Amphibious boats expected to miss ridership goals

Fleet needs 2 more Ducks for a quacking good 2003

Baltimore tour attraction

July 22, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Halfway through its first season, Baltimore's amphibious boat tour attraction, Discovery Channel Ducks, is shy two boats and expected to fall short of projected ridership by as much as 40 percent.

Production delays in refurbishing the World War II vintage Army vehicles that traverse both land and water have forced the Baltimore operation to make do with three boats rather than the promised fleet of at least five, according to Kathleen M. Boozer, general manager of the operation. That lack of equipment has limited daily ridership to 720.

"We know now that we won't be able to reach projections," Boozer said.

But she remains optimistic and says the operation will have its full complement of boats next year.

"We've had a great first season," Boozer said. "Did we achieve the numbers we thought we could? No. But, I'm not the least bit upset about that. I think it will come."

The Ducks had been projected to attract 100,000 riders during the first season, which runs through October and may be extended through weekends in November depending on weather. Boozer expects that ridership will reach 60,000 to 70,000. Since April, about 40,000 people have ridden the boats, she said.

"The original numbers out of the starting gate were optimistic, because there was another ship here," she said.

The boats are operated by Ride the Ducks of Branson, Mo., which brought them here as a new venture, for the first time providing both product and management - a formula that the company plans to replicate in cities around the country - using Baltimore as a regional hub.

Ride the Ducks provides equipment for similar tours in Boston, Seattle and Branson, which operate under several names.

The boats arrived in Baltimore's Inner Harbor a year after the closure of a similar tour run by Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc. Peter Pan closed its "pirate ships" operation after a single disappointing season, saying it was losing money and noting unexpected capital expenses.

"Because [the pirate ships] were here for such a short time, it wasn't long enough for people to recognize them as a viable entity," Boozer said. "They didn't have the awareness impact that would have helped us transition into the market better. We really had to start from scratch."

And the name "Discovery Channel Ducks" - part of a licensing agreement with Bethesda-based Discovery Communications Inc. - doesn't instantly identify the product, Boozer said.

"We have to keep telling people Discovery Channel Ducks is something you ride," she said.

Baltimore's Duck tours offer an 80-minute ride that travels a two-mile loop past attractions such as City Hall, Edgar Allan Poe's grave and Camden Yards, ending with the vehicle splashing into the harbor.

Each rider on the 36-passenger boats receives a bright yellow whistle, called a "quacker," shaped like a duck bill to help him or her get into the spirit of the ride.

Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $10.95 for children 3 to 12 and free for children younger than 3.

"They've been popular and very well received," said Dan M. Lincoln, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"We've heard nothing but good things," Lincoln said. "The tourists seem to love them. We've got the visitors, we just need to get more Ducks."

The Boston version - Boston Duck Tours - with 16 boats, has essentially risen to cult status with locals, with ridership of 450,000 a year and turning away 200,000, Boozer said. So she sees room for Baltimore to grow.

"The Ducks do a great job of giving people a taste of everything," Boozer said. "We'd love to be that icon for the city."

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