"I survived the Burj Khalifa"
I'm pretty sure I could make a bundle selling T-shirts emblazoned with the statement above if I were still in Dubai (especially since the last-minute January name change from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa left the souvenir shops scrambling for inventory). On Friday, just two days before a terrifying elevator scare prompted the closure of the 124th-floor observation deck of the world's tallest building, the 160-story Burj Khalifa, I toured the site with a group of Chicago journalists who all marveled as much about the elevator as we did about the breathtaking view of Dubai. The scene at the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill–designed building was a madhouse, with tourists clamoring to get a first-hand peek inside, but there were no signs of any trouble with what appeared to be technologically advanced elevators. The 60-second ride to the observation deck was so smooth I didn't know we were moving until my ears began to pop. A video and slick neon light show inside the elevator car added to the high-tech ride, and when the doors opened, we were greeted by floor-to-ceiling windows displaying one of the most fantastic views in the world.
My visit was a far cry from the frightening experience recounted today by visitors to the building who were trapped on the tower's 124th floor when the elevator to the observation deck became stuck around 6:20pm with 15 people on board. I'm not particularly afraid of heights, but I can't imagine a more terrifying encounter. It's far scarier than the story the Burj publicist told me about riding up the outside of the building in construction elevators that only went halfway to the top, at which point she had to step across a six-inch gap onto a second elevator that took her the rest of the way up. Yikes.
The staggering height of the building is hard to comprehend from photographs alone. Having heard that the building was as tall as the Hancock building stacked on top of the Willis Tower, I was prepared for ridiculous heights, but my jaw still dropped when I saw it for the first time. And the second time. And the third. It's visible from miles and miles away from nearly everywhere in Dubai, and it towers so far above everything in an already over-the-top city that one can't stop staring at it.
It's certainly attracting the interest of plenty of spectators, including tourists who no doubt planned their visit to Dubai to see the Burj and now will have to settle for an outside view. On Friday, the sign at the ticket window said advance tickets were sold out until Monday. Still, hundreds of tourists stood in the queue for a chance to go inside later in the week (I can only imagine their reaction to Sunday's news that the observation deck is closed indefinitely). Advance tickets (usually also available online) sell for 100 dirhams, about $27, but the brilliant business minds behind the Burj know tourists will pay even more if they show up at the building and see a sign saying tickets are sold out until Monday. A second line for "immediate entrance" tickets was equally lengthy, despite the price: $400 dirhams, a whopping $110!
News of the closure is a significant blow to Dubai's tourism industry, which is already struggling to overcome a blemished image due to the emirate's fiscal irresponsibility. Tourists will be apoplectic, I'm sure, but, for what it's worth, I enjoyed the Burj far more from a distance than from inside. Despite the spectacular views, I was disappointed that the observation deck was only two-thirds of the way up the building. Why not higher? And though it's truly something to see the views from that high up, the best view in Dubai is of the Burj itself.