Exploring Taliesin West | Scottsdale, Arizona

Common area at Taliesin West Scottsdale ArizonaOn an East Coast road trip when I was a kid, my family stopped at Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. Fallingwater is a home built into the natural setting of rocks and waterfalls designed by the esteemed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and even though I was fairly young when we stopped at the site, I remember being impressed by it, so on our recent trip to Scottsdale, Arizona, we made plans to visit Taliesin West.

Taliesin West was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937 as his personal winter home and studio. Today it serves as one of two architectural schools in the United States (the other is in Spring Green, Wisconsin) and is also one of the apparent highlights on a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona.

I admit I was a bit skeptical before we even left for the tour at Taliesin West, mainly because of the ticket prices. There are six tours available at Taliesin West. The least expensive one is a one-hour panorama that offers a brief overview of the property for $24.00 per adult. At that price, we decided we might as well take the two-hour night lights tour, which ran a steep $35.00 per person, but nearly all of the reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp lauded the tour and said the ticket price was well worth it.

Well, I might as well state my feelings right off the bat: The tour was a nightmare and our tour guide was an embarrassment.

Our guide was an architect student and the farthest thing from a tour guide … and this was his first nighttime tour. He didn’t have a flashlight so we couldn’t see anything he pointed at. People asked questions, and the guide not only didn’t know the answers to those questions but just shrugged them off, so other people in the group who knew about Frank Lloyd Wright and had read books about him did their best to fill in the gaps. People even asked him questions he should know the answers to, such as the projects he personally was working on; he answered with one or two words. The tour, which was supposed to be two hours, was barely more than an hour and a half, and most of that was filled with awkward silence.

Outside of Taliesin West Scottsdale ArizonaAnyone who followed my tweets during this tour knows how frustrated I was:

At Taliesin West in Scottsdale. Paid $35 for a ticket. The tour guide is a nightmare. Don’t know if I’ll last 2 hours.

OMG. This guy is horrible. Think I can get my money back if I leave now?

Guide warming up. Tour still not going well. Tours with new guides should not cost full price.

Tour over. Can’t wait to write an email to Taliesin West regarding the disaster that was that tour. #ArchitectsAreNotGuides

And then I followed it up with a response to someone who was following my tweets:

Our tour through Taliesin West was one of the worst I’ve ever had. Wouldn’t recommend for anyone. Unfortunate, but that’s the truth.

On the ride home from Taliesin West, none of us knew what to say. How in the world did this tour get 4.5 stars from both TripAdvisor and Yelp? I’m not going to lie: I felt ripped off and angry.

Once home, I reread the reviews and found that a tour guide makes or breaks this tour. Those who had one- or two-star experiences specifically mentioned their guides. Because I knew I’d be sharing my experience with readers of Kaleidoscopic Wandering, I decided to contact Taliesin West so they’d have the opportunity to state their side of the story. Jason Silverman, the residence life coordinator for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture was responsive to my concerns. He wrote:

I’m the liaison between the School and Tour Office and I’m writing specifically regarding your experiences with (tour guide’s name). Students are required to give tours as part of their academic program and I am responsible for their training. Nearly all feedback from student tours is positive but of course I don’t hear everything they say, or what every visitor may think. As a former Taliesin student (and tour guide) myself, I’ve almost always found that visitors enjoy hearing first hand of Taliesin life, even though the student guide’s knowledge of Mr Wright’s history may not always be as scholarly as our regular guides. In most cases I believe the visitors find the more ‘personal’ tour a fair or even added value in the trade off, but if in fact (tour guide’s name) didn’t even know the basics, there indeed is a problem.

Mr. Silverman went on to thank me for my feedback, and he has offered to personally give me and my family a tour of Taliesin West next time we are in Scottsdale. I hope to make it back to the property so that I can take him up on his offer, as most people have obviously been very happy with their experience.

I don’t want to tell you not to visit Taliesin West, because I get the very distinct feeling that what we experienced was abnormal. However, I also can’t recommend it either. Read the reviews if you’d like, but I honestly believe that the right tour guide here makes or breaks this experience.

Photo credit: brandon shigeta (living area), Kingdafy (exterior)

20 Responses to “Exploring Taliesin West | Scottsdale, Arizona”

  1. Andrea

    Guides definitely make or break tours, unfortunately. We’ve encountered all kinds from boring to snarky to poor listeners to know it alls to excellent…never thought to complain, though…it is nice that they offered a do over but really, your time there was spent already.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Good point about our time being spent already, but if I am in Scottsdale again, I’d consider giving it another shot. There must be something incredibly spectacular about this place if so many people rave about it.

      Reply
  2. Trisha Miller

    I applaud the fact that you contacted them and gave them a chance to respond, and to (hopefully) fix a problem that they may have been unaware of. Most people would not do that, and most companies truly appreciate the opportunity to make things right before they get a black eye, especially if it’s a rare complaint. If they get a lot of complaints, well that would show that they just don’t care, and if they don’t, why should you?

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’m curious if you’ve been to Taliesin West, Trisha. If so, did you think it was worth the money? How was your tour guide?

      Reply
  3. Andrew

    As a former apprentice at Taliesin (and T-West), I can definitely tell you that it is a bit of a daunting challenge to take a group of strangers around what is essentially our home. I remember the first time that I did it by myself, I swore that I would never do it again.

    That said, I grew to love doing it, mostly because of the fact that I had the license to take guests into areas that most tourists never get to go. In fact, it became a regular thing that I would partner with other apprentices so that they could swing by the living room around the same time that I was practicing the piano…and then I’d give a short performance. This was one of the many ways that we made it fun for ourselves.

