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Chicago: A group favorite

You have to love the city where the Twinkie was invented.

Chicago has a long list of accolades. It’s where the Ferris wheel debuted and is home to the world’s largest ice cream cone. The list goes on and on with superlatives superfluous and serious.

Groups traveling to that city on the shore of Lake Michigan will find some of the best entertainment and theater in the country. That’s not only fun but a guarantee for a five-star itinerary.


Thriving Theater

With five theaters in a bustling downtown theater district and hundreds more throughout the area, Chicago offers the world premieres of musical productions, shows that have been favorites over the years and plays that are on the cutting edge.

“We have such an educated audience here,” said John Curran, managing director of tourism for Choose Chicago. “We’re a wonderful test market for theater.”

That is why in 2014 you will find the pre-Broadway premiere of the much anticipated “The Last Ship,” the new musical with an original score by Grammy Award winner Sting. Inspired by Sting’s own childhood, “The Last Ship” is a story of passion and faith for people trying to preserve the only way of life they’ve ever known.

Also on Chicago marquees this year is the smash hit musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” inspired by the famed 1956 Sun Studios recording that brought together Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, and “Motown the Musical,” the true American-dream story of Motown founder Berry Gordy. “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Newsies” and many more grace the stages of the Windy City.

For serious Broadway buffs, Broadway in Chicago offers a public tour of the Oriental Theatre, the Cadillac Palace and the Bank of America Theatre. While groups are awed at the vintage decor, they get a look at the technology used to produce complex theatrical productions and the restoration projects that have preserved the elegance in these century-old theaters.

For those who grew up with “Saturday Night Live,” the television show that has kept us laughing for nearly four decades, an evening at The Second City is mandatory.

“For over 50 years, this is the place where comedians, including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey and Steve Carell, got their start,” said Curran. “It’s all improvisational and each show has a theme.”


Entertaining Museums

Entertainment that combines education and reminiscing is the theme at five venues, three conveniently located in Chicago’s downtown Museum Campus.

Groups could spend an entire day exploring the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium or the Adler Planetarium and still wish for more time. In 2014, the Field Museum is hosting “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.” The exhibit explores the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which marked the debut of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, the Ferris wheel and the grand opening of the Field Museum.

“Items that were actually on display — rare and perhaps never seen on display before — are part of the collection,” said Curran. “It is fascinating to see what was of great wonder at that time compared to today’s age of technology.”

Michelle Pondexter, director of Diversity Sales, remembers going to the Adler Planetarium when she was a child. “We would ride our bikes there, and it was and continues to be a great place for kids of all ages. The Adler is America’s first planetarium,” she said.

Three theaters, including the most technologically advanced theater in the world, feature out-of-this-world productions.

“The Adler is also where you can capture the best view of Chicago’s skyline,” said Pondexter. “This is the place to get your group photo.”

At the Shedd Aquarium, the largest indoor aquarium in the world, visitors go eye-to-eye with a dolphin, schmooze with the penguins and explore an Amazon-flooded forest.

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art boasts a 300-seat theater, a terraced sculpture garden with a great view of Lake Michigan, a restaurant and fascinating painting, sculpture and photography all year. But those who have a love for one of the most revered musicians of our time shouldn’t miss “David Bowie Is,” the first international retrospective of the career of David Bowie.

“More than 300 items, including costumes, photography and more of his personal items from the past 50 years, are part of this 2014 exhibition,” said Curran.

Curran is also proud of the Chicago History Museum, a venue that showcases all things Chicago, including cars, fashion and items from Abraham Lincoln’s time in the city.

“They actually talk to Chicagoans about what to feature in their exhibits, and as an example, there is an upcoming exhibit based on Chicago authors,” he said.


Magnificent Shopping

When offering free time on a tour of Chicago, simply plant a directional sign pointing to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Magnificent Mile. Towering shopping centers, specialty shops, major department stores and anything trendy can be found in this prestigious section of the city.

“There are also iconic buildings to explore,” said Curran. “The Hancock Observatory offers 360-degree views of four states. The exterior walls of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune newspaper, are imbedded with authentic pieces of famous buildings like the Westminster Abbey, the Great Pyramid and more.

“And they have just opened a new restaurant, Howells and Hood. At the foot of the Chicago River with a great patio, this restaurant has more beer taps than any other place in the city.”

More options for free time are the summer festivals in Chicago, among them the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, the Blues Festival and the Chicago Jazz Festival.

“This is such a great city for free entertainment,” said Curran. “There is also music in Millennium Park all summer long.”

Curran advised that a trip aboard a bus or trolley with the Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Company is a must.

“While this company operates tours through the heart of Chicago all year long, during the holidays, this is the very merry way to see the lights on the Magnificent Mile and the Lincoln Park Zoo and do a little shopping at Christkindlmarket, the place where German handmade goods and food are in abundance.”