City as theme park.
It seems so Hollywood, yet the idea actually is being tested in the far more discreet West Coast cities of San Francisco and Seattle.
The concept is CityPass, a single booklet with entries to seven of the city's top attractions, at half the tickets' face value. The goal is to organize the city and draw visitors to more than the average 1.7 spots most tourists sample. It's been tried before, but never with such a diverse mix of places nor as a private business.
It costs $29.95 and will soon be available at every site in the pass, as well as at ticket outlets and hotels. But, the important question is: Are all the destinations worth the effort it takes to scramble across the four corners of the city? The answer depends as much on your appetite for cultural tourism as the quality of your walking shoes.
We decided to launch our city-as-theme-park experience by staying at the Clift Hotel, a gracious prewar embodiment of the romantic guide book San Francisco, centrally located just off Union Square next to the city's two main theaters.
On the first day, clutching the very first CityPasses off the press (they went on sale June 11), we laid aside our aversion to overtly touristy attractions and started with the first Bay Cruise of the morning.
What a good idea. Every great city has a waterway view and San Francisco's is one of the most familiar. As we slipped slowly past Alcatraz Island, under the Golden Gate Bridge, I was suddenly grateful for a little packet of tickets that brought me out on the water for a view I otherwise would have passed up.
Of course, this is one of CityPass's big selling points, according to co-creator Mike Gallagher. "It encourages people to try things they might not otherwise experience, for the simple reason that they've already got a ticket and they want to get their money's worth."
Next on our schedule was the Exploratorium, which quite frankly, we'd visited on previous trips to San Francisco, but since we had a ticket...
Once again, it turned out to be an eye-opening choice. A huge, hands-on emporium of more than 500 scientifically based interactive exhibits, the Exploratorium is virtually impossible to "do" in a single trip. We arrived around 1:30 p.m.and stayed till closing at 5 p.m. The children, six- and 10-years-old, had to be dragged out, and were only mollified with promises that we'd come back.
At the risk of overstating the point, I should say that it took a ticket burning in my purse to take me back to a place I thought I'd already seen, and a point not lost on Mary Ann Hallacy, the Exploratorium's visitor-services manager.
"We've been trying to find ways to bring new people in as well as bring people back," she says, pointing to a prominent CityPass display. The participating institutions receive commissions based on a formula that takes into account the number of passes sold and redeemed.
Keeping in mind our two-day schedule, we high-tailed it across town to the spectacular new Museum of Modern Art, which was conveniently open on a Thursday evening till 9:00 p.m. Art in the evening was a calming conclusion to a hectic day, even for the children.
The next morning, we bolted directly for the California Academy of Sciences, which includes the Steinhart Aquarium and the Natural History Museum nestled in Golden Gate Park. I can't neglect to add that by this time we were riding the buses and thoroughly enjoying the different neighborhoods along each route. Although the CityPass creators don't claim to have taken topography into account, the far-flung locations create the unexpected benefit of a multi-neighborhood city tour as well.
The M.H. de Young Memorial Art Museum sits across a small park from the academy, and makes a perfect end visit for the afternoon, although by this time, the kids were groaning at the thought of another museum, so we made it short. And, we didn't feel guilty, since we knew the tickets were basically half price.
We missed the zoo and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, but felt the pass was well worth the price even at five out of seven. CityPass creators Mr. Gallagher and market researcher Mike Morey, plan to expand their concept to Boston, New York, Chicago, Honolulu, and, of course, Los Angeles where they concede more than one version of the pass may be necessary. Wouldn't this make a pass just for a tour of the theme parks inevitable? As my 10-year old daughter would say, "whatever!"