If you thought bus tours were only for people with bad travel agents, you were right. But they're also for perfectly normal people with perfectly bizarre tastes. If you haven't made your summer travel plans yet, here are some sweet recommendations.
1. Vegas Mob Tour
For about five seconds in the 1990s, Las Vegas tried to clean up its act. The new "family-friendly" Vegas — with amusement-style attractions, PG-rated shows and Disneyfied dining experiences — promised to de-sleaze the Sin City. But the promoters of the "new Vegas" overlooked one important fact: sleaze sells. And as quickly as you can say, "Room service, bring me another stripper," the real Vegas was back.
The sleaze factor did not elude the creators of the Vegas Mob Tour, a 2.5-hour van ride through Vegas' blood-soaked past. As you'll learn on the tour, Vegas was founded by mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky and was ruled until the mid-1980s by a parade of business-minded sociopaths with middle names starting with "The."
"I try to do it tactfully and with taste, as much as you can with a mob tour," the creator of the tour told the LA Times. "You can say someone cut off someone's head with a machete, but we prefer to say decapitated." Nice touch.
The Vegas Mob Tour is based on inside information provided by FBI agents, law enforcement specialists and a lovely gentlemen named Frank Cullotta, the ex-hitman for Tony "The Ant" Spilotro, himself the inspiration for Joe Pesci's character in Casino. The founders hope to parlay the mob tour's success into a Vegas mob museum.
2. Tours for Insomniacs and Elevator Enthusiasts
Marlene Gordon is a Los Angeles original. Bored with her day job as legal secretary in a patent firm, Gordon began to seek out the hidden gems of her hometown and conduct impromptu tours for out-of-town guests and anyone else who couldn't quickly think of an excuse to bail. Over 30 years later, Gordon is still at it, driving van-fulls of gawking tourists through LA's lesser-known sights"¦ and occasional smells.
Gordon's "SCENTimental Journey" is described as a "nose-twitching aroma tour" of LA's "fragrant destinations." The "LA in Miniature" tour takes an up-close look at the city through microscopes, magnifying glasses and even "the eye of a needle" (?).
Gordon's most popular offering is the "Insomniac's Tour," which drags groggy tourists through the train station at 4 a.m. and introduces them to the pre-dawn wholesale action at the city's produce and flower market. But the one that really captures our imagination is called "LA Has Its Ups and Downs," described as "a truly amazing escalator and elevator tour from downtown to the sea."
3. LA Gang Tours
South Central Los Angeles doesn't get a lot of ink in Fodor's. And the only maps you're likely to see of LA neighborhoods like Compton, Gardena and Hawthorne are blocked off in sections of red and blue — Bloods and Crips. South Central is LA's most famous and infamous gang territory, the setting for films like Boyz n the Hood and countless mid-90s rap videos. But as an LA tourist destination, South Central has never been a draw. Until now.
Alfred Lomas — a former gang member — wants to educate the public on the realities of gang life in LA. Back in January, he made the inaugural run of the LA Gang Tour, a bus tour of an urban area most Americans have only seen in COPS footage. Lomas doesn't try to whitewash the image of South Central or glamorize the "ghetto" lifestyle. Instead, for $65 a ticket, Lomas takes tourists on a 12-stop exploration of the roots and realities of gang violence.
Between stops at the LA County Sheriff's Jail, the graffiti-covered concrete wasteland of the LA River, and a "drive-by" of notorious housing projects, Lomas invites ex-gang-bangers to board the bus and share their personal stories of poverty, violence, drugs and redemption. Proceeds from the tour go to community programs that help gang members turn their lives around.
4. DC Spy Tour
On June 13, 1985, CIA counter-intelligence analyst Aldrich Ames walked into Chadwick's restaurant in Washington, DC, for a 3 p.m. lunch date with the KGB. In exchange for over $2 million, Ames handed the agents a list of nearly 100 names, many of them Soviet moles on the CIA payroll. Within months, 10 of these people were arrested and executed by the Soviets.
Twenty-five years later, Chadwick's is just one of 25 stops on the thrilling (and chilling, of course) DC Spy Tour, a project of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. Little did you know that the nation's capital is also the "world capital of espionage," and you'll get all the juicy details from former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin and his team of traitors-turned-tour-guides.
Is that really the apartment where Cuban spy Jennifer Miles slept her way through the U.S. State Department? Could that be the same French bistro where KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenka escaped through the kitchen and de-defected at the Russian embassy? For $75, the spy secrets are yours. Compared to what the KGB paid, that's a pretty good deal.
5. Celebrity Death Tours
"If you're rich and famous, Cedars is the hospital to die in," says Scott Michaels, creator and resident "Death Hag" of Hollywood's Dearly Departed Tours. Michael's three-hour tour of the cemeteries, overdose locations and murder houses of the famously dead received a 20% uptick in reservations after Michael Jackson died.
A fan favorite is the Helter Skelter Tour, a voyeuristic van ride exploring the Manson family cult and its victims. As a twisted perk, everyone goes home with a tiny piece of the brick fireplace from Roman Polanski's LA home where Manson's minions murdered actress Sharon Tate. That's a keeper.
6. Russian and Chinese "Dating" Tours
The concept behind an international "dating" tour is simple. If you haven't found your bride-to-be at the favorite local hang-outs — laundromat, grocery store, church, online Twilight forum — it might be time to fly halfway around the world to work your magic on packs of visa-hunters who speak little English.
The Russian Valentines Tour includes 10 days of bus travel to the historical and cultural highlights of Odessa plus three "socials" in which "several hundred beautiful, educated and sincere women," some of whom "travel thousands of miles for the chance to meet our tour participants," will mob you like a celebrity. "It's not uncommon for our clients to be surrounded by 4 or 5 women, while other women wait for their chance to be introduced." They're lining up over there!
The same deal is available in China, where each day of sightseeing in megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou is capped with a "dating event" featuring dinner, dancing and cocktails with 50 eager "office ladies" from the host city. If these trips don't bag you a wife, there's no one to blame but the interpreter.
7. Kramer's Reality Tour
Remember the Seinfeld episode where Cosmo Kramer launched the J. Peterman Reality Tour? That was a spoof on Kenny Kramer's Reality Tour, an actual bus tour run by the inspiration for Michael Richards' character. The bus visits famous Seinfeld scenes and gives you behind-the-scenes info. You might see, for example, "the place where Kramer and Newman got the black market shower heads." Or learn that "there is an actual Russell Dalrymple, Lloyd Braun, Becky Gelke, John Mollica, Al Niche, and even a person called 'The Drake.'"
Despite Jerry's claim that "nobody wants to go on a three hour bus tour of a totally unknown person's life," the Kramer Reality Tour is still going strong—book your Spring/Summer 2010 tour now! Think your $37.50 ticket comes with a bite-size 3 Musketeers?
Here's a look at the Peterman Reality Tour:
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Have you ever been on a unique bus tour of something? Tell us about it in the comments.