In 1999, the observation deck atop the UT Tower reopened to the public for the first time in over twenty years. My husband, then a senior at UT, lucked into a job as one of the first Tower Tour Guides charged with leading visitors to the deck. He hadn’t been to the top since graduating; the boys and I had never been. So we headed up there Sunday on a Tower Tour.
We reserved our tickets in advance (well before we realized that late March would still feel like December) and picked them up in the Texas Union about a half hour before our tour. The students working the Hospitality Desk were charming and seemed genuinely excited for us to be there. Once we paid for our tickets and bag check (more on that below) we mosied over to the Main Building where the tours begin. We were greeted there by one of the tour guides, who invited us to wander the building a bit while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. Because this building houses many of the university’s administrative offices, tours are only available outside of normal business hours. Consequently, it was pretty quiet and a little creepy, but my boys enjoyed roaming the empty hallways and stairwells with their dad to pass the time.
At five o’clock on the dot, tickets were collected and we each filed through an airport-style metal detector. The presence of two uniformed UTPD officers, one of whom accompanied our group to the top, made it clear that the university was making security a priority. We got a quick safety speech before boarding a tiny, super-speedy elevator up to the 27th floor, where three short flights of stairs lead to the observation deck. (An elevator is available for that final stretch to those unable to climb the stairs.)
Once we made it to the top, we were on our own to explore. We brought binoculars from home but were pleased to find loaners available, which saved the boys fighting over our one pair. We were also thrilled to learn that there’s a Tower Tour Scavenger Hunt! My seven year-old kept busy working to complete the ten-item hunt, searching for landmarks and counting statues. (It’s worth noting that the prize for finishing the scavenger hunt is a small bag of candy. Our guide stealthily mentioned this to me while we were still in the lobby and asked permission to give my boys candy. If your children don’t do sweets you’ll want to make that clear to your guides ahead of time.) The scavenger hunt isn’t just for kids, either. Nearly all of the grownups on our tour joined the fun. If your kiddos are short, be prepared to lift them up for good views. The height of the observation deck’s floor varies but, even at its highest, my tall first grader had to stand on his tippy toes. My three year-old was mostly content to perch on spotlights and peek through the rain scuppers, but those limited views may not satisfy all little ones.
Beyond the fact that my husband is a UT grad, I have no particular allegiance to the University. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to see the campus from a 300-foot vantage point. On the ground, its enormity overwhelms me but from above I got a better sense of the layout and how it fits within the rest of the city. My boys had fun listening to their dad reminisce while pointing out important spots from his days on campus. We also had a blast spotting landmarks meaningful to our family–the fountain my husband’s buddies dunked him in we got engaged, our niece’s dorm, the steeple of our church, and the roof of a giant hotel on the horizon near our house. Peering up at the four enormous clocks from so close was pretty amazing too. Each one is twelve feet in diameter with shiny, gold arms nearly as long as I am tall!
Although the tour is advertised as self-guided, there were two student guides available at all times to chat and answer questions. After about twenty minutes on the deck, they led us back inside for a short information session. The kids got a little antsy during this part but I was fascinated to hear about the Tower’s history as a library (complete with rollerskating grad students!); how the University got away with building a tower that is, technically, taller than the Texas State Capitol; and about Tom Anderson, who has been playing the Tower’s 56-bell carillon for more than fifty years. Our guides were enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and full of Longhorn pride. After the info session we had another fifteen minutes or so out on the deck before our tour concluded with a quick elevator ride back down to the lobby. We walked to the Drag for dinner, which made for a pretty perfect ending to our adventure.
Things to know before you go:
Advance reservations are recommended. Call to reserve your tickets, then pay on the day of the tour. (If you don’t pick them up within 15 minutes of your tour they will be released.)
No bags, backpacks, purses, food, beverages, umbrellas, strollers, car seats, or pocket knives are allowed on the tour. These items may be checked for $1.
There are no restrooms available during the tour.
When: Tour days and times vary throughout the year. Find the schedule here.
Cost: Tickets are $6.00 each. All guests must purchase a ticket, regardless of age.