Less than three years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find a double-decker bus in Miami. Now they run more frequently than metro buses in some locations and look a lot like a mini-United Nations on wheels, with tourists from around the globe.
Big Bus Tours, which provides double-decker bus tours in more than a dozen cities — including London, Paris, Rome and as far away as Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai — started its double-decker service in Miami with four buses in April 2011. Since then, the company has added 30 buses.
Two other companies — Miami Open City Tour and Citysightseeing Miami — also provide double-decker bus service but on a more limited scale. Although neither company responded to the Miami Herald’s request for an interview, Big Bus Tours General Manager Julia Conway said the two companies have a combined total of 16 to 18 double-decker buses, bringing the total number of double-decker buses in Miami to at least 50.
Conway’s involvement with double-decker buses was a natural evolution. Her family owned a coach company, as tour buses are known in the industry. In 2008, Conway Tours joined Gray Line, which she says, “was synonymous with double-decker buses in New York City.” It took three years to purchase the initial four double-decker buses and iron out logistics. The double-decker bus business was up and running by April 2011. Just two months later, Big Bus Tours, Ltd., bought the company and kept Conway on to run its operations in Miami. Today, Big Bus handles as many as 1,500 passengers daily during its peak, just before Christmas and just after the Orange Bowl (Dec. 19 through Jan. 5).
The tours orient visitors to the city and provide information that sometimes surprises even longtime residents who hop aboard. Tour guide Linda McKenna — who cuts a striking figure in her broad-brimmed hat and with each finger festooned with silver rings, some in the shape of wolf heads — even knew the name of the horse one Miami police officer rode in a downtown park.
“Oh, there’s Sunny,” she said. Further along her route, McKenna pointed out the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr., U.S. Courthouse at 400 N. Miami Ave. Commenting on the unique Arquitectonica design, she said it was built to resemble a ship and had three distinct sections to indicate “there are two sides to every story, and the truth resides in the middle.”
McKenna even related a personal anecdote about climbing onto a fence so that she could peer into then-President Richard Nixon’s “Winter White House” on Key Biscayne. “Do you like what you see, little girl?” a Secret Service agent asked her. When she replied, yes, the agent politely told her to get lost, “OK,” he said, “Good-bye.”
Sometimes, celebrities do a little sightseeing from the top deck — such as the Heat basketball team after their championship win this year. Grammy winner Gloria Estefan and the self-deprecating heartthrob Fabio, with his signature long golden tresses, rode together during a separate celebrity event last year.
“The ladies went crazy for Fabio,” says Eliana Larrauri, who doubles as a company tour guide and dispatcher. “Can you imagine him on top of the double decker with his hair flying?”
The Miami tour actually involves two routes. One is a loop of Miami that takes in the downtown, passing by the Freedom Tower, the arena and arts centers to Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and Little Havana. The Miami Beach loop traverses the MacArthur Causeway, the Art Deco District, the Fontainebleau Hotel, Lincoln Road and Jungle Island. Riders can hop off and on at 20 stops, but they may want to ride to the end of the line, about 90 minutes, because the banter by the tour guides — most of them native Miamians — can be both entertaining and informative.
Asked which tour is more popular, Larrauri says, “South Beach, of course. It’s the land of bikinis, martinis and Lamborghinis.” But tourists also express a lot of interest in Little Havana, she says, because “They want to check out the coffee and Domino Park, walk around the streets and hear the music.”
The riders come from all over to see what makes Miami unique. And the Big Bus tries to accommodate them by providing both live tour guides and prerecorded audio tapes in a dozen languages. Not surprisingly, the largest number of tourists come from this continent.
“Our largest base right now — 47 percent of the business — are people who find their way to Bayfront Park or they see the bus and purchase a ticket,” Conway says. “For the most part, they are visitors.” Conway described her typical rider as North American. According to her research, 60 percent come from the United States and Canada, with an influx of tourists from South America, especially Brazil, in the winter months, and Germans in the late summer and fall.
The top deck of a Big Bus one day in mid-December included a sampling of tourists from various far-flung destinations — a couple of oral surgeons from Manchester, England; a pensioner and his son from Malmö, Sweden; a retired teacher and her daughter from Luxembourg City, Luxembourg; a flight attendant from Warsaw, Poland; a couple in the cold storage business from Melbourne, Australia; a broadcast journalist from Dublin, Ireland; a marketing executive from Tel Aviv, Israel; and a technology consultant from San Francisco.
Eamonn Torsney, who is a newscaster for Dublin’s Q102, expressed an interest in visiting Little Havana, especially in light President Barack Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Robin and Jayne Gray, both dental surgeons from Manchester, had originally planned to take a cruise to Mexico, Guatemala and Belize but ended up taking the bus when Robin developed a rapid heartbeat and had to be medically evacuated from the ship. They decided to visit Vizcaya, the Italianate mansion built by John Deering of the International Harvester fortune.
Others, such as Heather and Tony Darvill, the Australian couple from Melbourne, opted to take in the tour in its entirety and return the next day to explore various stops. That’s what Mary and David Henderson ended up doing, too.
The Hendersons live in Lyme, Conn., where it was snowy and some 60 degrees cooler than Miami. They came to town to see their son, the renowned clarinetist Miles Jacques, perform with the New World Symphony, and they had a great time on the bus tour.
“It went beautifully,” Mary Henderson said. “When we got done with the initial one, we signed up for the next day. We took the tour just to see what was there. The next day we went back and walked around Coconut Grove and Little Havana. We went to South Beach and had lunch.” They ended up on Lincoln Road, where they would see their son the following night on the NWS WALLCAST™ while picnicking in the park.
Julian Pinheiro, the tour guide on the Miami Beach loop, noted that the live simulcast WALLCAST is the largest of its kind in North America. Also, aside from knowing just about every Miami Beach location featured in the 1983 crime drama Scarface, Pinheiro was a font of information about movies filmed at the Fontainebleau: The Bellboy, with Jerry Lewis; Tony Rome, featuring Frank Sinatra; Goldfinger, with its iconic scene of James Bond’s girl coated in gold — and of course, Scarface.
Periodically Pinheiro would quiz the riders about Florida trivia or implore them not to stand, lest they get “light-headed” as the bus traveled under a low-hanging traffic light. Pinheiro was the perfect host, handing out disposable plastic ponchos during a slight cloud burst and telling everyone to hang onto their hats when the wind kicked up.
Toward the end of the trip, he said, “I have a very important question for all of you… How’s the hair?”
Of course, everyone looked like Bridget Jones after her road trip to the country.