Empire State Building Secret Observation Deck Tour

Think the 102nd floor is the top? Think again.

Aug. 9, 2010— -- 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.

I probably would have been content with the view from 86. But my hosts assured me more was to come and quickly shuffled me off to yet another elevator. This one was manually operated and instead of floor numbers, it displayed our elevation. I watched as the numbers climbed from 1,050 feet up to 1,250.

Empire State Building Observation Deck

I was now high inside the building's iconic spire. The 102nd floor was originally designed as a landing platform for dirigibles, with passengers unloading from the airships via a gangplank. High winds and strong updrafts made that impractical and the idea was abandoned after a few attempts.

Today, a tiny indoor observatory rests inside the top of the tower. The elevator ends here. So do the stairs. At last, I had made it to the top. Or so I thought.

Every article I had read about the Empire State Building refers to it as a 102-story building. I had never heard of anything higher.

Then Ghazi led me to an unmarked door and took out a key. Behind it was a ladder going even higher.

At the top was an attic-like space filled with pipes, wires and electrical boxes. A hatch on the ceiling was built to drop in passenger luggage from the dirigibles.

The only thing above me now was the giant TV and radio antenna New York stations use to broadcast their signals.

I was led to a glass door with a big sign warning, "Beyond this point: Radio frequency fields at this site may exceed FCC rules for human exposure."

Oh great. If my fear of heights wasn't enough, now I had to be worried about invisible rays frying me to death. Ghazi pointed to green and red warning lights and assured me that since the green one was on, we were safe.

So I stepped out onto the tiny ledge about three feet wide. And then I hugged the walk, gripping tiny metal hooks bolted into the wall. There were no fences up here, making for a spectacular view. The only protection was a barrier that didn't even come up to my waist.

I have hiked taller mountains and love to go rock climbing. But for some reason, when standing on this tiny ledge all I could think about was a big gust of wind sending me tumbling to my death on Fifth Avenue.

With that thought, I posed for a photograph, snapped a few of my own and rushed back inside.

Back at the building's base is a private "celebrity walk," a special waiting area with photos of all the famous folks who have visited the Empire State Building. Some call ahead and others are pulled out of line.

But not all made it up to the 103rd floor, including Hillary Duff, Mariah Carey, Tom Cruise, Susan Boyle and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. When asked if they didn't make the trip for a fear of heights, the building's staff said some people have very busy schedules and just have time for a quick ride to the 86th floor.

The photos of those who did make it were glamorous, as always. But upon further inspection, I could have sworn I saw a glimmer of fear in all of their eyes.

With that knowing bit of satisfaction, I headed out to the street, my knees still trembling.

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