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.
The college buddies waved their signs and hollered. "Too bad we weren't flashed this time," said the Big Dipper as we pulled away.
After about an hour onboard, we passed under the final bridge just past I-95 near the airport, where the Jungle Queen docked at its "secret island," officially named Jungle Queen Indian Village — a four-acre plot of land the company has owned for 75 years. Just past sunset, passengers disembarked and moved along a windy path flanked by cages of squawking parrots and prehistoric-looking alligators that lazed in a rust-colored pond. The kitschy site would surely make a great setting for a hipster wedding.
The path opened up into a clearing. On one side was the dining room — an open-air pavilion made of logs. On the other side, red-painted benches fanned out for theater seating, while strings of colored tiki lights created an open canopy overhead. The centerpiece of the island is a carney stage, a modest structure decorated with painted yellow flames, in what looks like a remnant from the Asbury Park boardwalk.
People found a spot for a smoke, made their way to a seat for the barbecue feast, or high-tailed it to the bar, where bartender Ulysses Russell, a 26-year-old with a fabulous Afro and two blinding diamond studs in his ears, poured the only two alcoholic drinks available: Budweiser drafts ($5) and rum punch, served in a take-home coconut monkey ($7).
In the dining area, lanterns glowed like fireflies. Red-and-white-checked plastic tablecloths plastered rows of picnic tables. Groups of twos and threes parked themselves at tables like summer camp. Everyone got plastic packets of silverware, with salt and pepper inside.
Using tongs to dole out pork ribs from a sheet pan, a fleet of waiters roamed the room: black and white, young and old, thin and fat, each in casual street clothes. I helped myself to a rib trio. Almost black, they tasted of molasses and vinegar. Meat fell off the bone.
Over the years, the Jungle Queen has fluctuated between cooking on-site or having the food catered and trucked in, which is the current arrangement and something of a logistical feat. Faber would not disclose the name of the caterer.
Dinner moved swiftly, and servers circulated with more trays: chicken that was ostensibly barbecued but seemed grilled to me — no tasty sauce, no grill marks, no smoky taste — and too long at that. They were dry and shriveled, air pockets of skin fallen away from the meat.
Cocktail shrimp, though, were a pleasant surprise — fresher than any I'd ordered in any restaurant lately and available either naked or doused with Old Bay seasoning. Guys sitting next to us downed multiple rounds. I had to admit: If you bring an appetite like theirs, the dinner is a bargain.
Sides, though, were lame: an ice cream scoop of watery coleslaw that dripped white when I forked it. White rolls, puffy and stale, really just a vehicle for butter. Baked beans that tasted canned.
And then came the call through the loudspeaker: "Please take your seats." The crowd shuffled from the pavilion to the red benches — kids, young parents, white-haired people, and surprisingly enough, plenty of couples on dates. A single guy broke off from his pals and was hitting on my friend.
What followed was a ventriloquist with a routine of fart jokes, Vinnie the magician sticking knives through kids' necks, and a request for audience volunteers. Naturally, the Big Dipper spoke up. He declared, "I don't wanna do magic; I want to dance." So Vinnie called for the piano player to hit it, and Big Dipper got down to business, doing the worm onstage, wearing a pig mask.
I could appreciate the camp factor, but bugs were feasting on my skin, my hair was wet with sweat, and at this point, I wanted to poke my eyes out. I ducked into the ladies room, which was flooded by three inches of standing water. Then I headed back to the bar just as the program was ending and people shuffled back to the boat. "Hey," said Ulysses, "your friends got a cab."
Although I figured I was going to go to hell for not staying through this assignment, I ran to meet them. The taxi picked up my friend, her impromptu date, and me at "the island," located, as it turns out, on terra firma off of Riverland Road. We jostled down the dirt road toward civilization. A full rum monkey spilled into the guy's lap.
We whirred back toward Fort Lauderdale beach. Funny, though: The boat beat us back to the dock. Beelining straight back minus the narration, the Jungle Queen's trip takes only 20 minutes. In total, it's a four-hour adventure.
Before we made our way home, we stopped into Bahia Cabana — another quintessential waterside Fort Lauderdale haunt — where a crew of drunks in oversized Dr. Seuss hats greeted us from the Jacuzzi and fist-pumped as they sang along to "Sweet Caroline."
One of them, a local, chatted me up. I told him I was new in town. "Welcome to Fort Lauderdale," he slurred. "Enjoy the ride."