Back to the Future

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by callen60 on February 23, 2010

In 1962, Seattle was hardly an obvious pick to host a World’s Fair, let alone one focused on the 21st century. Jet travel was just emerging, and the west coast (and particularly the northwest) was growing more prominent in the nation’s consciousness. To push that process along, local boosters sought an exposition to capitalize on the emergence of Boeing and Seattle as contributors to the aviation and aerospace industries, and players in shaping the future.

Originally conceived as the ‘21st Century Exposition’, it was later certified as a World’s Fair, with a focus on science, technology and the wonderful future they would make possible (resulting in some laughable predictions about ‘houses with walls of jet air streams’ and 15-minute jet travel). Conceived on a napkin by one of the fair’s organizers, the Space Needle quickly became the iconic symbol of the fair, and after translation into a real design that challenged the construction and engineering limits of its day, became the most recognizable feature of Seattle.

That’s quite a success story, a testament to the power of that idea as well as the blank slate Seattle had to work with: nothing from New York, Chicago, or San Francisco fairs still serves as the quintessential element of those cities. Now over 45 years old, the Space Needle’s sixties appearance marks it as the way we thought the future would look. The organizers have steered clear of emphasizing the campiness inherent in its half-century age, but it doesn’t take more than a glance at the flying-saucer-shaped observation level (now the ‘O Deck’) to realize that the Jetsons could easily call this place home.

But $17 later, I think it was worth it (back in 1962, it was $1: another feature of the future that I’d be happy to change). We arrived about 2 pm on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, realizing for the first time that at 530 feet up we would get a great view of Seattle’s gorgeous physical setting, and not just the city itself. The lines were shockingly short, and we quickly boarded an elevator for the 45-second ride to observation level. Unlike some newer facilities, the walls aren’t floor-to-ceiling glass, making the ride a lot less threatening to an acrophobe like me. Three elevators serve the saucer, and the guide has time for only a brief introduction before the doors open up top.

You can circle the deck inside or outside, but outdoors the path is uncluttered by the restaurant seating, exhibits, and souvenir shop traffic. The outdoor deck was the most crowded place in the Needle that afternoon, but wasn’t a problem. Despite the elevation, my usually dormant fear of heights continued to slumber on, since the walkway was wide, the railings were sturdy, and the walls relatively high. In addition, the iron superstructure underneath the saucer (which looks largely like a very sparse doily) gives a visual element that interrupts the view straight down.

It was a fantastic day to be up top. The Olympic Range was easily visible across Puget Sound (the only mountain range completely contained in the U.S., I heard while passing by one of the exhibits), and Mount Rainier could be seen to the southeast 100 miles away. Neither is a given in Seattle’s moisture-rich climate, but we lucked out. Snowy 11,000-foot Mount Baker (like Rainier, another of the Cascade volcanoes) was easily visible to the north, as well as the skyscrapers in the city center–plus the multiple lakes, bays, and islands to north, south, east and west. The Space Needle sits in the southeast corner of Seattle Center, the arts and recreation complex that emerged from the fair grounds. From up top, you also get a good view of the museums, arenas, and amusement parks that now occupy the grounds, as well as Frank Gehry’s home for the Experience Music Project on the site’s east side.

We spent just under an hour up top, taking minimal advantage of anything except the outdoor area. Only one of us made use of SkyQ, a five-screen interactive display with information about the view, Seattle, and the construction of the Tower. (We did learn that its original name was "The Space Cage".) After the mandatory exit through the gift shop, we began our hike to the Bainbridge Island ferry.

The Needle is open 365 days a year, starting at 10 am (9:30 on Fri/Sat/Sun) and closing at 9:30 pm (10:30 Fri/Sat). A single visit is $17 for adults, $9 for youth; 3 and under are free. Seniors and active military save $2. A few bucks more buys you a ‘Day and Night’ ticket, allowing you to visit twice in 24 hours.
Space Needle
400 Broad Street (seattle Center)
Seattle, Washington, 98109
(206) 905-2111

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