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These are not your mother’s city tours

Wisecracking Babs, with her frizzy hair and large glasses, and fire-eating nun Sister Bad Habit — “She’s not bashful, she’s Asheville” — are not your typical tour guides. They are two of the zany characters portrayed by husband-and-wife team Jen and James Lauzon on LaZoom Tours, which provide an offbeat, funny, entertaining — and yes, educational — view of Asheville, N.C.

“If you are looking for a tour that is not your normal city tour, this is the antithesis to sitting and listening to someone speak on a microphone and pointing to this side of the bus and that side,” said Dodie Stephens, public relations manager for the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Groups that are looking for a different spin on the typical city tour have a wide range of options around the country. They can focus on the historic architecture of Chicago; sample the best pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y.; have a brew in an ethnic neighborhood tavern in Buffalo, N.Y.; or stand in the same spot Marilyn Monroe did while filming a movie on Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif.

Brooklyn one slice at a time
While he was working in health care, Brooklyn native Tony Muia loved showing friends around the New York City borough. “I knew the best parks, the best views of the Brooklyn Bridge, where movies were filmed,” he said.

Muia also thought Brooklyn got slighted by its neighbor across the East River, Manhattan, which was always in the spotlight. So, five years ago, Muia started his own tour company, A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours. “My goal is to introduce people to this great borough,” he said. “We have all these great things in Brooklyn. I want to show off the borough as best as possible.”

Muia’s first tour combined Brooklyn’s diverse neighborhoods, movie locations and landmarks with stops at its best pizzerias for slices of Neapolitan-style pizza at Grimaldi’s, under the Brooklyn Bridge, and Sicilian-style pizza at L&B Spumoni Gardens.

Two years later, Muia started a Christmas Lights and Cannoli Tour, which takes in the brightly decorated homes in the Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights sections of Brooklyn with a stop at the Mona Lisa Pastry Shop for cannolis and cappuccino.

Recently, he added a third tour that visits the neighborhoods and landmarks not covered on the other tours, such as Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, the Green-Wood Cemetery and the site of Ebbets Field, along with locations where movies such as “The Godfather,” “Moonstruck” and “As Good As It Gets” were filmed. The tour includes a stop at the original Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue for cheesecake and an egg cream, that classic Brooklyn drink made from chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer.

The tours are more than cannoli, egg cream and pizza. “From start to finish, each tour is chocked full of information,” said Muia. “We keep people entertained through audio and video. When I get on the bus, I am there to keep people entertained.”

Muia has his own 24-passenger and 36-passenger buses, but can also act as a step-on for larger buses. “I love those big groups,” he said. “Everyone has been on the bus together, and it is a nice, cohesive group when they come to us.”
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Zooming through Asheville
Jen Lauzon admits that she and her husband want to make their tours memorable and fun. “We both have a feel for comedy,” she said.

The unusual cast of characters they have created come to life on street corners or someone’s front porch — that’s Jim busily rushing between stops, often changing outfits as he goes — and sometimes hop on the bus and perform on a small stage at the front. Or tour members can join in the fun and squirt water at a villainous-looking Jim as he rides by the bus on a high-wheel bicycle.

“It’s very interactive,” said Jen. “We have fun giving away prizes during the tour. We try to make it more three-dimensional.”

And the bus, a converted school bus painted purple with fancy gold-gilded trim around the windows, is part of the experience.

But Jen stresses that they also have a story to tell. “We are trying to give people an overview of the city, to see the great neighborhoods and give a little bit of its history; Asheville has an amazing history.”

The 90-minute tours cover the downtown, historic neighborhoods and the River Arts District from mid-April through December.

LaZoom Tours, which is doubling its schedule as it enters its fourth season, has its legion of fans, such as Jennifer McLucas, director of public relations for the Goss Agency, an Asheville advertising and marketing company.

“LaZoom tours captures the essence of what makes Asheville so unique — its quirkiness,” said McLucas. “The purple bus, antics and clever route are exactly what groups need.”
McLucas was quick to add, “Totally not my client — just love them.”

A toast to Buffalo
While Muia is showing off Brooklyn’s finest pizza, local Buffalo television personality Eddy Dobosiewicz is “eating, drinking and laughing our way through local history.

“We tell stories about particular neighborhoods from the perspective of the neighborhood taverns,” said Dobosiewicz, co-owner of Forgotten Buffalo tours.

Dobosiewicz and partner Marty Biniasz believe that the German, Irish and Polish immigrants who helped build Buffalo have been overlooked and are in danger of being forgotten.

“We started taking people around to these various neighborhoods, and we got their attention by allowing them to eat and drink along the way,” said Dobosiewicz. “Instead of just telling about the Irish or German immigrants that came to Buffalo, we show them where they lived and tell stories while they are eating and drinking in a tavern.”

