If you are wondering if there’s a 30-foot-tall replica Statue of Liberty inside the Times Square Margaritaville, holding a giant margarita glass instead of a torch, and curious if that glass illuminates every hour into a spectacular audiovisual show with animated sharks, fish, and fins all set to a Jimmy Buffett medley, you can set your worries aside: there is.
On a Thursday afternoon in November, a green, Goosebumps-esque marquee welcomed me to the chain restaurant Mr. Buffett name-drops in his highest charting solo single. It’s one of 30-some Margaritavilles across the Americas and the next stop on my adventure of becoming a tourist in New York. While it seems sinful to spend time and money on something you could do at home while you’re traveling, the siren song of the familiar has mesmerized many a wayward traveler. In short, tourists love chains.
The Times Square Margaritaville Resort is a glass aquarium at 40th Street and 7th Ave with two restaurants, four bars, and a skinny, 32-story hotel, like a long straw sticking out of a fishbowl drink. My self-assigned mission was to have a drink at every bar in the resort, punching an imaginary tropical punch punchcard. My prize would be a complimentary hangover. Something about being a tourist makes you want to get rip-roaring drunk at 2 o’clock on a Thursday.
Up an escalator (stairs on vacation) and an elevator (stairs on speed), I searched for my lost shaker of salt, my salty friend Rebecca. I found her on the fifth-floor outdoor patio taking a Zoom call. It felt like blasphemy to be working in Margaritaville.
While waiting for her, I took in the view: to my left, Midtown’s metallic, grey, occupied skyscrapers; to my right, a long, heated, empty pool, and a row of light blue lounge chairs with matte yellow umbrellas. If anywhere needed an escape hatch, it’s Times Square. But is this Margaritaville an oasis in the metropolis—or a mirage? Can you ever feel anywhere other than New York City while in New York City? These questions weren’t on the mind of the only man lying by the pool. He was taking a nap.
I waited for Rebecca as long as I could (two minutes) before getting my first margarita. Inside, I spotted a coupon on the counter of the License to Chill bar. No sweeter phrase exists in the English language than “BOGO Margarita” (“BOGO Burrito” is a close second). I covertly grabbed the coupon and passed it off as my own.
“Salt?” the bartender Louis, whose family calls him “Pinto” because of his freckles, asked.
It was a yes from me, but I had to telephone the question to Rebecca outside.
She was still on her call, trapped in the midtown of her mind.
“Salt or no salt?” I repeated.
“Huh?” she mouthed.
“Salt or no salt?!”
“My friend is asking me something,” she said before finally taking out her headphones, leaving The Matrix for The Island.
I got a Grand Margarita (it was) and Rebecca got a “Who’s to Blame?” Margarita (I was). She joined me, laptop still in tow, and we cheers-ed our afternoon day-drinking adventure. With half-drank margaritas, we explored the resort like an old, married couple wandering the grounds. There’s a power walking around with a drink; a margarita is a little sign that says, “I’m on vacation. I’m playing by different rules.”
First, we poked our heads into a conference room attached to the hotel, where we definitely interrupted a meeting.
“Would you like to book the room?” the staff asked.
“We’re just looking around.”
From there, we accidentally got on the service elevator. Another staff member/new friend showed us the fitness center in the basement at our request. It was a typical hotel gym, by which I mean it was empty. We re-boarded the service elevator again, next to blue recycling bags filled with flattened boxes of melatonin and Krispy Kreme—two different ways to induce comas.
“Is the synagogue open?” Rebecca asked an employee after trying to press the lowest elevator buttons.
“It’s still being renovated,” she said.
Rebecca had done more research than me. Apparently, the resort had been built over a synagogue, which hasn’t yet re-opened. It’s fitting for a chain restaurant to be above a place of religious worship. In our secular world, brand love is the closest many of us will get to any sort of religious experience, and more than an Applebee’s or Outback, Margaritaville seems to promise a specific, distant paradise: one tied to a man, tied to a musician, tied to a tropical way of life that seems to stir the imagination, or for Parrotheads (Buffett fans), the soul.
“Vous-êtes français?” I asked the French-speaking family that got on the elevator. I was a full margarita in, devoid of the normal shame that might keep me to myself, drunkenly aware of the interconnectedness of us all.
“Oui!” the father replied.
In my best high school French, I asked how long they’d been in New York, whether it was their first time here, and how they wound up choosing this hotel.
“Vous-aimez Jimmy Buffett?” I asked.
“Who?” they replied.
You don’t have to worship the Creator to enjoy his creation.
If Margaritaville is a religion, the walls are covered in its verses. Above the tiki bar: “Thank god the tiki bar is open.” Above an indoor cabana: “On my front porch swing.” On the wall: “If Life Gives You Limes, Make Margaritas!” Like my mother’s Myrtle Beach home, Margaritaville has a high word count.
The ground-floor gift shop promised “Everything but sand” and featured pastel T-shirts in pink, orange, green, blue with various warnings, commands, and admissions of guilt (“I am the Woman to Blame,” “Trespassers will be offered a shot,” “Don’t be a salty beach,” and a message targeted toward Rebecca “No working during drinking hours.”) One shirt that read, “No shoes, no shirt, no problem,” felt like a riddle (If someone is wearing a shirt that says no shirt, how drunk are they?)
