The Real Royal York
Toronto's Royal York hotel is a perfect beginner's course in urban exploration, since one can see and do all sorts of naughty and exciting things without trespassing or breaking any laws. And even a brief delve beyond the public areas of the Royal York will leave the amateur explorer hungry for more.
Some think hotels are just floor after floor of identically constructed hallways. That's what hotels WANT us to think. They're actually full of interesting rooms, corridors, tunnels, nooks and crannies.
Most hotels assume each visitor is a vandal, street punk or marauding Viking raider until the visitor proves otherwise. The Royal York, by contrast, assumes each visitor is an executive until the visitor proves otherwise. This is demonstrated by the hotel's astounding lack of security.
The hotel once had very little interest in monitoring its guests, but it has steadily added more and more closed circuit cameras over the years. There are now perhaps 20 cameras in the building, most aimed at elevator banks or stairwells leading to interesting places. I have encountered no motion detectors. Security guards seem rare, but this may simply be because they are generally plainclothes guards dressed in suits.
The Royal York also promotes interior tourism by allowing all but free movement through its halls. Don't quote me on this, but in my experience none of the many doors labeled "Emergency/Fire Exit Only" are hooked up to alarms. In fact I have not seen evidence of any door at the Royal York being connected to any variety of alarm or sensor. And though the hotel has innumerable rooms set aside solely for the use of its 1,000+ employees, I have yet to see a single "do not enter", "staff only" or "authorized personnel only" sign. The staff doors are open and free for the public to use. I honestly don't understand why this is I suspect it is related to the hotel's assumption that all its guests are proper, uncurious businessmen. I am consistently amazed by the vast numbers of unlocked storerooms, kitchens and other rooms.
A Baby Building
I used to think the Royal York was really old. Really old. Like built by the Mayans before Europeans discovered North America. In reality, the Royal York is a mere baby among buildings.
The Royal York was originally constructed between 1927 and 1929 (AD). At the time of its unveiling (n.b. no actual veil was used), it was billed as "the largest hotel in the British Empire" and the only building in Canada with elevators. A concierge boasted to me that people used to come to Toronto just to ride the Royal York's elevators I chose not to confide that some still do. The 15-floor east tower was added to the hotel in 1959.
The Royal York underwent extensive (i.e. over $100 million) renovations in 1993, which modernized the hotel and made it fancier. These renovations killed much of its original stern and gothic charm in favour of colour and airiness. I've seen pictures of some of the old dining rooms and ballrooms, and they're delightfully dismal. One old dining hall had the appearance of a remodeled dungeon. I detest renovations, and fail to see how we will ever successfully coat this planet in civic space if we insist on wrecking something old everytime we put up something new, but I digress.
Dressing and Packing for the Royal York
At some point in the future I hope to feature an entire article on how to dress and what to bring when one goes exploring, but for now I will be brief. Since virtually every person in the Royal York is a businessperson, your wardrobe should be businesslike. Denim screams "I shouldn't be here". Keep your wardrobe light, though, you'll be climbing a lot of stairs.
Travel as lightly as possible no baggage at all is ideal. Normally I take a bag wherever I go, but the Royal York is so well stocked with pens, paper, markers, food and drink that one can live off the land. A camera is nice for those who want to capture the moment and a flashlight is handy if you're visiting any of the darker places described. I don't know much about lockpicks and lockpicking, but if anyone is so inclined, the locks at the Royal York are mainly Yale and Schlage in-knob and deadbolt locks. Not surprisingly, many of these are very old and dirty.
As any citizen of the Greater Toronto Area should know, the Royal York is that huge old building with the green roof directly across from Toronto Union Station. The PATH connects Union Station to the Arcade Level of the Royal York; an excellent starting point for your journey.
Some elevators at the Royal York list floor 15 as the highest floor in the building. This might accidentally give some gullible people the impression that the Royal York has 15 floors. In reality, the Royal York has at least 34 floors: two basement levels, the Arcade, the Lobby, the Main Mezzanine, the Convention Level, the Health Club, floors of rooms 1-18, an unknown business on floor 19, engine rooms from floors 20-22, "attics" on floors 23, 24 and 25, and finally the glorious roof on floor 26. Here's a bottom-to-top profile:
Couches! Phone books! Sheets! Sheets! Sheets! ... all of these await you in the surreal subbasements of the Royal York. The immense laundry room is sometimes accessible through an unlabelled door in the corridor between the Royal York and the Royal Bank Plaza; otherwise, the only way there seems to be via the service elevators, which is slightly risky. A friend and I took the service elevators down one day and found ourselves in a complex maze of storage rooms, laundry rooms and kitchens. Employees were everywhere, and many shot us funny looks before we found our way back up the surface.
The service elevator provides the only reliable route to the subbasements.
