Branson Ride the Ducks won’t open this season. New attraction will replace business

Just as the tourism season starts up in Branson, the Ride the Ducks company announced Thursday that the amphibious boats wouldn’t be in operation this year.

The announcement was made on the attraction’s Facebook page, along with information about a new, patriotic-themed business that will soon open on the duck boat property.

“Branson Ride The Ducks has been an important part of the Branson community for 47 years,” the post read. “We are deeply appreciative of the support we have received. ... Branson Ride The Ducks will not operate this season.”

The company issued a statement Thursday saying the closure of the southwest Missouri attraction was “due to the ongoing investigations into the tragedy last summer.”

The decision comes eight months after one of the Branson duck boats sank in Table Rock Lake during stormy weather, killing 17. After the July 19 tragedy, the attraction closed as many questioned the safety of the boats.

On that night, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning at 6:32 p.m., specifically naming Table Rock Lake. The warning said winds in excess of 60 mph were possible. In reality, winds on the lake reached 73 mph — near hurricane force — with waves topping three feet.

The first 911 call about the Branson duck boat — Stretch Duck 07 — came at 7:09 p.m., 14 minutes after the boat entered the water. The 17 who died after the boat sank all drowned. Nine were from one Indianapolis family.

After World War II, many DUKW boats were sold and converted to commercial excursion vessels and made popular in tourist areas like Branson, Philadelphia and the Wisconsin Dells.

Kenneth Scott McKee, captain of Stretch Duck 07 that night, was indicted in November on federal charges. He is accused of misconduct, negligence and inattention to duty in connection with the tragedy.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed by victims and their families. At least two have been settled.

Ripley Entertainment purchased Ride the Ducks Branson from Herschend Family Entertainment in December 2017.

The new attraction soon will open on the Ride the Ducks property. Branson Top Ops will provide an interactive outdoor maze, indoor laser tag and other activities in a patriotic-themed attraction.

The target opening day for Top Ops — which will operate year-round — is Memorial Day weekend.

When asked whether Ride the Ducks would be permanently closed, Suzanne Smagala-Potts, a Ripley spokeswoman, would not say. She said Ripley Entertainment was only focused on the 2019 season and helping out the local economy.

“The Branson community just thrives on tourism, Smagala-Potts said. “That’s the lifeblood of that community. We wanted to make sure that we were contributing to the community in the best way that we can and also continuing to employ people in the community.”

She said the military-style duck boats now will be put in storage.

Dozens of tourists have weighed in on the attraction’s Facebook post.

“Branson will never be the same without Ride the Ducks,” one person wrote. “This new themed activity place can not replace the duck rides.”

Wrote another: “No reason to visit Branson without the ducks.”

Missouri corporation records list the owner of Top Ops as Ripley Entertainment Inc. from Orlando, Fla. Top Ops filed registration papers with the Missouri secretary of state on March 13.

Ten percent of all Top Ops proceeds this season — with a minimum amount of $100,000 — will be donated to first responders, including local police and fire and emergency workers, Smagala-Potts said. First responders and military members will also be offered a discount at the attraction.

Smagala-Potts said Ripley Entertainment contacted many first responders in the Branson community to get their input.

“We definitely did have conversations, and they are aware of this plan,” she said.

Many who commented on Facebook said they hoped that duck boats would someday be back on Table Rock Lake.

“This is one of my favorite memories as a child,” one Missouri woman wrote. “I still have my pics!!! Come back strong next season!!!”

A few others, however, said the move to close the attraction was a good one.

“It’s sad that they are leaving but ride the ducks are too dangerous,” one woman wrote. “After what happened past summer I wouldn’t ride the ducks if I was paid a million bucks. So I’m glad to seem them go. I’m sorry but I can’t even imagine riding another ride the duck boat again after what happened to those families. We need to keep other families safe and hope this doesn’t happen ever again.”

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Laura Bauer came to The Star in 2005 after spending much of her life in southwest Missouri. She’s a member of the investigative team focusing on watchdog journalism. In her 25-year career, Laura’s stories on child welfare, human trafficking, crime and Kansas secrecy have been nationally recognized.
Judy L. Thomas joined The Star in 1995 and is a member of the investigative team, focusing on watchdog journalism. Over three decades, the Kansas native has covered domestic terrorism, extremist groups and clergy sex abuse. Her stories on Kansas secrecy and religion have been nationally recognized.