A tourist selling tickets to New York Skyride. (NYT)
New York: It is pretty much compulsory on any tourist's to-do list. You ascend to the 86th-floor Observatory of the Empire State Building and soak in the big city in all its dizzying splendor, and probably get dizzy yourself.
Or, for those otherwise inclined, you can stop at the second floor of the building and witness the skyline from there. Do not eat beforehand. That is where the New York Skyride is, a roughly 15-minute simulated helicopter ride. The stomach-churning tour around the city is narrated by Kevin Bacon, whom you just about never run into at the Observatory.
Skyride has offered this bumpy aerial possibility since 1995, and says that more than 10 million people have taken it. Yet its current owner claims that it is caught in a nasty war for survival against the Malkin family, which owns the Empire State Building.
The two sides have long feuded over just about everything: the electric bill, what bathrooms Skyride customers can use, whether Skyride can have a gift shop. Matters, however, moved in a new direction in April, when the police began handing out summonses and arresting the street vendors who promote and sell most of the tickets to Skyride.
Skyride Associates, the ride's owner, said 14 summonses were issued and six employees arrested for not having general vendor licenses, even though it maintains they have never needed licenses before. It believes the Malkins are behind this, and filed a petition on Monday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan against the city and the police to halt the practices. On Tuesday, a judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing actions against the ticket sellers until the case is heard.
Skyride's majority partner, Walter Threadgill, said it was evident to him that the Malkins did not feel that the virtual helicopter fit the spiffier image that they now prefer in a tenant. In court papers, Skyride said Malkin representatives referred to Skyride employees and customers as "riffraff" and called its street sellers "people from the hood."
Mr. Threadgill said that "it certainly doesn't give me pleasure to hear that," noting that most of the 35 or so vendors are African-American or Hispanic.
Anthony E. Malkin, one of the building's owners, said, "Skyline's allegations are baseless."
"I understand that the NYPD has issued summonses to Skyline based upon their activity," he said, "and it will be up to the courts to decide if those summonses were properly issued."
Skyride has had its troubles. It went into bankruptcy last year, though it emerged in February.
Mr. Threadgill feels the Empire State Building ought to like Skyride. He said he paid more than $3.5 million a year in rent and added that most Skyride tickets were $52 combo packages that got you the artificial helicopter ride plus a pass to the 86th floor, and that the building got a nice split of that revenue.
Not every ticket buyer adores Skyride. Some online reviews have called it an "inane mechanical ride" or "corny." But Mr. Threadgill said, "We've also got some great reviews."
On Wednesday, the ticket vendors were pushing Skyride hard outside the big building, beseeching passers-by with, "You guys going up?"
Customers were of many minds. Some felt the ride was satisfactory. "The Observatory was better," was the verdict of Dan Martinez, 24, from Puerto Rico. Karen Walsh, 62, visiting from Scranton, Pa., with her daughter, was more severe: "We got ripped."
The case over the street sellers is to continue as early as next week. Whatever the outcome, Mr. Threadgill does not expect Skyride's lease to be renewed in 2014. He is seeking a new spot.
"We have to keep going," he said. "It's the only ride like it in New York City."
Story first published:
June 16, 2011 15:18 IST