The "Cool Stuff" Tour: Attractions with a View

February 06, 2013

Building upon our trends blogs from November and December, we’ve decided to debut a “cool stuff” series, surveying the world for all things unique and different, while offering a little historical background along the way. We begin our series with a look at a variety of “up in the air” experiences.

Observation Tower – for over a century, these two words have sparked promises of panoramic vistas of natural wonders or urban rooftops. But nowadays, what used to consist of a large window, a platform and a telescope has become much more, and these towers have manifested themselves into full-scale attractions with gift shops, restaurants, theatres and mini-museums.

The observation tower’s original function was that of keeping watch. Made from stone, iron and wood, the towers first appeared in Germany at the close of the 18th century. After the advent of the passenger elevator in the mid-19th century, the popularity of the observation tower grew, as did the range of its uses. One of the most famous early observation towers, the Eiffel Tower of Paris’ 1889 World’s Fair, revealed the tower’s function as not just, well, functional (in the Eiffel Tower’s case, for radio communication), but also as a piece of art and tourist draw.

Across the pond, the 1930s brought a bevy of observation decks to the United States. The most popular (featured in such movies as An Affair to Remember and Sleepless in Seattle) is located on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. Other notable observation decks and towers of the period include the “Top of the Rock” deck on the 70th floor of the GE Building, Coit Tower in San Francisco and Carew Tower located in JRA’s hometown of Cincinnati. All offered views in all directions, but at least initially, not much else.

Carew Tower - Photo credit: Wikipedia

Seattle’s Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair, broke the tower mold with its Space Age design and rotating restaurant. It was also an engineering marvel, capable of withstanding winds of 200 miles per hour and a 9.1 magnitude earthquake. The Space Needle’s success spawned a “tower boom” across the border in Canada over the next ten years, with structures cropping up in Ontario, Vancouver and Alberta before culminating with the CN Tower in Toronto. It also encouraged a shift in tower design from the standard skyscraper model to the sleek, needle-like structures we see so often today.

CN Tower - Photo credit: Wikipedia

The CN Tower, which opened in 1976, was the world’s tallest tower at the time and is still the tallest tower in the Western Hemisphere. Not only does the tower offer the usual lookout experience, it also hosts a restaurant, a glass floor area, a 3D theater and a motion theater ride. The most daring (and vertigo-free) guests can enjoy EdgeWalk, in which visitors, tethered to an overhead safety rail, can experience a open air, hands-free walk around the ledge of the Tower’s main pod, 116 stories above the ground.

EdgeWalk at CN Tower - Photo credit:

In the last couple of years, Asia and the Middle East have served as the centers of sky-high development. In Dubai, where the goal of every construction project is that it ends in “-est,” the Burj Khalifa, which opened in 2010, rises 2,722 feet into the air, making it the largest man-made structure in the world. The journey up to the Burj’s appropriately named observation deck, “At the Top”, begins in the tower’s lobby with an introductory media presentation. A second multimedia experience greets visitors in a 65-meter-long “travelator” and chronicles the history of Dubai from its foundation to the present. Once guests have completed their journey up the high-speed elevators, they are greeted with glass walls offering a panoramic view of the city. Augmented reality telescopes provide versions of the outdoor scenes across time (both past and future), in various weather conditions and at different times of day.

Burj Khalifa - Photo credit: Architecture

Moving, east, we arrive at China’s Canton Tower, with its unique, twisted design. From its outdoor rooftop observatory, the largest and highest outdoor observation deck in the world, guests take one of sixteen transparent, four-person passenger cars on a 20-40 minute journey circumnavigating the tower’s rooftop, as if a Ferris Wheel had been turned on its side. Canton Tower also features a 4D special effects cinema, four restaurants (one appropriately named “Twist”), a teahouse, a wine bar and a spider walk – a 1,028-step spiral staircase offering a commanding view of Guangzhou and several daring glass floor landings. A Science Exhibition Hall on the 109th and 110th floors explains how the tower holds up to wind and seismic events and showcases its other engineering features. The tower even boasts the highest post office in China and sells special stamps to commemorate the guests’ ascent. But the crown on the Canton Tower is the Mega Drop – the tallest drop ride in the world. Attached to the Tower’s mast 500 meters above the ground, guests are dropped 50 meters, the city views flying up as they free fall. With attractions for thrill seekers and casual observers alike, Canton Tower differentiates itself from its more conventional forebears.

