My father came down to Miami from Chicago in 1952 and my mom in 1953. He worked as a lifeguard and she worked at old Jackson hospital. They met at the 14th Street beach. They courted, then married in 1954 and I was born that same year. My nickname as a kid was “Sandy” because they met on the beach. I also grew up on Miami Beach.
As I ventured into tourism and travel in 1979, my travels took me a lot of places. I started with Gray Line tours here in Miami, and we did lots of tours to the mountains in the Smokies, and in New Orleans. But mostly my career was here in Miami doing tours in the city, in the Everglades and in Key West.
Gray Line was sold in the mid-1990s to an Orlando transportation company, and then absorbed by Coach USA, so Gray Line isn’t the sightseeing tour company it used to be.
Then, about 10 years ago, Big Bus Tours came to Miami. Big Bus is a London-based company and now they’re in 17 different cities throughout the world. Miami was their first U.S. city.
The industry has changed a lot. Years ago people wanted to be in a nice air-conditioned motor coach, and now it’s become very popular to sit on top of a sightseeing vehicle. It’s a wonderful way to see the city. It’s like being in an open convertible.
I’ve always been interested in transportation, which has led me to a lot of history as well. I could’ve been anything, and I think my mother was horrified that I would consider being in transportation rather than a doctor or lawyer. But I think it’s always important to do something enjoyable with your life, since you’ll spend a lot of time doing it. I’ve had no regrets with my decision to be in transportation, and I have met wonderful people.
When I started with Gray Line, they wouldn’t hire you unless you were going to be a driver-guide, so I ventured into that. I already knew history and it came naturally to me. Back in the ‘80s, I was fortunate enough to learn from many highly educated driver-guides, and it was quite rewarding.
You’d begin by traveling on a bus with a driver-guide, and you would also have to be in the classroom and take tests on subjects they wanted you to know about. The schooling for being a guide lasted a month, and then if you passed the schooling they would teach you how to drive. It took six weeks to finish the course.
I’m still learning to this day. People are fascinating, and you have to get to know them and talk with them to see what their interests are. It’s amazing, the stories that I can tell you. I’ve had people die on tours, and once I was in the Everglades and a man stood up and threw up all over me. I didn’t miss a beat. I just stepped aside. To this day I know some tour guides who have heard about that event and couldn’t believe I kept my composure. Have to roll with the punch.
To stay informed we read the paper, of course. There are lots of celebrities here in South Florida, and they’re always in the news. The commentary changes quite often. If there’s a significant event that happens in the city, like the Versace murder on Miami Beach, we mention it when we go past there. Sometimes we remove old and less significant information as new things happen. So we go with the change of the times.
The tourists I guide are really wowed by the beauty of the city. The architecture here is very beautiful. In the wintertime, when you go across the bridges the color of the water is wonderful. I always tell the students that they should appreciate the nature here – the trees and birds and the dolphins in the bay. There is so much natural beauty if you’re really looking and paying attention.
Tourism in South Florida used to start right after Thanksgiving and would continue through until after Easter. For many years this was the way it was, and people would close their homes up and go north. When air conditioning came into play, and when the Latin American influx came, we became a year-round destination for tourism.
Unfortunately, sitting in the busses during the summer is like sitting inside of a broiler pan. But most of the people on the tour are going to the beach anyway so they’re going to have suntan lotion on. It isn’t often that we’re sitting in really bad traffic, and on the weekends it might be slow, but for the most part it’s fine, and they can always go down below to the climate-controlled coach.
As time goes on, you learn to do a routine and how to build your tour. Sometimes it might take you longer to cross the causeway, and basic buildings aren’t going to change, so you have to be ready with what we call fillers, which are facts about surroundings. You’re going to say the same thing over and over again most of the time, so you have to keep it fresh.
I think tourism will always be good here because we are a major hub for Latin America, and we have many more Europeans coming here for tours. Everyone wants to come to Miami.
It is important that the guides and the people giving information present the city in a positive way, and that the drivers drive politely and safely. But it’s a constant battle to get the two working together smoothly. The hospitality industry is not paying as much as it should to attract better caliber people.
But I just love it. When I give the tours on the coach, the city sells itself, so my job is easy. I’m simply enabling my audience to enjoy it more.