Trip Report: Ride The Ducks!
August 7, 2010
"Let's see it this duck is all it's Quacked up to be"
First, a bit of background, I was headed to Newport on the Levee to partake of Goettafest. That's one of those local festivals centered around food, in this case the local product Goetta. Since I had the day to myself, I decided to combo a trip to Goettafest with a ride on the ducks.
Newport Ride The Ducks is a relatively new operation, started in 2008. I believe they started in 2008 with one borrowed duck and shared resources with the Newport Aquarium, which happens to be owned by the same people. I hadn't gotten around to trying out the local ducks for a couple reasons. First, I had already experienced the novelty of riding a duck in Biloxi, MS, being possibly one of the last to ride that duck before Katrina hit, and secondly, being from Cincinnati, how much could I really gain from a sightseeing tour of a place I have lived 37 years? Turns out, quite a lot.
They offer several ticketing options: phone, web, in person at both their own ticket booth in the middle of the main outdoor area of Newport on the Levee as well as at the Newport Aquarium. The web based system is pretty straightforward, and the service charges of $1 (I don't know if that's per ticket or per order since I only bought one) is pretty reasonable. The extra $1 is worth it for the peace of mind of knowing for sure you have a seat at the time you like. Just a note for those traveling with small children, if they are under 3 they are free, but they still require you request a free ticket, presumably so they can keep track of passenger count. Parking is also plentiful and located just under the levee for about $2-$5 depending on when you visit.
I noted that they must not put all of their tour times out for web ticketing, as the board posted next to the ticket office had several more options than the website. Again, presumably so that they do have tickets left for walk up or impulse sales. They request for you to arrive at the Duck Dock about 10 minutes before your scheduled tour. The Duck Dock is located on street level next to Third Street right by the bus stop. If you've made it to the Levee and the Ride the Ducks ticket booth, just take the path between Habeneros and Sweet Dreams and go down the stairs by Johny Rockets and you'll run right into it.
The Duck Dock shares space with one of the most bizarre attractions I have seen (and as a coaster enthusiast, I have seen some strange stuff at fairs): a real circus flying trapeeze where they invite you to try your hand at the circus aerial act. I can't imagine the waivers that go along with that. Anyway in the same fenced in area, Ride The Ducks has a greeter stationed in a little booth. He is there to answer any questions, welcome guests, and assist in the loading of the ducks. One important thing to note is he can't sell tickets, so bear that in mind. So I entered the fenced off area, and was directed to a shade tent with benches until my tour time.
I had the noon tour, and around 11:45 we see a duck return and, just like Disney, people dash for the boarding area. The greeter tried to tell people that they wouldn't be loading for another 10 minutes, so why not enjoy the shade instead of standing out in the sun. They have a roped off area directly behind the greeters station where they have the next group line up, and before we boarded te greeter made note that although they don't try to get you wet, there is the chance of getting wet on the ride, and that due to the design of the craft, those in the back rows have a bigger chance of getting wet than those in the front. Choose your seat accordingly.
After that the greeter hands out toys to all passengers that they have dubbed "Wacky Quackers" It's trademarked, just look on the bottom of your Wacky Quacker. This is basically a yellow plastic duck call in the shape of a duck's beak. As you might imagine, they have the inherent property that whomever is handed one can't resist trying them out. Those around me commented that when you have about 20 of these in one place, the sound is similar to the noisemakers used at World Cup games. I'm not sure about using white writing on the lime green lanyards, as it is quite hard to see. One suggested use is as a way to wake people up who are oversleeping, like your teens back home,
Having been properly outfitted it is time to commence boarding procedures. Here is hwere you hand in your tickets, and exit through a gate out onto third street. There is a somewhat unusual situation as you are boarding from a city street, so watch out for those pedestrians as you head to the duck. On the way to the duck, you (or your group) is asked to stand alongside the duck and pose for the camera. They use a strange pose where you are supposed to hold your right hand out, palm up. This is for reasons that aren't apparently clear at the time. You are advised that stopping for a photo is not optional.
