The first birthday gift Erv Comer got Saturday came from serendipity, on the drive in from Queen Creek.
"We had to stop on the side of the road," said his friend Melanie Smith of Chandler.
"He said, ‘That is a perfectly good shovel.’ " (There was a hard hat, too, but it didn’t make the cut.)
For her part, Smith had something a little bigger planned for Comer’s 40th birthday: Twenty-five of his closest friends were waiting at Tempe bar Minder Binder’s, the launching point for a trip to Greasewood Flat, a turnof-the-century ranch bunkhouse that is now a restaurant in north Scottsdale.
Which led to a challenge: "A lot of his friends live in the East Valley, and I didn’t want people to have to drive," she said. To get them there en masse, she chartered a red double-decker from The London Bus Co., a Scottsdale company that maintains a fleet of British-style Bristol buses.
"The destination will be fun, but I think getting out there will be the highlight," Smith said. "That can be the party in and of itself." To ensure that was the case, she purchased a keg, coolers with beer and soda, deli trays and other snacks, and the requisite splay of black "40th birthday" balloons.
Tonight, The London Bus makes its first run specifically charted for a holiday lights tour. Anyone can charter a bus, which comes with its own tour guide/driver; the going rate is $395 for the first four hours, $90 an hour after that. Considering each bus can hold up to 65 people (27 downstairs, 38 upstairs), the "fare" works out to a little more than $6 a head. Other customers in the next week include an elementary school, and the Department of Education has reserved all three buses for a conference.
The bus maxes out around 45 mph — "50, if someone pushes," said driver Michael Voegele. It’s a real former London bus, with a stereo and water coolers added and one row of seats removed to increase leg room. The only amenities missing: Restrooms, which might make a long road trip a bit of a challenge, and air conditioning, although the bus comes with windows and fans. (Windows are tinted to help passengers on the upper level stay cool.)
The upper level is where the party was for Comer’s group: After a quick stop by the keg and snack tray, friends made their way up the staircase to perch in seats upstairs, which had the good view. To say the birthday boy was delighted would be an understatement: He had just returned from a trip to Europe — London, specifically — the day before.