Chicago has one of the most iconic skylines in the world. This midwestern metropolis is the birthplace of the modern day skyscraper. And in the heart of it all stands the 1450-foot Willis Tower. Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the building’s Skydeck and accompanying Ledge overlook is one of the Windy City’s quintessential tourist attractions.
About the Willis Tower Skydeck
The Skydeck has been welcoming visitors since 1974. Once the tallest skyscraper in the United States, the Willis Tower has since been passed in height by the One World Trade Center in NYC. However, the Willis Tower still claims the top spot for the highest observation deck in the US.
Getting up to the Skydeck
The Willis Tower is located on Wacker Dr between Jackson Blvd and W Adams St. When you arrive outside the 110 story building, there is usually someone out front who is available to direct you to the entrance of the Skydeck. The entrance is actually in the basement of the building so you will need to go down two escalators to the bottom floor. Signs are located throughout the building to direct you where to go.
Once in the basement, you pass through security. The process is quick and easy. We found the security staff very friendly and helpful, especially with our kids.
After you go through security, you are directed to a table where someone will scan your tickets. Tickets can be purchased onsite or online at the Skydeck website. Fastpasses- which allow you to reserve a certain time and bypass the standby line- are available for an additional fee. Or purchase a Chicago CityPass that makes it possible to visit five of Chicago’s major tourist attractions for a lower cost. Other attractions include, but are not limited to, the Field Museum of Natural History, and the Shedd Aquarium.
The line then turns into something you might see at a theme park. It snakes through the basement and breaks off at different times to form separate lines for fastpass and general admission before finally ending in an exhibition room telling about Chicago and its lifestyle and some prominent figures. Before making your way up to the Skydeck, make sure to stop and watch the video about the Willis Tower and find out why the name was changed from Sears Tower.
At the Skydeck
After watching the video, it’s time to go up to the Skydeck. A large elevator leads up to the 103rd floor. Be prepared, the guides really pack people in and the elevator ride takes a few minutes. Make sure to look up at the screen on the ride up. Pictures of famous landmarks all over the world pop up on the screen, along with the floor number and the height of the structures in both feet and meters. Finally, number 103 pops up on the screen and the doors open out onto the Skydeck.
Once you walk out of the elevator, you can tell you’re up pretty high. On some days you can even feel the floor swaying in the wind. Be prepared to be blown away by the breathtaking 360-degree views of Lake Michigan to the east and the city to the north, west and south. On very clear days, you can see for miles, including into multiple of Illinois’ border states.
For those who are not familiar with the city, convenient placards are located around the room with numbered pictures labeling the prominent buildings that make up Chicago’s skyline.
Make sure to bring a few quarters for the viewfinders. There are a few at each set of windows to allow you to see even farther than you can with the naked eye.
As you make your way around the room to The Ledge, you can peruse the gift shop which has a number of Chicago memorabilia.
The kids will enjoy posing for pictures in front of the “North view” mural. Or, if they’re like my kids, they’ll just like stomping on the platform in front of the mural. It does make a pretty cool noise, I guess.
When you’ve made your way around the room, you will find yourself near the ledge boxes. You will most likely have to wait in a short line before being able to step out onto it. You can pick any of the lines as there are multiple boxes.
Once it is your turn, a photographer will take your picture first. You have the option of purchasing the photo before you leave the building. The photo booth is downstairs at the exit. You can also choose to take your own photos, which is what we did.
The Ledge boxes protrude a little over four feet from the building. Because I’m afraid of heights, I was expecting the experience to be more frightening than it was. It was unsettling looking down and realizing just how high above the ground 103 floors is. But looking out, it was inspiring being able to see so far above the city.
My favorite part of the whole experience was seeing the different reactions of our children. Ladybug confidently walked out and proclaimed that it was “a little frightening but exciting.” Buddy was more hesitant and wouldn’t walk out onto the box without a little encouragement. Once there, he would not even look up long enough for a picture. He kept his eyes glued to the floor, fascinated with being able to see so far to the ground.
Fastpass or General Admission?
One recommendation I have is to splurge and get the Fastpass admission. It will cut down on the amount of time you have to wait in line. When I purchased our tickets, I passed on the extra price and just bought general admission. When we first went, the wait time was over two hours and the line was stretched outside and around the block. Luckily, we had the option of going back another day as tickets are good for six months from the purchase date. But if you only have so much time in the city, I definitely recommend purchasing the Fastpass. Chicago CityPass holders also receive Fastpass admission.
Is the Willis Tower Skydeck worth the cost?
Absolutely! The Skydeck and The Ledge is well worth the cost of admission. We enjoyed the experience and recommend it to anyone visiting Chicago.
Would you step onto The Ledge?
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