Aspen’s Ultimate Taxi rolls into a new era
December 31, 2010
ASPEN – Jon Barnes likes to joke that he’s still crazy after all these years – as the Paul Simon song says – as the owner and driver of Aspen’s Ultimate Taxi.
Crazy like a fox is more like it.
Barnes has figured out ways to keep his rolling rock ‘n’ roll show and entertainment extravaganza fresh enough over the last 25 years to keep customers coming back and his sanity intact.
The Ultimate Taxi retains many of the features that have made it popular since the 1980s. The classic old yellow cab plies Aspen’s streets at night with a barrage of flashing, colored lights that would do Lady Gaga proud at one of her concerts. Dry ice fog rolls out from under the front seat into the spacious back passenger compartment. There’s a kick-ass sound system that pumps out music that Barnes matches to his customers – everything from smooth jazz for older folks to the latest teen heartthrob for younger customers. And, of course, there is a mirror ball twirling between Barnes and his passengers.
Barnes plays along with the tunes using a keyboard, an electronic wind instrument synthesizer that mimics a saxophone, flute, harmonica and brass section, and a drum machine.
“That’s a fat sound for a cab,” he says with a satisfied look after playing along with Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” at blaring volume on a recent night.
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Barnes has a never-ending stockpile of corn-ball jokes and gags with props, like a fake hand that “helps” him play the saxophone. He also flashes magic he’s picked up over the years.
One of the neatest effects of his ride is his simulated roller coaster. Passengers view roller coaster tracks on a laptop on the cab’s dash. Their perspective is from the front roller coaster car.
As the roller coaster huffs and puffs up a steep hill, Barnes’ taxi goes along with a jerky motion; when it tops the summit and makes a swooping decent, he mimics that sensation by gunning his car. After driving the taxi so long, he masterfully creates the sensation of the roller coaster, flying into banked curves as well as accelerating and decelerating. The combination of watching the computer screen and his driving makes you feel like you’re on the ride.
“It’s as close as it can be to experiencing a roller coaster ride without going upside down,” he said.
Barnes, 52, bought and rigged his taxi in 1983 as a way to gain an edge over other drivers. The car is a yellow 1978 Checker cab with about 500,000 miles on the odometer. He started driving for cab companies but tried to add a little entertainment to a standard ride. By 1990, he adopted the motto, “Life is not a destination, it’s a ride” and altered his approach, going into business for himself. Rather than hauling passengers from point A to point B and charging a fare as a standard taxi, Barnes provided an amusement ride rather than taxi service. Someone in a hurry to get somewhere need not climb aboard.
The ride and Barnes’ shenanigans have been a hit with everyone from tourists reveling in a night out in Aspen and for locals kids’ birthday parties for the last two decades. He’s got a cache of pictures of A-list celebrities who have taken the ride while visiting Aspen. It’s a surreal experience sort of like a trip to Vegas – you wouldn’t want to do it all the time but it’s sure fun every now and then.
Barnes used to work 12-hour shifts, hanging out at strategic locations in Aspen to attract attention and business. Now he has other pursuits so he spends less time in the taxi.
“I kind of do this part-time now,” he said. “After 25 years, I didn’t always want to drive around in circles doing a rock ‘n roll show.”
Barnes had to come up with something fresh to keep his spark. He’s a good photographer and also a techie and computer geek, so he wed those interests with the taxi. He mounted three video cameras inside the cab and another on the hood to capture all the action. Before, he was able to provide still shots of the zaniness inside the cab; now there is video, too.
“When you step into the taxi, you step into the Ultimate Taxi website as well,” Barnes said.
Passengers star in their own show. Barnes streams live video of his show to his website, with passengers’ permission. Passengers are sometimes obscured in dark as part of the light show that’s integral to the experience. Passengers can watch on his laptop with just a few seconds of delay or they can relive the moment over and over by checking archived video of their experience at http://www.ultimatetaxi.com.
“Whether you like the ride or not, you’ll be stuck with the memory. It’s a non-deleteable file,” he quipped.
People apparently like it. His website had 26,000 visits in November.
The price of the 40-minute ride is going up from $175 to $200 in unison with the Bush tax cuts getting extended. Barnes thinks the country’s priorities are out of whack these days. He wants to draw attention to the people in need and help ease poverty, in a small way. So the extra $25 he is charging will go to LIFT-UP, a food bank in the Roaring Fork and Grand valleys, and Feeding America, a national effort. Barnes hopes to raise several hundred dollars to feed the hungry.
“If some [of his donations] go to kids of illegal immigrants, I’m OK with that,” he said, relishing the dig at his conservative friends.