By Lori Rackl www.suntimes.com
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — More than a dozen of us filed into the dark elevator, ready to be whisked up 1,483 feet to the observation deck of the newly minted tallest building in the world.
The smooth 60-second ride delivered us to the Burj Khalifa’s 124th floor. People of all ages were making their way around the viewing platform’s floor-to-ceiling windows, soaking up the 360-degree views of Dubai at night.
This trip up the tower was the hottest ticket in town — until the very next day. On Feb. 6, one of the Burj’s elevators broke down, trapping 15 people inside for nearly an hour, stranding others on the observation deck and sparking the sudden closure of the viewing platform.
Nearly a month later, the Burj Khalifa’s observation deck remains closed, and building officials are tight-lipped about when that will change. The first of some 12,000 residential tenants and office workers were supposed to move in last month, but haven’t. The tower’s super swanky Armani Hotel Dubai — the first hotel designed by Giorgio Armani — planned on welcoming its first guests March 18. That date has been pushed back to April 22.
The delays are an embarrassing episode for the $1.5 billion skyscraper, whose dramatic Jan. 4 debut included a lavish show of lasers and fireworks. And it comes at a difficult time for Dubai, as the emirate struggles to dig its way out of debt and battles a slump in tourism.
The Burj Khalifa was supposed to help turn things around for Dubai, both symbolically and practically. This once-sleepy fishing village had landed not just the tallest building in the world, but the tallest building by far. Stack the John Hancock Center on top of the most recent record holder, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, and you basically have the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa.
Even though the observation deck was the only part of the half-mile-high building that had opened, tourists already were coming in droves — and they were bringing their wallets. Local newspapers reported a 30 percent boost in retail sales at area businesses since the skyscraper’s opening.
“We used to get requests for rooms with seaside views; now people want rooms on the other side of the hotel — on the Burj Khalifa side,” said Neil Rumbaoa, communications director for Dubai’s Shangri-La Hotel.
During my visit to the Burj on a Friday night, a long line of locals and international visitors snaked from the ticket counter and spilled into a food court full of familiar storefronts like Caribou Coffee and Mrs. Fields Cookies.
Admission to the tower’s observation deck — a little more than 100 feet above the skyscraper’s midsection — costs $27 if you buy your ticket in advance. That’s almost twice as much as adult admission to Chicago’s Willis Tower Skydeck and the Hancock Observatory.
The Burj’s prices soar even higher for impatient folks with deep pockets wanting to jump to the front of the line. A ticket allowing immediate entry will set you back a cool 400 dirhams, or about $109.
The visitor experience entails more than just an elevator ride up to the world’s second highest observation deck. (Shanghai World Financial Center held on to the No. 1 slot with a public viewing deck 72 feet higher than Burj Khalifa’s. But the Burj’s includes an outdoor terrace with guardrails for al fresco sightseeing.)
Visitors wend their way through 10 sections, including a ride on a moving walkway that gives a visual journey of Dubai’s path from dusty desert outpost to modern metropolis.
Another section explains the architecture, engineering and logistics that went into the steel-and-glass behemoth. This is where you’ll find the faces of several Chicagoans, most notably that of architect Adrian Smith. He began designing the building when he was still with Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects and engineers of the tower.
It’s fitting that our city — the one that gave birth to skyscrapers — has lots of connections to what’s now the tallest of the bunch. Even the Burj’s general manager, Tom Dempsey, was a former GM at Willis Tower.
Visitors get to play with some fun interactive displays, like one that lets you plop the Burj Khalifa into various cities’ skylines, including Chicago’s. No matter where you place it, the elegant, super-tall structure stands out like Heidi Klum in a preschool class.
From the 124th-floor observation deck, you get a bird’s eye view of Dubai’s man-made islands shaped to look like a palm tree and the world. “Smart” telescopes show you what an area way down below looks like during day or night, and touch screens give you more information about what you’re looking at.
Children and adults were pressed up to the windows as men with buckets and squeegees trailed in their wake, trying in vain to keep the windows clean. I was struck by how noisy it was on the observation deck, probably because it was the antithesis of a recent visit to the Hancock Observatory, where people quietly walked around with headsets listening to an audio tour by David Schwimmer.
One thing all major observation decks have in common is a gift shop, and the Burj Khalifa’s was full of T-shirts, mugs and other trinkets. Problem is, most of the items sported the tower’s old name, Burj Dubai. The last-minute name change was a giant thank you to Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of oil-rich Abu Dhabi who’s been quick to open his checkbook during his neighbor’s debt crisis.
Funnily enough, the Burj’s observation deck didn’t provide me with my most memorable view of Dubai. That came from the Shangri-La’s rooftop lounge, a hip, South Beach-looking spot with palm trees bathed in pink lights, pretty people puffing on hookah pipes — and a stellar view of the Burj Khalifa.
In my opinion, the best sights this glistening skyscraper offers are of it, not in it. And for the time being, that’s the only option.
Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Etihad Airways and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.