The line is daunting. It loops past the man wearing the Lady Liberty gown, stretches around the ice cream stand, skirts a pretzel cart and passes a man playing the trumpet before snaking through the metal security gates.
"It's awful," says 19-year-old Kat Nadler, staring at the hundreds of people before her on the queue for the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. "We waited 45 minutes for tickets ... and now we get to wait in this line, too."
Lengthy, cramped ferry waits - a longtime complaint of statue visitors - could ease when the boats that serve Liberty and Ellis islands switch hands in the coming months.
Online ticketing that limits the waits to under an hour, multimedia presentations on immigrant history and free podcasts for visitors are among the changes planned when Hornblower Cruises & Events takes over the boat route, said CEO Terry MacRae, speaking ahead of the signing of a final contract with the National Park Service. The deal is expected to be closed this week.
Online reservations are currently available, but tourists must still pick up their tickets at the site and wait on a first-come-first-served basis for security screening and a spot on a ferry.
But under the new system, visitors will be able to make reservations for specific departure slots, print tickets at home, then arrive at a set time 30 to 60 minutes before their embarkation, MacRae said.
Tickets would also be available at self-serve kiosks in Times Square and other tourist spots around the city. At the departure site, last-minute ticket buyers could simply walk away until it was time to come back for their ride.
Where now there is simply a long line of people winding through lower Manhattan's Battery Park, MacRae envisions an array of educational signs and activities.
"While they're waiting, we will have things for them to do to try to learn more about their experience, instead of just dealing with the aggressive vendors," he said.
Once on the boats, to be operated under the name Statue Cruises, visitors would be able to watch newly installed flat-screen monitors offering information in many languages.
Free podcasts on topics such as the Italian immigrant experience would be available for downloading ahead of time. The company, which operates tourist boats to San Francisco's Alcatraz Island, hopes to fill the audio files with historical snippets and vignettes, MacRae said.
Returning from his harbor circuit on Tuesday, Texas resident John DeFazio said he would have welcomed such added educational material, particularly anything about the experiences his Italian ancestors would have had at Ellis Island.
"We had to learn it for ourselves. There was nothing there guiding us," he said.
The ferry route, which brought in more than US$35 million from 4.2 million passengers in 2005, is among the most lucrative concession contracts in the national park system. Circle Line held the job for more than a half-century and fought in court to hold onto it even as the National Park Service announced it was considering other options. The case was ultimately dismissed, and Hornblower was selected last month.
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