Inside Amazon’s Prime photo op: A secret bus ride, a spectacular Seattle view — but alas, no drones


A delivery driver brings a package from an Amazon Prime van parked on a hillside in Seattle on Wednesday. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

We got picked up in a van that looked like it should be taking us to a bachelor party. We got dropped off at a venue with a Seattle view that would make the ultimate wedding backdrop. With a gaggle of fellow journalists along for the ride Wednesday, I said “I do” to another adventure aboard the Amazon hype machine.

The purpose of the excursion was the unveiling of a new wrinkle in the delivery of Amazon packages, in which the tech giant is empowering entrepreneurs to build small delivery companies.

After gathering at the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Seattle, more than a dozen reporters and photographers were to be ushered to an undisclosed site for what was described ahead of time as a newsworthy announcement. GeekWire was joined by folks from The New York Times, CNN, CNBC, Fast Company, Reuters, The Associated Press, The Seattle Times and more. Some flew across the country to attend.

“Is it drones? We’re going to see package-dropping drones, right?”

An unmarked commuter bus was used to shuttle journalists from downtown Seattle to the nearby Magnolia neighborhood. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

The nervous energy of having no idea what was in store filled our group as we took seats behind tinted windows in a black, unmarked party bus.

At GeekWire, in the days ahead of the event, smart money said we might end up down at Boeing Field, or somewhere that drones could be demonstrated safely. But as the van left HQ and headed north instead of south, the airport idea slipped away. Seated near the front of the bus, my colleague Taylor Soper could see a navigation map on the driver’s phone. Our destination was only eight minutes away.

We turned west down Denny Way and headed toward the waterfront, before heading north again on Elliott Avenue. Chatter between the driver and an Amazon handler indicated we were headed toward a confusing area near the Magnolia neighborhood, where there are warehouses and large parking lots associated with the cruise ship terminal nearby. Was Amazon about to unveil cruise ship delivery? Prime Seas!

We heard someone say “The Admiral’s House,” and Taylor quickly Googled the term to find out what that was all about: a landmark property in Magnolia with views overlooking the Seattle skyline, Elliott Bay and Mount Rainier. Sounded like a great backdrop for a drone landing.

The Admiral’s House in Magnolia, complete with a blue tent, right, to hide the secret delivery van that was unveiled. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

The driver missed a turn for the Magnolia Bridge and took a detour down into an area which was decidedly less photogenic. A couple U-turns later, and the company which was out to sell its latest logistics mastery was back on track. The bus pulled through a gate and up a leafy driveway before parking next to the white mansion at the top of the hill.

“Drones could land here. That’s totally a backdrop for drones. Look, a drone could drop a package right there.”

We all hopped off the party bus and were ushered into the stately house, which over the years had served as the residence for more than 30 U.S. Naval admirals and their families. In my 22 years in Seattle, I’d seen plenty of views of the city, but had never been to this place.

A photographer looks out a window at The Admiral’s House, sizing up the photo op presented by Amazon. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Coffee, tea and package delivery. Amazon took time to decorate inside The Admiral’s House. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Chairs were set up in a semi-circle on a large artificial lawn out front. A U.S. flag failed to do much flapping atop a pole positioned at the edge of the lawn. Beyond the waterfront, marina and industrial expanse below, the Seattle skyline — complete with cranes building more of it — rose to the right of Queen Anne. The Space Needle, Columbia Tower, Smith Tower and the arcing roofline of CenturyLink Field all stood out. Amazon even managed to somehow get Mount Rainier to show her dramatic presence and complete the quintessential photo op for national media.

After light snacks and more guessing about what was about to present itself to us on that lawn, we were told to take a seat outside.

“Here come the drones. They’ll take off from that platform in the water, right? Should there be a target on the lawn for a package drop?”

And then a grey Mercedes panel van was slowly driven onto the grass and parked in front of the cameras — and that view. A large, blue Amazon smile logo was painted on the side along with “prime.”

The Amazon driver shows off her new uniform. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)
Mic check: Amazon’s Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations, is excited about last-mile logistics. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

A woman wearing a blue and black uniform decorated with more smile logos stepped out of the van and brought a small Amazon Prime package over to the crowd. Dave Clark, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, then stood in front of the van and spoke — not about drones swooping in from the skies overhead, carrying packages full of phone chargers or DVDs or toothpaste. He talked about logistics.

As I looked for photographic angles that would show the van and Clark and the driver and the skyline and the mountain, I kept looking at my semi-confused cohorts. I tried to imagine flying all day, from New York or elsewhere, to come hear about this, rather than just grabbing an Uber from Fremont to downtown like I did.

The Prime van sits high above Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

I shared the news in Slack with colleagues back at the office. There was a collective, drone-free shrug.

The van was eventually opened so that we could get pictures of more empty Prime boxes positioned in the back. The Amazon worker posing as a delivery driver dutifully posed in front of the van and the city in her new uniform. I said the Nike swoosh on her sneakers should be an Amazon smile logo instead. She smiled.

We all eventually loaded back into the party bus for the short trip back to Amazon HQ. It was quieter this time, as journalists scrolled their phones or contemplated how they were going to package the information they were just fed. I whispered at Taylor.

“What happened to the drones?”

Might as well get some nice pictures of Mount Rainier. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

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