We had officially entered the "Lindsay Lohan Terror Zone."
Those closest to me pressed their faces to the windows of the 52-passenger TMZ Tour NYC bus, straining to catch a glimpse of Avenue NYC, the nightclub in New York's Chelsea neighborhood where LiLo allegedly called clairvoyant Tiffany Mitchell a "gypsy" before punching her in the face.
"Lindsay Lohan is the gift that keeps on giving for TMZ," our guide, Matt Chadwick, said with a smile.
The TMZ tour has arrived in the Big Apple. (See a list of some of the tour's stops at the bottom of the page.)
"The tour was so successful in L.A. that we thought we'd bring it to New York; it is such a natural place for celebrities and hot spots," said Georgette Blau, owner of On Location Tours, the TV and movie tour company that partnered with TMZ to offer TMZ Tour NYC. On Location also runs Sex and the City tours, Gossip Girl tours and Sopranos tours, among others.
TMZ, a media outlet famous for breaking celebrity news with an added dose of raunchy humor, originally brought a bus tour to Los Angeles in May 2011, and it continues to be one of the most popular ways to tour Hollywood, according to Matt Myerhoff, corporate communications manager at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Barrie Seidenberg, CEO of Viator, a global online booking engine for local tours, events and shows, said that "specialized" tours like TMZ Tour NYC are becoming increasingly popular in many major U.S. cities because they offer both tourists and locals a way to customize their travel experience.
"Generally, what we've seen in the last 10 years in particular are people who are really looking for a richer experience, one that more closely matches their own passions and interests," Seidenberg said.
While the specialized-tour phenomenon is global, Manhattan offers near-endless possibilities and variations.
In addition to New York's TMZ tour, Rupert Murdoch's New York Post this year introduced its own "headline" bus tour, taking tourists to locations that spawned many Post headlines, the ideal itinerary for scandal-hungry visitors. Other New York tours focus on viewing the five boroughs through their many neighborhoods, pizzerias and pubs.
Seth Kamil owns and operates Big Onion Walking Tours in New York. His company's 30 tours enable guests to explore many New York neighborhoods on foot. By carving out a city's particular niche or neighborhood, Kamil said, touring a larger city becomes more manageable for a visitor.
Specialized tours offered at Big Onion Walking Tours include the Official "Gangs of New York" Tour, the annual Father's Day Multi Ethnic Eating Tour and the company's most recent addition: Upper East Side: Clash of the Titans.
"When I moved here, I was told by a long-time New Yorker to understand New York as a series of interconnected neighborhoods," he said. "People should understand that New York is so diverse [that] the exact same locations can be interpreted in many different ways."
We continued to weave through the streets of Chelsea, Tribeca, SoHo, the Meatpacking District and Greenwich Village, stopping the bus only to scan the streets for A-listers. If we were stuck in traffic, Chadwick led a game of "Celebrity or Homeless?" where passengers would have to guess if the person pictured on one of the bus's TV monitors was a celebrity or a homeless person. In another game, "The Finger or the Wave?" passengers made predictions about whether a celebrity would, upon seeing a TMZ cameraman, wave or flip the bird. Winners took home a black TMZ tour T-shirt.
Specialized tours tap into one or more characteristics that make each city special.
Visitors to New Orleans can choose from a variety of tours, including Voodoo walking tours, city Segway tours, airboat tours or Hurricane Katrina bus tours.
Los Angeles also offers tours such as Segway L.A., the Twilight Wine & Dine Tour and the Sunrise Hiking Tour.
In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina tours continue to capture the attention of tourists and residents alike, said Kelly Schultz, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Buses carry guests through neighborhoods that were ravaged by the 2005 storm, showing them where levees broke and neighborhoods flooded.
"It's kind of controversial," Schultz said. "We didn't want to invade the residents' privacy or be insensitive, have someone standing in front of their demolished house and have a tour bus drive by. But the tours inspired visitors to come back and help rebuild the city, and from that standpoint it is very positive."
In New York, Chris Heywood, senior vice president of communications for NYC & Company, said the tours he wants to promote show the "vibrancy of the city."
"Most tours have been pretty good," Heywood said. "There's a wide variety of them all throughout the city. The Sex and the City tour reflects this [vibrancy] well."
Even so, he said, tours that show "the locations where Charlie Sheen trashed his hotel room or Lindsay Lohan was arrested for punching a girl who she called a gypsy is not something we're actively promoting."
I asked Chadwick why he believes a tourist would be interested in taking a specialized tour such as TMZ Tour NYC instead of a more traditional, historical tour.
"New York is not about these landmarks anymore," he said. "We're showing you what you want to see ... the things that make New York what it is. It's not about the buildings, it's about how you've seen a building in a movie or a celebrity has done something there, and that's how you're familiar with it."
