The macabre truth behind those Duck boat tourist tours

After yesterday’s appalling Ride the Ducks tragedy in Philadelphia, which killed two Hungarian tourists, the media is doing its typical post-game pig-pile, grilling operators about the safety of the land-to-water vehicles and forcing Herschend Family Entertainment, which operates Ride the Ducks, to suspend all operations across the country. The sad truth is that accidents happen. I don’t know all the facts, but that’s where I lean in this case.

The CEO of Herschend is Joel Manby, who used to run Saab, and I interviewed him in May following his appearance on CBS’s Undercover Boss. In that episode, he personally rode the Ride the Ducks operating in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I found him to be forthright and thoughtful, and his employees told me they loved him. Today’s news flurry seems designed to let reporters look like they’re behaving as watchdogs, even if that alertness comes after the burglars have already left the house with the silverware.

Listen for yourself to the kind of values Manby says he has when it comes to running his company.


What do I know, but to me, that doesn’t sound like the kind of guy who would be fine with skimping on maintenance or training.

I have also taken a Duck tour. In tourist towns, they’re now ubiquitous (and uniformly annoying — unless you’re on one, in which case they’re delightful), which is one of the reasons they make such a plump target.

Here’s a shot of the one in the Wisconsin Dells, one of America’s most popular resort towns for families.

If that cockpit looks old, it’s because it truly is. There, and not in any assumed maintenance laxness, is where the unpleasant truth lies:

These amphibious, 75-ton vehicles, which are actually called DUKWs, were created to ferry G.I.s to the beaches of World War II. Many of the ones used in America were only employed in training exercises, but it’s true that some of the soldiers it carried did end up dying on the front. Duck boats were created to be tools that conveyed young men to their final showdowns, in which they would often be slaughtered, filling the boats with blood. If they made it off, it was their mission to either kill others or get killed trying to do so.

The Duck tour in London has a particularly macabre distinction: Its boats really were used to ferry boys to their ends on D-Day. Watching these ugly ducklings paddle up the Thames past the Houses of Parliament is gruesome. But the hyper-militaristic truth of their origin, and the true purpose of their invention, is what I find the most creepy.

We owe the DUKWs for a major turning point in that war, but they were also never intended to be the frivolous amusement that the tourism industry likes to pretend they are.