Just Ducky Tours attracts Pittsburgh locals and tourists, too

January 11, 2016


The Just Ducky fleet with a full load of tourists makes its turn in the Ohio River to head back to shore during a morning tour.

PITTSBURGH — The first time Massachusetts native Chris D’Addario visited Pittsburgh in 1996 searching for a place to launch a quirky sightseeing business offering land/water tours from amphibious vehicles, he was shocked.

Pittsburgh was nothing like the smoky, dreary city he had expected. "I couldn’t believe how nice it was," he said. "I was thrilled. I was amazed. I said, ‘This place rocks!’"

D’Addario and his high school chum Michael Cohen also had been considering sites in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Savannah, Ga., for their start-up but it was former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy and his team who offered the most support.

"They didn’t chase us away," D’Addario said. "It was not like that in other cities."

A permit granted by the city helped secure start-up funds from the former National City Bank to open Just Ducky Tours.

Pittsburgh officials "gave us an opportunity that no other city was willing to give a couple of young guys from out of town," he said.

In the beginning, "Just Ducky" wouldn’t be the words used to describe how the business was doing. When it opened in July 1997, mechanical problems with the business’ single refurbished World War II land/sea military vehicle kept it out of commission for nearly half the season.

On top of that, customers weren’t exactly lined up for tickets. "There were days where most of the time no one wanted to get on the duck boat," D’Addario, 46, said. People would say, "‘Are you kidding me? The rivers are filthy."

"We started a business in a city where people didn’t like the rivers."

He said it was nice to watch as residents came to embrace the city’s rivers in more recent years instead of viewing them with scorn.

With the help of the RiverLife organization formed in 1999 to encourage riverfront development, Pittsburgh residents "have a much better respect for how wonderful the river system is in this great little city," he said.

Just Ducky has now grown to a fleet of seven, 30-passenger vehicles with a staff of between 60 and 65, including drivers, narrators, office personnel and mechanics.

Downtown pedestrians have become accustomed to seeing the brightly colored, odd-looking wheeled boats weave through the streets as passengers wave and eagerly recite the required greeting: "Quack, quack, quack."

This past season, 70,000 people took a tour from Just Ducky, which typically operates seven days a week from April 1 through November. Tickets are $23 for adults, $15 for children and $5 for kids age 2 and under, with refunds offered if a tour is canceled because of dangerous weather or fast-moving currents.

D’Addario plans to bring an eighth boat into service for the 2016 season and is in the process of negotiating to expand Just Ducky’s current location at Station Square.

While similar tour operators in other cities have had some serious and even fatal accidents — including two fatal accidents just this year on roadways in Philadelphia and Seattle — D’Addario said he’s proud of his company’s 18-year record of safety.

"We’ve had little things happen — a fender bender here and there," usually involving impatient drivers who sideswipe the tour vehicle while trying to pass it, he said.

"We do everything we can to keep ourselves out of harm’s way," such as "crawling along" city streets at 15 mph, keeping close to shore and following a designated route in the water. At least one crew member on each tour — either the captain or the narrator — must have first aid, CPR and life-saving credentials, D’Addario said.

"Safety comes first," he said.

One of the most memorable times for D’Addario was when another namesake for flightless feathered fowl, the Pittsburgh Penguins, won the Stanley Cup in 2009. The team asked Just Ducky to use its vehicles to carry players and their families through Downtown streets during the victory parade.

The duck boat D’Addario was driving had Evgeni Malkin and his family on board.

"The streets were lined with people. It was the coolest thing ever," D’Addario said.

The bulk of Just Ducky’s business — about 65 percent — comes from local residents, not tourists as he initially had expected. Local bookings include birthday parties, school field trips, family reunions, business lunches and team-building events.

"We’ve learned how proud Pittsburghers are of the city," he said.

"It’s awesome."



McClatchy-Tribune Information Services