What caught my eye, though, wasn’t the attire or glassware for every occasion—coffee, a shot, a beer, a margarita—but the customized merch. Pins, magnetic signs, and shot glasses on towering carousels had my name on them (quite literally). I precariously spun the souvenir skyscraper with dangling parrot pins to find “Zachary.” “#1 Nana” and “#1 Papa” were sold out, along with “I ❤ New York.” Tourists love their Nanas, Papas, and New York.
I found a “Zachary” and “Rebecca,” asked for a “good guy discount” at the register, was denied such discount and paid an almost criminal 16 bucks for physical proof that this adventure to a far-off world wasn’t only in my mind.
Another crime had just occurred as well: my drink was empty. We went up to Landshark Bar & Grill on the fourth floor, next to the pool I saw earlier, and admired the chandeliers that were surfboards with inverted buckets of beer. On the wall, a painting of a yellow taxi cab that was somehow also a shark, and the slogan, “Fins Up!” A fruit tray nearly decapitated Rebecca before a man in a suit told us they were closed for a private event. I wanted to explore the pool, but like other bodies of liquid in Times Square, perhaps it was best to avoid.
We ventured down to the Margaritaville Tiki Bar, the spacious restaurant at the top of the escalator, where a sign says “Thanks for visiting Margaritaville” when you arrive, making you question for a moment if you’re coming or going. We took in the men (seafood and fried American fare at Times Square prices), ordered more drinks, and Rebecca insisted on getting a Cheeseburger in Paradise.
“It’s The Cheeseburger in Paradise!” she said.
“It’s A Cheeseburger in Paradise,” I countered.
We debated the metaphysics of it (was there an original, Almighty Cheeseburger of which we order clones, or was a transubstantiation situation at play in our mouths?).
Around us, a dozen or so other patrons sipped their drinks. I imagined Margaritaville would be full of men in Tommy Bahama shirts doing tequila shots. Instead, there was a fascinating, diverse cross-section of well-mannered people. Sitting at the Tiki bar, a Simpson sweatshirt, a sports jersey, and several suits (allegedly the resort is a hotspot for New York Times employees after hours). There was at least one kid (the resort is apparently family-friendly), and in the bathroom, the baby-changing station was put down, which I used as a coatrack against the advice of the part of my brain that assesses hygiene.
Rebecca’s friend/my new friend Gabby joined us after she got off work.
“I want to be drunk from now on,” she said.
She ordered a sweet cocktail that I drank more of than her, a risk when keeping the company of the petite. The divine cheeseburger and fries were delivered, along with ketchup and a bottle of mayonnaise so new it still had the seal. Rebecca got a Landshark Lager bottle of beer and we admired the engraved waves and fins on the bottle. Our fascination revealed our level of intoxication.
“Do you love New York?” I asked Gabby. She paused, looking up and to the left to really consider it.
“After two days away, I always start missing it.”
I guess the secret to loving New York might be getting away from it.
Suddenly, the lights dimmed, music started, and the room transformed. There had been New York-specific art throughout the resort: a Lichenstein parody of a cartoon woman in a taxi saying, “Shopping can wait…take me back to Margaritaville!” and a revision of Manhattan from above: Central Park as a watery harbor, the streets covered in tropical plants, and the Margaritaville Resort cartoonishly towering above them all. But they were all dwarfed by Lady Liberty’s spectacular show. Her margarita glass was a TV screen that displayed diamonds, ocean creatures, stars, and psychedelic screensavers, while TVs across the second-tier floor displayed the same and Jimmy sang. I jockeyed for a better seat, while the other patrons seemed more captivated by their entrees than their imaginations. Our tired, poor, huddled masses were being welcomed not to Ellis, but to Jimmy; not toward the American Dream, but to the Margaritaville Brand Experience. Her tablet read, “No Passport Required,” but a credit card would be.
Our final stop was the 5 O’clock Somewhere Bar on the rooftop, which abandoned the Margaritaville kitsch for personality-less metallic greys and blacks, what New York fashion once looked like. The closer you get to heaven, the more a bar looks like every other New York rooftop. The only clue we were still in Jimmyland were the names of drinks on the menu and a Salvador Dali parody painting of a melting clock, wasting away on Island Time. One highlight of the Times Square rooftop, though, is you can see the back of the ball—a phrase that is not considered a positive at other Margaritaville locations.
I ordered a round and struck up a conversation with two fellows I’d seen similar waltzing around the resort. Turns out they weren’t tourists either (they live around the block), and one was celebrating a birthday. Like the French family, they had no particular attachment to Jimmy, just curious about the new nearby resort.
“What did you think?” I asked.
He paused. “It was a very nice getaway.”
I listened to Jimmy’s “Margaritaville” a few days later and was surprised by its melancholy. It’s not some island oasis devoid of problems, it’s a place that comes with a cost: searching for your missing salt, realizing you’re to blame, wasting away while getting wasted. It made me think of the man taking a nap by the pool while Rebecca was on her Zoom. He seemed zen, at peace, relaxed, perhaps dreaming of the titular Margaritaville, but when he suddenly woke up, he stood, adjusted his shoulders, and unhappily stumbled forward a bit. Maybe he had too much to drink or was just weathering his groggy, post-nap “really?-this-again?” return to reality. You can’t stay in dreamworld, or Margaritaville, forever.
To love a place you have to leave it, and with enough margaritas, music, and moseying, I managed to briefly get away from New York in New York. Margaritaville was an entirely pleasant way to spend an afternoon. I woke up the next morning with my promised hangover. Some people claim Lady Liberty is to blame, but I know it’s my own damn fault.
Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.