Clash of the Quackers

The Bay Quackers tours were a big duck in a small pond until a bigger flock showed up.

The Coast Guard had to be sure that a restored 1945 WWII amphibious duck boat (DUKW) could safely transport passengers in a bay with complicated wind patterns, tides, and currents. That was unprecedented, so it seemed like a long shot. But then Scannell's silent partner, Lead Wey, did some research and learned about a tour duck in Hawaii operating under similar conditions. He figured if they could do it there, he and Scannell could do it here. So for more than a year, the men worked to restore a DUKW, make it lighter, and meet safety requirements, until they finally got Coast Guard approval. The Bay Quackers also had to procure a company office with a tour office downstairs, as well as access to the public ramp to help the ducks splash in.

The men hoped to integrate their ducks into the fabric of the community, so they named their first duck, which toured the Mission, El Pato. Next came Chinatown's Peking Duck. Scannell has dreams of launching a Psychedeliduck in, you guessed it, Haight-Ashbury, and a Diva Duck in the Castro, but those dreams of tourism success are now on hold, given the Bay Quackers' competitive struggle to keep afloat.

There are a couple of other barriers to expansion. Getting vehicles approved takes time, and hiring good captains is extremely difficult. Duck drivers must have a captain's license, a bus license, and approval from the Coast Guard, which is apparently a lengthy process. An entertaining personality is also vital, as Scannell likes his guides to be comedic and political, along the lines of Jon Stewart. In San Francisco, jokes about the Republican administration are a given. For example, when traveling through Bushman territory in Fisherman's Wharf, Bay Quackers captains quip: "Here we have a guy who hides behind a bush and scares people. In other places, they call that the vice president."

Though many said it couldn’t be done, John Scannell started San Francisco’s first duck tour four years ago.
Jake Poehls
Though many said it couldn’t be done, John Scannell started San Francisco’s first duck tour four years ago.
Ride the Ducks has threatened to sue Bay Quackers for trademark infringement over the use of the quacking noise during its tours.
Jake Poehls
Ride the Ducks has threatened to sue Bay Quackers for trademark infringement over the use of the quacking noise during its tours.

In late January, Scannell received a job application from George Adams, who had four years of experience as a duck captain and plenty of natural charm. There was one worry, though: Adams had already worked for Ride the Ducks in Philadelphia. Scannell knew that his expansionist rival had been scoping out San Francisco as a potential new market, and felt vaguely uneasy about hiring one of its former employees. What if Adams were a spy? Scannell says he was reassured, though, because Adams said he was gay and that he left Ride the Ducks because he didn't like working for a company that wasn't gay-friendly. But now, with allegations of corporate espionage and trademark infringement blowing around like so many feathers in a storm, the truth on that matter has become elusive.

Herschend Family Entertainment owns duck tours, aquariums, and theme parks nationwide, the most famous being Tennessee's Dollywood (also owned by Dolly Parton). It has been in business since 1950, and though the multimillion-dollar outfit is seemingly a law-abiding one, it's a competitive force that's willing to throw its weight around.

The best example of that is in Philadelphia, where earlier this year Ride the Ducks split into four different companies in a grab for sidewalk space in front of the Liberty Bell. The rule was that one company would be allotted one stretch of pavement. The move triggered the Philadelphia Inquirer headline "When Ducks Act Like Hogs: Tour Bus Quackery," but the company still occupies all four spots.

In 2005 in Philadelphia, Ride the Ducks attempted to sue its smaller competitor Super Ducks in federal court over trademark infringement of the "Wacky Quacker," its duckbilled noisemaker. The judge found in favor of Super Ducks, citing that the Wacky Quacker was not distinctive enough to qualify for trademark protection.

Despite the ruling, Scannell received a cease-and-desist letter in February informing him that Ride the Ducks had trademarked the quacking noise. He ignored the warning. In May, yet another accusatory letter arrived; Scannell hired a copyright lawyer, but kept his tours quacking. Ride the Ducks plans to move forward with a suit against the Bay Quackers, according to sales and marketing manager Bob Salmon, who says this suit is different because it's over the quack sound and not the Wacky Quacker itself.

Ride the Ducks has been considering an expansion to San Francisco's visitor-swollen market since 2003, Salmon says. It was waiting to secure a visible, tourist-friendly loading site, which it achieved in partnering with Cable Car Charters, a company already located on the prime corner of Jefferson and Taylor streets across from Pier 39. Ride the Ducks splashed in on the July 4 weekend with slightly lower prices ($32 for an out-of-town adult, compared to $35 at Bay Quackers) and more ducks (four, as opposed to Bay Quackers' two).

Scannell was a mess. "For the first month, I didn't even want to look at their Web site," he said. "I didn't want to see their ducks. I was kind of in denial." Like any small-business owner, he now thought his very existence was under attack.

But Scannell had known what was coming; he had already lunched and had drinks with Ride the Ducks president Chris Herschend. Though Herschend declined to be interviewed for this story, Scannell says he clearly remembers their meetings. The men talked baseball and business, and although Herschend struck Scannell as "somebody I could have a beer with," eventually Scannell made a threat.

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