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.