After your photo, you are asked to walk around to the back of the duck, climb the ladder, and find a seat. While waiting for the ride to begin they have the Ride the Ducks theme song playing on the speakers, its one of those songs that's purposely designed to roll around in your head for hours if not days after the ride ends. So one by one, people get photos, and board the duck. Once the entire group is on boad, the boarding ladder is raised so the tour may begin.
After the welcomes, where you are introduced to your captain and your guide, come the safety announcements. First off are the required notices you get whenever you ride on a tour boat - life jacket and evacuation procedures. They have said jackets in two rows running all the way from the front to the back of the duck on each side, with children's sizes on one side, and adult on the other. Then the land based safety announcements about being mindful to keep everything inside the duck, don't stick anything outside the windows, to remain seated during the land portion of the tour, and to be mindful of any winds that may steal hats and glasses. With that, the tour can begin. The narration, as you might expect, does contain just about every bad Duck or Quack pun they can think of, as well as some humorous, maybe not quite accurate stories they call Duck Tales.
The tour starts on 3rd street and heads right across what used to be the Central Bridge into Ohio. Here is where you have the icebreakers about where everybody is from, and who traveled the furthest to get here. A family from Pittsburgh won that, with almost all of the other passengers being locals. We didn't have a full load, but it had a nice size group. From there you drive around the base of US Bank Arena on your way to the Public Landing. Not much to see in that stretch, so they play a little music and our guide announces that our captain is very excited, he's been practicing with the ducks all summer, and today is his first trip with passengers, thanks to that license he got from a box of Captain Crucnh, where else do you get a captain's license.
After the laughter dies down, they assure you your captain is,i fact, a certified captain. You start to roll down the Public Landing and they stop, this tie for the water tour safety instructions. One ou tour, we were advised to brace yourself on the seat in front of you for the plunge into the water, and of course to make as much noise as you can. We had attracted the attention of a couple families who were sightseeing from Public Landing. The dads turned to their children, motioned towards the duck with a "Watch This" expression.
There is a pause where they put out a call on the radio, and then blow the air horn before entering the water. We are advised that most boats have the engine in the rear, but ducks have the engine in the front, which means they have to enter the water with a bit of speed. The front has a windshield that flips up to help deflect the huge splash that occurs when the duck hits water. In truth the splashdown isn't really rough or jerky, just a bit unnerving to just drive right into the river.
After a few seconds for everybody to realize that, yes, we really are floating, they put Rolling on The River on the sound system, and begin the water tour.
Points of interest on the water tour are the Showboat Majestic, the last surviving showboat, they mentioned the upcoming show schedule and a bit of the history. It was owned by one family with 11 children. Between them, they would play all the parts, so they had no need of outside actors or other help. Legend has it the boat is haunted when the husband jumped overboard.
Next up is US Bank Arena - home to your Kelly Cup champion Cyclones, and also the second to last place Elvis played before he died (the last place being Market Square Arena).
Then its the riverboat memorial, a free attraction that consists of a giant paddle wheel mounted over a ring of smokestacks. If you can solve the puzzle and visit the smokestacks in the right order, the stacks blow and calliope music plays.
you then pass Great American Ballpark, but there is more on that with the land tour. They did note that the smokestacks in centerfield (where the home run fireworks come from) have 14 bats on top, one of the stadiums numerous subtle tributes to Pete Rose. They also pointed out the Tundra truck that can be won by a fan if it ges hit during the game. Apparently, it has never been hit by a home run ball during a game, but it has seen some abuse during batting practice. If not won in that manner, it will be given away on Fan Appreciation Night. The interesting this is, they hand you the keys, how do you get it home?
The tour then passes under the Roebling Suspension Bridge, originally wood decked, but now has a steel grate deck that is known as the Singing Bridge. They pointed out the tarps we see are from a sandblasting and repainting effort, and the particular shade of blue the bridge is painted has been named Robeling Blue by the paint company. They talked about how the suspension bridge was a fairly novel concept when it was built. At first it wasn't finished because it was built around the tie of the Civil War, and they didn't want any easy access between the North and the South. When it was finished the people didn't trust the new style bridge design. The ducks version of the story goes that they hired PT Barnum to parade his elephants back and forth across the bridge to show it was safe, the bridge climb version of the story says they got people to walk across the bridge by offering free beer in the center of the bridge.
