Quackers, captains and tourists: My summers at Ride the Ducks

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By Michael Harthorne

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a community journalist. But sometimes, when the sun is shining and the tourists are swarming, I start missing the three years I spent working at Seattle’s only 90-minute land and water tour, Ride the Ducks.

Now, the Ducks might not be everyone’s cup of tea – they are loud, dorky and play Kool & the Gang seemingly more than Kool & the Gang (I still suffer a small nervous breakdown when anyone tells me to celebrate). But, selling tickets and corralling tourists onto cramped Ducks was probably the best thing I could have spent my college years doing.

Though many of my Ride the Ducks memories are not appropriate for this family website – Duck Captains are just salty former boatmen and assorted other crazy people forced to work long, hot hours with children and the elderly – I think I can share a few.

Let’s start with the Duck Captains themselves. As much as some Seattleites hate the Ducks, I promise you no one hated them as much as the Captains suffering through an August heat wave while subsisting on a diet consisting largely of cigarettes, energy drinks and bile. While not bribing us ticket booth employees to put the most likely tippers on their Duck, the Captains mostly spent their time trying to get out of doing their job (again, often leading to more bribes). One was notoriously late for his tours after he, through a hazy deal with EMP employees, started taking naps in the museum’s movie theater between trips.

Besides marveling at the Deadwood-ian levels of filth that would come from the mouths of our intrepid Captains, the tourists themselves made sure there was never a dull moment.

From the grandmother who, upon having no luck getting her crying grandson to board via the ladder, picked him up and tossed him over her head and onto the Duck (picture Donkey Kong throwing a barrel) to the woman who called the police on us when the parking meter down the street ate her dollar and we would not reimburse her (she did not appreciate SPD’s less-than-concerned response), I have tourist stories for days.

Nobody is more confused (asking how to get to the Space Needle from directly across the street) or angry (keeping a red-faced vigil outside our ticket booth when informed we were closed for the night) than tourists. As the employee voted least likely to be yelled at, it was my job to entertain these folks when the Ducks were late or there was a long wait (or it was raining, or there was traffic, or they were just plain cranky). That entertainment typically took the form of poorly choreographed and half-hearted dancing. To this day, a sad shuffle is my go-to move on the dance floor.

Oh, and for some reason, tourists always had high opinions of their car’s ability to make it over curbs.

Being a community reporter occasionally provides me with some nice slice-of-life moments, but it is nothing compared to the barrage of bizarre that happened weekly at Ride the Ducks. Pirates with thousand-yard stares, chickens and gorillas on dates, children fighting imaginary dragons and seniors who could not keep their dentures securely in their mouths. The Ducks had it all.

Apart from my nostalgia (which, let’s face it, may only be interesting to me), the Ducks had a profound impact on me. I made some lifelong friends, and my time there helped me realize my natural demographic: women over 50, especially those awesome/randy Red Hat Ladies (this may explain why I find it so easy to work the Ballard beat).

Not that there weren’t rough days, the occasional mishap and worse, but when summer rolls around I find myself missing the Ducks. Well, until I hear “Celebrate.”

Note: This article was largely written as a thinly veiled attempt to convince Hollywood-types to hire me to pen a television show or movie based on Ride the Ducks. Hollywood-types, I await your call.

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