(Sears) Willis Tower Skydeck – Chicago from Above

(Sears) Willis Tower Skydeck – Chicago from Above

The Pressure:

If you tell someone you’re going to Chicago, the chances are very good that they will ask if you’re going to do one of the skyscraper attractions. Apparently, it’s a must-do.

The Choices:

There are two popular places get a bird’s eye view of Chicago. One is at the Willis Tower, formerly known – and still commonly referred to – as the Sears Tower. The other is 360 Chicago, which was formerly known as John Hancock Observatory.

The Willis Tower Skydeck is on the 103rd floor of what was at one time the world’s tallest building. At 1353 feet from the ground, it offers great views of Lake Michigan, the Buckingham Fountain, and downtown Chicago.

Its unique feature is The Ledge, a 4-foot plexiglass extension that allows you to walk out of the building and feel as if you are suspended in mid-air over the streets of Chicago. Admission to the Skydeck is $23 per adult whether you walk out onto the Ledge or not. It is handicapped accessible.

sears willis tower skydeck chicago ledge
Image via Flickr by somegeekintn

360 Chicago, on the other hand, is slightly lower. It’s on the 94th floor of the John Hancock building, about 1000 feet up from Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” on Michigan Avenue. Its unique feature is called Tilt. You walk up to a window panel, grab a rail on either side, and the window will tilt outward, up to a 30 degree angle. So briefly, it may feel like you’re falling face first onto the street, 1000 feet below. (And if you don’t maintain a good grip on those rails, you might bump your nose on the window.)

Admission to 360 Chicago is $18.45 for adults, with an additional $6.30 if you want to do Tilt ($24.75 total). The observation deck is handicapped accessible, but Tilt is not.

The Skepticism:

I honestly had no intention of paying good money to go to the top of a building in Chicago. I have been to the Top of the Rock in NYC, after all, and it really couldn’t be all that much different. Plus it’s so dang expensive, and for what? Just to take a few photos? Besides, neither the Ledge nor Tilt appealed to me at all – I can get really squeamish about heights.

The Change of Heart:

On our second full day in Chicago, we caught an Uber after lunch and spent a lot of time talking to the driver, who gave us a lot of great tips. He said something along the lines of, “Well, you have to go to the top of the Sears Tower!” It was late afternoon and soon, the sun would be starting its descent. Ah, the golden hour – that magical time when even otherwise mediocre photos look glorious. Suddenly, I was sold on the idea. To the Willis Tower we went!

The Lines:

When you enter the Skydeck entrance, staff members usher you into an elevator that takes you to the Skydeck queuing area. If you paid almost double for a Fastpass trip to the top, you’ll go through an opening in the wall and, presumably, straight up to the top.  I did not do that – and in fact NEVER do the whole “pay more to skip the line” scheme – because I am cheap.

However, I will tell you that I regretted not splurging for the Fastpass. The lines, snaking through a windowless basement, seemed to last forever. And of course their were restless children who’d had quite enough sightseeing for one day, visitors who perhaps forgot to put on deodorant that morning, and strollers accidentally bumping into your heels while you waited. The extra $26, even an extra $78 for the three of us, began to seem like not such a bad deal after all.

The queuing area contained lots of interesting factoids about the building. For instance, there are 25,000 miles of plumbing in the building. It takes only about a minute to reach the Skydeck via the super-fast elevators. The building contains 145,000 light fixtures. You get the idea. I love trivia as much as the next person – probably more – but there are only so many factoids you can enjoy over the course of an hour. The idea of completely bailing out crossed my mind more than once.

When we got closer to the ticket counter, the requisite photographer was there with a green screen to take a souvenir photo whether you wanted one or not. He said that he would take anyone who either had a Fastpass or had purchased their tickets in advance online. In a stroke of genius, I pulled up the Skydeck website on my phone and purchased my tickets, then showed the barcode to the photographer. He took us out of the line to snap our photo, then sent us to the next queuing area. That maneuver saved us a little bit of time, but not enough, as we soon found ourselves in yet another line. Eventually, we ended up in a waiting area where we saw a brief movie about the building’s design and construction. Then another wait and FINALLY we entered an elevator that took us to the 103rd floor.

The View:

The timing of our visit may have been disastrous as far as the crowds were concerned, but for the view it could not have been better. The setting sun bathed every building in gold, and we could see a faint ribbon of pink in the sky. Our first view, to the southeast, was impressive.

Chicago sears Willis tower skydeck view

The view became even more breathtaking, though, as we rounded the corner to the north side of the building.

sears willis tower skydeck view east side

Now we could see the small white dots of boats floating on Lake Michigan.  What impressed me most, though, was seeing the shadow of the tower in which we stood, and how far it stretched put into the lake.. Eventually, we tore ourselves away from this breathtaking view and continued around to the north-facing side of the building. There, we got to see dozens of impressively tall buildings reaching into the sky (but not as high as us!).

chicago sears tower willis tower skydeck view skyline

The western side was the Ledge, which I decided to skip for three reasons: 1) I thought it sounded potentially scary, 2) the sun would have been right in our eyes at that time of day, and 3) there were lines to do it. At that point in the day, I had been in enough lines to last me a while. We took the elevator on down to the gift shop and then headed out for a deep dish pizza dinner. (More on that later.)

My overall impression was that the Willis Tower Skydeck view was exceptional. Because of the site’s architectural history, it’s a much better choice for most visitors to the city. If you’re a thrill seeker and you want to experience Tilt at 360 Chicago, then by all means do so. However, if you’re a little less adventurous, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the Willis Tower Skydeck. Just make sure you get your tickets in advance to save a little time in line!

 

chicago view skydeck tilt the ledge 360 john hancock observatory must-see views lake michigan world’s tallest

One Reply to “(Sears) Willis Tower Skydeck – Chicago from Above”

  1. I totally would have thought like you. I am like oh, seen one rooftop view seen them all. But your photos have given me a change of heart. And now I know to go to What was formerly known as sears tower. Thanks for the great tips!!

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