A bit further down, and its Paul Brown Stadium, where they noted that due to the land, they built the stadium as far out and as high as they could, to maximize seating, but they still wanted ore seating, so they claim the football field sits 10 feet under water level, and the stadium is equipped with pumps to keep the water from flooding the stadium.
Shortly after Paul Brown Stadium you turn around, and they point out the murals that line Covington Landing, and show off the new ritzy Ascent. It's condos, its designed to pay tribute to the bridge nearby, and the cheapest condo in the building (ground floor) is around 800 thousand. The most expensive was the penthouse which Ken Griffy Jr sold recently for upwards of 5 million.
We then go past Riverboat Row, a row of historic houses alongside the river on the Kentucky side. It's noted that they are all historic landmarks, so any alterations and rehab work must be approved by the historic district. It was noted that they occasionally offer public tours and that some of the houses still contain secret rooms from their former use on the underground railroad.
Then the interactive part of the tour begins, no I'm not talking about the Wacky Quackers but this is the captain's break time. Essentially this is where they let the "Kid Captains", meaning any children who are interested, to try their hand at 'driving the duck' for a short time. As an added bonus, if you send your camera up with the child, the captain will get a photo for you. So some time is spent while the lineup of children each have had their 15-30 seconds of fame as a duck Kid Captain. After the Kid Captains are finished the real captain explains the reason they are able to offer this opportunity is that you may have noticed the amazing speed at which ducks travel in water, approximately 6mph. Plenty of time for the captain to intervene, particularly when you are cruising in the center of an empty part of the river.
This was when we got to learn a bit about the craft itself. The DUKW, designed in the 1940's as a troop transport vehicle in WWII. Their ducks differ from those used in the military as they have been lengthened to allow more seats to be added, cushioned front facing seats have replaced two long side facing wooden benches, the canvas canopy has been replaced with a more substantial canopy, and the machine gun mount has been removed from approximately where the tour guide sits. The other trivia is that they were manufactured primarily by women, in the Rosie the Riveter era where the women took the places in the factories of the men who had been shipped off to war. Our guide didn't miss the chance to chime in that since they were built by women who actually read and followed the assembly manual, these 1942 vehicles are still operating today for your enjoyment. I note their website claims they make all their own ducks from the ground up, so I'm not sure I'm buying the "this 1942 vehicle you are riding in" line. Anyway to round this back around, due to the slow nautical speed, these were used mainly for troop and supply transport out of combat zones as if they were encountered by the enemy, they would be a, you guessed it, sitting duck. They attributed the ducks to the origin on that saying.
We then passed by another of their ducks, one with a low serial number, an we were informed that duck was different then the one we were riding in, we could note it rides lower, is shorter, and was actually used in the training for Normandy.
Focusing back on the shorelines, they of course pointed out the Newport Aquarium, which they also own, and how it was designed to look like a viking ship, and also pointed out the helicopter tours and the BB Riverboats. In other words, they did a pretty good job cross promoting the area's other attractions, case in point they put in a plug for Goettafest.
You then cross back to the Ohio side of the river, and they point out the Serpentine Wall, and how it has 13 steps, one for each of the colonies, at which point you come back around to the Public Landing, they note use of the public landing as a boat ramp and as parking is free, but it might not be the best parking as you have to be mindful of the markings. When the river rises some of the lower rows of parking can go underwater, leading to some expensive tow and repair bills for supposed FREE parking.
At this point you roll back up the Public Landing boat ramp out of the water. We were asked if we wanted the special Tidal Wave splash effect, but were later told that was only a duck tale, and that as hot as its been, the guide would have welcomed any chance to get wet.
