It was bound to happen. I’m a cancer (astrologically and on society) who breaks down at the cringiest mention of father-child stuff or queer love, so I was bound to cry on one of these NYC tourist attractions. I just had no way of predicting RiseNY would be the first.
“What is it?” a lady in front of me asked. She worked around the block in Times Square and had been wondering about the experience ever since March when it first opened.
“It’s a love letter to New York,” an employee behind the front desk answered. “A three-part experience.”
Everyone’s always writing love letters to New York. Does anyone ever write a hate letter to the city? A text they regret? An e-motionally unhinged e-mail?
I wasn’t really sure what I was about to enter, either. All I knew was the $35-45 attraction advertises itself with sneakers dangling over the New York City skyline. “Do you fly? Is it a helicopter situation? Is magic involved? And just how close to death will I be taken?” were my follow-up questions to “What is it?”
My flight began with a flight of stairs since the elevator was broken. There were lanes for VIPs and the lesser loved, and on this particular October afternoon, I was a VIP and both lanes were empty. I would have preferred to find the peasant’s row filled with a hoard of small children weeping and pleading, “We’ve been waiting for so, so very long in line, mister! Please have mercy on us!” but I had no such luck. Without a single tear shed, I entered the first part.
Classic NYC subway benches, those uncomfortable but dependable brown rectangles, were arranged in rows like a small black box theater inside of a replica of the first New York City subway station that opened on October 27, 1904. This station was cleaner than any subway I’ve encountered, less crowded, had zero rats, and almost no threat of being pushed on the tracks. It also didn’t transport me—physically, at least. On the wall, a short documentary was projected about New York’s history from the 1600s to the present day: an early Dutch colony built on land forcefully taken from Native Americans, fast-growing industries, Times Square’s slutty era in the ’80s, and of course, a classic New Years Eve ball drop. Devices under the seats rumbled as a projected subway car roared into the station, and the wall unexpectedly opened. It was cool, but it was a bit strange to experience a simulation of a subway when I had taken the actual subway there. It was like going to the Olive Garden after an actual Tour of Italy.
I left behind this amuse-bouche and entered the (vegetarian) meat and potatoes of this three-course meal: a museum. “Museum” is something of a four-letter word to tourists and not just because they can’t spell. There were seven thoughtful, educational exhibits, co-curated with other museums, about New York’s history, organized around “tipping points” where innovation and inspiration came together to create the place the people visiting were visiting. The tourists there didn’t care about any of that. They wanted to get to the part where your sneakers fly. I, however, ate my historical and cultural vegetables.
The first module, Finance, did some heavy historical lifting: acknowledging colonialization and slavery in the context of New York’s rise. I pushed a button to hear the New York Stockmarket Exchange Bell (a trademarked sound) and looked at some documents related to Alexander Hamilton. I’m sure the number-crunchers are important to the building of New York, but hedge fund folks and i-bankers don’t do much for me except demand nudes on Grindr and drive up the cost of living.
Up next were New York City’s Skyscrapers. There was a time when people were afraid of tall buildings and needed encouragement to get on elevators, like dogs. The debut of the elevator break at the 1853 World’s Fair a few blocks away in Bryant Park was the “tipping point,” just the treat to lure slobbery humans to new heights. White replica models of some of New York’s tallest, iconic buildings—Woolworth, Flatiron, Chrysler, and Empire State—including what is known as “Supertalls” (over 1,250 feet and my new drag name) stood against a black backdrop. A few tourists did stop here to pose politely and feel like King Kong, and all the supertalls were bested by a black pillar holding the actual building up.
Radio was all the rage in the next room. I didn’t realize the Tesla coil, which provided the tech to allow audio transmissions across the globe, was invented in Manhattan. Radios feel like something dinosaurs used compared to how we communicate today (I can send a vanishing Instagram DM video to a guy in the U.K. and instantly know he’s seen it and chosen not to reply.) Vintage radios and popular radio addresses were on display: the Hindenburg disaster, Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon, and troublemaker Orson Welles’s 1938 “War of the Worlds.” Radio paved the way for TV, and the TV exhibit connected some dots for me: New York became a headquarters for radio and TV broadcasts cause buildings are tall and can send out signals. Thanks, elevator break! The TV exhibit included some replica sets from The Honeymooners, the Friends couch, Oscar the Grouch and a late-night desk where I took a moment to do some light manifesting. New York isn’t just a city, I was reminded, it’s a setting for so many stories.
