It's not Disneyland's Jungleland cruise or a self-guided Star Map tour through celebrity-studded Beverly Hills.
But Los Angeles' latest urban safari offers another kind of Southern California exploration.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the weekday business crowd on DASH commuter buses is replaced by tourists and even local residents seeking easy access to such attractions as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the jewelry district and the Memorial Coliseum.
For a mere quarter, you can be swept from the bustling Grand Central Market to the inner courtyards of Chinatown, from the maze of Sunday walkers on south Broadway to the rickety ride of Angels Flight.
Another route takes passengers into the fashion and jewelry districts and a third allows passengers to shuttle between Exposition Park, the Convention Center and the Bunker Hill Steps.
Last October, the city's Department of Transportation created the three special weekend DASH routes to meet the needs of downtown visitors. Buses run every 15 to 20 minutes from about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
"I found that we're really in the business of selling downtown," said Phil Aker, supervising transportation planner. "I've been working with downtown hotel concierges, and they're been real glad to have something to tell people they can do other than, 'You can take a tour of Beverly Hills.' "
Heather Rawls and her friends agree.
On a recent warm Sunday afternoon, the four students from the University of Tennessee, Memphis, hopped on a Downtown Discovery bus, tour books in hand. They were in Los Angeles for a pharmaceutical convention and wanted to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible.
"This place is huge!" said Alison Gambill, 23. The day before they had rented a car and driven to Rodeo Drive, and the next day they planned to visit the San Diego Zoo. But this day, since they had just a few hours between meetings and not much cash, their concierge at the Omni Hotel recommended they check out the weekend bus route.
"This is so much better than renting a car," said Rawls, 22. "It's cheap, and we're all students, so we're poor." They watched in fascination as their bus rolled through the busy streets of Chinatown and headed down to Olvera Street.
"I think this tour is great--this covers all I want to see," Rawls said. "All these subcultures are so fascinating. Compared to the Bible Belt, this place is a whole lot different."
Tourism officials said they hope the weekend routes will draw more visitors to a city that seems daunting in its scope and shortage of public transportation.
"One of the issues visitors to Los Angeles are most confounded by is the issue of transportation, particularly visitors who arrive and do not have a car and find themselves in a hotel," said Robert Barrett, director of cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The public transportation system, and particularly DASH downtown that connects the cultural centers, makes our city seem friendly."
The routes were designed for weekend visitors after transportation officials discovered an untapped market of tourists staying downtown for long conventions. When the Smithsonian exhibit visited Los Angeles in January 1996, organizers approached transportation officials about creating a weekend bus for exhibit visitors. After convention-goers raved about the downtown buses, transportation officials decided to develop permanent weekend routes.
Now, planners are working on a day pass that would tie the bus ride in with major museums and other attractions.
So far, many who have taken the 25-cent tour said the ride has escorted them to parts of Los Angeles they otherwise might not have discovered.
The sound of mariachi music drifted over Olvera Street as Rawls and her friends left the bus.
"Thank goodness for this bus," she said, "or we never would have found this place."
Dash Weekend Routes
Route E, "Shoppers Paradise"
Route F, "Expo Direct"
Route DD, "Downtown Discovery"
DASH Southeast For specific schedule information, call DASH Connecting Transit Services at (800) COMMUTE.