The Biscayne Times

Aug 23rd
Tour Bus Bonanza PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terence Cantarella, BT Contributor; Photos by Silvia Ros   
April 2015

Suddenly they are everywhere -- those open-top double-deckers filled with tourists and tall tales of Miami

“WCover_1elcome aboard, beautiful people! Let’s go to Miami Beach! Lamborghinis! Martinis! Bikinis! You gonna see the house of Tony Montana! Say hello to my little friend! Welcome. Welcome. Bikinis, bikinis, bikinis! Keep your eyes open!”

On a Saturday morning at Bayside Marketplace, a man named Emilio, with a thick Cuban accent, is holding forth on a microphone that’s turned up too loud or held too close to his mouth, or both. His bikini chant is distorted. You can hear him breathing through the sound system. He keeps knocking the mic against his chin. He’s probably not even supposed to have the mic.

Emilio’s job is to drive a big open-top, London-style double-decker bus around Miami while a professional tour guide explains the sites and local history to passengers. But the tour guide hasn’t gotten onboard yet. He’s standing on the sidewalk, talking to arriving passengers, checking tickets, and squinting in the glare of Biscayne Bay stretched out in the morning sun.

Emilio, meanwhile, is standing in the bus doors, having fun. “My name is Antonio Montana. You gonna see my mansion there in South Beach.” The microphone squeals loudly, the tourists tense up, and Emilio finally relents: “Don’t worry, beautiful people. You gonna have a nice tour guide with you. Not like me. I sorry for the accent. I from Cuba.”

Cover_2The tour guide, a bearded Bruno Mars lookalike, finally boards, wrangles the mic from Emilio, and climbs the stairs to the top deck. “How am I going to follow that?” he asks with a smirk and a light accent. “That’s Emilio, our driver. Tremendo cubanaso, 100 percent Cuban. He’s been in the business for over 25 years, so we’re in good hands. I’m Abraham. I’m from Venezuela. I’ll be your tour guide. I can sing. I can dance. Anything you need, just ask.”

Emilio and Abraham together have just given the tour bus passengers a perfect introduction to Miami. Some of the cultural self-parody and Spanglish may be lost on the mostly European tourists, but the duo’s playfulness, informality, and instant declarations of national origin capture the spirit of the city better than the facts and figures that would follow.

As the bus rolls out of Bayside and onto Biscayne Boulevard, Abraham begins his spiel, calling Miami “the most diverse tree city in the world,” and briefly recounting the history of the Freedom Tower as it drifts by on the left. “Most Miamians,” he explains, “are not from Miami.”

A few minutes later, the bus is on the MacArthur Causeway, heading across Biscayne Bay toward Miami Beach. It starts to drizzle and Abraham hands out ponchos to the unfazed passengers on the nearly full top deck. “Hang on to your hats, glasses, cameras, children, hair weaves, and hair pieces,” he says, “because it’s about to get windy, my friends.”

Big Bus Tours, Emilio and Abraham’s employer, is the city’s latest, most ambitious incarnation of the urban sightseeing tour. The company’s vision, funding, and branding far exceed anything that came before. The renewal and re-urbanization of Miami over the past few years, meanwhile, have helped set the stage for the company’s entry.

Cover_3Formed in London in 2011, Big Bus Tours was created by the merger of two established sightseeing companies -- The Big Bus Company Ltd., based in London, and the Paris-based Les Cars Rouges. The history of open-top touring, though, goes back much farther.

The first open-top double-decker buses appeared in the United Kingdom around 1910. Manufactured by the London General Omnibus Company, they were smaller than modern versions and were mostly used for seaside excursions or troop transport during World War I.

In 1956 the buses grew in size and regained their roofs when Routemasters -- London’s iconic, red double-decker buses -- entered service with the city’s public transportation authority.

Around the same time, a company known today as The Original Tour began using those Routemasters to offer nonstop circular tours of London. The first guides came aboard in 1984, and seven years later, a popular hop-on, hop-off service was added -- allowing passengers the freedom to get off, explore local sights, and then hop back on another circling bus without paying an additional fee.

