Everybody duck 

No matter what you may have heard, tourism is not dead in Orlando. But it is about to take a dive.

In about one week, Duck Tours of Orlando will be up and running -- not to mention shifting gears, tearing up the road and even churning H20 when the spirit so moves. Tourists and locals alike will view the sights of southwest Orlando from behind the windows of a 28-foot, 28,000-pound, amphibious military vehicle that will occasionally leave terra firma for a detour through a body of water or two.

If you're imagining a cross between the movie "The Big Bus," the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour and the D-Day invasion, you're close to the mark. From its starting point at North International Drive and Oak Ridge Road, the planned excursion will take in area attractions from Universal Orlando to Sea World; when the touring party nears Wet 'n Wild, "we actually dump into a lake," says Duck Tours of Orlando co-founder Travis Zinger. "We're also looking to get into Turkey Lake Park."

That's the sort of all-terrain offensive you can pull off when your ride is a yellow-painted Alvis Stalwart, a discontinued British military vehicle with an ability to alternate between four-wheel and six-wheel drive that makes it equally useful on land and in the water. It's a close cousin to the D.U.K.W. (or Duck), the U.S. Army transport that came into use during World War II and has been a staple of civilian tourism since 1946. Major cities currently enjoying Duck service include Boston, Tampa and -- picture this -- Branson, Mo.

The Orlando operation is a joint venture between Zinger, the company's president, and Jeff Binder, its vice president. (If you ask me, one of them should hold out for the title Supreme Commander of All Land, Sea and Air Forces.) The partners' professional history is in "VIP aircraft engineering," which means they once addressed design issues inherent in the fashioning of jet planes for heads of state, celebrities and corporate types. Like deciding where the minibar goes?


Tours will be conducted from Wednesdays to Sundays, with four or five departures per day. (For reservations, call 407-482-2114 or set your browser to www.ducktoursoforlando.com.) My first impulse is to pity a tourist-oriented operation that has picked this moment in time for its grand rollout, but Zinger feels that the dwindling number of out-of-state visitors shouldn't drastically affect a smaller business like Duck Tours. And there's always the patriotism factor to consider.

"You kinda show support for America by getting on a military-surplus vehicle," he reasons. (It's even better when you know the thing won't be leaving the country.)

You also show your support for local performers, given that Duck Tours is seriously wooing "part-time comedians" to serve as paid tour guides. Zinger says that each 110-minute jaunt will be heavily weighted toward the theatrical side of things. His analysis: "It's kind of a comedy bus with a splash of tour thrown in."

Splash? Oh, jolly good.

Keeping the 'fun' in 'funeral'

The last-minute pruning of potentially inappropriate elements from Universal Studios' "Halloween Horror Nights XI" (and by "elements," I mean set pieces, not customers) hasn't clogged up the highly regarded event's fun faucet. Though last Saturday's festivities appeared to be populated by fewer roving ghouls than in previous years, the five new haunted mazes were noticeably better organized and designed. And as always, the gleefully raunchy "Bill & Ted" show made the entire trip worthwhile.

I decided to bypass the "Ooze Zone" dance club after receiving a lukewarm rundown from Jack, the killer clown who is the promotion's official mascot. "It's basically a rave," the murderous mountebank admitted over drinks at the annual VIP party. I reminded him that we don't use that word around these parts.

Acting cagey

If you like your creeps laced with a dose of reality TV (I know, I know, redundant!), visit the Haunted Mansion of Altamonte Springs, a residence at 115 S. Maitland Ave. that's been transformed into a Halloween attraction. There, five fearless souls have permitted themselves to be confined to outdoor cages until Nov. 3., with only a 45-minute daily bathroom break allotted per nut ... I mean, "participant." Their entire ordeal can be monitored via webcam at www.953party.com. The hardiest survivor gets $10,000, and the rest of us watching at home get a nice, hot shower.

Not to be outdone, Tampa's Masquerade has a Halloween bash planned for Friday, Oct. 26, featuring a Human Petting Zoo ("a plush setting of sassy and naughty human pets that LOVE to be touched and fed candy corn") and a Sell-Your-Soul Booth. Details of the latter are being closely guarded, but it already sounds like a great way to jump-start the economy.

Femme and fortune

The chance to experience art, music, poetry and performance by the leading ladies of local culture isn't the only appeal of the Saturday, Oct. 13, Women in Art show at OVAL on Orange. There's also a bachelor auction and a fashion show. And it's all in memory of Anita Wooten, the well-liked Valencia Community College art instructor whose passing this year was a point of sadness for many of us ... Don't forget, either, that Oct. 18 marks the kickoff of the "Third Thursdays" downtown walking tours, with special events at Art Space, OVAL, Guinevere's, the Orange County Regional History Center, O-Tix! and other nearby venues. As public shows of solidarity go, there are plenty of reasons to hope that this one is closer to the Million Man March than Hands Across America. (And if hearing the name of that '80s debacle doesn't ring a bell, consider the point proven.)


The director of the local film project "Gorno" is Les Norris, not Les North [The Green Room, Sept. 27]. Whoever Les North is, I'm sure I'll be hearing from him soon.

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