    I’m sorry that you had a nightmare of an experience, and I certainly hope that you give it another shot – when done properly, it can be a lot of fun and full of terrific little insights.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thank you for your insight, Andrew. It’s good to hear from someone on the other side of the situation.

      Speaking of the living room, our guide just stood there until someone in our group offered to get up and play the piano for everyone else. Luckily someone offered to do it fairly quickly. I would have loved to have walked in to find someone playing, like you suggest.

      Reply
  4. Jill

    One of the tours available – and led by the students – is a presentation of their current projects. This is really the only tour students should be responsible for since it is their own work. Although knowledge of Wright’s history and the overall work at T-West should be important to them, being a tour GUIDE requires a whole different level of knowledge. It is quite possible to encounter many people taking the tour who have advanced knowledge of Wright and his buildings and you better know the answers to their questions – especially when the tours cost $$$! I am impressed you received a response – at least now they are aware of possible problems.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I agree that the presentation of student projects should be led by student guides, but for the price of the tours, it would make sense if the other tours would led by FLW scholars or those intimately knowledgeable about him, the history of the property and all the nitty-gritty details people want to know about beyond the architecture program.

      Reply
    • Diane Shirley

      you are so right! This is a MAJOR historical and tourist attraction, and even if it made the tickets more expensive, deserves professional, knowedgable guides, not students.

      Reply
  5. santafetraveler

    Kind of reminds me of an iffy experience we had at a training restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America, but there are a few differences. At the time you got a gourmet meal for a really reasonable price, because they were STUDENTS. We knew they were students going in and were okay with that. If Taliesin is going to use students for tours, the tour-goers should be warned. You can make an informed decision. Tours are about guides. The place has to be worth a tour, but after that, the guide is really important. I disagree with Mr.Silverman- anyone giving a tour should be very familiar with FLW’s history. It is important in understanding his work.
    The other thing here is, if you want to see something other than the moon and stars, a night-tour is probably iffy unless they have flood-lights. It was kind of him to offer you a personal tour- me, I’d rather have a refund.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      We went around the holiday season, so I thought there would be Christmas lights around the property. There weren’t. I’m not at all sure what the appeal of the night tour is. The guide kept saying things like “the sweeping view of the valley” then he would gesture to the black sky that, apparently, was a fabulous view of the city. Pretty useless, huh? There wasn’t anything about the night tour that was significant in regard to night light, so if I were to do it again, I’d definitely go during the day.

      Reply
  6. Gray

    I think that’s true of all tours, really, JoAnna: It’s the guide that makes or breaks it. That said, the company/business/whatever that is providing the training for the tour guides should be hands-on enough to know whether or not their guides are any good AND feedback should always be solicited from customers to find out whether or not guides are performing up to par. They also need a better way of determining if they’ve set up the correct price point. The tour you took sounds outrageously pricey for the kind of guide you got. I’m really sorry to hear about this experience, but appreciate the fact that you’re talking about it. That’s what needs to happen.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You bring up a good point about feedback, Gray. After our tour at Taliesin West, I stopped by the place we bought tickets to fill out a feedback form and no such form existed, so there is no easy way for people to provide their thoughts. It leads me to believe that a lot of people never have their voice heard.

      Reply
  7. leland

    after being on this trip and thinking over the years that i should take the time and make a trip to spring green and see the original taliesin, i’m having second thoughts. i too was disappointed with the night tour….maybe next time i’d try a different tour. thanks for the review.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      If I do the tour again, it definitely won’t be at night. I think part of my disappointment stems from the fact that I couldn’t see anything at all.

      That said, I’m also not in a rush to check out another Frank Lloyd Wright site anytime soon.

      Reply
  8. rob roof

    hi, I did a tour last November w/ Jason Silverman, & it was awesome. not only did he know the tour intimately, he was obviously passionate about flw & taliesin. I remember feeling like the tour was pricey while buying the tickets, but as soon as the tour started, those feelings disappeared. not to mention, to BE in a complex built by flw and his dedicated pupils…inspiring! i look forward to doing the “shelter tour.”

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thanks for your insight on the tour offered by Jason. If I go back to Taliesin West (a big *if*), I’m going to make sure I take him up on his offer.

      Reply
  9. Jess

    I went to Taliesin West a couple years ago and was thrilled with my tour. I went in the Spring when everything was in bloom, on the early morning tour, so it didn’t get too hot. I agree that it was kind of pricey, but I figured it was going to a good cause. The tour guide was extremely passionate and even gave us little insider tips & information which made it seem he really enjoyed what he did. I know that makes all the difference. I work in a visitor center so I know how important being the first face of a city, region or cultural landmark can be. I totally agree that student-led tours should have a completely different price point and I would have done the exact same thing you did if I had such an experience.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      I’m glad to hear you had a good experience on your Taliesin West tour. It seems to me that people either had really excellent experiences or really poor experiences. It also sounds like the time of day and tour guide are the make-it-or-brake-it points as well.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  10. Ravindra

    Given that you couldn’t take your own phtoos, it’s a good thing for you AND us that you found a published photo of the Origami Chair It seems to me that he’s been influenced by historical architectural in the design of this house. For example: the stone & sand walls by the pool (first shot) are reminiscent of the Myan Pyramids; the shape of the house itself, with it’s peaked room, makes me think of a teepee; and the shapes and angles of the exterior revealed wood seems influenced by art and architecure of the local Navajo tribes. Very cool!!Victoria

    Reply

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