In the 1990s, as London’s fleet of Routemasters began to age, the roofs were once again left out of the design of newly manufactured double-deckers. The return of open-tops was a turning point for the sightseeing industry. The new vehicles increased the appeal of sightseeing by bus and the model quickly spread throughout Europe.


By the end of the century, large multinational travel corporations and private equity firms recognized the industry’s growth potential and began scooping up many of the smaller open-top tour companies. Via mergers, massive investments, and slick marketing, they transformed the once-scrappy, niche travel service into a global phenomenon.

In this country, New York City entered the game first, getting its sightseeing open-tops in the mid-1990s. Since then, their numbers in many major U.S. cities have exploded -- so much so that the New York Times ran an article in 2013 deriding them as “the height of irritation” due to their ubiquitous and pushy sidewalk ticket salesmen, and a reputation for skirting regulations. Other cities’ daily papers have run similar stories.

Miami entered the field in April 2011, when local tour bus company Conway Tours teamed up with travel industry giant Gray Line and added five new open-tops to its fleet of single-level buses. Julia Conway, whose family owned Conway Tours for more than 20 years, says that a few months later, the UK-based Big Bus Tours Ltd. bought the company and began doing business locally as Big Bus Tours Miami.

Conway, who stayed on after the sale, is now executive vice president of Big Bus Tours Miami. There’s a serious push to institutionalize open-top, hop-on, hop-off sightseeing, she says, because companies realize how profitable it is. “When the bigger boys were done with the top-tier cities,” she explains, “they started looking for new markets where they could balance their portfolios, and Miami was a perfect fit for Big Bus.”

Why, though, did it take so long for open-top sightseeing to reach sunny, tourist-laden Miami -- a seemingly ideal locale for the model?

“Miami is a fickle market,” Conway says. “You’re either coming for the beach or you’re coming to shop. It’s also a really huge investment to do it right. You can’t really call something hop-on, hop-off unless a bus is coming around every 30 minutes max. And even that’s a long time to wait. So it’s a very capital-intensive business to operate.”


Conway also credits Miami’s recent civic progress and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau with helping to attract the attention of Big Bus Tours. “They’ve just done an amazing job marketing this city and not pigeonholing it,” she maintains. “For a while it was all about Ocean Drive. But there’s a lot of other stuff out there, and they’ve been able to deliver that message over the past five years in a way that’s really beginning to resonate.”

Conway couldn’t confirm current passenger numbers, but a 2013 Miami Herald article noted that Big Bus Tours Miami was then operating between 17 and 30 buses (depending on the season) and handling up to 1500 passengers daily during its peak. Globally, the company now has a presence in 17 cities.

That, however, is about to change.

In February 2015, the UK-based firm Exponent Private Equity announced that it had reached an agreement to acquire Big Bus Tours for a rumored $400 million to $800 million. The firm plans to double the size of the business in three to five years. Two new U.S. cities are on the horizon, with several more lined up in Europe.

In Miami, meanwhile, bus driver Emilio has his Big Bus in the queue at the east end of the MacArthur Causeway, waiting at the 5th Street traffic light to enter South Beach. As if on cue, two matching red Lamborghinis pull up beside the bus and throttle their engines.


“This,” guide Abraham announces, “is arguably the most glamorous area of Miami to live.”

There are some minor errors in his monologue. For example, he explains that “all those islands you saw on the way to Miami Beach -- every single one is artificial. The only natural island is Miami Beach itself.”

Not all are artificial, though. Bird Key is natural, even though it’s barely visible from the MacArthur. So is Belle Isle, although it was enlarged in the early 1900s.

No matter. Even most locals wouldn’t know that. Besides, Miami Beach is about cool buildings, cool cars, and hot bodies. And in the first two categories, Abraham knows his stuff.

He points to area landmarks and drops familiar Miami names: Gloria Estefan, the Bee Gees, Vanilla Ice, Joe’s Stone Crab. He takes note of the Carlyle Hotel on Ocean Drive, “where Sonny Crockett was first introduced on Miami Vice,” and explains how preservationist Barbara Capitman rescued the world-famous Art Deco buildings from demolition in the 1980s, helping to create Miami’s most recognized neighborhood.

