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The Last Quack

With expenses exceeding revenue, Albany Aqua Ducks announce the sale of their amphibious vehicles and end of their tour business

by Erin Pihlaja on July 11, 2012

Business has been booming for the Albany Aqua Ducks since July 5, when it was announced that the company’s two hydra-terra amphibious vehicles were sold to an out-of-state buyer. After July 15, New York state’s only amphibious craft venue is kaput, and every tour from now until then is sold out. On July 16, the “duck” boats are scheduled to leave Albany forever.

The final days: (l-r) Wolfgang and Peter Keyosky of Albany Aqua Ducks. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

Since 2004, the boat-bus hybrids have offered historic tours of Albany, themed excursions, and private charters that begin on the streets and end by plunging into the Hudson River. In 2006, the company acquired three trolleys that were booked frequently by wedding parties, parades, and local event organizers. The company is currently owned and operated by former Albany police chief Robert Wolfgang and his two current partners, Maureen Lundberg and Harry Van Wormer.

“We were told at the Christmas party that [Wolfgang] was selling the business,” said Tacy Tunny, an Aqua Ducks tour guide since 2004. “I love him, but I thought, ‘At least I have my job.’ Two weeks ago we found out that a buyer was found, but that they weren’t buying the business. I broke down in tears.”

At the intersection of Dove Street and Madison Avenue, Tunny was known for bursting into the song “Copacabana” with the altered lyrics, “Her name was Kiki,” to accompany the story of how thugs found gangster Legs Diamond by tailing his showgirl lover, Kiki, back to his house. “I’d tell the tourists to quack those whistles if I did something dumb or funny,” recalled Tunny. “That’s where I’d get the most quacks.” The duck whistles were free with every purchased ticket, and would often herald the presence of the tour before the craft was visible to those on the street.

“Most people laughed at it,” recalled Wolfgang. “They said it would never work, that Albany would never support something like this.” But the Aqua Ducks stayed afloat until their ninth season, when the costs of running the business began to outrun the revenue. In the beginning, Wolfgang’s business plan banked on the completion of a convention center in downtown Albany. That project stalled out, and the Aqua Ducks found themselves creating a niche in Albany’s tourism industry rather than feeding off of it.

“Their leaving is a result of inaction,” said Schuyler Bull, marketing manager for the Albany City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The New York state convention center project started nine years ago, but nothing ever came out of it. That business never came for the [Aqua] Ducks.”

“The support we’ve received from the community has been great, and this has been a destination for people,” said Wolfgang. “We’ve met 175,000 people, basically from all over the world.” He added that the company has sold tickets to people from every continent except Antarctica.

“They had a huge impact on the number of visitors that Albany could attract,” said Bull. “They have been awesome ambassadors in Albany; they were great partners with helping our hospitality business move forward. It’s sad to see them go.”

Aqua Ducks tour guide Maeve McEneny said, “I’ll miss meeting all of the people and the vehicle—how unusual and fun it was. There’s no way to talk about the Duck and not smile.”

McEneny found that the tours resonated with locals as well as visitors. “We constantly heard people say, ‘I lived here my whole life and I never knew that,’” she said. McEneny, a seventh-generation Albany resident and daughter of Jack McEneny, the state assemblyman and former Albany County historian, learned things about her home city while working as a guide. “On the last tower of the SUNY administration building there is an elf creeping up the side where the offices of a paper called the Albany Evening Journal used to be. The story is that he would go in and take the typos out of the paper. I told my tours it was the early spellcheck.”

“We had a lot of good times,” said Wolfgang as he remembered a private charter, booked when the business began. “It was the staff of a local judge. They brought beer and pizza on the boat. We went out to the port and were on our way back when they realized they had miscalculated their supplies. I called up the Dutch Apple cruise lines, and floated up to their boat. Their crew lowered down garbage bags full of beer on ropes to us.”

While many mourn the loss of the “duck” boats, the trolleys still remain for the time being. Wolfgang said they will honor the 60 or so bookings for the upcoming season, and hopes to transfer the existing business to a local buyer. Many area art scenes, such as Albany’s 1st Friday, have grown dependent on the trolleys, which transport people to the city’s many scattered galleries. “For the six years that I’ve been coordinating 1st Friday, the trolley has been essential to the event. Losing it would be detrimental,” said Michael Weidrich, founder and coordinator of the event.