With two new heliports in the city, no less than half a dozen outfits offer helicopter tours of the skyline, and many are offering holiday flights.
The thrill ride is brief, typically 15 to 30 minutes, and doesn't come cheap: Costs can run from $148 per person by day to $350 per person for a New Year's Eve fireworks tour, or up to $2,500 for a group. Despite the expense, many who take the flights say they'd rather have a once-in-a-lifetime experience than a material gift.
Tours generally cruise at altitudes of about 1,200 to 2,000 feet, around the tops of the highest skyscrapers, low enough to see individual pedestrians and details on buildings. For the holidays, many buildings downtown such as the John Hancock Center, Willis Tower and Merchandise Mart are lit up in green and red.
The colonnades of Soldier Field glow with holiday colors, as do Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights. Flights typically cruise slowly along the shoreline, running from the Loop to Lincoln Park, or from Hyde Park to Wilmette.
Operators say many customers share a champagne toast on board to celebrate a special occasion, such as a birthday, anniversary or, occasionally, a marriage proposal.
At Chicago Helicopter Experience, passengers fly in six-passenger or four-seat aircraft that can go 150 mph or more, but for tours they cruise slowly along the lakefront. Pilots point out landmarks and passengers can take photos. Before boarding, each passengers must step on a scale to ensure that his or her weight doesn't exceed 250 pounds.
Ron Cortez, who works 16-hour shifts helping to make steel at the mills in East Chicago, Ind., splurged to take his girlfriend, Lizette Rivera, on the tour for her 40th birthday.
"We always see the city driving or walking around," he said. "To see it from up top was totally different. It was an experience."
"It's definitely a must-do," Rivera said.
The founder and CEO of Chicago Helicopter, Trevor Heffernan, said customers are evenly split among locals and tourists, with young couples predominating along with families and other groups. Those who took the trip on a recent night compared the expenditure to an expensive dinner or show.
Heffernan, 30, who once traded hog futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, got the idea for the company while sitting in traffic, thinking there must be a better way to commute to his family's Susanna Farms in Lake Villa. He bought a helicopter and took lessons until he got a license to fly it.
When friends and family kept bugging him to give them a ride to avoid the traffic, he realized there was a market. At a cost of $3 million per chopper, he acknowledged, it's a long-range investment.
Chicago Experience, at 2420 S. Halsted St., is one of two new commercial heliports that opened this year, the first since former Mayor Richard Daley tore down Meigs Field in 2003. In April, investors opened Vertiport, an airport for helicopters at the Illinois Medical District on the West Side. Vertiport services helicopters, books tours and corporate charters, and now handles medical flights, but it does not operate its own fleet.
Operators hope to revive the helicopter business in the city for tourists, package delivery and corporate executives who fly into city or suburban airports, then take a 15-minute chopper ride to near downtown.
Local blogger, radio reporter and gift-giving adviser Nekia Nichelle says she sees more and more gifts that involve doing rather than owning.
Local options include Shedd Aquarium's Trainer for a Day, Brookfield Zoo's similar Backstage Adventures, iFLY Indoor Skydiving in Rosemont and Naperville, classes at any of various cooking schools such as The Chopping Block in Lincoln Square, and tickets to a Chicago theater company, sporting events or concerts.
"People are definitely taking a different direction with gift-giving," Nichelle said. "People want cool things to do."
She cautioned to make sure that the gift matches the recipient, so that someone with a fear of heights isn't expected to travel 2,000 feet in the air.