Original Wisconsin Ducks celebrates 70 years of operation

By | May 8, 2015

ducks_logoWISCONSIN DELLS, It was 1942 when the unique amphibious vehicles first rolled off the General Motors assembly line. Built to go to war, the land-and-water military craft, code named DUKWs, were simply nicknamed “ducks” by World War II soldiers. This summer, a special fleet of the vehicles are celebrating 70 years of service at the Original Wisconsin Ducks in Wisconsin Dells, undoubtedly the longest tour of duty for any of the original machines that were manufactured.

“We are very proud of reaching this milestone 70th season,” said Dan Gavinski, who is the general manager and part owner of Original Wisconsin Ducks, and began his career with the operation at age 14 as a parking lot attendant. “At the core we are about a fun, family ride on a unique vehicle; but we are also about helping preserve the legacy of the Ducks and their importance to the war efforts.”

The Ducks finest hour came on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – where 2,000 of the vehicles participated in the historic invasion at Normandy, France. It is touted as the greatest amphibious operation in history and the turning point for the Allied Forces. Just a year later, the war would be over and surplus military supplies would be made available to the public. Among those were amphibious ducks. War veteran Bob Unger of Milwaukee plucked one up, and with his friend Mel Flath, brought it to Wisconsin Dells to offer tours. Scenic boat excursions had long been a draw for tourists, so why not add a new twist – land-and-water tours all from one seat.

While the operation had simple beginnings in 1946, the fleet grew rapidly. Unger left with his Duck after that first summer, and Flath added 37 more vehicles to the operation, which he ran through the summer of 1952. He then sold the business and entire fleet to Dr. R.O. Ebert, who also owned the Lost Canyon horse-drawn carriage tours. Ebert named the operation Original Duck Tours and ran it through 1955 before selling it to Wisconsin Ducks Incorporated. In 1956 the tour became known as Original Wisconsin Ducks.

Throughout its 70-year history the operation has continued to grow, with managers even traveling to Europe to find Ducks in good enough shape to add to the fleet. Today, Original Wisconsin Ducks, with more than 90 vehicles, is the largest tour duck operation in the United States.

“Visitors and industry folks alike are surprised at the size of our fleet,” said Gavinski. “We far outnumber any operation and we are proud of that distinction. We work hard to maintain our reputation of providing safe tours and preserving the Ducks for generations to come.”

The Ducks are a challenging fleet to maintain, with their amphibious features and the fact that most of the parts made for these 70-year-old behemoths, are no longer manufactured. Original Wisconsin Ducks has built a top-notch staff of eight full-time mechanics and expert metal workers who have made careers out of maintaining this novel fleet. Together they have a combined 175 years of service working on the Ducks. They’ve been innovators in their field and are recognized as the foremost authority on the unique land-and-water craft.

The story of “man and machine” extends to those who get behind the wheel of the lumbering Ducks and shuttle vacationers through the woods and waters of the Dells. Over its seven decade history, about 670 people can claim the title of Original Wisconsin Ducks Driver. In the early days, most of the tour operators were young men. Today most drivers are young college students, men and women, who commandeer the seven-ton Ducks for tours. This summer all alumni drivers are invited back for a special Duck Driver Reunion June 19-21, 2015.

“We have located about 600 of our former drivers and asked them to join us this summer; it’s really going to be like a big family reunion, seeing what our alumni have gone on to do in their lives,” Gavinski said.

Laying claim to the title of Duck Driver is special in and of itself. Only 50 candidates are chosen for the summer jobs each year. Besides the rigorous six-week training, being a driver takes a charming personality and a love for helping make family vacations fun. It’s often said “You haven’t done the Dells, if you haven’t done the Ducks” and that’s a legacy the operation hopes to maintain for decades to come.

Original Wisconsin Ducks take passengers on a one-hour tour on exclusive wilderness trails and make splashdowns into the Wisconsin River and Lake Delton. Shared by generations it’s considered a top attraction in the Midwest and a quintessential part of any Wisconsin Dells vacation.

With more than 90 vehicles, Original Wisconsin Ducks is the largest “flock” of amphibious tour Ducks in the United States. There are about a dozen Duck tours nationwide, with only about 300 operational Ducks combined. Original Wisconsin Ducks’ 2015 season runs mid-March through mid-November, weather permitting. Tours run every few minutes during the peak summer season. For more information about Original Wisconsin Ducks, please call (608) 254-8751 or visitwisconsinducktours.com.

Photo courtesy of Original Wisconsin Ducks

Photo courtesy of Original Wisconsin Ducks