Last week, we took the morning off from school to take the kids to the newly renovated Empire State Building Observatory Experience. When it comes to NYC tourist attractions, I’m a big fan of figuring out times when I can beat the crowds and Wednesday morning did not disappoint. The kids were in a great mood (“no school!”) and were especially excited to see the new museum portion of the experience, which makes your visit to the Empire State Building way more than a view and a photo op.

I’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building before; a few times as a kid and once with Mazzy about four years ago, but the updated experience made it feel like something completely new. Visitors used to enter into the regular office building entrance (the one you see in Elf), take an elevator to the 86th floor, and see a view from the outside observatory deck; that’s the deck you see in all the movies, like Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember. You’d do a lap around the deck, find your apartment/hotel in the viewfinder, get your shot and that was pretty much it.

Now, they’ve expanded the experience to include a few more floors, which starts with a brand new entrance specifically for visitors going to the top. This way you don’t have to mingle with surly commuters in the lobby who just want to get to their desk jobs. The new entrance has some beautiful models of the Empire State Building, designed to scale, since the one thing in NYC that you can’t get a picture of from the top is… the Empire State Building.

The models also show you exactly what floors you’ll be visiting during the experience, which include the 2nd floor museum, the 8oth floor indoor observatory, the 86th floor outdoor observatory and the 102nd floor, the highest lookout point, up in the spire, which is an additional $20 added onto your ticket.

On the 2nd floor, you will find new exhibits about the construction of the building, viewfinders that animate what the city looked like at the time it was built in 1930, old workplace relics found in the building representing different decades (’30s through the ’80s), and a viewing room that shows a montage of movies with scenes in and around the Empire State Building.

One room is covered in floor to ceiling videos that shows you what it might have looked like to be inside the Empire State Building as it was being built.

Harlow kept asking questions about what the building was before it became the Empire State Building (“it was always the Empire State Building since the day it was complete!”) and who lives in the building now (“no one lives here, but they do work here”). Mazzy and Harlow were both fascinated to know that people still have regular offices in the building.

Seeing Old New York in action in the viewfinders was really fun for them as well. The walls were covered with a large black and white old photos, but through the viewfinder, the images came alive in color and video.

The kids favorite part was the room dedicated to what it might have looked like to be inside an upper floor office when King Kong was hanging off the side of the building.

There is also a very cool infinity elevator shaft which looks like it stretches up and down to oblivion.

Next up, we took the elevator to the 80th floor. One thing I loved about the updated experience is that it still uses all the original art deco influences that have always made the Empire State Building look like quintessential old New York. The elevators are particularly iconic.

On the 80th floor, you will find windows looking out on the city below, along with viewfinders that show 360º moving images of different locations in Manhattan, from the Statue of Liberty to Coney Island.

As always, the kids ran to see who could spot our apartment building first.

The 80th floor is also filled with NYC themed art work (like a drawing of NYC made by an artist with a photographic memory, after taking one helicopter ride around Manhattan) and an interactive exhibit from NYCGo which helps you find nearby things to do, based on your interest.

Then on the 86th floor, you will find the original outdoor observatory deck. There are viewfinders all around the perimeter which no longer need a quarter to make them work.

There is a protective fence, which obstructs the view in pictures, but it is also the primary identifying feature when you see other people’s photos from the top.

As an added little bonus, it had snowed that morning, so Harlow and Mazzy had fun swiping the snow off the fence and having an impromptu snowball fight.

Then we made our way to the 102nd floor, which was my favorite, because you are actually going up into the spire. A glass elevator brings you through the mast of the building and when the door opens, it reveals a small circular space with floor to ceiling windows, beautiful art deco floors with a compass to tell you which way is which.

The 102nd floor used to have windows that were only half the size, and the new renovated space just opened back up in November, so we were among one of the first people to see it. It is worth that extra $20!

I think we even got our holiday card photo!

Thank you to the Empire State Building for this awesome morning with my family. The updated experience feels both new and iconic, as it should!


Photos by Christine Han Photography.