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    Quacking tours by land, sea

    Novelty seekers can roam downtown St. Petersburg aboard a chariot with a split personality.

    By JOHN BALZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- A big yellow boat on wheels is waddling around downtown. The passengers are shouting "quack, quack" as they go.

    St. Petersburg's newest attraction is an 80-minute tour of the city by land -- and by sea -- in a World War II military vehicle called a Duck. Which sort of makes sense in a city that already has a quirky history with such ventures, including the first scheduled commercial flight (Tony Jannus in the floatplane Benoist), the frequent wintertime visits by the replica of the Bounty, and who could forget the Russian submarine?

    The Duck, taken from the acronym DUKW, is the ultimate SUV. It is three times bigger than a Hummer and capable of 55 mph on the open highway. General Motors manufactured roughly 21,000 Ducks in the 1940s. The military wanted a vehicle that could land soldiers on beachheads and transport supplies to shores without a port. Just don't try to make a sharp turn.

    Duck Tours of Tampa Bay has painted its amphibious fleet yellow and added canopies making them look, well, look at the pictures and judge for yourself.

    Starting at The Pier, the tour travels through the downtown waterfront, makes its way into the bay and circles the University of South Florida at Bayboro.

    "Don't worry about looking silly, folks, because you are riding in a yellow duck," the captain reassures his passengers. "There's nothing you can do on board that can make you look any sillier."

    Not even quacking -- of which there is plenty. Yes, quacking. Lulls in sightseeing are easily filled by quacking. Captain Bogie, who secretly doubles as the brother of company president Louis Betz Jr. and as vice president of operations, requires it.

    For instance, he demands that passengers quack whenever he says the number four. Quack after a bad joke. Quack because you feel like it.

    When pedestrians and motorists at BayWalk gawk, point and chuckle at the yellow banana, Bogie bolsters his troops. "Four," he orders. "Quack, quack," the passengers respond. The pedestrians sometimes quack back.

    The tour is full of historical tidbits, which are fun but basically unverifiable. For instance: St. Petersburg has the most churches per capita of any city.

    In World War II, the military made heavy use of its Ducks to transport supplies for the D-Day invasion. But today's cargo is tourists, almost half from Massachusetts.

    The captain jokes about taking Huey, the name of the Duck we are riding, into the water. "Let me put these life vests back," he says. "We had to use them on the last tour."

    He shouldn't joke too much. Two years ago, 13 of 21 passengers drowned in an accident in Arkansas. The National Transportation Safety Board has ordered Duck operators to keep extra flotation materials on board because the vessel can sink quickly.

    Jill Betz, part of the husband-and-wife team behind Duck Tours, says the Ducks are safe and business is booming.

    The tour starts on the north side of the city, circling Williams Park and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, where two minor pieces of misinformation are given. The hotel was built in 1925, not 1926, as we are told, and it has 360 rooms, not 367.

    The Duck takes to the water in Demens Landing Park, where the captain steers the hulking beast down a marina ramp and crashes its yellow hull into the bay. Here the vessel meets its first insurmountable obstacle: city regulations. Only boats are allowed to putter around the marina's boat slips. The Duck is technically listed as half-boat, half-truck.

    While the Duck can scoot along on land, it's much slower in the water. And because there are fewer landmarks offshore, much of the 30-minute ride is filled with a fruitless search for manatees. Tourists receive one hearty piece of information to chew on: Albert Whitted Municipal Airport housed the Goodyear blimp from 1930 to 1945.

    When the tour approaches USF's Piano Man Building on Third Street S, the captain tries to lead the crew in Billy Joel's song by the same name. No one seems to know the words.

    One of the best tales comes near the end of the trip. Captain Bogie tells everyone to take a good look at the architecture of St. Mary's Catholic Church. Doesn't it resemble the restroom near the pier? Both were designed by the same architect.

    Rumor has it, the similarities are born out of revenge. After being stiffed on the construction costs of St. Mary's, the embittered architect decided to construct a bathroom in the church's likeness.

    Whether it's urban folklore or absolute truth, who really knows, says Robert Danielson, a marketing manager with the city. Besides the bathroom, St. Mary's looks like Riverside Baptist Church in Jacksonville, and the architect's wife has disputed the story.

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