The basements (there are two main levels, as well as various smaller bits) are understandably huge and forgivably old. They are filled with immense machinery designed to clean clothes and pipe steam into the hotel. There are many rooms and hallways filled with machinery and other oddities. The basements also appear to be the final resting place of all miscellany which graces the hotel: storage rooms reveal old Christmas trees (still decked), mattresses, posh chesterfields and hundreds of phone books. There is a lot to see and do here, but since it is awkward to get to I have only scratched the surface.
Arcade Level (A)
The Arcade level consists mainly of overly expensive shops and restaurants. Because it is an especially new part of the building (constructed in 1993), it has few nooks, a distinct lack of crannies, and plays host to as many security cameras as all the other floors combined. For this reason, the Arcade level is not an exciting place to explore. Worth noticing, though, is the security bulletin board located just inside the service doors (directly beside the main elevator bay). See exciting color photos of the Royal York's most wanted!
Lobby Level (L)
Any functional definition of the word "posh" must include the Royal York's lobby within its scope. Old people, comfy chairs, and wood, wood, wood. It's a lacquerfest! The check ins and outs are here, and so is the concierge. She'll help you find anything you can't locate.
The north end of the Lobby level is the Royal York's mammoth kitchen. The kitchen is hard to get a good look at, since there are almost always employees on duty. Take a peak if you get the chance it's perhaps the longest room I've ever seen. You truly cannot see one end from the other. According to the hotel fact sheet, it is the largest kitchen in Canada with space to fit the bodies of seven jumbo 747s. (As far as I know, there has been no need for the hotel to do this so far.)
At the west end of the lobby, through the very fancy dining area, lies an extremely fancy ballroom. Visit its balcony via the back stairwell. The ballroom's backstage area is full of corridors leading to the immense lobby level kitchen, old out-of-use dressing rooms and storage cupboards with condiments, kitchen supplies, candles and the like. A yellow metal ladder leads up to a mini storage level with a locked door. I've never encountered any staff back here. There is also an old stairwell leading up to...
Main Mezzanine (MM)
A mezzanine is a sub-floor between two "real" floors. But though part of the MM level serves as a balcony to the Lobby, it is in itself an important, interesting and accessible level of the hotel. Be aware of its two security cameras: one surveys the Main elevator bank, the other peers down the main hallway. The MM level is probably the busiest level of the hotel, but both guests and staff will leave you alone if you look like you're supposed to be there. (When you go there as often as I do this is easy I probably know the place better than several staff members.)
The MM level is host to a number of fancy conference rooms. While on the MM level, be sure to visit its 12 provincial rooms, 3 confederation rooms, 3 Tudor rooms, and the especially swanky room known only as The Boardroom. These conference rooms are constantly filled with goodies you can examine, consume or even take (if you're naughty). Some of the provincial rooms have service doors leading to a kitchen and storeroom which I haven't yet had a good look at.
The MM level is a nice place to rest and recuperate should you become tired or nervous. No-one will bother you if you sit in the ultra-padded comfy chairs around the balcony and gaze down at the fancy-pantses scurrying about below as you sip your iced tea.
The entrance to the parking garage is located at the north end of the MM level. The six parking garage floors are entirely skippable.
Convention Level (C)
Some stairwells and elevators label the C level "D" (for Dining Hall?) or "B" (for Ballroom?) these are just sloppy inconsistencies on behalf of the hotel. Everything in between the MM level and the H level is really the C level.
This level is one of the most luxuriant. There are six very large, very pretty function rooms here. You should visit them all, and pay special attention to the corridors stemming off from the ballrooms at either end of the floor. This level has lots of neat storage rooms, an immense kitchen, an interesting backstage area (including prop rooms), and quite a bit more. Spend some time here for me.
During some functions, this level is monitored by ushers in red coats. They're the hotel's Imperial Guard Storm Troopers. Don't cross them or they'll ask if they can help you.
Health Club (H)
Be aware of a camera overlooking the elevators. There really isn't much to do on this small level, unless you feel brave enough to try and pass yourself off as a guest and use the pool, sauna and jacuzzi. I never did for my first year of visiting the hotel, but eventually worked up the courage. The pool here is pretty small and shallow for such a fancy hotel, but the changerooms are quite impressive. The stairways leading up from this level lead to a fun series of cement corridors and stairwells. Somewhere in the maze is a security office, but I once met a security guard in this neighbourhood and he seemed fully prepared to ignore me until I took the initiative and asked him where the exit was.
First Floor (1)
Don't make my mistake and assume all the numbered floors are identically bland. The first floor is home to a dozen or so small function rooms with such names as the Jasper Room, the Banff Room, the Montebello Room and so on. They all have lockable doors, tables and chairs, a small bar area (with an empty fridge), a bathroom with bath and shower, a comfy couch, and TVs, which offer pay-per-view TV stations. You may wish to pay special attention to channels 47, 48 and 49, where chances are you will see the brand of lesbian-filled soft-core porn so intimately associated with hotels with the quality you've come to expect from the Royal York. These movies regularly cost $12.60 a screening what a thrill to see them all for free!
