After visiting Buckingham Fountain, we weren’t sure what we wanted to do first in Chicago! We had a huge list of ideas and finally Brian suggested visiting Willis Tower and Skydeck Chicago so we could check out the city we’d be exploring for the next week, and be just a bit daring by stepping out onto The Ledge — a glass box sticking out of the side of the building 103 floors up that gives you the sensation of standing in the air.
We walked to Willis Tower from our hotel, the Hilton Downtown Chicago, checked out the Lego model of the building in the lobby, and hopped in the elevators to the ticketing area. We arrived just after the attraction opened for the day, so while there was a line, it was pretty short and there are facts and trivia about the building on the walls to read while you wait. Plus, we bought the Chicago CityPASS for all of us that includes hugely discounted tickets into five major Chicago attractions and VIP entry, so we got to skip the line. Sweet!
Soon it was our turn to step inside the elevators, which are among the fastest in the world, going 1,600 feet per minute.
Believe it or not, the elevator ride was very cool! While we were whisked to the 103rd floor of Willis Tower, our ears popping along the way, a video presentation showed us the heights of other famous buildings, skyscrapers, and towers as we surpassed them.
Then we stepped into The Skydeck and were blown away by the magnificent views of the city, stretching up out to 50 miles. After taking in the sights and snapping tons of photos, we stepped out onto The Ledge (AWESOME!), and picked up a few souvenirs. Before we left, we checked out the mini-museum of Chicago landmarks at ground level that has interactive floor displays placing you at historic Chicago events. The displays then pull back to show the view of the location from the height of the Skydeck — 1,353 feet up!
Willis Tower Facts
Willis Tower, is a historic, 110 story building in the heart of downtown Chicago that is one of the tallest buildings in the world.
Willis Tower used to be called Sears Tower. Even though Sears Roebuck and Company sold and moved out of the building in 1988, the Sears Tower name remained until 2009 when the building was renamed after the Willis Group, a London-based global insurance broker.
- Covering 2 city blocks, Willis Tower is 1,450 feet tall — 1,730 feet including twin antenna towers. It is the 12th tallest building in the world and the second tallest building in the North America and the Western Hemisphere, 110 stories tall.
- The 4.6 million square foot Willis Tower, with 16,100 tinted windows, opened in 1973 and took 2,000 workers 3 years to build.
- The lowest level of Willis Tower is 43 feet below the Franklin Street elevation.
- The combined weight of the building is 222,500 tons — that’s 445,000,000 pounds, or almost 20,000 city buses.
- The cost of building Willis Tower was in excess of $150 million.
- Willis Tower’s 104 elevator cars operate as fast as 1,600 feet per minute, making them among the fastest in the world.
- Willis Tower contains 25,000 miles of electrical cable, 25,000 miles of plumbing, 2 billion cubic feet of concrete, and 76 tons of steel — the weight of 6,500 city buses.
- Approximately 43,000 miles of telephone cable runs through the building — enough to stretch across the continental United States 15 times!
Skydeck Chicago and The Ledge Facts
The Willis Tower observation deck, called The Skydeck, opened on June 22, 1974. In January 2009, the Skydeck underwent a major renovation and retractable glass balconies for The Ledge were added. Unlike the competing TILT experience at the 360 CHICAGO observation deck in the John Hancock Building, which charges a separate fee, The Ledge is included with your Skydeck admission.
Some other fun facts include:
- The Skydeck is the highest observation deck and public viewing area in the United States.
- The Skydeck is 1,353 feet (412 meters) above the ground.
- On a clear day, you can see four states: Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.
- Visibility from the Skydeck is approximately 40-50 miles.
The Ledge was CRAZY!
Once you’re up in The Skydeck, the Ledge experience is free, but you’re going to have to wait in a fairly long line depending on what time of day you visit. Luckily we arrived right when Skydeck Chicago opened and it wasn’t very crowded.
After a short wait, Brian, Natalie, and I all took turns stepping out onto The Ledge — a glass platform that overlooks Wacker Drive and the Chicago River — and it was freaky! I didn’t not like the feeling of standing on the glass, looking down at the city below me, but Brian and Natalie loved it and even sat down on the glass for photos!
What cracks me up is that the inspiration for The Ledge came from the hundreds of forehead prints left behind by visitors on Skydeck windows every week! Other fun facts include:
- The Ledge’s glass boxes, weighing 7,500 pounds, extend 4.3 feet from the skyscraper’s Skydeck on the 103 floor.
- The Ledge’s glass boxes are comprised of three layers of half-inch thick glass laminated into one seamless unit. They have a thin film over the top layer of glass that assures a clear view 1,353 feet straight down over Wacker Drive and the Chicago River.
- The glass boxes retract into the building, allowing easy access for cleaning and maintenance.
- The Ledge is built to withstand four tons of pressure and can hold 10,000 lbs.
- The Ledge has what is called “heat tracing” to melt snow off the glass.
Views From The Skydeck Chicago
As we walked around the Skydeck observatory, with floor to ceiling windows wrapping the entire floor, we were able to take in a 360 degree view of the city below and it was spectacular. Seeing the city from this high above, finding landmarks, and pointing out places we wanted to visit and things we wanted to see was a fantastic way to start off our Chicago family vacation!
The views from the Skydeck include:
Peer south and enjoy views of some of Chicago’s favorite attractions, including Soldier Field, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry. On a clear day you may even see the smokestacks around the bend of Lake Michigan that mark the industrial city of Gary, Indiana.
Look east and feast your eyes on the stunning views of one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes, Lake Michigan. The land along this truly Great Lake is home to beautiful parks and cultural attractions including Millennium and Grant Parks, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. Due east, across the water you just might see the shore of Michigan.
To the north you’ll see notable skyscrapers that make up Chicago’s iconic skyline and the Chicago River, Lincoln Park Zoo, and world-famous Wrigley Field. Look to the horizon and see how the city’s growth has bridged the border to blend with the cities of southern Wisconsin.
Looking west, you’ll see the constant air traffic of O’Hare and Midway Airports. The west side of the city is also home to renowned University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, the United Center, Oprah’s Harpo Studios and historic Little Italy and Greektown. But the true highlights of the western view are the spectacular sunsets and The Ledge with its unbelievable views straight down, 1,353 feet.
Know Before You Go
- Skydeck Chicago at Willis Tower is located at 233 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago, Illinois 60606. Enter Skydeck on Jackson Blvd. —l the south side of building.
- For driving directions, enter address as 232 S. Franklin Street, Chicago, Illinois 60606.
- Download The Skydeck Chicago Brochure.
- Skydeck Chicago hours are 9:00 am to 10:00 pm from March through September, and 10:00 am to 8:00 pm from October through February.
- The Skydeck is open 365 Days a Year including Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day.
- Arrive about 30 minutes prior to sunset to experience three views — daytime, twilight, and nighttime — along with dramatic sunsets (weather permitting).
- Skydeck Chicago is child-friendly with family bathrooms located on the lower museum level and regular restrooms on the Skydeck. The building is also equipped with ramps making it easy to navigate strollers.
- Don’t miss the theater presentation, Reaching for the Sky, tells the story of how the the building and Chicago’s well-known landmarks set architectural standards after the Great Chicago Fire and beyond.
- Check out the fun stuff for kids available, like quizzes, a scavenger hunt, fact sheet, coloring pages, and even a teacher’s guide.
- Don’t forget to watch Reaching for the Sky, a nine minute movie detailing Chicago’s rise to the top of the architectural world and how the tower became a world icon.