Each December, New York transforms itself into a metropolitan holiday wonderland. From window displays to the Rockefeller Center tree to the Rockettes, the city is brimming with cheer. But there’s one thing missing. Aside from the occasional decorated townhouse, New York lacks the light displays and decked-out front yards that are typically associated with the suburbs. But there is one place where New Yorkers can get their fill of small-town nostalgia, and it’s just a quick trip away in Dyker Heights thanks to Tony Muia’s bus tour of the “undisputed capital of Christmas pageantry.”
Inspired by the hospitality he experienced traveling abroad, Tony started giving guided pizza tours of Brooklyn in 2005. He later expanded A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours to include neighborhood tours and his famous Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour, which was featured in a PBS documentary and on TLC. We recently spoke with Tony, the ultimate Brooklynite, about his passion for the borough, A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours, and the magic of Dyker Heights.
What makes Brooklyn special?
As I tell many people, now Brooklyn is so hot. We used to live in the shadows of Manhattan. Brooklyn has always been part of people’s consciousness whether it was the Brooklyn Dodgers, celebrities, Coney Island, a slice of pizza, cheesecake, or Junior’s. Anyone who grew up in Brooklyn has always been proud to be from the borough, and other people have always been fascinated by Brooklyn. Whenever I started talking to people about Brooklyn, different things would sort of pique their interest. “Tell me about Coney Island. Tell me about when they filmed Saturday Night Fever.” Imagine living in some other country and always hearing how incredible Coney Island was, the Brooklyn Dodgers were, and the food.
Why did you start A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours?
Throughout the ’90s I traveled extensively. Whenever I would go abroad, I was always asking locals where to go and where to eat. Ultimately, I found that people loved and were fascinated with Brooklyn. So I would just kind of reciprocate when these people came to visit New York and do tours in my car. As a proud Brooklynite, I shared the history, the landmarks, the movie locations, and the food, which is basically pizza since it’s synonymous with Brooklyn. Pretty soon their family members and friends were asking if I could show them around, too. It sort of became this weekend hobby.
The genesis of that ended up being the pizza tour. It covers pizza in Brooklyn from one end to the other, from the Neapolitan style at Grimaldi’s under the Brooklyn Bridge to Eli’s Spumoni Gardens in South Brooklyn. We also incorporate movie locations and Coney Island.
How has the business evolved since 2005?
It hit the ground running. There seemed to be a need for an authentic Brooklyn-based guided tour. When I started, I made sure that we did bus tours where we went to Manhattan to pick people up from Union Square. Through word of mouth, which is huge for us, our bus sizes have increased from 20 passengers to 38-56.
The neighborhood tour came up because people said, “We’re going to see Ebbets Field today.” I thought, that requires another tour. I also always had this plan for Dyker Heights because growing up we never went to Rockefeller Center. I thought to myself, people love Christmas and it brings them together.
Although the average New Yorker knows a fair amount of Brooklyn neighborhoods, not everyone is familiar with Dyker Heights. Can you share a bit about this neighborhood?
It’s a quiet, Italian-American enclave where, since the ’80s, people have been decorating their homes. It started with one woman, Lucy Spata, who started decorating her home in honor of her mom. Over the years, little by little, other people started decorating, and now it’s become this neighborhood phenomenon. Each year there are more and more homes. Every year, over 100,000 people flock to this area.
Where do the homeowners fit into the tour?
What’s great is that we love telling the stories of the homeowners. On December 1st, the first night of this season, it was kind of misty and raining. We had a full bus of people, and they caught Lucy coming home, and she stopped and spoke to everyone. At that point, they almost felt like they were catching a celebrity, since on the ride in we showed them clips of the homes from television coverage. The homeowners appreciate that we are giving the backstory. We just love recognizing the homeowners.
Also, the questions people have on the tour are from homeowners to homeowners, “How many amps are they pulling? How many hours does it take to do this? Where is this being stored?”
What are some of the tour’s highlights?
The tour is three-and-a-half hours. From Manhattan, it takes about 30 minutes, and during that time we show this video montage of the Christmas lights in Dyker Heights so people know what they are going to see. We play festive Christmas music like Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee, and then we do about two hours of the lights on and off the bus. Then we head over for cannolis and hot chocolate. On the ride back, we show retro TV Christmas variety specials like Andy Williams, Frank Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, and Danny Kaye. People really get a kick out of that as well.
One of the highlights is Lucy’s house. Across the street from her there is the Polizzotto house that has a 14-foot-tall animated Santa, wooden solider, and an entire toy land theme. Those are the standard homes in the middle of the block. Then there’s a house on 83rd street that has dancing bears, and it looks like it’s out of Disney. We have people like “Sam the Greek,” who has a three-story house that’s absolutely incredible and elaborately decorated. There are so many homes.
Do the homes change their lights year to year?
Every year we do a test run with all of the guides, and we go around and meet the homeowners and ask, “What do you have new this year? How many lights this year? Oh, you’re up to 300,000 lights on the outside of your home, that’s amazing.” Before the tour, people were just doing it for the neighborhood and because they love Christmas.
Some of the homes remain the same each year because they have these large elaborate decorations. Then there are Lucy and other homeowners who are always looking for something new they can add. Last year, Lucy had this nutcracker that needed a crane to be put on the front steps of the house. Some hire companies including B&R Decorators and DiMeglio Decorators to decorate.
Why include a cannoli at the end?
When we would go see the lights as kids, cannolis and hot chocolate were the treats we went for afterwards. I just thought to myself, all my tours feature something that has to do with Brooklyn. While a cannoli may be more Italian than Brooklyn, growing up in Bensonhurst, the little Italy section of Brooklyn, we went to one of the best pastry shops called Villabate Alba on 18th avenue. They are incredible and import their ricotta from Sicily. Early in December, we had a whole group from North Carolina who came up to see the lights. They had never even heard of a cannoli before. Sitting in an Italian pastry shop makes it a little more authentic.
What do you hope people take away from the Christmas tour?
Someone said last night, “Wow, it’s nice to leave Manhattan every once and a while because you really see some neighborhoods.” Our company slogan during the holidays is, “Rockefeller Center? Fuhgettaboudit.” You come to Dyker Heights, and you have an entire neighborhood of Christmas lights to look at. We just want people to realize that right across the river from Manhattan is this incredible winter wonderland. I think it holds up just as well as Rockefeller Center and the windows.
As far as all the tours, I always wanted an easy way for people to come to Brooklyn and experience all those things that make it great. To have a local showing you around, you’re kind of going off the beaten path. I think that’s what many of us want when we travel.
At the end of the tour, I always ask everyone, “How many of you by a show of hands, after coming to Brooklyn for the first time today, can actually see yourselves coming back on your own and exploring?” Inevitably, almost every hand on the bus goes up because my whole thing is that I want people to have an introduction to Brooklyn.
How do you think you are preserving Brooklyn’s rich history?
I think I’m preserving Brooklyn’s history by celebrating all the great things that have made, and continue to make, Brooklyn so amazing and by showing people from around the country and the world that there’s no place like it.
What does Brooklyn mean to you?
Brooklyn to me is real people, neighborhoods, history, culture, food, and movie locations. It’s my home.
[This interview has been edited]
Neighborhoods : Dyker Heights