As a New York City licensed tour guide who has been giving groups step-on and walking tours for over 25 years, my tour information is constantly changing, depending on the headlines of the day and the most interesting information I have recently discovered. Sometimes I will overhear a younger guide giving their tour information, and I will think to myself, “I used to tell my groups that tidbit of info years ago – until I discovered more interesting information.” This happens constantly, and a really informed guide must stay up with the times, constantly reading books, websites and the daily newspapers. As a really good guide, you must be a good tourist, and I love to travel.
I was in London recently for a friend’s wedding, and I took several tours. One tour on the history of downtown London sounded intriguing, but the guide was deadly dull. This guide had probably been giving this tour for decades, and the tour information was staid and dry as dust, and the guide did not make any efforts to make his delivery more colorful.
Another tour I took, a walking tour of the Bloomsbury neighborhood, was lively and charming and bristling with fun historical tidbits. The guide referred to various books and articles she had read (which I also do) and invited us to make notes and look up this reading material for ourselves.
My tours of New York have changed over the years; now I include various tidbits such as the residences of Harry Houdini and Alexander Hamilton (both houses are on my Harlem tour.). I have also expanded my tour information on the various real estate properties of the Trump family. Since he has become the 45th president, he has gone from just a slight mention on my tour to a person of interest.
Along with current information, I will always try to include a bit of history. For instance, when I am touring people in the Flatiron District, I will mention the famous skyscraper itself and also the fact that Chelsea Clinton and Jennifer Lopez both have spacious condos across the street. People are always fascinated with celebrities, whether living or deceased, and New York City is jam-packed with celebrity sites and residences. Of course, this information is constantly changing as celebrities like to buy and sell and move around.
Almost every dreary commercial double-decker bus tour goes by the 1040 Fifth Avenue residence of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, but most do not elaborate on the fact that she lived (and died) in a 15-room penthouse on the 15th floor (Apt. 15A). An interesting tidbit: she paid $286,000 in 1964, and when Caroline sold it one year after her mother’s death in 1994, she received $9.7million. It has since been bought and sold several times for over $30 million. I also love to show people the fancy apartment building where Jackie was raised, 740 Park Avenue, which is just a few short blocks away from Caroline Kennedy’s residence. Michael Gross wrote a fascinating book about the elegant building.
A few years ago a Connecticut attorney contacted me through my website and said his wife was turning 40 and that he wanted to do a special tour for her birthday. He noted she was a big fan of the late Jackie O. and that she had read all the books. I suggested we charter a special bus with a kitchen, and then I researched and did a special Jackie Kennedy Onassis tour with drinks and snacks. We covered all the important Manhattan sites from her life, even stopping at her church to meet some people who actually knew her.
I had to amend my information on 1040 Fifth Avenue when celebrity Candace Bergen moved in and when billionaire David Koch moved into Jackie’s former apartment and spent a fortune redecorating it.
Other celebrities who have moved around NYC include: Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Law & Order’s Mariska Margitay, Kelly Ripa, Alicia Keys, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep. In addition to the news, a good New York City step-on guide must read two things daily: the gossip columns and the real estate listings.
I am also an actor, and I have worked in small parts in TV commercials, movies and TV shows shot all around New York City, so I am able to mention various sites on the tours when it is appropriate and when it gives my tours a more personal touch. For example, I had a small role in a Meryl Streep movie shot in the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue. When I worked on Boardwalk Empire, we shot scenes in the Brooklyn Navy Yards, and on Law & Order SVU, we shot downtown in one of the NYC courthouses. I have had scenes in Sex and the City and the super hero movie The Avengers, which shot inside Grand Central. The late comedienne Joan Rivers had me as a guest on her local New York show several times, and she nicknamed me The Celebrity Tour Guide of NYC because I was able to mix New York architecture and history with personal stories.
I have been on tours where guides fill up the tour with personal information, which is boring and not good. Personal information from a guide should be carefully sprinkled into the tour dialogue only when it is appropriate, and you must be able to take your cue from the group’s interest level. I know a NYC guide, and all he does is talk about himself and tell jokes, which are not always funny. He is a bit of a frustrated stand-up comic, and he completely forgets that his main job on the bus is to give a group a lively, fun tour of New York City and not to promote himself.
It is important that a guide remembers his main job: to give a tour, keep information current and relevant, and keep the tour moving along!
Jim Dykes, NYC guide
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