It looks like Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment is about to get their 'ass sued off' after Branson duck boat accident


A makeshift memorial on cars left in the parking lot of the Branson Ride the Ducks. - IMAGE VIA SARA_KARNES | INSTAGRAM
  • Image via sara_karnes | Instagram
  • A makeshift memorial on cars left in the parking lot of the Branson Ride the Ducks.
With 17 dead, the Ride the Ducks boating accident in Branson, Missouri, is one of the deadliest tourism accidents in recent history.

The incident occurred Thursday evening when an intense storm hit the duck boat as the amphibious vehicle was making its way across Table Rock Lake. With winds reaching near hurricane strength, waves crashed over the sides of the vehicle, which typically sits low in the water. The boat tried to make its way to shore before sinking. Only 14 of the 31 passengers survived.

The Branson location of Ride the Ducks was purchased in December of last year by Orlando-based Ripley Entertainment. The tour is only one of two vehicle-based attractions owned by Ripley Entertainment, which is more known for their museums and aquariums, their other vehicle-based attraction being the St. Augustine Red Train Trolley.

It appears that no significant changes in operation of the Branson Ducks have occurred since Ripley took over operations seven months ago. In the press release announcing the purchase, Ripley noted that they were “eager to maintain Ride the Ducks existing local partnerships” and indicated that little would change under the new ownership.

Joel Manby, who most recently served as CEO of Orlando-headquartered SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, was brought on as CEO of Herschend in late 2003. The family-owned amusement company was known for their theme parks and other attractions such as Branson’s Silver Dollar City, Georgia’s Stone Mountain, and various partnerships with Dolly Parton, including Dollywood and a few dinner shows that carry her name.

Manby surprised the amusement industry when he indicated Herschend would expand beyond destination-based attractions. In 2004, his first major move as CEO of Herschend was purchasing the Branson-based Ride the Ducks International. Manby went on to buy up numerous other brands and attractions including the Harlem Globetrotters, multiple aquariums and Georgia’s Wild Adventures amusement park.

In 2006, Herschend Family Entertainment shifted its Ride the Ducks holdings. A majority share was sold to an investment firm owned by Chris Herschend, the grandson of the founder of Herschend Family Entertainment. Chris Herschend continues to serve as vice chairman of Herschend Family Entertainment and president of Ride the Ducks International.

Ironically, the Herschend Family Entertainment-owned Showboat Branson Belle crew were some of the first to the scene of Thursday’s incident. The Branson Belle was docked near where the Duck boat sank, and the Belle’s crew did not hesitate to jump in the water to save the duck’s passengers. Most notably they are credited with saving the life of Tia Coleman, who lost nine relatives in the accident, including her husband and their three children.

The Branson Belle docks have served as the staging area for the recovery efforts, and Herschend has suspended operations of the Belle through at least Monday. Herschend has issued at least three press releases via their Silver Dollar City Twitter account regarding the ongoing investigation and its impact on the Belle’s operations, none of which mention to the strong connection between Herschend and Ride the Ducks.

The Ride the Ducks International website has been offline in recent days. The Ripley-owned Branson Ride the Ducks website displays a large gray banner and a statement addressing the accident in which they state they will pay for all medical expenses and funeral costs, and will assist with any travel related expenses, for all those affected by the accident.

“We remain deeply saddened by the tragic accident that occurred at Ride the Ducks Branson. Our focus from the start has been on the guests, families, and employees who were affected last Thursday.

Today, we continue to focus our efforts on the families. We are offering to pay for all related medical bills and funeral expenses, return all personal items from the rescue scene, and assist with any related travel or accommodations that will help the families in their time of need. An event like this deeply touches everyone and we are also providing grief counseling to our employees who have been affected by this tragic accident.

We are fully cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Highway Patrol and all federal and state authorities involved in the investigation. The investigation is being managed by the NTSB. Because we are a party to the NTSB investigation, we are not allowed to comment on any aspect of it. However, our job is to cooperate and provide information to those officials and to comfort the families of those affected by this tragic event.

Thank you for your support, and we continue to ask that your thoughts and prayers be with the families during this difficult time.”

The site also listed an email address for refunds and offered no indication of when, or if, the Branson Ride the Ducks would reopen. Despite the website stating that the company is “not allowed to comment on any aspect of” the investigation, Ripley Entertainment CEO Jim Pattison Jr. was quick to respond to the incident with live phone interviews on national news shows Friday morning in which he stated that the boat should not have been in the water.