Some of the stairwells accessible from level 1 lead into a maze of corridors, and to stairways heading up, down and back outside.
Middle Floors (12-17)
These floors are lumped together because they are more or less the same, consisting of lots of guest rooms, an ice dispenser and a lot of stairways. Floor 12 is the beginning of the "Entree Gold" floors the part of the hotel reserved for rich folks. There are free apples here, and the truly bold and well-dressed can step into the Entree Gold reception area for a free snack or full meal, complimentary paper, and some fancy "Entree Gold" toiletries found in a supply closet in the washroom.
In the northwest corner of the 13th floor, an unmarked, unlocked door leads out to the roof of the western wing of the hotel. A ladder outside leads up to the 14th floor roof and some fantastic views of the hotel and the city.
Views from halfway up the Royal York: looking up at the hotel and down on Union Station.
Eighteenth Floor (18)
This floor features the Upper Canada Room, a large and fairly fancy banquet room. From the Upper Canada Room, one can access the kitchen, a storage area and the service stairs (you'll need to take the service stairs here to get to floors 20-26). There's also a cloakroom and a locked lounge here that you can peek into if no-one's around.
Though too intimate to achieve splendour, the washrooms of the 18th floor are among the swankiest the hotel has to offer: lacquered wooden stalls with slatted wooden doors, marble floors and counters, brass faucets fancy stuff.
Nineteenth Floor (19)
The 19th floor was an enigma for the longest time, but now that the level is open for business the mystery has been solved. I attended once by a lucky accident, and came back another time posing as a businessman considering using The Nineteenth Floor facilities for a meeting.
"The elevator doors glide open. Gleaming marble, polished wood paneling, rich draperies and the warm smile of the on-floor Concierge welcome you to The Nineteenth Floor," the floor’s promotional literature gushes. "One of the most exclusive and private selections of meeting rooms in Toronto, The Nineteenth Floor was designed in consultation with senior meeting planners and top level executives, and occupies the magnificently restored 19th and 20th floors of the Royal York." (Magnificently restored from old engine rooms I chronicled in Infiltration 1, that is!)
The near-palatial opulence of The Nineteenth Floor.
The concierge desk is placed directly in front of the two public elevators which go to The Nineteenth Floor, allowing the concierges full control over who enters the floor and who does not. The Nineteenth Floor is off-limits to the general public, and even to ordinary guests of the Royal York. It is strictly reserved for the business affairs of the ultra-rich.
The "selection of meeting rooms" is indeed impressive, each being equipped with high-tech toys, heavily lacquered tables and comfy chairs. The floor is lit by large windows and sunroofs during the day and by chandeliers at night. There are also smaller meeting areas on the 20th floor.
Engine Rooms (20-22)
The next three floors are engine rooms. On each level, the main door to the floor (i.e. the door from the service stairwell) is always locked and requires a passcard key. Do not despair they are accessible, just not from here. Skip ahead to floor 23 for details.
Floor 22 features nothing more than engines. The turbines are big and green and yellow. Everything else is either black or dark gray. It's a delightfully industrial atmosphere. You can take the stairs to the very similar level 21, or clamber down among the huge metal pipes and ducts if you're old fashioned.
Floor 20 has a wider variety of rooms, but also seems to be the one engine room level where employees are occasionally present. This is obviously a very bad place to get caught ("Is there a payphone around here?" just won't cut it...), so be very careful if you decide to look around.
Attics and Roof (23-26)
Ascending your last ladder, you come to the absolute top of the Royal York. The hatch to the roof is wide open. The roof level is slightly more than a meter square; I wouldn't stand on it in high wind. It affords an excellent view of the city, the lake and the hotel itself.
Don't give up if the door to the twenty-third is locked. That happens sometimes; try again another day. The twenty-third is essentially an attic. Some light pours in through windows on the 24th floor, but there is no artificial lighting, so if you're coming in the evening bring a flashlight.
What you'll see is a very old, very large room, filled with large fans, gigantic pipes and more dust than you can shake a stick at (I've tried there was just too much). Looking around a bit, you'll find two tiny brick shacks, one of which is locked and one of which doesn't have a door. Really, there are quite a few nooks and crannies to peer into here, so I shan't chronicle them all.
By crossing the floor, one comes to an old, narrow stairway fashioned of iron. It is labeled Stairway 2. This stairway is the preferred method of transit between the engine room floors.
Near the entrance to 23 is a tall black iron ladder, which stretches up about 30 feet and takes you to level 24. Level 24 is another big loft. There are large holes in its cement floor, which look down to floor 23. There are also mini-chimneys here that you can, with some effort, manage to climb through and find yourself fairly high up the roof. In the middle of level 24 is another tall black ladder heading up into the roof; climbing it takes you to the very small, pitch black 25th level. From here, there's nowhere else to go but up.
Be sure to sign the guestbook before leaving the roof.
This article contains information extracted from Infiltration 1, Infiltration 6 and Infiltration 8. Yeah, I like the Royal York a lot.