In Praise of Tour Guides: World Tourism Day 2011

(As today is the UN’s World Tourism Day, I thought I’d repost this old entry…)

As I may have mentioned here in the past, I’m an information junkie. However, I’m an information junkie cursed with a terrible Swiss Cheese of a memory, possibly caused by an old gypsy woman, and therefore I’m a fan of tour guides.

(The Glass Floor in the CN Tower can hold the weight of 14 hippos.)

We spent a lot of time on tour buses this week, mainly because a ticket lasts for something like five days and thus it’s easy transport around an unfamiliar city. The great thing about this is that it also comes with a commentary and, as I’m the sort of guy who sits and listens to DVD commentary tracks, that’s a selling point.

(The horses in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are classed as officers, and get badge numbers and official funerals.)

I enjoyed the Toronto tour guides a lot (ShopDineTour Toronto, for a free plug), not least because they pull off the sort of trick that I just can’t – they know what they’re talking about, they can remember it, and they can communicate it in an entertaining way. This is the sort of thing I struggle with – my brain has a communication and information retention firewall installed, and so when the guide on the way to Niagara Falls is reciting the history of Toronto AND making it interesting, I’m in awe. He just seemed to know vast amounts about John Graves Simcoe, the guy who founded Toronto, and yeah, sure, he’s making a living from reciting this stuff but it’s something I could never do. I’d get the script all tangled up in my brain, and then knock myself out on a low-hanging branch.

(Casa Loma, a mansion/castle just outside of downtown Toronto, was used as the filming location for Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the first two X-Men movies… but not the third.)

That said, I also want to give a shout-out to guides from other cities – some the people who first got my respect as guides were the US National Park rangers on Alcatraz Island, who not only knew all about the old prison there but also the oysters and fish that live around the island. It’s a cool, outdoorsy job, but it’s also got a sense of the geek spirit, in the most postive way – the idea that this stuff is cool, it’s good to be enthusiastic about it, and there’s nothing wrong with communicating that enthusiasm to the people who pay to do the tour. It’s fun.

(Yonge Street is the longest street in the world, stretching 1896 miles out of Toronto. Many dispute its claim to this, however, but I don’t care.)

And don’t forget the drivers – heck, my main regret from Niagara Falls was that they didn’t give the driver a mic as well, because he was as clued up as the guide and had a fun double-act thing going on. We were near enough the front to hear this, but it was gold. The personalities made a pretty long journey that much more entertaining.

(The city was originally named York, but when New York got too big, the Canadians renamed it Toronto so there wouldn’t be comparisons.)

But for courtesy, friendliness and entertainment value, we probably have to give the award to the guide we saw a few times throughout the week, who recognised us and said hi, bothered to tell us when the bus times were so we didn’t end up inadvertantly stranded, and, while we guessed he was a bit geeky from his first MacGyver reference, the fact that he admitted to being a comic collector in front of a bus full of people gave him geek kudos. AND he had his Toronto knowledge. You can’t ask for more than that.

(Toronto is North America’s third largest film and TV filming location, after LA and New York.)

So if you’re ever in Toronto, check out the yellow buses. They’ll even give you a free map!

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