“By the way,” he says, “you’ll notice how Emilio just stops the bus in the middle of the street so we can check out the sites a little better. That’s why I love riding with this crazy Cubano. If you want to hop off, you can hop back on another bus in 20 minutes. I’m sure the next tour guide will be taller, more handsome, and funnier. The driver will be even better than Emilio.”

Farther along, in front of the Cardozo Hotel, Abraham explains that Gloria Estefan came to Miami from Cuba as a child. “She took a picture in front of this hotel,” he says. “Now she owns it. She’s living the American dream.”A rotund Southerner at the back of the bus calls out, asking where the famous chainsaw scene in the movie Scarface was filmed. Abraham points to a small building at 728 Ocean Dr. “I used to surf down here in ’69-’70,” the man tells a fellow passenger. “This place was a dump back then.” Now he seems dismayed to see that the room where Tony Montana was almost sawn into pieces sits atop a Johnny Rockets burger joint -- proving that death by chainsaw may be escapable, but gentrification is not.


Cruising up Collins Avenue, there’s the Delano, a careening Ferrari, and eventually the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, and luxury towers along Millionaire’s Row. Then the bus heads south with views of Española Way (“where Al Capone handled his operations from the Clay Hotel”) and Lincoln Road (“one of the first open-air pedestrian malls ever built in this country”).

 “Please remain seated because we have the lowest-hanging traffic signals of the tour here,” Abraham warns. “If you stand up, you’re going to get light-headed.”

The threat of injury on an open-top bus is a serious one. Online news archives abound with horror stories from around the world of people injured or killed after being struck by overpasses, tree branches, light signals, and electrical wires. Such an incident on a Big Bus would, no doubt, focus unwanted attention on the safety aspects of the business and spark new regulations, of which few currently exist.

On this particular ride, however, windblown hair is the most pressing issue.

Heading west on 5th Street, back toward the MacArthur Causeway, Big Bus passes the Haitian restaurant Tap Tap. “We have over 500,000 Haitian residents in Miami, living by Little Haiti,” Abraham says. At that rate, though, Haitians would constitute nearly a third of the population of the City of Miami.

According to the Brookings Institution, only about 18,600 Haitians live in the City of Miami. A numerical slip of the tongue, no doubt -- caused, perhaps, by the sudden appearance of a long-legged Beach beauty swaying along the sidewalk. It’s still too early in the day for bikinis, though.


Back on Biscayne Boulevard, Abraham points to the Freedom Tower again, Miami’s Ellis Island: “More than 300,000 Cuban immigrants began their American dream in there.” Just then, two swarthy lads in matching orange Ferraris come racing down the street, engines screaming. The tourists crane to see them and ooh and ahh in several languages.

“No point in talking over that beautiful noise,” Abraham says.

In Miami, clearly, the American dream is now candy-colored, loud, and slightly obnoxious.

Big Bus runs on two additional loops: the City Loop (Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Little Havana, and downtown) and the Uptown Loop (Wynwood, Midtown, Overtown, and downtown), free with a 24- or 48-hour pass.

The City Loop has a different vibe from the Beach Loop. With Miami Beach’s fantasyland appeal and vernacular charms far across the shimmering bay, a different bus and crew ply the more industrious mainland. The driver remains silent, and Gordon, the erudite guide, looks like your high school history teacher. He stresses safety. “We do kindly ask that you remain seated at all times on the upper deck and please keep vigil of the trees above.” A man, perhaps not fluent in English, stands up. Gordon gives him a firm, “Sir,” until he sits back down.

The bus passes through downtown, where several homeless men near the county courthouse smile and wave. Then it’s down I-95 toward Coconut Grove, where Gordon’s monologue turns to Miami Vice, Flipper, and Bad Boys. A large peacock on S. Bayshore Drive caws loudly as Gordon points to a coral rock home, site of the infamous 1986 Stanley Cohen murder; LeBron James’s old residential street; and eventually CocoWalk, where a group of schoolgirls holler and strike comically sexy poses.

After ogling the Italianate mansions in Coral Gables and learning of early city luminaries like George Merrick, Henry Flagler, and Julia Tuttle, the bus heads for Little Havana.


