Pros: An invaluable resource.
Cons: Can be a bit confusing initially.
When you rush into The Times Square Visitors Center, in the heart of New York, the chances are that you will be on a whistle stop visit to get information, grab some brochures, book a couple of tours, use the ATM, or send free emails to your friends. You might even be forgiven for a quick dash to the only public restrooms in the vicinity, no charge.
However, currently, you cannot fail to see the psychedelic display of huge flowers, painted by thousands of participants at hospitals, schools, and community institutions.It is part of a project called "New York, Garden in Transit". The project was set up to help children coping with medical, physical, emotional and socioeconomic challenges. The giant flowers symbolize life, beauty, hope, joy, inspiration and healing. When we visited New York in October, not only did these flowers cover the interior of the Visitors Center but outside, matching decals decorated the famous yellow taxis.
If you have time, stop a little longer and look beyond the sensory overload of the Times Square billboards. The building, designed by architect Thomas Lamb, has been declared a National Historic Landmark and has a story to tell. In a former life it was the Embassy Movie Theatre, built in 1925 and run by film giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the exclusive use of high society patrons. You are now rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Vanderbilts.
It is hard to separate the vibrant colours of the present from the muted colours of the past, however, behind the rows of brochures and the booths, the walls are graced by hand painted landscape murals, by the celebrated New York based artist, Arthur Watkins Crisp, while ornate crystal chandeliers decorate the very long and elaborate lobby. The intricate wood panelling and brass doors have all been meticulously restored by hand.
In the 1920s this tiny theatre was run by famous feminist and Manhattan heiress, Gloria Gould Bishop, socialite daughter of actress Edith M. Kingdom. Of her father, industrialist heir, George Jay Gould, it was written that Of the seven older children by his first marriage-- three eloped, one married an English nobleman, and one the daughter of an Hawaiian princess.
Gloria, termed a professional greeter, insisted that the theatre should be staffed by women between 17 and 21 years of age. All had to be blonde, less than five feet four inches tall, with white teeth (no gold allowed). They had to have super clean nails and be able to wear their clothes with dignity. Gloria hired women projectionists, ushers, ticket takers and musicians, as she said they ''were more efficient than men.'
What would she make of the fact that this visitors centre is now available to every nationality imaginable, receives guests from all corners of the earth and is staffed by both sexes? I think Gloria would be pleased by the architect in charge of renovations, Ronnette Riley, who studied at the Harvard School of design and now heads her own practice. She vowed that the legacy of the Embassy theatre would not be forgotten.
At one time the Embassy was taken over by Guild Enterprises as a newsreel theatre, remaining until the end of theatrical newsreels in the early 1950s.
The Visitors center is run by the Times Square Alliance (formerly the Times Square Business Improvement District). This organisation is also active in supporting local community organisations.
Tony and I went on a Friday, just before 12oclock as we wanted to join the free Times Square walking tour. A sample of every flavour of Snapple was on offer as we waited for Judy, our guide, to round us all up. Would you believe it was the first time that we had tasted Snapple, far less all the latest flavours? It must be the same for a lot of overseas visitors to the USA. Things that the whole of America takes for granted are the very things that we find fascinating about your country and for me the huge variety of Snapple flavours is one of them.
We sat in the few remaining theatre seats to listen to the introduction to the walking tour. We also met Bob, our very own security man, who accompanied our group, ensuring that the New York traffic stopped just for us when we were crossing the roads. The walking tour takes about an hour and takes place mostly inside the square itself, with just a short excursion just around the corner to St. Malachys Cathedral, where Douglas Fairbanks married Joan Crawford.
St. Malachys is also known as the Actors Chapel and many in show business come to light candles hoping for successful shows. In its heyday you could see the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Spencer Tracy, Perry Como, Bob Hope and Elaine Stritch. Jimmy Durante apparently served mass here. The history of the construction of the cathedral is fascinating.
There were a few native New Yorkers on the tour, a great advantage. They knew more answers to questions about New York and could fill all those embarrassing silences while the rest of us tried to hide our ignorance. Did you know that the set back, wedding cake style of the clock tower, Paramount building, echoed a mountain, the Paramount symbol? Of course you did. No looking uncomfortably at your feet for you then.
New York Architecture Images. The Paramount Building
Did you also know that the 23 stories of The Times Tower, also known as One Times Square, location of the famous New Years Eve, Ball Drop is empty? In a city that cries out for space, I find that mind boggling. On the bright side (pun intended) marking the100th Birthday of the New Years Eve Ball there is going to be a brand new, state of the art ball dropped from this building. It will have super new LED lighting effects using Waterford Crystals innovative design. New Year in Times Square, 2008, promises to be more colourful and more complex than ever before.
New York Architecture Images.One Times Square. (The Times Tower).
According to Newsday Inc, Times Square generates more dollars than the economies of Panama and Bolivia put together and pumps about 55 billion dollars per year into New York Citys economy. A further 35 billion is generated indirectly.
Having given you a mere taste of what is on offer, I wont spoil rest of the tour for you but I will leave you with the intriguing thought that you will find music beneath your feet. Trust me, there is plenty to discover.
I am sure that you will have great fun in the Times Square Visitors Center. A lot of giggling may ensue while you use the video cameras to send free photos of yourselves to friends. I had read that it was possible to make a video and then rush outside to see yourself projected on the billboards high above Times Square but, alas, that opportunity is no longer there.
You can purchase metro tickets, stamps and New York souvenirs here.There are also a couple of pay phones on the wall and we used them to make a booking for a great evening, with dinner, at a place called Joes Pub.
We organised our own helicopter tour of Manhattan but you can easily book one from the tour desk if you prefer.The desk sells Liberty Helicopter Tours and Circle line boat trips.
This tour desk also sells tickets for the open top bus tours (red buses only). The bus company offers a variety of tours. A popular one is the All Loops Tour. The ticket is valid for 48 hours, so we spread our excursions over three days instead of two.
Different companies have special offers which alter from month to month, so check out the various websites for the best value.
The website below is for the Gray Line red bus tours sold in the center but another company with blue and yellow buses can be found operating similar routes.
Oh, and if you are taking a bus tour at this time of year, take a scarf, gloves and a hat.
We found the Visitors Center reception very friendly. Some employees just answered your questions politely but many members of staff positively enjoyed interacting with the tourists. The man on the tour counter was particularly helpful as was the girl in the central booth. We actually used this centre so much that we got to know a few people on first name terms.
The Times Square Visitors Center is situated between 46th and 47th Streets on 7th Avenue, diagonally across from the Marriott Hotel which temporarily houses the TXTS booth for discount Broadway shows. It is open every day from 8 am to 8 pm. You can find free city information here, including maps.
For a quick list of what is on offer, the centre boasts;
A Broadway Ticket Office offering full-priced tickets for all Broadway shows;
Gray Line/Circle Line: Sales office for sightseeing bus and boat tours, and tickets to popular attractions;
Sales booth for Metrocards and transit memorabilia;
Hotalings News Agency: A news stand offering regional and international newspapers;
Yahoo!: Free access to the Internet at six terminals with cameras to add photos to your email.
A sales booth for official New York City items, many bearing the City seal or City agency logos.
Walking tours start each Friday at noon. The tour lasts about one hour.
Meet at the Times Square Visitors Center, 1560 Broadway, between 46th and 47th Sts; 212-869-1890; timessquarenyc.org
You will also be given information on other free walking tours available in New York.
For the latest Times Square Alliance information about Whats on in Times Square.