly turned out to be the long-winded review. Basically it comes down to this:
Do I recommend the tour? Yes. The tour is ideal for people that enjoy the architecture and might not know a lot about Grand Central. If you know a lot about the place you’re probably not going to get as much out of it, but you’ll still probably enjoy it.
Did I learn anything on the tour? Yes. Somehow I had never even noticed the mural on the ceiling of the Graybar Passage.

2 thoughts on “Taking the Grand Tour: A Review of Grand Central’s New Audio Tour

  1. Your mention of William Wilgus prompts me to mention the American Experience documentary on Grand Central which I just watched on Hulu. Here’s the link:

    http://www.hulu.com/watch/196928/american-experience-grand-central

    I should also mention the model of GCT which is at the NYS Museum. I took an out-of-state friend there last week (actually, she’s an out-of-country friend) and the model brought to life (well, virtual life), the complexity of the building. It really is more like a machine (for moving people and trains) disguised as a building. Albany’s pretty bleak in the winter (and maybe in the summer too!) but the NYS Museum is worth the trip. And the price is right.

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