I ran into George Washington Thursday afternoon in front of Federal Hall. At least it was easy to pretend I did during The Downtown Experience, the most creative tour of lower Manhattan I have ever taken. For 90 minutes, through expert storytelling and modern day virtual reality, history came to life as we navigated the streets in a bus specially equipped with theatre seating and floor through ceiling windows.
“Downtown is special because it’s where history and the present come together,” Devin, our tour guide/storyteller, told us. “It’s where innovation met commerce.”
The Downtown Experience nicely combines history and the present, with virtual reality (VR) headsets featuring 360 degree “views” used a half dozen times, just enough to help transport passengers from the present day world they are seeing into the former times they are learning about, starting with Manhattan island’s early days with the Native Americans and their domed huts by the river, thought the coming of the Dutch and English, right up to today.
We experienced the arrival of Irish immigrants on ships as they stand in awe of the Statue of Liberty through VR, then met up with a real-life rapper on the street who sang a tribute to the events of 9/11 while “America” played on the bus’s stereo system. It was respectful and appropriate before we again put on headsets to journey to the top of the new World Trade Center.
At Wall Street, we traveled back in time with our headsets to get a feeling for that fateful day in 1929 when the stock market crashed and not just lower Manhattan but the entire country felt the effect. This was especially moving.
I’ve taken several downtown walking tours that covered the same territory and history, but this addition of VR makes the experience more vivid. Beginning at 200 Water St. overlooking New York Harbor, we traveled the historic blocks of the Seaport and lower Manhattan, the streets where not just New York began but where a free America was launched. It’s a fun brush up on history for Americans and would be a good intro for foreigners. My three visitors from Maryland enjoyed it, and so did I as a longtime New Yorker. This tour may also be the only way people with trouble walking could cover so much space in comfort. An elderly woman with a cane was helped on and off the bus by our friendly driver.
The Downtown Experience was conceived, written and directed by Richard Humphrey, CEO and CCO of The Ride, LLC, an interactive tour of midtown that was nominated for a Drama Desk Unique Theatrical Experience Award in 2013. Humphrey, who has developed original work on and off Broadway, has more than three decades of experience bridging the performing arts, entertainment and business communities.
Plans to develop similar experiences are underway in Boston, Dubai, Dublin, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo.