By Mary Alex Japczyk
Eric Kittrell has a way of putting people at ease. His warm smile compliments the friendly cadences of his voice as he recounts his experiences as a lifetime Chicagoan and now a Chicago Trolley tour guide.
It would be difficult to find a more ideal ambassador for this city than Kittrell. He has lived and worked in Chicago his entire life, and now finds joy in showcasing its beauty and highlights. His love of history combined with his genuine enthusiasm, make him a perfect guide for tourists and Chicagoans alike.
“My ability to share information with people comes naturally,” says Kittrell. He credits much of his storytelling ability to his grandfather, a mesmerizing raconteur who unspooled fascinating tales of coming to Chicago from Alabama in the 1920s during the Great Migration to find a city abuzz with jazz, gangsters and dynamism.
“He was so intriguing and welcoming,” Kittrell remembers. “He would tell a story and transport you back to that particular point in time he was discussing. He was forever making people feel at home, telling them, ‘You don’t have to leave.’”
Kittrell mastered these qualities and employs them daily as he greets people from around the world, as well as a significant number of locals, who use the rides to open their eyes (and the eyes of their children) to the wonders of Chicago.
He has worked as a Chicago Trolley tour guide and driver for the past four years, originally perched atop a double decker bus, but now driving trolleys and giving tours simultaneously.
Bright Lights, Big City
The Chicago Trolley & Double Decker Company, founded in 1994, operates Chicago’s premier “Hop On Hop Off” city sightseeing tours in its classic red and green trolleys and fun-filled double decker buses. It also offers private group transportation for special events such as weddings, parties, and corporate outings.
The company runs tours daily except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The approximately two-hour tours leave about every 10-15 minutes between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from 13 locations around the city.
The Signature Hop On, Hop Off Sightseeing Tour covers 13 miles with 13 stops, giving patrons the option of visiting Chicago’s hottest retail, cultural and family attractions, including Skydeck Chicago, the famed museum campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium), the historic Chicago Theater, Millennium Park, Water Tower Place, The Art Institute, Navy Pier and the John Hancock Observatory. The full downtown tour is approximately two hours riding time, with all day access to hop on and off. Tours operate daily from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Typical Neighborhoods Tours might go north to Wrigleyville, west to Chinatown, south to Hyde Park near President Barack Obama’s home, and of course include downtown. But as there are 77 neighborhoods in Chicago and some 7,000 restaurants, tours can be customized to clients’ wishes.
One of the company’s most popular activities is its Holiday Lights Tour from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, which shows the best of Chicago’s holiday lights and sights such as Macy’s holiday windows and the Daley Plaza and John Hancock Christmas trees, and stops for 30 minutes each at two brilliant holiday attractions – Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza and at Lincoln Park Zoo to experience the zoo’s two million lights. This 2-1/2 hour tour costs only $26 for adults and departs from the John Hancock Observatory.
Right now, the company’s City Lights Night Tour treats passengers to the ultimate summer night in the city by allowing them to see Chicago in all of its lit up glory. Tickets start at just $17, and all tickets include a coupon book packed with more than 20 offers, including free samples and over $100 in savings at partner venues including Garrett’s Popcorn, Candyality, and more.
A Font Of Chicago Knowledge
Kittrell can’t stress enough how important it is for native Chicagoans to take advantage of these tours. Having lived on the South Side, in Chinatown and near Wrigley Field, he is puzzled by those who seldom stray from their neighborhoods.
But Kittrell admits that he himself worked on Wacker Drive for years and never even noticed what is now one of his favorite buildings until he was on top of a double decker bus giving a tour. “Quite often, those of us who live in Chicago are not looking up. You don’t have time to marvel at the architecture.”
Kittrell has spent his life collecting what he calls “tidbits” of historical information that he now shares with Chicago Trolley patrons. He believes this is one of the qualities that makes for a successful tour guide.
“In order to be very good at this job, get a little bit of knowledge on a million stories,” he advises.
It’s obvious, though, that Kittrell has more than “a little bit of knowledge.” He easily slips historical dates and facts into casual conversation, making history sound more like a story rather than something from a textbook.
When asked the infamous question about the Great American Pastime (baseball), Kittrell smiles and says he roots for both the Cubs and the Sox – the ultimate Chicago fan.
Having lived in a variety of Chicago neighborhoods, Kittrell has experienced many historical sites and events of Chicago firsthand. As a young boy, he and his friends once stumbled into a rundown hotel, which they later learned was one of Al Capone’s old headquarters.
Kittrell also talks about times when he used to take the train and get on at the 11th Street Station, which was once used by the Illinois Central Railway. This station was one that almost all African Americans traveled through when they came to Chicago during the Great Migration – including Kittrell’s own grandfather.
These vital places of Chicago history are commonalities for Kittrell, giving him the ability to share nuggets of information with other Chicagoans who may have never known that these places even existed.
Kittrell believes that each tour offers a unique view of the city and says he just can’t choose a favorite. He does, however, know how he wants patrons to feel while they are on his tour.
“It becomes like they’re sitting right on my couch,” he says.
For more information on Chicago Trolley Tours and ticket prices, call 773/648-5000, or visit the website at www.chicagotrolleycom.
(N’DIGO Editor David Smallwood contributed to this story.)