Road Warrior

22 years later, 'Sleepless' still a sure bet for Seattle tourists

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC

When it was released in theaters in June 1993, film reviewer Roger Ebert described Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle" as a romantic film that was "as ephemeral as a talk show, as contrived as the late show and yet so warm and gentle" that he "smiled the whole way through."

The now-iconic chick flick, which starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as star-crossed lovers brought together by call-in radio, a mischievous son and fate, still makes people smile. Nearly 25 years after it grossed more than $100 million domestically, the movie is still making money—just not for Hollywood.

In the scenic Emerald City, now more closely associated with the lovelorn doctors of "Grey's Anatomy," the Hanks vehicle is a goldmine for tour operators and shop owners, contributing to the nearly $5 billion the city generates in travel spending annually.

"What's crazy is that the movie is so old, yet it's still such a popular part of our tour," said Jeremy Gonzalez, spokesperson for Ride the Ducks, a popular land and water sightseeing tour. During the 90-minute excursion, captains of the amphibious tour vehicles drive into Seattle's Lake Union to give tourists a clear view of the floating home used in the film, which recently sold for more than $2 million.

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"We keep a respectful distance. Close enough to get a clear view, but far enough away not be intrusive," said Gonzalez. "We play a song from the movie and the captain will talk about the pivotal scene where Tom Hanks is standing on the pier, or boardwalk, in front of the house with his son."

The route of the Show Me Seattle city tour ($58 adults/$40 children, including tax) includes a view of the floating home, and of several downtown spots featured in the movie, as well.

"Fans of that movie fit with our demographic," said Meghan Maugans, operations manager of Show Me Seattle, "especially during the summer, when a lot of older people come to Seattle to go on cruises."

According the Port of Seattle, during 2015 nearly 200 cruise ships are expected to dock in Seattle, bringing an estimated 895,000 passengers and their tourism dollars. While in town, many of those visitors are likely to purchase "Sleepless in Seattle" souvenirs, which shop owners say still sell briskly.

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"We still sell a lot of shot glasses, key chains and magnets with the iconic 'Sleepless in Seattle' logo," said Peg Boettcher, a curio wrangler at the eclectic Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on the Seattle waterfront.

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Souvenirs from the hit medical drama "Grey's Anatomy" also do very well in stores. Still, "we also sell dozens—4 to 6 dozen—'Sleepless in Seattle' shirts and mugs in our stores each week," said Jamie Munson, general manager of the Simply Seattle gift shops.

The movie may be old, "but it does a good job of highlighting the city, and when people come to town they want to visit the places they've seen in the movie and take something home," he said.

"Sleepless" merchandise also sells well at the airport. During 2014, shops run by the Hudson Group at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport sold 13,698 movie-branded items of clothing—including nightshirts (which sell for $32.99), tank tops, Capri pants and boxers.

"We love the continued demand from this movie," said Brian Berkner, Hudson's regional vice-president.

" 'Sleepless' shirts sell better from May through August, when there's higher traffic at the airport, and are the top-selling shirts year-round, except for a few months when the Seattle Seahawks take them down to No. 3 or 4," he said.

--Correction: An earlier version misstated the number of years that have elapsed since the movie's release.

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.