The name refers to the American English usage of the word trolley to mean an electric streetcar. As these vehicles are not actually trolleys, and to avoid confusion with trolley buses, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) refers to them as "trolley-replica buses".
Tourist trolleys are used by both municipal and private operators. Municipal operators may mix tourist trolleys in with the regular service bus fleet to add more visitor interest or attract attention to new routes. In many cities tourist trolleys are used as circulators. A circulator operates a simplified route limited to popular destinations on a fixed schedule with a reduced or free fare. Tourist trolleys are also run by private operators to carry tourists to popular destinations.
In San Francisco, tourist trolleys mimic the city's famous cable cars.
Notable operators of tourist trolleys:
- Capital Metropolitan Transit Authority – 'Dillo Routes in downtown Austin, Texas
- Erie Metropolitan Transit Authority – Bayliner Route in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania
- Gray Line Worldwide
- Kingston Citibus in Kingston, New York
- Port of Los Angeles – Port of LA Waterfront Red Cars' Blue and Green lines
- Montgomery Area Transit Service – Lightning Route Trolleys in Montgomery, Alabama
- Pace – circulator in the Chicago area
- Red Rose Transit Authority – circulator in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania
- Rhode Island Public Transit Authority – Providence LINK in downtown Providence, Rhode Island
- VIA Metropolitan Transit – VIA Streetcar in San Antonio, Texas
- Ollie the Trolley in Scottsdale, AZ circulator in Downtown Scottsdale
- Riverside Transit Agency – shuttle service in downtown Riverside, CA, Temecula, CA and around UC Riverside
- Heritage streetcar
- Duck tour, the use of an amphibious vehicle for sightseeing purposes
- Trackless train, a kind of road train for tourists, often with a look of steam locomotive
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