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- Sarah Arnoff
Like a Tourist
Experience SLC like it's the very first time.
By Sarah Arnoff
We locals think we know it all when it comes to Salt Lake City tourist destinations. There are the basics—Temple Square, the Capitol and various museums and outdoor recreation sites. But there's a different side to viewing Salt Lake that most locals haven't experienced: from atop a double-decker bus.
"I learned quite a bit riding a few times," Syracuse native Alan Housley says. "Even locals learn a thing or two." Housley is in his sixth season driving the double-decker bus and trolley owned by U.S. Bus Utah, a hop-on hop-off tour agency that runs guided tours during the summer. The 19-mile loop is accompanied by an audio narration, and patrons can get off and back on at any of the 17 stops along the route, including Temple Square, Fort Douglas, the Natural History Museum of Utah, Trolley Square and the Salt Palace.
The audio guide is peppered with informational tidbits and fun facts about Salt Lake and Utah in general, like how Brigham Young was personified as the villain in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, and that Lee Redmond, the woman who holds the Guiness World Record for longest fingernails, calls SLC home. It's family friendly and not too hokey, with a few wry jabs here and there. One section on myths about Mormons ends with "Even the staunchest Mormon is known to have a beer now and then—though it's probably of the root variety." Housley recalls one day when he was driving a group of older LDS women in the trolley who didn't hear the "root" part of that line, and one was particularly not amused. "I thought she was going to beat me to death with her purse," he says.
Housley signed on with U.S. Bus six years ago when he was laid off from a previous transportation job. After driving his first summer with the tour agency, he decided to stick around even after finding a management position with CR England, where he works most days of the week. "I just enjoyed this so much, I kept coming back," he says. "It's better than sitting at the house on your two days off watching television." And driving a double-decker bus sourced from the U.K. presents a different set of challenges than his previous trucking gigs. "It creates an interesting environment to drive in," he says. Since the steering wheel is on the right side of the bus, passengers have to enter and exit into the street. But to avoid hazards of oncoming traffic, an attendant rides with Housley to watch for cars, place traffic cones around the front of the bus and escort passengers to and from the sidewalk safely.
Behind-the-scenes work can be complicated, too. "It's a challenge to maintain it, to clean it, to make sure that everything runs all the time with all the right parts because all the parts are British," U.S. Bus Director of Sales AnnaLaura Brown says. For the first two weeks of the 2018 season, only the trolley (which also serves as the Jingle Bus during the holidays) was operational since the double-decker was in the shop for various repairs. Tree limbs around the route need to be trimmed in order to accommodate the roof-free bus' height. And there aren't many garages that can house a double-decker, either. "It's hard," Brown says. "During the season we've had them at residential places that have bigger lots to put them on." But the flip side is that the British buses are popular. The company hopes to have two double-deckers up and running by next season.
Originally, U.S. Bus owner Jerry Dolejs, a Czech native who immigrated to Canada, wanted to expand his three tour companies he'd started up north to the Dominican Republic, where milder weather makes year-round operation more feasible. While scouting out the possibilities there, he met a couple from Utah who informed him of the lack of hop-on hop-off tour buses in Salt Lake City. Dolejs jumped on a plane to SLC and fell in love with the place, starting U.S. Bus Utah in 2012 with two single-level open-top red buses. The trolley was brought down from Canada a year later when Jingle Bus came about and, shortly after that, Dolejs shipped the double-decker from the U.K. to Maryland and drove it cross-country to Utah. "He found the opportunity and felt like people could use it," Brown says.
And use it they have. The season generally runs through mid-October with August and September being the busiest months. Convention crowds at the Salt Palace are the tours' biggest attendees, as the U.S. Bus sales stand is right outside the center's east entrance. During the busy months, Brown says it's common to have the tours almost filled even on the first run, which leaves at 9:45 a.m. In 2015, she recalls, the Parliament of the World's Religions congregated for the first time in Salt Lake City, and attendees from all over the globe spilled out of the Salt Palace to experience the capital of Mormonism. "At one point, we had our red-and-white open-top bus full of Buddhist monks from Thailand," she says. "That was something else to see."
To encourage more locals to try the experience, the company offers Utah residents buy-one-get-one-free tickets, which are good for 24 hours after boarding the bus. Brown says that they are working on other types of tours, like routes for food and chocolate tastings, in addition to their city and Antelope Island tours. But the biggest draw for locals, she says, is the chance to learn more about the city they call home. "I've only lived here my whole life and I still didn't know it all," she says. "Come and learn more about the city you actually live in. ... I don't think I've seen a single local that's gone on the tour and said they knew everything."