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Toronto Hippo Tours: I Went On A Bus – In The Water…….
Saw these oddly shaped colorful buses on the streets of Toronto a while back and wondered what they were. Looking back, I saw “Toronto Hippo Tours” and realized that these buses carried sightseeing passengers not only on the streets of Toronto, but also on the waters of Lake Ontario. Considering how absolutely unconventional this type of intermodal is, it only recently occurred to me that I should interview with this company and get into a car myself.
They’re definitely fun-looking vehicles, with rounded noses, a bright painting of “riding a hippopotamus,” and an entrance in the rear from which you can ascend a set of retractable metal stairs.
Today I met with Drew O’Gilvie, Director of Sales and Marketing for Hippo Tours in Toronto. Drew was previously Sales Director for Delta Hotels and obviously has a lot of experience in travel-related marketing.
1. Please tell us who came up with the idea of creating a company with floating buses? How long has the company been in business?
Geoffrey Lind founded Toronto Hippo Tours 5 years ago because he wanted to bring Boston’s famous amphibious car tour “Duck Concept” to Toronto. Last year the company had 25,000 passengers and we expect to far exceed that number this year. We don’t call ourselves a sightseeing company, we see ourselves as an “urban safari”, a true urban adventure.
2. How many hippos are there? What sets them apart?
We currently have 2 vehicles in operation and the third has just been completed recently and is awaiting final permits, a complex process involving federal and provincial authorities as well as safety inspections. The vehicles are designed and manufactured in Canada and are based on the school bus platform. Contrary to other places, they are not recycled WWII or Korean War amphibious vehicles. They are carefully inspected for safety and lubricated every morning. We affectionately call our 3 amphibious vehicles Harry, Happy and Henrietta, and this is our newest addition.
3. Please tell us your route and timetable. Is there commentary on the tour?
The Hippo Tour is 1.5 hours long, spending approximately 1 hour on land, and covers the major Toronto attractions, all professionally narrated by a first aid licensed guide. We run hourly tours from 11am to 6pm from early May to late October.
4. Please tell us the price. Is it possible to book a vehicle for a private outing?
Prices are very reasonable at $35.00 per adult, $30.00 for seniors or students, and $23.00 for children 12 and under. These vehicles are also available for charter and are often hired by commercial organizations and private individuals for special occasions, birthday parties. At $500.00 CAD per outing for 40 passengers, this is a very affordable special event.
5. Please comment on the special training received by your captain and tour guide.
Our guides are certified in St John Ambulance and CPR and are all restricted engineers. They undergo rigorous testing by government authorities as Navy captains, and they must obtain a license to become school bus drivers in order to operate vessels on land.
After interviewing Drew, I had the opportunity to experience the Hippo experience myself, and I got on board and sat directly behind the captain, in this case a sporty lady named Catherine. We had another guide who competently and amusingly mentioned the main sights along the way and cracked some bad jokes in between. Another guide named Dan also accompanied us. He has just completed his road permit and has completed the maritime part of the permit process.
Vehicles move through the streets of Toronto at a very leisurely pace. Our itinerary includes key attractions such as the Royal York Hotel, Union Station, Bay Yonge, Eaton Center and Dundas Square. Then we drove on Elm Street and then on Bay Street, past Old Town Hall and New Town Hall. I especially like the gargoyle story about the old Toronto City Hall, in which a famous architect takes revenge on Toronto city advisors who criticize him for cost overruns by painting their likenesses as hideous gargoyles. We then headed down University Avenue, past Queens Park (provincial government building), to the University of Toronto campus.
From there we meander through the Garment District, admiring all the loft conversions and condo developments in Toronto, past the CNE grounds (Canada National Exhibition Grounds) to the ramp near Ontario Place, where we get ready for THE BIG SPLASH – the Hippo into the water.
It was indeed a strange feeling, sitting on a bus with its windshield suddenly completely flooded. But the vehicle soon straightened itself out and we began to drive slowly into the waters around Ontario Place. The “Happy Hippo” has a top speed of about 5 knots, and the vehicle uses a single engine to drive the bus’ gearbox on land and the propeller in the water. At 20 tons, it was quite a heavy vehicle and a special ramp had to be built to get it into Lake Ontario.
We circled the west end of the fair grounds, took a closer look at Toronto’s only wind turbine (we’ve finally taken a small step toward greener energy production…), and we turned back to Ontario Place.
While Dan was driving during the cruise on the water, the other skipper, Catherine, and I stood in the stern and had a nice conversation. Catherine was laid off from her job as an insurance sales specialist and started a whole new career – first as a hippo guide and then as a fully certified and licensed hippo captain. Catherine also knows a thing or two about fixing vehicles and doesn’t mind getting her fingers greasy when performing maintenance work on the bus each day. During her off months, November through April, Katherine does cool things like volunteer at an animal sanctuary to protect sloths in Costa Rica, or take a trip to Cuba. In fact, Catherine herself is a cool and interesting person, and I will be doing a follow-up interview with her in the near future.
Back on land we pass the Harbourfront before returning to the famous Royal York Hotel. Shortly after we took a quick left and returned to the Hippo Tours parking space at 151 Front Street, just a little east of the CN Tower and the Rogers Center (formerly known as the Skydome), Toronto’s multi-purpose stadium with a retractable roof .
After the tour, Catherine and I had a chance to chat for about 10 minutes, and we briefly talked about a language learning trip to Cuba, which was something Catherine was interested in. I shared some information with her because I had the opportunity to study Spanish at the University of Havana earlier this year.
Catherine is a bit of an adventurer in my opinion and I’m really looking forward to meeting her and learning more about her new, unconventional lifestyle, going from corporate sales to being a road/lake captain for 6 months and years, and Do some other cool stuff in the months in between…
Thanks again to Drew and the entire crew at Toronto Hippo Tours for spending time with me and giving me the opportunity to explore Toronto by bus – land and water…
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