Some time ago I noticed these odd shaped colourful bus-type vehicles in the streets of Toronto, and I was wondering what they were. I caught a second glimpse and I saw “Toronto Hippo Tours”, and I realized that these buses carry sightseeing passengers not just on the streets of Toronto, but also in the waters of Lake Ontario. Considering that this form of intermodal transportation is definitely unconventional, it just recently came to me that I should do an interview with this company and go on one of the vehicles myself.
They are definitely funny looking vehicles with a rounded snout, bright painting saying “Ride the Hippo”, and an entry at the rear where you board walking up a set of retractable metal stairs.
Today I met with Drew O’Gilvie who is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Toronto Hippo Tours. Drew used to be a Director of Sales for Delta Hotels and obviously has a lot of tourism-related marketing experience.
1. Please tell us who came up with the idea of creating a company with a bus that floats? How long has the company been in business?
Geoffrey Lind founded Toronto Hippo Tours 5 years ago since he wanted to bring the “duck concept”, the famous amphibian vehicle tours in Boston, to Toronto. Last year the company had 25,000 passengers and we expect to far surpass that number this year. Rather than calling ourselves a sightseeing company, we consider ourselves an “urban safari”, a true urban adventure.
Me, in front of the Happy, the Hippo. So, which one’s the hippo?
2. How many Hippos are there? What makes them special?
We currently have 2 vehicles in operation with a 3rd one that was just recently completed and is just waiting for final licenses, a complicated process that involves federal and provincial authorities and safety checks. The vehicles are Canadian-designed and built, based on a school-bus platform. Contrary to other places, they are not recycled WWII or Korean war amphibian vehicles. They are carefully safety-checked and greased every morning. We affectionately call our 3 amphibian vehicles Harry, Happy and Henrietta, our newest addition.
Catherine steers us by the famous old Bay building.
3. Please tell us about your route and your schedule. Are the tours narrated?
The Hippo tours are 1.5 hours long and spend about 1 hour on land covering the major Toronto sites, all professionally narrated by a tour guide who is also licensed in first-aid. We run tours from the beginning of May to the end of October every hour from 11 am to 6 pm.
4. Please tell us about the prices. Is it possible to book the vehicles for a private outing?
Prices are very reasonable at C$35.00 per adult, or C$30.00 for seniors or students, and C$23.00 for children 12 years and under. The vehicles can also be chartered and are frequently rented for special occasions both by business organizations and private individuals for birthday parties. At C$500.00 per outing, which holds 40 passengers, this can be an extremely affordable special event.
5. Please comment on the special training that your captains and tour guides receive.
Our guides are certified in St. John’s Ambulance and CPR, and are all restricted engineers. They undergo strict testing with government authorities as marine captains and they have to obtain licenses to become school-bus drivers for operating the vessel on land.
The Hippo’s crew. Catherine is on the right.
After interviewing Drew, I had a chance to actually sample the Hippo experience myself and I got on board, plunking myself down right behind the Captain, who in this case was a sporty-looking lady by the name of Catherine. We had another tour guide who competently and entertainingly mentioned the major sights along the way and cracked some dry jokes in between. Another guide by the name of Dan also accompanied us. He is just finishing up his road licensing and has already completed the marine portion of the licensing process.
A view of the hippo’s inside, on the water.
The vehicle passes through the streets of Toronto at a very leisurely pace. Our route included major sites such as the Royal York Hotel, Union Station, Yonge Street with the Bay, the Eaton Centre and Dundas Square. We then headed over on Elm Street and down on Bay Street past Old and New City Hall. I particularly enjoyed the gargoyle story about Old Toronto City Hall, where a famous architect took revenge on Toronto city counsellors who criticized him for his cost overruns by depicting their likenesses as ugly gargoyles. We then headed up University Avenue past Queens Park (the provincial government buildings) and on to the University of Toronto campus.
From there we snaked our way down through the Garment District, admiring all of Toronto’s loft conversions and condo developments past the CNE grounds (the Canadian National Exhibition grounds) to a ramp near Ontario Place, where we were getting ready for THE BIG SPLASH – the Hippo’s entry into the water.
I snapped a picture as we entered the water.
It sure was a weird feeling, being on a bus whose windshield is all of a sudden fully submerged by water. But the vehicle straightened itself out pretty quickly and we started chugging slowly into the waters surrounding Ontario Place. “Happy the Hippo’s” top speed is about 5 knots, and the vehicle has a single engine that propels the bus’ transmission on land as well as the propeller in the water. At 20 tons it’s a pretty heavy vehicle and a special ramp had to be built to give it access to Lake Ontario.
We took a little spin over off the west end of the Exhibition Grounds where we had a good look at Toronto’s only wind turbine (we are finally making baby-steps towards greener energy production….) where we turned around and headed back towards Ontario place.
Toronto’s green energy source, viewed from the Hippo
While Dan was driving during the water portion of the trip, Catherine, the other captain, and I stood at the back of the vessel and had a great conversation. Catherine is a former insurance sales expert and after being laid off she went into a completely new career – first as a Hippo tour guide, and she has also become a fully certified and licensed Hippo captain. Catherine also knows lots about fixing the vehicle and doesn’t mind getting her fingers greasy when she performs maintenance duties on the bus on a daily basis. In her off -months from November to April Catherine does some cool things, such as volunteering her services to an animal conservation area to protect sloths in Costa Rica, or travelling extensively to Cuba. As a matter of fact, Catherine is a pretty cool and interesting individual herself and I will be doing a follow-up intereview with her in the near future.
Back on land we passed by Harbourfront and headed back up towards the famous Royal York hotel. Shortly after we made a quick turn left and headed back to the Hippo Tours parking spot at 151 Front Street, just a tiny bit east of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (formerly called the Skydome), Toronto’s multi-purpose stadium with the retractable roof.
The Royal York Hotel, viewed from the Hippo’s emergency exit window.
Catherine and I had a chance to catch up for about 10 minutes after the tour was over, and we briefly talked about doing a language study trip to Cuba, something that Catherine was interested in. I shared some information with her since I have had the opportunity to study Spanish at the University of Havana earlier this year.
It seems to me that Catherine is a bit of an adventurer and I am really looking forward to catching up with her to find out more about her new, unconventional lifestyle that went from corporate sales to being a road/lake captain for 6 months of the year, and doing some other cool stuff in the months between..
Thanks again to Drew and the whole crew at Toronto Hippo Tours for spending their time with me and for giving me the opportunity to explore Toronto on a bus – on land and on the water…….