Back on land you drive around the other side of US Bank Arena, get a closer look at the paddle wheel sculpture, "Take me Out to the Ballgame" plays as you pass Great American Ball Park, you are then told you will be rounding third and heading for home. That was Joe Nuxall's signature sign off. The special RED street sign for Joe Nuxall Way is pointed out, then the Rose Garden where the white rose marks where Pete Roses 4192 hit landed. The Joe Nuxall statue in Crosley Terrace is pointed out, as is the Hall of Fame and Museum. It is also part of a combo deal they are offering: a Duck ride, Newport Aqauarium, Reds Hall of Fame, and a ticket to a Red's game, all for $48.
Across the street we can see construction, finally, beginning on the Banks Project. Supposedly they have already built what will be the worlds largest underground parking garage, and it will soon have condos, shops, restaurants, and other entertainment, with the Christian Morlein Barrel House signed on as the first tenant.
They point out our newest skyscraper, with the Tiara on top. So built since we are the queen city. It is pointed out the tiara is actually in the design of that for a princess, but the designers liked the look of it the best. It will stand about 86' taller than the Carew Tower. It was pointed out that for just a few bucks you can ride an elevator to the top of the Carew Tower for a great view of the city.
We turn the corner and drive past the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The exterior is brown copper whih will eventually turn green, and is actually three smaller buildings each connected by gateways. The first gateway is built to line up right with the suspension bridge.
You then make a turn onto Vine Street, and begin the downtown Cincinnati part of the tour. During the week they say the people along the street look less than enthusiastic because they have to work, and you get to have all this fun. So they drive through downtown Cincinnati, blasting YMCA on the sound system and asking you to participate with the Wacky Quackers.
You turn onto Fifth and they point out Fountain Square, then Government Square, before asking if anybody had a banana today, then pointing out the Chiquita building, the Taft Theatre and Procter and Gamble. Yes, they included the story about the origin on Ivory Soap. At this point I think I saw visions of the P&G PR guy running out to the duck with a crisp $20 for the guide. Then its Pike to fourth, and the point out the Taft Museum, Lytle Park, the copper boat on the Western And Southern building, before heading back town towards the river. They point out the Western and Southern parking garage which is noteworthy as it is on the former site of the Ft. Washington ammo magazine.
You then head back to Central Bridge to return to Newport. They ask if anybody on this tour is from Kentuky, and if they got wet, then used the Kentucky joke that you've taken care of your annual bath requirement, you can get the captain to sign off on that at the the end of the tour. Speaking of Kentucky, something you might want to know, it's illegal to put an ice cream cone in your pocket. Not because they are afraid it might melt, but the cones were used as bait by people stealing other's horses. We were advised this will come up later in the tour.
We talked a bit about the 1937 flood, and how it was recorded as 79.99 feet to prevent a bonus payout by the insurance companies who would have had to pay a much higher rate on a flood of 80' or more. You then come to the World peace Bell, the worlds largest free swinging bell. They rang it once and it could be heard for miles around and shattered all kinds of windows. Now instead of the intended daily noon ringing, it's only run on important days at about 1/20th the original volume.
You circle the square, and pass the Syndicate, which was once and is again a Newport nightclub. It was noted how this was Vegas before Vegas and how all the headline acts of the days used to play there. They noted the Gangsters Tour the Syndicate offers as a way of telling their history. We wind down the tour with talk about Cincinnati style chili (Skyline, Gold Star or Dixie depending on your 'religious preference') which is of course follwed up by a stop at Graeters Ice Cream, which was pass next. "And what won't you do with your ice cream cone?"
Then its just a block more to return to the Levee. Here is where they thank you for taking the ride, do a not-too-hard Tip Beg for the tour guide, and encourage you to look at your pictures after you leave the duck. They also inform you that by showing your Wacky Quacker, you can get 10% off at both the Welcome Center (AKA their ticket booth and gift shop) or Sweet Dreams.
With that you pull onto Third, the stairs are lowered, people make an orderly exit as the captain and guide help people unload, add their personal thanks (and accept tips, but this is usual and customary for tour guides on any kind of tour bus) You then step off the sidewalk right towards the photo pick up area. They don't have monitors to preview pictures, so while you are on your ride, they print everybody's complete photo pakage, which is available for $20 cash to the attendant.
And then everybody parts and goes their seperate ways.