Gary Sass, president of AdLib Luxury Tours & Transportation, describes his business as “creating an escape.”
The company provides walking and riding tours of locations from Jacksonville to Nocatee as well as golf outings and “familiarization tours” for people considering relocation to North Florida.
Since May, Sass has put on his Andrew Jackson costume every Tuesday morning to lead two-hour walking tours of Downtown.
From the Landing, the tour heads north along Laura Street to Hemming Plaza, then to the Florida Theatre and back to the Landing, with detours along the way to explore some of Downtown’s history.
Sass, a member of the Jacksonville Historical Society, tailors each tour to the group. If he detects a lot of interest in a particular site, the tour can spend more time there.
“I’m constantly adding to the tour and it’s never the same twice. People have the experience of seeing things they haven’t seen before and learning things they didn’t know before,” he said.
On Tuesday’s tour, there was quite a bit of interest in the historic bank vault in the basement at 121 W. Forsyth St.
Sass explained that after the Great Fire of 1901, several banks were built on the bluff near what is now the intersection of Laura and Forsyth streets.
One feature of the area that was kept secret a century ago was a tunnel that connected the banks and was used to transfer money between the institutions.
What remains today is an underground walkway below Forsyth Street between Benny’s Sandwich Shop and the concourse at the BB&T Building.
Behind a door and down a hallway not open to the public, Sass showed the walking tourists one of the most historic sites Downtown – the original vault under the old Atlantic National Bank.
Another stop that created a lot of interest was the Florida Theatre Building.
After riding the elevator to the 7th floor, the group climbed a flight of stairs and stepped onto the roof for a view of the skyline seen by few people, at least these days.
Sass said at one time, there was a garden on the roof where people could gather to listen to music and enjoy the panorama.
He also shared some stories about one of the most famous performers to ever walk onto the stage in the theater, Elvis Presley.
Sass told the story, which was recounted at the time in “Life” magazine, about Judge Marion Gooding being so concerned about Presley’s notorious pelvic gyrations that Gooding counseled the young performer about what would be acceptable in Jacksonville and what would not be.
Gooding made sure his instructions were followed by sitting in the audience the night of the show.
“Elvis still did his moves, but he did them behind the piano,” said Sass.
The Downtown walking tour debuted in May for a reason, Sass said. He decided if he could create a market for it in the hot and traditionally slow-business summer months, he’d be able to keep it going year-round.
So far, several hundred people have experienced the tour.
“We’ve had locals and visitors and we’ve done some private tours, including groups of hotel staff who want to know about Downtown,” said Sass.
The tour is also meeting the goals he set for the branch of the business beyond selling tickets.
“I want to bring people Downtown and show them around. The tour is a way to promote Downtown and demonstrate it’s a safe place,” said Sass.
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