Canton Tower - Photo credit:

Moving further east, we arrive at the gleaming Tokyo Skytree. Clad in what it calls “Skytree White,” it is actually colored the lightest shade of Japanese traditional indigo blue and is illuminated with alternating patterns of sky blue and purple LED lights at night. The tower is an anchor for the surrounding Tokyo Skytree Town, which features a train station, shops, restaurants, Sumida Aquarium, a planetarium and offices. Once inside the Skytree, guests can enjoy views from one of two observation decks. The three level, 350-meter-high Tembo Deck houses a café, restaurant and gift shop, and the 450-meter-high Tembo Gallery offers a more traditional observation deck experience. Connecting the two decks is a dizzying spiral ramp encased in a steel and glass tube, which allows for spectacular views over Japan’s Kanto Region. The May 2012 opening of the Skytree attracted over 1.6 million visitors in one week, and trips up the structure were completely booked for most of the following summer.

Tokyo Skytree - Photo credit: The Telegraph

But Asia is not the only recent player in the tower game. For the latest arrivals on the scene, we head back west to London. The Arcelormittal Orbit was constructed for the 2012 London Olympics and features a daring design that is far more aesthetic than functional. The spiraling, 377-foot-tall tower-sculpture, which cost £19.1 million to construct, was built to serve as a lasting legacy of the Games. One of the designers, Anish Kapoor, was influenced by the mythic nature of the Tower of Babel and strove to “build the impossible.” According to The Independent, Kapoor says he ended up with an “awkward” structure: “It has its elbows sticking out…it refuses to be an emblem.” London Mayor Boris Johnson, who called the Orbit the “Hubble Bubble” because it resembled a hookah pipe, heralded the structure as something that “would have boggled the minds of the Romans. It would have boggled Gustave Eiffel.” Inside the Orbit are two observation floors and a restaurant. Guests are encouraged to take the lifts up to the top floor and descend via the 455-step spiral staircase to better appreciate Kapoor’s artistic inclinations as well as the surrounding views.

The Orbit - Photo credit: Wikipedia

On the tower’s website, guests are encouraged to share their Orbit experience via words, photos and video. The stories and images then appear on the website’s “My Journey Notice board,” giving guests the opportunity to see their experiences in the context of other visits by people from around the world. Drawing on the principles and influence of Gustave Eiffel’s tower 123 years earlier, the Arcelormittal Orbit is a 21st century example of how engineering, architecture, art, nature and technology intersect to create a iconic structure.

Also in London, the Shard is the newborn babe of towers, opening to the public only a mere four days ago. Designed by famous Pompidou Center architects Renzo Piano, the 1,017-foot-high Shard, clad in 11,000 panes of glass, is the tallest building in the European Union and sports the UK’s highest observation open-air observation deck. The tower got its name from a criticism by English Heritage, who said at the project’s outset that it would be like a “shard of glass through the heart of historic London.” Despite its controversy, construction continued, and the five-story public viewing gallery is now expected to draw one million visitors per year, with Southwark councilmembers deeming it an economic development catalyst. Even Prince Andrew, Duke of York, showed his support of the building (and his charities) by abseiling from the tower’s 87th floor. In addition to the gallery, the building houses office space, a Shangri-La hotel, residences, restaurants and a spa.

The Shard - Photo credit:

From 4D theaters to transparent trams, five-star restaurants to augmented reality, today’s observation decks and towers are pushing the boundaries of how we see the world from on high. If icons like the Shard are any indication, one can only imagine what the towers of the next 100 years will bring to those guests who wish to play in the clouds.

Now we’d like to hear from you – what is your favorite observation tower experience? What makes it so special?


Tags: JRA Journeys , Outside the Studio

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