Tour Guide: DC Ducks

We quacked our way over land and water to test out the DC Ducks tour. Our verdict: The loud, clunky ride might be a good one for kids, but we wouldn’t recommend it for visitors wanting to see the city in style—or comfort.

By: Emily Leaman

What: DC Ducks—a tour of downtown DC and a cruise on the Potomac River in a restored World War II-era DUKW vehicle, an amphibious truck called a duck boat.

Where: Pick up the duck boat—it’s a big, white metal boat with wheels, so you can’t miss it—at Union Station (50 Massachusetts Ave., NE). It rides through downtown DC along Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues before heading over the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Northern Virginia. The boat dips into the Potomac after a short ride on the George Washington Memorial Parkway and travels downstream to Ronald Reagan National Airport. It comes back on land at Gravelly Point, crosses over the 14th Street Bridge, and makes its way back through the city along the south side of the National Mall. The tour ends where it began, back at Union Station.

When: Daily, 10 AM to 4 PM, mid-March through October; the tour does not run in the winter. The boats depart once an hour on the hour. We took the 10 AM tour.

Ticket price: If you purchase tickets at the desk in Union Station, you’ll pay $32 for each adult and $16 for each child between four and 12 years old; under age four is free. We recommend planning ahead and buying your tickets online—you’ll pay $28.80 for adults and $14.40 for kids. Pay with a credit card and print off your tickets before your trip. Tickets are good for six months after the date of purchase.

Length: The DC Ducks Web site bills it at 90 minutes; our trip ran about 15 minutes overtime.

Tour size: Each boat can accommodate about 30 people; our tour, the first of the day, was completely full. We were told the tours typically sell out by noon—all the more reason to buy tickets in advance.

Our tour date: May 2, 2008

The lowdown: We were excited to try the DC Ducks tour. We’d seen the bizarre truck-boats driving around town but had never had an excuse to take a spin. So when we showed up at Union Station one sunny Friday morning in late April ready for a quacking good time, we were more than a little disappointed to learn that the tour had been canceled. Why? Apparently, the Potomac was muddy—or something. We couldn’t seem to get a straight answer from anybody. True, it had rained, but that was three days earlier, and it was 75 degrees and sunny on the day of our visit.

We left, duckless, and returned a week later for attempt number two. This time, we called in advance to make sure it was running. (You should do the same. Call 800-213-2474 on the day of your tour to confirm.)

Because we’d heard that the tours fill up quickly, we planned to get there 30 minutes early to secure spots in line. We arrived at 9:30, checked in at the desk inside Union Station, and headed out front to wait in line; we were the second ones there. By 9:45, the line was about 50 people deep.

We boarded the duck boat around 9:50. Our guide, Captain Britton, gave a brief introduction and ran over a few safety points before sitting down to officially start the tour. But before the key was in the ignition, he was already deep into the history of Union Station and the symbolism of its architecture and sculptures. In fact, he seemed to have commentary, an anecdote, or a piece of trivia for almost every building, fountain, statue, and flagpole we passed. Some of it was interesting—for example, did you know the National Gallery of Art houses the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Western Hemisphere?—but some if it just seemed like filler for dead airtime. Maybe he gets paid by the word?

One other thing to keep in mind: duck boats are former military vehicles—not exactly your dad’s Cadillac designed for comfort and a smooth ride. Our boat was clunky, bumpy, and loud. And despite the sunshine and warm temperatures, the open-top design made for a lot of wind, prompting us to bundle up in sweatshirts halfway through.

The point: If you want a quiet, relaxing ride through town, this isn’t the way to go.

On the upside, it’s a great tour for kids and a good way to cover a lot ground while learning a few factoids about the city in a relatively short time. And because part of the ride is spent in the water, you get some beautiful vistas of the city from a vantage point you’d probably otherwise miss.

The high point was watching planes land at Ronald Reagan National Airport. Since DC is a no-fly zone, planes landing at our nearest airport have to come in over the Potomac. The duck boat comes out of the river and back onto land near the top of the runway, so it’s one of the best spots to watch the planes. Our guide parked the boat for a few minutes so we could watch them descend—one lands about every two minutes—about a hundred feet above our head. That was pretty neat.

Grade: B

Want the lowdown on more area tours? Check out our Guided Tours section.

This article is part of Washingtonian's Visitors' Guide. For more articles like it, click here.