I breezed by the Fashion exhibit (I’m not winning any awards in that department, but I did learn about a deadly garment fire that led to unionizing and hard-won labor laws) and skipped over the Music exhibit (I listen to the same 10 bad pop songs each year until my Spotify Wrapped holds a mirror to me and I choose 10 new, different, still bad pop songs for the next year.). The Movie module caught my eye, though, where snippets of movies set in New York played on a large horizontal screen overhead: Al Pacino screaming “I’m walking here!” in Midnight Cowboy, Maria singing “Everything’s Great in America” in West Side Story, Harry of When Harry Met Sally fame wanting the rest of his life to start as soon as possible on New Year’s Eve. A family of four caught up to me and sat for a minute at some of the movie snippets. It’s easier to watch a movie than read an essay.
The last of the seven exhibits was about Broadway: four costumes from Aladdin, The Lion King, Chicago, and Phantom of the Opera, were on display along with TV screens showing scenes from the shows. Aladdin was featured so prominently that I wondered if some backdoor dealing had occurred, which would be quintessential New York.
None of this made me cry, though. That happened when we entered a darkened room and took our seats on what appeared to be a roller coaster cart. I had to put on a seatbelt that made me wonder just how dangerous this was. The kid next to me with his grandpa had to use an extra strap.
“You’re so little, you’ll fall through,” the attendant said.
A video before us played. We were told it is 1957, the year of the first televised New Year’s Eve ball drop, when suddenly, fake lightning struck, and we were tilted back about 30 degrees and rotated to face the back wall. I wasn’t sure how high up we were, but there was definitely now more down than before. Before us, a large white screen. I felt like I was on a swingset watching an IMAX movie.
The projection on the huge white wall began and we were conveniently falling off a skyscraper. Luckily, we didn’t hit the ground; the projection gave way to clouds and we were soaring through the sky over New York City with music in the background. It was sneaker skyline time. We soared over bridges, The Vessel got some love (with people on it, which we know isn’t possible anymore). We were at Yankee Stadium when a ball flew up and almost touched us. I got a little nauseous because my brain wasn’t entirely sure how much flying was actually occurring. I looked to my left and right to get my bearings but ultimately suspended my disbelief. It was easier for my brain to believe that I was flying, than try to process all the data it was getting from body and mind. The music softened as we lingered over the 9/11 Memorial, and then Taylor Swift started to sing.
I’m a sucker for a musical montage (I once cried at a trailer for the Friends finale without having seen an episode of Friends) and with themes like place and New York City, which are wrapped up in my hopes, dreams, aspirations, and failures, I was predestined to have a few heartstrings plucked. More than the music of Ms. Swift, though, I think it was the marathon. When we soared over a bridge, it filled with animated New York City Marathon runners. I’m not a runner—I’m too tall to be aerodynamically good at running —but when I see a hoard of humans doing something together, something they’ve worked hard on, as others are cheering and giving them food and water and love, I can’t help but feel like humanity has done something right.
The marathon projection lasted 10 seconds, my preferred marathon length, and then we jumped in front of a subway train. I’m not sure why this ride was so hellbent on offing us. We got sprayed with water while we flew over the Hudson, and when we flew over Central Park, I smelled grass. I wasn’t totally sure if it was part of the ride, but a second ride (VIPs are allowed to go twice) confirmed it: they were pumping grass smells through the vents. It was a little strange to experience a simulation of Central Park a few blocks from Central Park, but on the day when radiation renders outdoor areas unlivable, we’ll be grateful RiseNY captured the sensation of sky, grass, water and city.
New York isn’t just a city, I was reminded, it’s a setting for so many stories.
After some more Taylor Swift and a little Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind,” the ride ended with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” the classic, public domain hit that hit harder on the first tourist attraction I experienced, as we soared to see the Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop. The ride ended and I left RiseNY.
“What is it?” someone still might ask me.
RiseNY is dreadfully earnest, cheesy, takes itself far too seriously, and is probably too expensive, but it made me think and cry. At its worst, it’s a Frankenstein exhibit in an office building with exposed pipes and firehoses that feels like a pop-up but with a massive Disney ride at the end that suggests this thing costs a lot of money; at its best, it’s a sampler platter of NYC tourist attractions, a crash course in New York history and a mad dash over the skies.
New York feels inevitable and immortal, but neither is true. Billions of micro- and macro-decisions across time and the spectrum of morality gave way to its present state, and a similar billion or so will alter its future and submerge it underwater. My time in New York has been limited to the 21st century, so it was nice to have a black-and-white moment to see what came before, like looking through your boyfriend’s old family photo album or through your nemesis’ early Instagrams. Also, the ride was fun.
I left with a sense of the scope of New York’s past, the decisions and people that paved the way for this place, and it made me feel a bit guilty that I might just toss out a whole city cause I get claustrophobic on the subway or stressed on crowded streets. After all, New York City is a centuries-long marathon, and I owe it to the runners to cheer them on even while I debate finishing it.
“What is it?” you might ask me after you saw my tears. “What is it, Zach?”
In short, it’s New York.
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.