Visitors know New York City is chockablock with terrific attractions, from famous sights like the Statue of Liberty to surprising finds like the City’s array of excellent food carts. But deciding where to go can present a bewildering challenge. One way to cut through the noise—and either see a lot of the City at once or go deep into exploring a single location—is by taking a guided tour. Of course, that decision sets up another bedeviling array of options: the City features everything from intimate walking tours to entertaining double-decker bus tours and exhilarating harbor cruises. You can circumnavigate the island by ship, walk through a historic neighborhood, or hop on and off a bus at multiple stops. If you can’t decide whether you want to travel by foot, boat or bus, many operators make it easy to mix and match.
Several smaller tour operators offer real value by providing as much service as possible to people with disabilities, ensuring experiences are much more personal, intimate and unforgettable. Notifying these operators in advance is still a good idea. Below, see a few of the most notable.
Turnstile Tours welcomes visitors with disabilities. Its founder and director has experience in the field; before she started her tour company, Cindy VandenBosch was in charge of accessibility at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. “Some of the tours we offer can be challenging from an accessibility perspective,” VandenBosch acknowledges, “but we do our best to communicate expectations through our website, and we regularly have people with mobility challenges on our tours.”
Turnstile offers unique small-scale, interactive tours that blend architecture, industry, neighborhoods and other New York–centric components to make sure that its guests have a well-rounded experience. Among its offerings are a popular food cart/food truck tour; a Prospect Park Tour; tours of public markets; and bus tours of historic sites such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Brooklyn Army Terminal, now sprawling hives of entrepreneurial activity. Turnstile operates a bus that can accommodate one wheelchair user on a tour of the 300-acre Navy Yard, and also has assistive listening devices that require reservations a day in advance. These, explains VandenBosch, are often used by wheelchair users who don’t want to get on and off the bus at various stops so they can still take advantage of the narration at stops along the way. VandenBosch and her staff also have training in working with people with autism and can arrange tours for those on the autism spectrum. “We really work hard to train our guides to work with everybody,” she says, “and to make our tours multisensory—especially the food-cart tour.”
Classic Harbor Line
For waterborne experiences, one of the best options is Classic Harbor Line. These cruises take place on sleek modern power craft with enclosed lounges for voyages year-round. Most tours last anywhere from two hours and forty-five minutes to just an hour and a half. A family-run business, Classic Harbor Line is especially proud of its tours created and narrated by architects from the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which explore New York’s rich design history. For those inclined toward natural beauty, there are scenic Hudson River tours, and for those with a culinary bent, there are wine-and-cheese tasting tours. If you just want to sit back and relax, the brunch tour should do the trick.
Sarah Pennington, Classic Harbor’s general manager and a 16-year veteran of the company, says all their boats can accommodate wheelchairs, but makes no bones about the challenges of transferring a wheelchair from dock to boat. Due to the size of these vessels, a lip running the length of the boat rim makes a completely smooth transfer impossible, and the floating dock next to the floating boat add an extra challenge. In other words, handling is required—staff members carry wheelchair and occupant from dock to deck (and back again). Pennington says that “we always have a very open discussion” with any wheelchair user, letting them know how transfers will be done. She says that Classic Harbor’s Manhattan II affords the easiest and most stable transfer, along with the “least bouncy” boating experience. As with most tour offerings citywide, narratives are available, but no assistive audio devices are provided.
Big Bus Tours
Big Bus Tours has the widest array of land-based offerings. Its open-top double-decker buses feature live and entertaining narration from trained professionals. Riders can hop off a bus at one of the many stops and roam around—and then get back on another Big Bus vehicle operating along the same route. A new bus comes along every 20 minutes or so, so wait times aren’t lengthy. However, all that hopping has to be done within a single day. Big Bus operates tours covering Uptown, Midtown and Downtown Manhattan; there is also a Brooklyn tour and a Night Tour focusing on Downtown and the Brooklyn hipster(ish) scene. All buses can accommodate two wheelchairs. For more information, call 212-685-8687.
On Location Tours
New York City rivals just about any destination for people keen on movie and TV history. If you’re ready for your close-up, the big producer is On Location Tours, which can take you through the steamy locations from Sex and the City, the silliest spots from Seinfeld and sites from Turner Classic Movies. You can mix and match a bus and walking tour (but you will need to do these on different days), and you can also take a tour that will allow you to shoot your own YouTube Oscar contender. (Since all the tour guides are professional actors, you might get some useful coaching tips.) Wheelchair users will have to call ahead at 212-683-2027, so On Location can reserve an accessible bus.
Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises
Finally, if intimate harbor cruising doesn’t float your boat the way a big party will, opt for a famous Circle Line Sightseeing Cruise. There’s a wide variety of cruises to choose from, including a Statue of Liberty Express Tour and an evening Harbor Lights Tour. Most segue easily into walking and bus tours. For more information, call 212-563-3200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Whatever you choose, you’ll be set to enjoy the rest of your stay armed with new insight—and, most likely, some new friends.