Allison Robicelli spent 12 hours inside O'Hare Airport, exploring all of the terminals and architecture, documenting her sights via a Twitter thread that has gone viral. Credit: Allison Robicelli

O’HARE — What would you do if you were stuck at O’Hare Airport for 12 hours?

While many of us might sigh and try to sleep or complain to our friends, Allison Robicelli made the most of her all-night layover by having a fun adventure inside one of the world’s busiest airports with virtually no one else around.

Robicelli, a writer for The Takeout and The Washington Post’s food section, was on her way home to Baltimore Saturday after a trip to Palm Springs. She brought her favorite leather jacket with her on the trip — a $350 jacket she scored at Goodwill for $15 — but when she got on the plane, she realized the jacket was gone.

When she landed at O’Hare, she reached out to TSA and contacts in Palm Springs in hopes of finding the jacket again. After several emails and calls, she got news it was in Palm Springs — but the distraction caused her to miss her connecting flight.

“I felt like an idiot and was mad at myself because it was entirely my fault,” Robicelli told Block Club with a laugh. “But when I realized what happened, I was actually kinda happy about it because I know I wanted to see some stuff but you don’t have the chance to do that when you’re running back and forth.”

After getting a new flight for 7 a.m. Sunday and calming her nerves, she decided to take a walk. That turned into a 12-hour exploration of O’Hare, which she shared in a Twitter thread that’s since gone viral.

With no other passengers around, she spent time talking to the custodial staff, exploring art exhibits, skipping down moving walkways, playing free arcade games and checking out all of the terminals. She skidded on the floor with no shoes, explored dimly-lit hallways, learned about the airport’s architecture and did some work in little nooks — all of it accompanied by Christmas music coming from the loudspeakers.

“This is like ‘Home Alone’ but without the child abuse,” she said.

Perhaps the highlight of her adventure was laying on the floor of the Rotunda Building in Terminal 3 at 1:45 a.m. for 10 minutes. and looking up at its design, lit up by the airport lights that reflected an optical illusion.

Built in 1962 and designed by architect Gertrude Kerbis, the Rotunda is a “jetage relic from the airport’s earliest days” and was named one of the 2017 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois by Landmark Illinois because of its history and age surrounded by more modern upgrades at the airport.

“When I laid on my back in the Rotunda, it literally took my breath away,” Robicelli said. “It’s beautiful from the side but there is an illusion up there. You don’t see it unless you are flat on your back in the middle of the Rotunda. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my entire life.”

She also enjoyed skipping down the moving walkway in Terminal 1 and watching the artwork on the ceiling reflect on the floor “like lighting,” which she said she wouldn’t have noticed if there were people moving about.

The iconic terminal was designed in 1986 by famed German architect Helmut Jahn, who died earlier this year in a cycling accident.

Robicelli hopes her nighttime O’Hare adventure can give folks a new appreciation of the airport and the everyday beauty of life, especially when the world can feel heavy and uncertain. Seeing the airport so empty and being able to talk with the workers there was also a reminder of the people behind the scenes “who make it happen every day.”

“If the past two years have shown us anything, it’s that none of us will ever be screwed by the airlines as hard as these people have been screwed by the airlines,” she said, who spent most of her life in the service industry. “We should appreciate this — being kind. Everything is garbage right now, but you can do your best not to be garbage.”

Commuters make their way through O’Hare International Airport on May 30, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

She didn’t expect her Twitter thread to blow up as much as it did, but is happy that people, locally and nationally, found joy and inspiration in her goofy O’Hare journey. Would she do it again? Yes, she said — and she wants to get a bunch of friends together to “miss our flights” so “we could have the most epic game of manhunt ever.”

“I don’t have the money to do that but it needs to happen,” she said. “I hope people have a newfound appreciation for O’Hare because it’s amazing in there.”

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