Bethanie and Karl Schemel weren’t born in Kansas City, but they’re committed to showing off their adopted city to its full potential.
So in June, the couple started KC Double Decker Tours, featuring their 1968 British import double-decker bus (known as “Big Chief” or “Gus the Bus”) looping around downtown and the Country Club Plaza, taking riders on an open-air, hop-on, hop-off tour with eight iconic stops.
For the Schemels, the stops are more than just history lessons; they represent the couple’s own journey in Kansas City as well. And, like the tour, their journey begins at Crown Center.
OK, so they had their first date on the Plaza, but it was at the Crown Center ice skating rink where they discovered a mutual dislike for a certain winter activity.
“We both thought going ice skating would be great,” Karl said. “We did one circle and my feet were killing me. But it makes for good memories.”
“We weren’t very good at it,” Bethanie said.
Rather than chalk it up as a loss, the two bonded, got married, had two kids and now have two tour businesses: KC Barbecue Tours (which takes guests on a four-hour tour of some of the best joints in Kansas City) and their new bus tours. Karl manages all things bus-related: routes, drivers and maintenance of the British bus, which came to KC by way of Chicago. Bethanie said she loves giving tours because she’s a history buff. The operation seems to be working, though they had no prior experience in tour management.
Bethanie, who’s from Wichita, started her career in health and fitness; Karl was (and still is) a firefighter. He grew up in Chicago before moving to the area 14 years ago to attend the University of Kansas (he finished his degree at UMKC). While visiting his parents in the Windy City, he took a pizza tour — which is where the idea for the barbecue tours came from.
KC Barbecue Tours includes a bit of sightseeing (“a digestion break,” Bethanie calls it), which inspired their newest venture. After seeing the city develop into a hub for entertainment, industry and family-friendly fun, they wanted to show off their KC pride in a unique way.
“It’s not just a cowtown,” Karl said. “Since I’ve been here, Kansas City has really really grown and become a major destination.”
New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and plenty of other cities have double-decker bus tours So, the Schemels thought, why not KC?
“It was more of a knowing that we’re there with them, we have the same attractions, we have the same amount of history — if not more than other places around the country — and it’s being able to show that off above street level,” Bethanie said.
Their business isn’t the first to show off the city. For example, KC Fun Tours offers a similar tour conducted via trolleys, and the Kansas City Gangster Tour takes riders along the paths of famous mobsters from the past. Gangster guide Tim Phillips said their weekly tours usually sell out, and 75 percent of their riders are locals. It’s all a reflection of the colorful history of Kansas City and our desire to know more about our hometown, he said.
While Phillips said there’s certainly a degree of competition, he’s happy to hear about the growing Kansas City tour business.
“We’re all kind of in the same industry, and we all have the same desire to show our city in the best light that we can,” he said.
That’s certainly the case with the Schemels — and, like the KC Gangster Tours, it’s all about a fun experience. For riders to see the city like the Schemels do, KC Double Decker Tours guides must entertain.
On one recent weekend, a bachelorette party was treated to an impromptu Tech N9ne performance by tour guide Patrick Lindhorst (who can be found most days charmingly recruiting customers at the kiosk at Crown Center).
“It was awesome,” said Veronica Lyn, the sister of the bride, who explained that the party took the tour to explore the city without worrying about driving. “We were so close to the street signs up above. It was a great view.”
The views are just part of the experience; Bethanie, who serves as a tour guide herself, loves to share her own appreciation for the city’s history. Her favorite stops are the National World War I Museum and the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
“I just think it’s so cool to be able to paint a picture for people who weren’t there to experience historical events, but we can at least picture it with words,” she said.
In addition to the history behind each stop, Bethanie and Karl have their own personal memories for each:
▪ Crown Center: After the ice-skating fiasco of their second date, the Schemels stick to land nowadays. They enjoy bringing their children — Henry, 3, and Archie, 16 months — to marvel at the fountains, where Archie likes to be playfully chased by his parents. When their nieces are in town, they frequent Legoland and Sealife Aquarium and stop in for a bite at Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant.
▪ Arabia Steamboat Museum: On Sunday mornings, Bethanie likes to take her children down to the City Market (“We love to support local businesses,” she said). Karl tries to join them as much as his firefighting schedule allows, and it’s not uncommon for them to see firefighter friends as they’re walking around.
Bethanie also loves the history of the Steamboat Arabia with its artifacts from before the Civil War.
“Some of it is not too different from what we have today,” she said. “They may have done things a little different, but they still have their silverware, their china and their clothes. … I like that place because you can see how things have progressed over the years — how inventive we have been over the years to get to where we are today.”
▪ Boulevard Brewing Company: “Everybody has a memory with a Boulevard,” Bethanie said, be it receiving good news or making memories with a cold one in hand. The Schemels haven’t gone on a brewery tour because of their own busy schedules, but she said the brewery is a beautiful factory that flies under the radar. At the end of a long day of tours, Bethanie said she likes to go home and have a Boulevard Wheat to relax.
▪ World War I Museum: For a history buff like Bethanie, the museum is the best place in town. It’s the No. 1 thing she recommends to those taking her tour, both because of the history held within the walls and the special place it holds in her heart. Her family has a military background — both her sister and her cousin serve in the Air Force — and she has several friends who have served in Iraq.
“All of our veterans and those actively fighting deserve the utmost respect,” she said. “That place is so respectful of what soldiers go through, and, yes, it just focuses on that one war, but I think you come out with more knowing of what a soldier’s life was like and is like currently.”
▪ The Country Club Plaza: Bethanie and Karl had their first date at Brio Tuscan Grille, and the Plaza has become the spot for family milestones ever since. They revealed their first child’s gender at a family dinner at Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant, and the shopping center has become a favorite of Karl’s mother. When she visits, she always has to get pancake mix from Classic Cup Cafe and, rather than stay with her family, she always spends one night at the Raphael Hotel.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_Kate_Miller_
How to ride
KC Double Decker Tours run Wednesday-Monday, with tours beginning at 10:30 a.m. (9 a.m. on Saturdays). Hop-on, hop-off day passes are $30 for adults and $25 for children. Single-loop tickets cost $20 for adults and $15 for children. Lap riders (kids ages 4 and younger) ride free. See kcdoubledeckertours.com or call 888-560-7963.