Hellooooo, Mr. Johnsooooon!" yelled 300 people from aboard the Jungle Queen, the double-decker paddleboat that for 75 years has been shuttling tourists along the New River between Fort Lauderdale beach and a "secret island."
Our tour guide and captain had just commanded his passengers to "Say hello to the bridge operator" as the drawbridge at Fourth Avenue reached toward the sky to allow the Jungle Queen to pass. According to our guide, the bridge tenders at all four bridges along the Jungle Queen's route were named Mr. Johnson. If the passengers found that suspicious, they didn't show it. They hollered, giddy with anticipation of the trip downriver and the all-you-can-eat barbecue to come.
At nearly 7 p.m. the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, it was still scorching hot. Our leader, a lean old guy in boat shoes and seersucker shorts, sat on his captain's chair on the second level of the riverboat, swiveling side to side, feet dangling.
My friend and I had pulled up to the dock for the 6 p.m. ride, willfully ignorant about what awaited us. Truth be told, we had mixed feelings — curiosity (since we had both moved here recently and neither of us had seen the landscape from the water yet) and dread (a cheesy evening with Canadians and retirees aboard a riverboat with a slightly racist name?). Turns out, we seriously underestimated the Queen.
After buying the tickets ($39.95 apiece, $21.75 for kids), we hunted for cocktails. A posse of tipsy 20-somethings — college buddies from across the country who were reuniting for the weekend — stood drinking Baviks that they'd picked up from 7-Eleven. "There's no booze aboard this boat," one of the guys informed me and passed me a beer.
He introduced himself but would give his name only as "The Big Dipper." ("What can I say?" he said. "I'm blessed.") In addition to their 12-pack, they'd brought homemade poster-board signs to wave at people on shore. One read "Happy Labor Day," another "Show Us Your Mams." Clearly, they had done this before.
The Jungle Queen is a 75-year-old business that started as a sightseeing trip down the New River back when Broward County was little more than a swamp. The early business consisted of four boats that together brought in $25k a year — respectable for the time. Jerome Faber, now 81 and still involved with daily operations, says his father bought the business 60 years ago. Faber, then a marketer in New York City, moved to Florida to help. "I saw there was a lot that could have been done here," he says. "There were more ways to make it profitable."
In 1960, he consolidated; he ditched the four smaller boats and commissioned the current one, which could seat 550 people, thereby cutting down on labor costs. He marketed to bus companies and travel agencies around the country.
These days, the Jungle Queen hosts three trips a day, lists annual profits of $5 million to $10 million, and employs 114 people. Though a few years ago the company was hit by the recession, these days, Faber says it's doing just fine.
"We're back to the good old days," he said. "I'm not complaining at all."
My friend and I boarded the boat and found our numbered seats on the second level among rows of decades-old, welded-together patio chairs, resigning ourselves to the booze-free, hourlong first leg of the trip. Behind us, the Big Dipper and his buddies tipped from a flask.
Seeing the city from the water instead of the streets explains why Fort Lauderdale is nicknamed "The Venice of America." We slid past multimillion-dollar monster homes of power brokers and used-to-bes. "Here's a home that was purchased for 30 million dollars that's been vacant for three years. It's now only worth 6," said our captain. "Here's the last vestige of what used to be the jungle," he said, pointing out a blip of a park choked with banana, mango, and date trees. "Here's where Bruce Willis and Demi Moore used to live." (Willis and Moore were once rumored to own a Fort Lauderdale condo, but the guides don't exactly fact-check; they pick up their schtick through time and word of mouth. "We encourage the corny jokes and the laid-back conversation," said Faber.)
Sleek, white yachts lumbered down the river or slept in slips. Muscular and aloof, they were contrasts to the clunky, animated Jungle Queen. "It's 75k to fill a gas tank on one of these babies," our MC quipped. "It comes with a six-pack, because that's how long it takes to fill 'er up."
We glided past Howard Hughes' plane boat, a circus standout built for a crazy man. A flotilla of repossessed yachts bobbed in boat jail, gaudy skeletons of the boom economy. Along the shore, everyone waved: old folks on condo balconies, partiers cooking burgers at grills, sunbathers at pools. A pod of boats anchored at a sandbar where a boozy, half-naked river party was under way.