Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. has added ducks to its growing entertainment empire. Bob and Ann McDowell, owners of Ride The Ducks International, sold the amphibious vehicle tour company this week to the Herschend company, which owns, operates or partners in 19 properties in nine states, including popular Branson attractions such as the Silver Dollar City and Celebration City theme parks.
Representatives from both companies said Ride The Ducks and its fleet of modified amphibious Army trucks will continue business as usual, with an eye toward expanding to new locations.
“The business has been doing well, and I felt like there’s a window to grow the business,” Bob McDowell said. “And Herschend Family Entertainment wanted to pick it up and grow it a little bit faster than we would have been able to hang with.”
The company operates in Branson, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and at Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. It also owns a manufacturing plant east of Branson that produces 12 to 15 of the vehicles each year.
Ride The Ducks of Memphis is scheduled to open in the spring; affiliate operations already are in Boston and Seattle.
Altogether, the vehicles carry more than a million passengers each year, McDowell said.
The Herschend company, which first partnered with Ride The Ducks in 2001, believes there is potential for the tours to spread even further, said Lisa Rau, director of publicity and public relations for Silver Dollar City Inc. “We joined a partnership with Ride The Ducks three years ago, and during the partnership have identified huge opportunity for growth …,” Rau said. “It is a terrific company, with an outstanding reputation for amphibious vehicle tours.”
Although she declined to give specifics, Rau hinted at big things to come. “It’s an aggressive, nationwide expansion strategy.” The McDowells will stay with the company, originally incorporated in 1971 by Roy and Lura Gillispie with partner Gary Snadon. Bob McDowell — who has been working on the vintage World War II-era amphibious transports since age 19 — bought the business with his father in 1977.
“It was pretty slow going to start with,” he said. “But we continued to improve the equipment over the years, and I believe we’re the leader in the industry that way.”
Keeping up with safety regulations over the years has required extensive modifications, he said, leading to the creation of a manufacturing plant dedicated to renovating the hybrid vehicles. “They don’t build ducks anymore, and the original ducks were 1945 technology,” McDowell said. “In order to go and compete, and have reliable equipment in these cities, we had to update all of the operating systems.”
Hull renovations, new electronics and drive trains, and the addition of disc brakes have made the ducks safer, even as they’ve become more comfortable with the addition of new seats and weather protection, McDowell said. In 1996, the first all-new “stretch duck” was designed and constructed at the Branson manufacturing plant, with input from marine architects, drivers and mechanics on staff, as well as customers, McDowell said. The company also works closely with local and national regulatory agencies, he said. “We have plenty of input that drives the direction of the equipment, and I’d say that is one of our primary advantages.”
Cindy Brown, general manager of the Boston affiliate Boston Duck Tours, praised McDowell’s handiwork.
“I believe that Bob has renovated the finest vehicles,” Brown said. “He takes his business very seriously, and is certainly passionate about the safety of the vehicles, as well as the renovation of them.” All 23 of the Boston company’s vehicles have been purchased from the McDowells, she said. Brown said she didn’t expect that to change with the sale.
“We’re sure to continue working with them as long as they’re in the duck business.”