“Some people are scared to death of this city,” Gordon says, “and I’ll tell you why. In 1980 we had the Mariel boatlift and got a lot of bad publicity. We had a lot of crime back then. Also, Miami Vice showed us having a lot of crime here. Those are the two reasons why people think this is an unsafe city. I can assure you, it’s not an unsafe city. Tourism is our number-one interest here. Last year we had 12 million visitors in Miami.” (According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the actual number is 14.5 million).

The bus stops in front of Máximo Gómez Park (a.k.a. Domino Park), where elderly Cuban men huddle around square tables to play dominos. Whether lured in by the smell of Cuban coffee or intrigued by the romance of exile, almost all the Big Bus passengers disembark for a photo op. Some, though, just make a beeline for the restrooms. A new batch of tourists, meanwhile, fills up the bus.

Until recently, this loading and unloading of tourists rankled many Calle Ocho business owners. In 2010 the Herald detailed the complaints of shopkeepers who said that tourists were reluctant to wander too far from the bus drop-off point. Consequently, they tended to congregate near Domino Park. The rise of the hop-on, hop-off model, however, has given visitors the freedom to explore the neighborhood without fear of losing their ride.

As the bus merges back into traffic, Gordon offers a political insight into the neighborhood. “You’re traveling now in the most Republican parts of Miami,” he notes. “When the Bay of Pigs invasion took place, a lot of the Cubans here thought they had the help of the United States government. And to their surprise, they did not. So as a form of protest toward the Kennedy administration, many Cubans became Republicans. In fact, you’ll see right now we’re going past Ronald Reagan Boulevard.” (Actually, it’s Ronald Reagan Avenue, formally SW 12th Avenue.)

After a few cigar factories, fruit stores, and botanicas, the bus is on I-95 again, heading back to the station at Bayside Marketplace, where some passengers transfer to a new bus for the Uptown Loop. Mostly, though, the Uptown bus has a new group of tourists onboard.


The new driver and guide use only last names, which sound like aliases, Mr. Knight and Mr. Brown. “You are now onboard a 1984 Leyland double-decker bus from London, England,” says tour guide Brown.

The presence of a genuine English double-decker is surprising, given that new open-tops are manufactured in several countries. Big Bus’s fleet, says executive vice president Julia Conway, is actually composed of “several different brand types,” including Chinese, American, Spanish, and former English transit buses.

Outside a gallery in the Wynwood Arts District, he points to a group of statues called Silent Warriors. Charlie Chaplin, Mother Teresa, Muhammad Ali, and Nelson Mandela are all there at Gary Nader’s Art Centre. And they all have weapons in their hands.Mr. Brown reels off his material fast to keep up with passing points of interest. There’s the historic Miami City Cemetery, the classic Art Deco S&S Diner, and Kush, a “new-American” restaurant that serves craft beer and alligator meat.

“This is the artist’s vision of the End Times,” Mr. Brown explains. “And over there,” he chuckles, pointing across the street to a wall mural, “you’ll see a green fluorescent dog eating a little boy for lunch.”

Cruising through Midtown Miami, Mr. Brown tells the story of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who came to Miami from Cuba as an unaccompanied minor during Operation Pedro Pan and rose to the highest office in the city. Then the bus rolls slowly through Wynwood, where giant wall murals on the sides of buildings slide by like a moving stage set.


Finally, it’s on to Overtown, Miami’s most impoverished and maligned neighborhood. “This expressway is what destroyed the neighborhood,” Mr. Brown says, pointing to the I-95 flyover that bisects Overtown. “When they built it in 1956, they forced a lot of homeowners out of their homes without any compensation. Since then, this community has been struggling to maintain itself.” (Construction of the flyover actually began in the 1960s).

While that has indeed been the narrative for the last half-century, there are also clear signs of change here. Trash-filled lots and vandalized buildings are less common than in recent years. Murals, vegetable gardens, and restored historic buildings are multiplying. The result is an authentic time capsule of a neighborhood unsullied by overdevelopment, gentrification, and 21st-century homogeneity. There are also more smiles and waves from people on the street here than in any other part of town.

Big Bus has plans to extend the Uptown Loop into Little Haiti once that area becomes more developed. For now, though, the tour nears its end with a slow drive east on Flagler Street, where the panoramic views show the interlacing of past, present, and future: the old Seybold jewelry building; the historic Olympia Theater; the modern, white-washed residential towers. From a bus-top perch, it’s like floating through a parallel universe.

