`Pirate ship' tour boats lower flag after season

Land-water trips in Inner Harbor weren't profitable

March 07, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The "pirate ships," the Inner Harbor's amphibious tour boats, have ceased operations after just one season because they lost money and were facing unexpected capital expenses, a company spokesman said yesterday.

"It was a venture that strayed from our original core business," said Robert Schwarz, executive vice president for communications for Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc., which operated the ships. "We tried it. We made a significant capital investment. We gave it our best shot. But we felt that the numbers were against us."

Peter Pan's departure leaves Baltimore without any regularly scheduled guided tours for the public, according to Dan M. Lincoln, vice president of tourism and communications for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"I'm very surprised," he said. "All the indications we had were that they were doing very well. I think it's a big impact in the short term. It's the loss of an amenity that our visitors are looking for."

In August, Peter Pan declared its first tour season in Baltimore so successful that it would add a fifth vehicle in September. But that addition never happened as weekday crowds plummeted after Labor Day.

"The program ran substantially in the red, in the high six figures," Schwarz said yesterday. "The business plan showed, even under the best conditions, another significant loss this year."

Repairs estimated at more than $100,000 were needed to the one-year-old ramp, just off Caroline Street in Fells Point, that the vehicles used. Upgrades to the vehicles were expected to cost about $150,000 each. And insurance costs to run the operation were "staggering," Schwarz said.

The pirate ships were actually British Stalwart military landing craft with pirate faces painted on the sides. Each $200,000 amphibious vehicle weighed 13 tons, had 4-foot-high tires and seated 32 passengers.

Between April and November, about 13,000 passengers rode the pirate ships, according to numbers provided by Peter Pan yesterday. At its peak, ridership was about 1,100 passengers a week, Schwarz said.

The 90-minute land and water tours were similar to those offered by other companies in Boston, Miami and Providence, R.I.

"Peter Pan will focus more fully on our core business, service to the inter-city traveler," Schwarz said of his company in Springfield, Mass. "The pirate-ship program was a venture outside of that core business, and Peter Pan management recognizes the need to concentrate more of our resources in the highly competitive Northeast travel corridor."

The pirate-ship program was operated with the Living Classrooms Foundation. A spokesman for Living Classrooms could not be reached yesterday.

The pirate ships' brief stay in Baltimore caused the demise of another Baltimore tour company. Frances B. Zeller, then president of Harbor City Tours, announced in August that she would shut down her motorized tours after four years in business, saying she could not compete.

Zeller could not be reached for comment yesterday, but in August she said: "It [the pirate ship] has big wheels. It's fun. It's funky. They copied everything I do [in her guided tours]."

Lincoln, the convention association official, hopes someone will see the potential in the city's more than 13 million annual visitors and step in to fill the gap left by the pirate ships.

"There's definitely a need in the market for it," he said. "We've got the volume. It's just finding the right mix of product and price."

The pirate ships had pre-bookings and inquiries so far this year from a number equal to the passengers who rode last year, Schwarz said. But it wasn't enough.

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