What the One World Observatory Is Really Like

I did try reaching out to the One World Observatory media relations folks as the opening neared, but I never heard back. That didn’t surprise me, and it didn’t upset me—until they gave pretty much everyone else, even residents in nearby buildings, a sneak peek. Chopped liver, c’est moi.

But that’s OK, because I wanted the real experience—the same experience anyone would get (which is not at all what the media and other folks got). That’s why I didn’t pay $54 (vs. $32) for the priority ticket, which I regretted terribly when I saw the ratfuck outside the building on opening day. (Yes, I said the word.) What’s the point of timed tickets if you’re not going to honor the time? You know in advance how many people are coming!

One World Observatory linesToday, the official opening day, I arrived at 3:30 p.m. for my 3:45 p.m. ticket. It was chaos. There were people waiting on the Liberty Street sidewalk, and there were people waiting on 1 World Trade Center’s elevated western plaza. Why anyone was where they were was a mystery you had to solve by finding a staffer, waiting your turn, giving the hairy eyeball to the people trying to butt ahead of you, and then asking. The organizers, Legends, desperately need signage for each ticket time. And they need to warn people they’ll be out broiling in the sun.

The first staffer I asked said they were just about to call the 3:15 and 3:30 groups. “We got delayed by the press,” he said. After a few minutes, I asked a second staffer if that meant they’d call 3:45 in 15 to 20 minutes. She said yes, and she was very nice in the face of my bitching and grimacing. I stood there for a few minutes, and then I realized that the 3:15 and 3:30 groups weren’t actually going inside—they were just moving to another line outside the building. So I asked a third staffer about the entrance downstairs: One World Observatory sent ticketholders the day before an email that mentioned a second entrance off the PATH–Brookfield Place passageway, up on that mezzanine level. “No, there’s just this one entrance,” she said.

They were all so nice! But they were overwhelmed and they were wrong. I was going to abort—I tweeted as much—when I decided that I had to at least try the downstairs entrance, if only for you. Sure enough, it was open and there were maybe 40 people waiting there. I walked right in at 3:45 p.m.

One World Observatory lower entranceThe line for security took maybe five minutes; you have to remove your belt but not your shoes. Then you wait in line, shuffling your way along a bank of videos with construction workers and other folks involved in the building talking about amazing it is.

One World Observatory video One World Observatory video2I am immune to that crap, so I found it tedious beyond belief, and the inspirational music did not help. But hey, no one called it the Freedom Tower! The line is several people wide for a while, with no dividers, and it gets a bit close for comfort—I can only imagine what it’d be like with the people who waited an hour in the summer sun. The line is slow, and likely slower today than they expected it to be. At times you hear two videos at once, and once I got to hear the same video repeat itself. (There’s no cell service down there; those of us who have AT&T are, of course, used to that.)

Then you go into a hallway made of fake bedrock with infobits projected on them.

One World Observatory rock hallway One World Observatory rock hallway2I got a tad claustrophobic when it narrowed, so I tried to pretend I was back at the Harry Potter theme park, which it sort of resembled. The lack of staff made me nervous, but at least the inspirational music had shifted to spa music. To the place’s credit, they don’t take advantage of their captive audience by trying to sell upgrades and merchandise (that happens during booking and later, up at the observatory). Waiting in line at the Empire State Building, by contrast, is like exiting a Third World airport.

As we turned a corner into the lower level elevator bank, I was terrified we’d be faced with row after row of snaking lines, but no! Just a small line for the four elevators, not even five minutes’ wait. The elevator experience is sort of neat—it shows the development of the area over the decades.

One World Observatory elevator upYou disembark the elevator, only to be shooed into a movie theater. I asked if I could skip it. “It’s only two minutes,” said a staffer. I asked again, and they nicely took me straight into the observatory proper. On one hand, I let you down by not experiencing the movie; on the other hand, now you know you can skip it.

One World Observatory 102You enter on the 102nd floor, which has windows from the north to the southeast. I’m not sure how long you get there, but at some point they shoo you down to 101 to make room for the next theater full of people. The purpose of the 102nd floor, from what I could tell, is to try and get you to rent the tablets that tell you about what you’re looking at. I find that kind of weak; a bit of wayfaring signage seems like a reasonable expectation for $32. The view north toward Midtown is amazing, and the harbor is always a treat; the view of New Jersey is great if you’re from there, I bet. Otherwise it’s not unlike flying into LaGuardia in a window seat.

