Queue no more: New York's Empire State Building gets a revamp

When we finally get to the 86th floor outside observatory of the Empire State Building and walk up to the railing to take in the jaw-dropping view of Manhattan, Jean-Yves Ghazi pulls back a little.

"Believe it or not, I'm actually a little afraid of heights," he admits.

It's an interesting confession from the man who is president of the Empire State Building Observatory. Anyone who comes to New York – especially first-timers – has a trip to the Empire State Building on the checklist. In fact, around 4 million of them go up to the observatory deck every year. But up until now there was always one sticking point.

"In all our research we found that our visitors loved the building and had an emotional connection with it, and of course they loved the view," says Ghazi. "But they weren't too crazy about the queues."

That's an understatement. The lines to reach the top of the world could be so torturous that finally getting there could feel more like a relief than a triumph. But that's all changed. It has taken four years and $US165 million to this year open the third phase of The Observatory Experience.

The changes are evident from the moment you walk in – the entrance is now on 34th Street rather than Fifth Avenue, with a welcome sign in  15 languages, a series of big historical photos of the building and a 7.5 metre model of the building that is begging for an Instagram-ready selfie. And this is before you even get to the security checkpoint.

Once you get to the second floor, the former crush of people suffering the long wait for the elevators is now given over to more than 900 square metres of exhibition space. In one room you look through telescopes that use a combination of live action film and computer animation to let you experience what it was like to build this famous skyscraper, as hot rivets fly through the air and construction workers on iron girders ascend and descend.

The Empire State Building was a marvel. Construction began in March 1930, soon after Wall Street's 1929 crash and it took just 14 months to build, at the rate of four and a half floors a week and at a cost of $US41 million.

You can learn all this and more on a series of touch screens full of information and graphics. You walk through a gallery of photos featuring celebrities at the building's peak. And you stand in a darkened theatre, with 72 screens showing how the Empire State Building has featured on the big screen over the years. You can probably name check An Affair To Remember, Sleepless In Seattle and Elf off the top of your head. They're all here, along with 185 other movies, TV shows and commercials that prove the building is truly iconic.


And finally there's King Kong. Really – there's a room with a recreation of the famous movie ape who first scaled the building in the 1933 film King Kong. He peeks through windows and his giant hands plunge through the walls.

"What don't you see here?" asks Ghazi as we stand in a corner and watch the delight on visitors' faces as they see the model of the big gorilla and whip out their phones to snap pics of each other being ape-handled before moving on to the next exhibit.

"Queues?" I venture.

"Exactly," he says, smiling.

The entire exhibition is entertaining and informative, but it also effectively spreads out the crowds, so by the time we get to the elevators there's no interminable line. Even the elevator, which whooshes up to the 86th floor in 55 seconds, features digital screens on the ceiling showing the building taking shape around you.

Of course, once you get out to the viewing platform where Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks had that famous encounter at the end of Sleepless In Seattle, the view is panoramic and stunning. You hear people speaking a multitude of languages, and even if you can't understand them, you know they're all using different interpretations of "wow".

For an extra $20 ticket, there's more. You can take a glass elevator up to the 102nd floor to an observatory deck that takes 55 people at a time. With full-height windows and 360-degree views, the observatory is 381 metres above street level. Inside this transparent perch you really feel like you're on top of the world.

"It's the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York," Deborah Kerr said of the building in 1957's An Affair To Remember.

It still is, but now it's a little easier to get to heaven.


On clear days you can see five US states from the top of the building: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The Empire State Building Run-Up is an annual event that has been held since 1978. Hundreds of athletes from around the world race up the building's 1576 steps to the 86th floor. The fastest time ever recorded was by an Australian, Paul Crake clocked nine minutes and 33 seconds in 2003.

Lightning strikes the building an average of 25 times a year.

The tower lights first shone in 1932 to celebrate the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt as President. In 2012, state-of-the-art LED lights were installed, with more than 16 million colour combinations and effects used to commemorate holidays, events and special causes.

At one time, it was thought dirigibles would become a thing, as far as air travel was concerned. The spire at the top of the building was originally considered as a docking port where these airships could be tethered.


Barry Divola was a guest of Brand USA and Hotel Beacon.






Qantas flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to New York via Los Angeles. See qantas.com


Hotel Beacon is on Manhattan's Upper West Side just a couple of blocks' stroll from Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. Rooms from $US199. See beaconhotel.com


Tickets for the Observatory Experience and access to the 86th floor observatory are $US38 adults, $US32 children and $US36 seniors. An extra $US20 gives you access to the 102nd floor observatory. See esbnyc.com