Empire State Building Secret Observation Deck Tour

The vast size of Manhattan's skyline can be best appreciated from high up -- very high up.

Unfortunately, when I was treated to one of the most-unique vistas of New York, I was shaking so hard testing the limits of my nerves that I couldn't fully appreciate the view 103 stories up.

Travel and trivia buffs will know that the highest vantage point in the city is the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building. But the other day, I got the rare opportunity to climb even higher and view the city from a tiny outdoor ledge that only a handful of people each year -- mostly celebrities and dignitaries -- are granted access to.

More than 3.5 million people each year visit the Empire State Building's observation decks. But unless your name is Johnny Damon, Pierce Brosnan or Roger Federer, don't expect to gain access to this space. Being a reporter for ABC News also doesn't hurt in -- literally -- opening a few secret doors.

The folks who run the observation decks -- the main one is on the 86th floor and a smaller, indoor space is on 102 -- wanted to highlight their revamped visitor experience. A small group of reporters were invited to see a refurbished lobby, spiffy new uniforms and a larger, air-conditioned space where tourists can line up as they wait for elevators.

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Jean-Yves Ghazi, who runs the observatory, told me that despite having record attendance in July, the longest wait was one hour and 15 minutes. During our summer morning visit, the line to purchase tickets was just 20 minutes long and subsequent lines to take elevators up and down seemed minimal.

Visitors can save some time by purchasing their $20 tickets in advance or pay $45 to cut all of the lines. Note it's an extra $15 to also visit the 102nd floor observatory.

Empire State Building is New York Landmark

My VIP tour started in the glorious art deco lobby. It just took one year and 45 days to build the landmark, which opened in May 1931. But don't mistake speed for a lack of quality. Marble walls adorn the ground floor and beautiful brass medallions honor the building trades -- steelworkers, carpenters, elevator mechanics -- that constructed the office tower.

After a $550-million restoration, which took a lot longer than one year and 45 days, the building is back to its original grandeur. Plus, it now had several environmentally-friendly upgrades to help tenants conserve energy.

Tourists waiting in line for the elevators can explore a suitability exhibit highlighting the building's improvements.

But celebrities don't have to wait in line. And neither did I. A 55-second ride up to the 80th floor and then another quick ride up to 86 and, suddenly, I had the entire New York skyline in front of me.

It was sure faster than climbing the 1,576 step from the lobby to the observation deck. Once a year, the Empire State Building does open to stairs to runners who climb 1,050 feet, or one fifth of a mile, vertically. Australian Paul Crake made that trip back in 2003 in just 9 minutes and 33 seconds.

I think I'll stick to the elevator.

On the clearest of days, visibility is from the top of the building is 80 miles. The observatory's operators said that visitors can see five states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

It was muggy and hazy on my day, but I was still able to see most of the city as I jostled with camera-toting tourists pressed against the safety fences.

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