"Groups still use motorcoaches and double-deckers," Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association, wrote in an email. "But what's changed is that people want to stop more often and get a closer look at attractions, especially if there are interactive or behind-the-scenes elements. Newer tours focus on specific interests, things like architecture, local history, faith, collecting, gardens and ghosts."
One cause of this touring trend, Viator's Seidenberg said, can be traced to the recent rise in technology and increased use of the Internet.
"Previously, you had to rely on a concierge or a really great travel agent with in-depth knowledge," she said.
"You had to figure it out when you got there and were at the mercy of a concierge who may not know everything you can do in a city, or even know what 'Sex and the City' is."
Now, she said, websites like Viator work with small tour operators that are "driven by passions of the things they're providing tours for."
"These businesses couldn't exist 10 to 15 years ago, there was no way to market their services," Seidenberg said.
As traffic lulled, Chadwick queued up another video clip to play on the bus' video monitor. Passengers watched as Jay-Z sat in a New York subway car next to an older, white-haired woman. "Are you famous?" she asked the rapper, who was on his way to his own sold-out concert at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
At the affirmation, she said, "Say your name again, just so I get it ..."
"Jay," he replied. "Jay-Z."
"Oh, you're Jay-Z! I know about Jay-Z."
"See? Even celebrities use the New York subway," Chadwick said.
Marc Mancini, a former tour manager and guide, now president of Marc Mancini Seminars and Consulting, confirmed that the "three-hour bus tour," an older, more traditional paradigm for touring a large city, has now been replaced by tours with a more specific focus.
"I'm seeing a lot more diversification," Mancini said. "That's the No. 1 change in sightseeing."
Despite the rise in specialized tours, both Mancini and Seidenberg believe there is still a market for the more traditional, "mass-medium" tour, and those looking to hit a city's main tourist attractions.
While not completely specialized, Gray Line double-decker buses in New York offer a variety of tours, or "loops," including a Downtown Manhattan Loop, an Uptown Manhattan Loop, a Brooklyn Loop and a Bronx Tour. While Gray Line's buses still make sure to hit all the typical tourist attractions, their hop-on, hop-off aspect enables tourists to take control of their own visit, said David Chien, marketing director of Twin America, a firm that operates both Gray Line and City Sites bus companies.
Clients, he said, "no longer have to commit to two or three hours; they see the stop they're looking to venture into, and then hop on the next bus that arrives," he said. "That is an interactive element that has spread across the world."
Still, Chien said his bus tours are constantly looking to reinvent themselves as the city changes. Gray Line has begun to incorporate pop culture points of interest into its tours: Guides will show you the Empire State Building but will also point out Gray's Papaya on the Upper West Side, a hot dog stand where Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan grabbed a bite in the film "You've Got Mail."
When asked if hop-on, hop-off buses face competition from more specialized tours, Chien replied: "We would coin our direct competitors to anything visitors will spend their money on. It could be a restaurant, hotel, a Broadway show, anything."
However, Chien said that other types of tours, such as biking tours and walking tours, seem like a "natural connection after [a guest] hops off a bus."
While there were only 15 passengers onboard for the two-hour tour -- a handful of them New York residents and the majority of them female -- the energy level remained high.
Many said they were fans of TMZ's TV show, while others read TMZ's website to keep up to date on the latest celebrity gossip.
"I like a good, interactive audience, an audience that is up to date with pop culture," Chadwick said. "If you're coming on a TMZ tour, you should kind of know what to expect."
Mancini said a tour's client base will vary, and it is also important to differentiate between the domestic and international markets. International tourists, he said, constitute a major portion of those who take city tours.
"Groups from Germany want a lot of facts, info, want to know that what people are saying is accurate," Mancini said. "Australians come here and want to find out where to party. It's a generalization, not 100% true, but it is the trend. If you talk to a tour guide, they have to adjust for each group."
To serve its international market, Gray Line buses offer audio translations in 11 languages, Chien said.
Simon wrote, "Across the U.S., we're seeing an increase in international visitors, which requires additional bilingual tour guides. I've heard from members that these visitors typically do Internet research and know exactly what they want to see and do before they arrive -- which makes customizing the tour activities to the group an essential component of city itineraries."
Aileen Sibbald, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, said her family always plans their tours far in advance.
On a recommendation from a friend, she hopped on a Gray Line bus in June when visiting New York City for the first time with her husband and 21-year-old daughter.
During her one-week visit, she said she also took advantage of other tours, planned by her husband. In addition to traveling on both the uptown and downtown loop of the Gray Line bus, Sibbald had also taken a bike tour in Central Park and sailed on a night cruise.
Although Sibbald said she was unfamiliar with the concept of specialized tours, she echoed the importance of being able to pick and choose what you want to do.
"That is the best way to see a city," she said.