One World Observatory north view from 102Next, I thought we were on a mezzanine, but it turned out to be the 101st floor. You’re directed through the green-screen paid-photo op (also skippable) and the sad restaurant area, of which you get to see the fast-casual part and the midrange part (also the bar), but not the fine dining room. I can’t tell you how unappealing it all looked. Eat before, eat after, eat nothing—but don’t eat there.

One World Observatory baked goods One World Observatory restaurant One World Observatory wineAnother demerit to the 101st floor is that you can’t get right up against the windows, so photos have reflections in them.

One World Observatory 101 windowOn 100, however, you’re finally rewarded with the full 360-degree experience, and you can press your lens up against the windows. Because of the building’s beveled triangular façades, however, only a narrow part faces directly north and south—and they’re blocked by TVs! Instead you get oblique perspectives, emphasizing Brooklyn and New Jersey.

One World Observatory 100 floorThere’s a gimmicky Sky Portal thing where you stand on a live video feed of the ground below.

One World Observatory sky portalAnd City Pulse is the horrifying hoop of TVs blocking the north and south views. Worse, a cheesy emcee prattled on in front of each one. I only caught the end, and I didn’t wait for the next round. (P.S. There’s no cell service up in the observatory, either.) It amazed me to what extent the greatest views on earth needed to be supplemented by video entertainment.

One World Observatory City PulseWhile waiting briefly for an elevator down, I asked the staffer how many people each car holds. “Fifteen,” he said. “But I like to put 10 inside so there’s some room.” I thanked him profoundly for that, entered the next car, and watched in horror as 17 other people joined me. It was like rush hour on the 4/5 trains.

Both elevator rides are 60 seconds, and the video imagery does help pass the time. In the video down, you’re made to feel like you’re flying straight at the body of 1 World Trade Center. I don’t know how anyone born before 2000 could think of anything other than those doomed planes. It was a bizarre choice.

One World Observatory elevator downAll in all, I was in and out in under an hour. I could imagine staying longer to savor the view, but probably not much longer.



  1. So basically an overhyped and uninspired observatory view. Appreciate the LGA comment — I was pretty much thinking that all week looking at the photos being posted. I’ll pass, unless someone can get me onto the roof to take some unobstructed view like Top of Rock.

  2. You make me so nostalgic for the old WTC. It used to be so simple to up there and catch the views. i don’t remember it ever being very crowded. SIGH. Thanks for doing this Erik. Now I know I can skip it.

  3. Re the Sky Portal: because the top of the building slants inward, if you were actually looking straight down you would be seeing the tops of the heads of office workers, no? Or am I not understanding? I don’t like heights so will probably not go up regardless so thanks for this.

    I took an exploratory shortcut from the concourse to the plaza through there yesterday about 4:30, and couldn’t believe the mass of humanity blocking the plaza to the south when I exited the door on West Street (with a completely unused line-up fencing system in place to the north of the door). This seems like a major security issue which you would think they would be aware of here of all places–a sudden evacuation could lead to serious tramplings.

  4. With the exception of the elevator ride, which I found pretty entertaining, anything but the view was not good. Let me look out the damned window and get on with it! That City Pulse thing is a nightmare for locals. Maybe tourists would enjoy it?

    The redeeming value of the City Pulse, however, is that it looks pretty cool from my window at night. It’s very sci-fi. I’ll send a picture if I can get a good one.

    • I am a tourist and no, I did not enjoy the City Pulse thing – it was distracting and blocked the views. The 2 min movie is great because of the unexpected reveal you get at the end of it – that bit really was amazing. The lift ride was also good – I wonder what it would be like to have clear views as you are going up? I’m not afraid of heights but I think even I would find it disconcerting. Overall, it was a good experience because of the fabulous views (I went on a clear, sunny day) but I was puzzled by the many columns and weird angles which seemed to defeat the purpose of ‘observation.’ I also think they should have plans/maps to show the different areas and buildings for those who choose not to get the i-Pad (I don’t even remember being offered one). I had breakfast in the cafe which was nice, but the service was appalling – rude and sullen. Not really acceptable for a top attraction like this. Other staff were very good though.

  5. WNYC has done a story about the lease deal for this observation deck area at– http://www.wnyc.org/story/32-fee-world-trade-center-observation-deck-based-hidden-calculations/

  6. I went up prior to opening when it was mercifully less crowded but I totally agree with Erik’s ‘take’ on the experience. Whoever designed that needs to be retired early, preferably without pay. It is mega-hokey and the only redeeming feature is the view. Wouldn’t that alone just have been enough, it is, after all, what everyone goes up there for.

