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Published: Saturday, December 17, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

It’s always good weather for Seattle’s duck boats

Ubiquitous amphibious touring vehicles make for joyful time any time

  • A Ride the Ducks amphibious truck nears the shore of Lake Union after ending the water portion of the tour.

    A Ride the Ducks amphibious truck nears the shore of Lake Union after ending the water portion of the tour.

  • David Edwards of Yakima takes in a view of Gas Works Park from Lake Union aboard the duck boat.

    David Edwards of Yakima takes in a view of Gas Works Park from Lake Union aboard the duck boat.

  • A Ride the Ducks tour cruises past Pike Place Market.

    Sarah Weiser / The Herald

    A Ride the Ducks tour cruises past Pike Place Market.

  • Farha Luna (left), and Donna Moore (in purple), both of Yakima, sing along with the captain on a tour.

    Farha Luna (left), and Donna Moore (in purple), both of Yakima, sing along with the captain on a tour.

It's a bit hard to believe, with Donna Summer playing on the sound system and people wearing plastic duckbills on their face, that the original duck boat had nothing to do with tourism.
First developed as amphibious vehicles during World War II, the trucks -- Code named DUKW (D for built in 1942, U for 2.5-ton, K for front-wheel drive and W for rear-wheel drive) -- helped the Allies storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
They were trucks that could easily be driven into the water: The driver could slip the axle from powering the wheels to spinning a propeller.
Years would pass before the DUKW trucks, let's just call them ducks, would become as quintessential to downtown Seattle as flying fish at Pike Place Market.
Today, hardly a daylight hour passes when the big white trucks don't roll through Fremont, Pioneer Square and downtown. You can hear them coming a mile away, quacking noises, loud music, people guffawing. Cracking up. Giggling. Dancing. Laughing so hard their Diet Coke spurts out their noses.
The trip is an uproarious way to share Seattle with out-of-town guests and a fun treat for visiting relatives. Yet nearly 70 percent of all passengers on the Ride the Ducks tour are from Western Washington, officials said.
That was very much my experience on a chilly December afternoon when I took my first trip aboard Ride the Ducks.
Bundled up, I joined a woman from Vancouver, B.C., and a man from San Jose, Calif., for a tour with Capt. Rik O'Shay (real name Tom Van Gorder). Blankets were provided and plastic windows offered protection from the elements.
We started near the base of the Space Needle and from the minute the engine turned over, I knew we weren't in boring bus tour land anymore.
When describing the undulating $240 million Experience Music Project, O'Shay was quick to recommend a visit, and poke a little fun:
"You'd think with money like that, they could afford an architect," he said of the odd-looking Frank Gehry-designed building. Then he pushed a button and a laugh track made him sound like Jay Leno delivering a punch line.
O'Shay had each of us put up a hand as if pulling a slot-machine lever and make a "ka-ching" sound every time we passed a Starbucks, which in Seattle meant we were doing this almost every block.
Between bad jokes (and even a few good ones), he changed hats, played silly songs on the stereo and provided lots of details I never knew about Seattle. For instance, the famed Elephant Car Wash in Seattle was the first automated car wash in the country.
The tour follows the waterfront past the Olympic Sculpture Park to the stadiums, through Pioneer Square and up to Pike Place Market, through downtown and then north to a boat launch just east of Gas Works Park.
That's where Capt. O'Shay drove us into the water.
It's an amazing feeling to suddenly go from being in a bus tooling through neighborhoods to floating through a marina and out to the middle of Lake Union.
The "Gilligan's Island" theme song blared. "With my horrible jokes, it may seem like a three-hour tour," O'Shay joked.
During the 20-minute floating tour, you see the "Sleepless in Seattle" houseboat, landing seaplanes and the downtown skyline. It was hard not to be giddy with excitement. I only wished they served cocktails (and on the day I went on the tour, a hot toddy would have been perfect).
As we drove back to Seattle Center, Capt. O'Shay played disco music and had us doing dance moves in our seats. He called it the Richard "Duck" Simmons workout.
By the time we slipped into port, we were all smiling.
Started 14 years ago by former "Evening Magazine" host Brian Tracey, the Seattle duck tours use 17 replica duck boats and a small army, er navy, of high-spirited, hilarious captains to give the land and water tours. Ride the Ducks Seattle is independently owned and not connected to similar tours in nearly a dozen other cities.
Tracey first discovered the ducks while visiting his native Boston, where duck tours drive through the historic city and plunge into the Charles River.
Lacking that patriotic, centuries-old history here in Seattle, Tracey created a tour that is equal parts information, comedy and music. "All three elements have to be included," he said.
While the ducks don't cruise Lake Union after dark, the company offers a land-only holiday lights tour in downtown Seattle through Christmas. It includes all the music and comedy of the daytime tour.
The company pays a lot of attention to safety. The whole land-sea-land thing demands that the duck boat drivers be licensed commercial vehicle drivers as well as boat skippers. A life jacket demonstration is given at the start of each tour.
Tracey said he prefers safe to sorry, but mostly he wants people to enjoy themselves and return for another ride.
"I love it when people say that this is the most fun thing they've done in a long time," he said.
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447;

Ride the Ducks
Land and water tours depart from Fifth Avenue and Broad Street or Westlake Park daily except Dec. 24 and 25.
The 90-minute tour costs $28 for adults, $17 for kids 12 and younger, and $1 for children 2 and younger. $2 extra for a wacky quacker, a plastic duck call. Group rates are available.
Holiday tours depart Westlake Park at 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 5 p.m. on weekends, through Dec. 30. except Dec. 24 and 25.
This 45-minute land-only tour costs $15 for adults, $5 for kids 3 to 12, $1 for babies.
Reservations are recommended on all tours.
Reach Ride the Ducks Seattle at 800-817-1116 or

Story tags » TourismSeattleFamily fun

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