The National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning that specifically mentioned the lake nearly half an hour before the first 911 calls regarding the incident came in. The area had been under a severe thunderstorm watch for most of the day.

A note on the front door of the Branson Ride the Ducks offices - IMAGE VIA LEXISPIVAKTV | INSTAGRAM
  • Image via lexispivaktv | Instagram
  • A note on the front door of the Branson Ride the Ducks offices
After ending a short phone interview with Pattison, CBS This Morning host Gayle King stated how surprised she was by his willingness to be interviewed by the media so quickly after the incident. “I really applaud that he would speak at such a time as this because in most cases like this the executives at that level are hiding for the hills or they release a statement saying ‘We don’t know anything and we’re sorry,’ but he did want to speak because he said he knows what vacations mean to people. Heartbreaking. You can hear the pain in his voice.”

By Saturday, in a sit-down interview with CBS This Morning, Pattison seemingly backtracked on his initial statement, pointing to the calm water ahead of the quick-moving storm.

Pattison is the son of James Pattison, the founder of The Jim Pattison Group, Canada’s largest privately held company with an estimated more than $8 billion in annual revenue. The Jim Pattison Group purchased Ripley Entertainment in 1985 and has since expanded its offerings to now include operations in 11 countries. The Jim Pattison Group also owns Guinness World Records, more than two dozen car dealerships, nine radio stations, Buy-Low Foods, the exclusive Canadian franchise rights to Great Wolf Lodge and dozens of other companies ranging from advertising firms to industrial packaging. Jim Pattison Sr. is within the top 200 wealthiest people in the world, according to Bloomberg.

Earlier this month Ripley Entertainment debuted its remodeled Gaitlinburg Believe It or Not! museum, which now features multiple interactive digital displays and is believed to the be company’s most expensive museum ever built.

Ride the Ducks operations continued in other cities after Thursday’s horrific accident, but some people, including former NTSB chairman Jim Hall, are now calling for an all-out ban on the tours using buses like amphibious vehicles, many of which are decades old. The boat that sank on Thursday was originally built in 1944, with numerous modifications since then.

Over the past two decades, more than three dozen people have died in duck boat accidents, including a horrifying accident in 1999 where an Arkansas duck boat sprang a leak and all but eight of the 21 passengers aboard died. In 2010, two riders died after the duck boat they were riding stalled in Philadelphia’s Delaware River before being hit by a barge.

In two separate incidents in 2015, six individuals died, though neither of those accidents involved the ducks while they were in the water. In the first incident that year, a duck boat with the franchise of Ride the Ducks in Seattle was driving across a bridge when a front axle on the vehicle failed, causing it to careen into oncoming traffic where it hit a tour bus, killing five and injuring 69. An NTSB investigation after the incident found numerous violations, with Ride the Ducks of Seattle admitting to 463 motor carrier safety rule violations. Despite not being registered as a vehicle manufacturer, Ride the Ducks International, who Ride the Ducks Seattle purchased their duck boats from, had made significant modifications to the vehicle in the crash, including modifying the axle housing and updating the drive train.

The duck vehicles also have blind spots that have contributed to multiple accidents, including the second 2015 accident, this time in Philadelphia, where a pedestrian was killed. In 2016 a duck boat operated by an unaffiliated company in Boston that has the same style vehicles ran over a scooter, killing its driver. A 2011 accident left a motorcyclist seriously injured after a duck boat, also from Ride the Ducks of Seattle, struck him at a red light trapping him under the duck and dragging him along the street.

Accidents involving duck boats have become so frequent that one Seattle law firm, Davis Law Group, now specializes in lawsuits against them and tracks accidents involving the amphibious vehicles.

After the 1999 accident, the NTSB called the roofs of the duck boats a major safety risk explaining that “both adults and children wearing life jackets are at risk of being drowned if entrapped by the overhead canopy.” Following an investigation into the 1999 accident, the NTSB now recommends amphibious vehicles remove their roofs. A private inspector from St. Louis, Steve Paul of Test Drive Technologies, said he reviewed the Ride the Ducks in Branson in August of 2017 at which time he also noted safety concerns with the roofs. According to Paul, his report also included a warning that the boats' engines and pumps designed to remove water from the boats may fail in inclement weather. Like most Ride the Duck vehicles, the one involved in Thursday’s incident appears to have still had the roof intact despite the warnings.

The future of the Ripley-owned Branson based Ride the Ducks is still unknown, but at least one family member of a victim has said that the company should “have their ass sued off of them,” calling for “every penny they ever made” to be given to the victims of Thursday’s accident. Multiple federal and state investigations into the accident are ongoing.

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