Until recently, two other companies competed with Big Bus: Miami Open City Tours and City Sightseeing Miami. Owing to complex licensing agreements, the first company no longer offers hop-on, hop-off tours. The second, however, is a serious competitor, both locally and globally.

With a presence in 107 cities around the globe, City Sightseeing Worldwide (the parent company of City Sightseeing Miami) claims to be “the world’s largest open-top sightseeing tour operator.”

City Sightseeing Miami CEO Leyla Rojas didn’t respond to the BT’s interview request, but Big Bus’s Julia Conway explains that City Sightseeing Worldwide franchises independent companies. “There are many,” she says, “but they are reasonably disparate in size, scale, locations, and product consistency. Big Bus Tours wholly owns all of its 17 operations in the greatest cities in the world. Big Bus is a much larger company in terms of actual commercial turnover, ownership of fleet, and number of employees.”


City Sightseeing Worldwide got its start in 1999 running bus tours at the World’s Fair in Seville, Spain. Its Miami franchisee began operating in 2012 and has already made significant inroads. Last year the company won approval from the Miami Parking Authority to set up multiple ticket booths in downtown’s busiest parking lot -- Lot 19 -- sandwiched between the northbound and southbound lanes of Biscayne Boulevard across from Bayside Marketplace.

The company runs two sightseeing routes: a Beach Route and a City Route. On a recent weekday afternoon, a City Sightseeing Miami bus leaves its starting point at Biscayne Boulevard and NE 3rd Street with a full top deck and a fresh-faced young tour guide to narrate the City Route. His monologue is a bit light on history and unintentionally comical.

Pointing at a passing Metrorail train, as the bus cruises down I-95 toward Coconut Grove, he quips, “That’s one of the best sources of transportation around the city.” Actually, at just 25 miles long and serving only three percent of Miami-Dade’s citizenry, Metrorail is more commonly known as the Train to Nowhere.

Later, as the bus rolls east on Calle Ocho, he says, “To the right-hand side, we have Woodlawn Park Cemetery. This is where the founding mother of Miami, Julia Tuttle, is buried.” Tuttle, however, is much hipper than that. She resides at the Miami City Cemetery near artsy Wynwood.

Farther along, he announces, “Coming up on the right, we have Pollo Campero. This is pretty much the Cuban KFC, ladies and gentlemen. There used to be real KFCs in this area and they all shut down once Pollo Campero came in.”

Cover_13Perhaps the chicken is so good that the Castro brothers were willing to set aside their Marxist-Leninist beliefs and overlook the restaurant’s franchise business model -- and then export it to their political rival across the Florida Straits. Or maybe it started right here in the U.S. and, like the guide says, has sent Colonel Sanders packing.

Sadly, though, Pollo Campero is Guatemalan. Its presence in Little Havana is evidence of the massive influx of Central Americans to the neighborhood in recent years.

Most exciting of all is this statement: “Cuban cigars are not sold in other areas of the United States, ladies and gentlemen. It’s actually illegal. That’s because they aren’t one of our allies. But they can actually sell them right here in Little Havana.”

If this is true, the Cuban embargo has already ended.

The bus makes a stop at Domino Park. Instead of immediately continuing on, in hop-on, hop-off fashion, the guide announces a ten-minute break. Everyone gets off to buy lemonade, Cuban coffee, or mojitos from the service window at La Esquina de la Fama. The elderly proprietor looks ecstatic to see the customer influx, and a man of about 65 stands nearby, playing claves and swiveling his hips. He’s trying to lure customers into the restaurant side of the establishment, where another man is playing “Bésame Mucho” on a violin. Instead of stopping for 10 minutes, the bus lingers for 25.

For all its cliché and touristic cheesiness, the stop is a welcome break from the constantly moving bus.

Open-tops may be a local novelty, but up there, you also won’t experience the street-level quirks that make Miami unique: the disregard for clocks, its Old World charms, sexuality, schizophrenia, and, of course, the languid curbside coffee breaks.

For those, you need to hop off and walk.


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