  7. Not to be too morbid, but unsettling that there’s no cell service in case of emergency?

  8. I think this review is a little harsh. I wouldn’t expect the first day to run all that smoothly anyhow. I went on Saturday. My time slot was 10:15am. We walked right up. I found everybody shuffling you in very nicely while the line kept moving. Although I thought the bedrock hallway was a little gimmicky I don’t think everybody going up is a 40-year old local. I hate heights and am closterphobic but the elevator ride wasn’t cramped and was very fast. The video is kind of cool though I didn’t watch it all because I don’t like how the old trade center appears and disappears so quickly (I was there that morning). The 2min segment you skipped was actually pretty cool but only because the “screen” lifted up and your first view is quite dramatic and worked since everybody around me clapped as if this is a symbol of overcoming a lot of shit. I found it nice to be able to wander around looking at all the different views. I walked up to the restaurant area a few minutes before it opened. Sat at the bar and had a local draft beer and a borough themed small plate. My food and service was better than my experience at Little Park as a side note. We left and I thought that was easily worth $35.

  9. I went up with my family last weekend; Erik – be happy you skipped the video wall at the top when you get off the elevator. If you are in the front you have to back up to get out to the reveal area and after the video and the “big reveal” of the view- they only let you stand there for 3-5 minutes as there is another group coming “you have to move along”…really? It felt like the worst tour group type of experience. At every stop point, we were told to tweet about it, take a selfie and post it on social media. Legends hospitality totally missed the boat on flow. The bar area is tiny and you have to wander through the “coffee shop” to get there. The view is great but the poor design of the flow and the strange electronics/fact tellers makes me say – it is a go once type of tourist place. This is nothing like the former Windows on the World where you would take people up to go for a drink.

  10. Reading your review is probably on the order of 10x as interesting/entertaining/worthwhile as actually visiting myself. Thank you for writing this!

  11. Can’t believe I’m sticking up for a big multinational conglomerate but I’ve used A.T. & T. for over a decade and never lack service…weird. Probably because my Blackberry is so damn fine!
    Anyway, this tour is all about the tourist experience. It isn’t an experience this local is planning on having.

  12. As a TriBeCa resident who is mere hours away from moving to Denver, I jumped at getting tickets to the observatory and I’m mostly glad I did. We went yesterday (Sunday 5/31) and it seems they must have worked out most of the kinks you experienced upon entry, we pretty much breezed in and out. As a NYC resident for the last 13 years, I could have done without almost all the videos and the City Pulse thing just seemed like a total waste of valuable viewing space. I actually would have liked a chance to see the video of Manhattan’s changing landscape/skyline over the years that you see going up the elevators in slower motion (and without 14 other people’s heads blocking my view). It finally struck me as I was leaving that perhaps this was the one venue at this site (vs the memorial and museum) where it felt OK to turn up the touristy cheese factor a bit.

  13. For some reason I was not totally surprised by your article. My friend from Florida has been dying to go up there since they announced there would be an observatory deck. But, I have not. Why? I have been working downtown since 1987, had been to Windows of the World, and was in the Towers on 9/11. Being a New Yorker, my intuition told me not to be in a big rush to experience what you’ve outlined. I didn’t know what disturbed me in the first place but your candid, frank, description at least let me know, my gut was right. We’ve had 15 years to construct a man-made wonder of the world and that’s what we’ve got…an experience that at times has claustrophobic space, at least one cheesy exhibit, and food that is not very appetizing with questionable views. C’mon man, how did we let that happen? I would have paid $10.00 just for the warning you gave me. I will go up there, but it won’t be in the height of tourist season.
    Thanks…Signed, A local

  14. They definitely worked out the kinks after the first day – I went on Sunday and had a 2:00pm reservation and was sent inside at exactly 1:45pm. The walk through the fake bedrock and the elevators were not crowded or claustrophobic (but I agree the bedrock and many other parts are cheesy and touristy). Regarding the cell service, I was able to hop on their free wifi very quickly and upload photos while I was there. Also agree on your assessment of the food situation. I really wanted a cup of coffee but decided to skip it when I saw the disorganization and unappealing cafe area. All in all, I thought it was worth the time and $32 just to see the views. I spent a lot of time looking down on Tribeca and recognizing buildings and places in the neighborhood.