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Don’t change Navy Pier

Longtime WBEZ employee Justin Kaufmann says the pier’s positively perfect as is.
Photograph: Dave Rentauskas
By Justin Kaufmann |

Over the 15 years I’ve worked at Navy Pier, I’ve visited every gift shop, every tourist attraction and every food-court kiosk. I’ve learned to navigate the foot traffic, effortlessly weaving in and out of strollers, wild toddlers and meandering visitors. And I love every inch of the place.

Why would the new pier board, or anyone else, want to ruin a good thing? Think about it: Where else in Chicago can you embroider your name in purple cursive letters on a yellow hat? Or buy a funky piano-keys tie? Or get one of those logo-smattered NASCAR racing jackets at the bargain price of $139? That, my friends, is the Navy Pier you’ll be missing.

And what’s not to love? Come see for yourself and, like me, you’ll fall head-over-heels for the sunglasses store, the churros stand, the funhouse maze and the 15 gift shops that all sell Navy Pier sweatshirts and shot glasses.

Don’t get me started on the food options. Drumroll, please: It has a McDonald’s. And not just any McDonald’s: This is the “McDonald’s of the Future,” in which an electric science ball holds court in the middle of the restaurant. Oh yeah, and its prices are a dollar higher than every other Mickey D’s. Welcome to the future!

And don’t worry, families, Bubba Gump’s tastes just like the Bubba Gump’s you buy in the grocery-store freezer section. And you are reminded daily of a movie you kind of liked 15 years ago. How’s that for a bit of nostalgia?

Oh, and if you’re into Desperate Housewives “star” James Denton, well, Navy Pier is the place. He owns a share in the new Harry Caray’s. So his mug is plastered all over the wall.

In the summer, if your idea of a thrilling afternoon involves sitting in the middle of crazy out-of-town traffic as it jams into one-lane service entrances, then Navy Pier will satisfy that rush. Then, treat yourself to an engaging conversation with the Navy Pier regulars, including Shirtless Ray, whose long blond/gray hair and rust-stained skin reminds you that you are indeed visiting the Midwest’s Venice Beach. You can find Ray soaking up the sun outside the crazy maze or farther down the pier by the samosa stand. As Ray once told me, “You can find me out here whenever the sun is shining.” Conversation starter: Ask him what he thinks of Blagojevich.

And Ray isn’t the only fun regular on the pier: There are pirates! And lots of them (in summer, anyway). There is a pirate ship, a pirate show and pirates attempting to sell you 20 minutes on Lake Michigan as you walk the pier. I don’t know about you, but pirates accosting me and doing yargh-matey bits with plastic swords and poorly executed Shakespearean accents is a little bit like heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, there are ways to improve the pier. Perhaps better bathroom and parking facilities are in order. But let’s keep the same high bar of entertainment value and the same rich assortment of shopportunties, not just for our own benefit, but for future generations of tourists and kid-toting locals. So live a little, and retrace your ancestry with your family’s coat of arms; give in and buy the T-shirt that says not only am i perfect…but i’m italian. And go ahead and splurge on a crystal prism for a look at the future (hopefully one in which the pier remains the very same vision of perfection it is today). Then grab some fudge for the road. Because that’s the Navy Pier I call home. And don’t you go changing.

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