As each wave of immigrants settled in Buffalo neighborhoods, local taverns were popular gathering places. Today, they are a great place to catch the local flavor.

“Some have been in the same family for 50 or a 100 years,” said Dobosiewicz. “The interiors in many cases are authentic, dating from the 1930s and 1940s. They are not chains, but unique.”
While on the bus, period music and radio commercials set the tone.

“They are well-choreographed tours rather than tours of dates and names,” said Dobosiewicz. “They are very lighthearted, not boring, stuffy tours by any means. We immerse people into our tours; they are very interactive tours.”

Tracking stars in Monterey

Doug Lumsden thinks that being part of a movie gives a town a window to its past.

“You can see how a town has changed by seeing movies filmed there,” said Lumsden, president of Monterey Movie Tours. “You can go back in time when you are traveling through it by seeing scenes from movies. It’s a wonderful way to show how a community looked in earlier days.
“There are lots of examples of that here in this area.”

Lumsden said his three-hour tours, which include several places where movies have been shot in the Monterey area, provide people with two tours in one.

“Passengers not only get to see our magnificent area as it looks today but also the way it looked in earlier years when Hollywood used the Monterey Peninsula as the backdrop for many of their scenes,” he said.

And there are plenty of sites from which to choose.

“Nearly 200 movies have been filmed in our area, and they continue to film today,” said Lumsden.

He said a classic example is Cannery Row, which is the area’s No. 1 tourist attraction and was featured in the 1952 movie “Clash by Night,” starring Marilyn Monroe.

“She was only 22, and it was one of her best acting performances, according to critics,” he said. “She was a cannery worker, and it was filmed downtown. We can play that scene as we head down Cannery Row and stop right where it was filmed. People really do get a feel for what it was like then.”

Lumsden has a specially designed 33-seat bus with eight monitors and headsets with digital sound. “It’s like a theater on wheels,” he said.

The tour covers the entire peninsula, starting in downtown Monterey and including Pacific Grove, the Pacific coastline, Carmel and the 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach with stops at Bird Rock, Lone Cypress and the Lodge at Pebble Beach for shopping.

“When you look out the back deck of the lodge over Point Lobos Reserve State Park, it looks like a mural that has been rolled out each morning,” said Lumsden.

On the way back down Highway 1 to Monterey, Lumsden plays a recording of Doris Day singing “Hooray for Hollywood.” Sometimes with a group, he will pass out song sheets and everyone sings along.

Building Chicago
After the disastrous fire of 1871 destroyed a swath of Chicago four and a half miles long and a mile and a half wide, the city on Lake Michigan became a laboratory for innovative, American-born architecture.

“The Chicago style of architecture was the first American style exported elsewhere,” said John, a volunteer guide with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, on one of its architectural boat tours.

The nonprofit architecture foundation offers a bevy of tours by boat, bus, Segway and foot that explore all aspects of Chicago’s fascinating and intriguing architectural scene.

Operated by Chicago First Lady Cruises from May 1 to the end of November, the 90-minute Architecture River Cruise highlights 53 historic and architecturally significant sites, including the white terra-cotta Wrigley Building; the Gothic Tribune Tower; the Merchandise Mart, the largest commercial building in the world when it opened in 1930 with 5,500 windows; the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower; and the new Trump Tower.

“The experience is always new, because our docents keep up to date with new construction along the river and include all the news in their commentary,” said Jason Neises, the foundation’s vice president of tours.

Several bus tours extend out to suburban towns to cover Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses, including his home and studio in Oak Park; structures designed by Mies van der Rohe, including Farnsworth House, the iconic all-glass residence in Plano, Ill.; and remnants of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition featured in the best-seller “The Devil in the White City.”

“We also have a wide variety of walking tours,” said Jennifer Devermann, manager of tours and group sales for the foundation. “Most are two hours. There are 80 different ones.”

With that many choices, groups can get as specialized a tour as they want, from modern post-World War II skyscrapers to downtown art-deco styles to a walk along Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile.

On a recent visit, I took the Tiffany Treasures of Chicago tour, where I saw magnificent and intricate tile and jewel mosaics adorning domes and balcony facades at four late-19th-century downtown buildings.

The jaw-dropping work included the 30-foot-diameter dome in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall that had been hidden for more than 60 years before being uncovered and restored in 2001, the detailed 90-foot-long panels in the Marquette Building that show scenes from Father Jacques Marquette’s explorations in the area, the world’s largest Tiffany dome in the Chicago Cultural Center that is valued at $50 million and the 1907 ceiling mosaic at Macy’s on State Street that contains 1.6 million pieces and that took 50 artisans nearly two years to complete.

“Tiffany personally supervised it,” said Mary, the guide.