Just ducky! - that’s what locals and visitors from near and far – as far away as China, as a matter of fact – are saying about the eye-catching yellow pedal boats available for rent in the cove at International Park next to The Docks.
The boat rental is operated by Oregon native Robert “Fun Bob” Russ, who is back in the area after working in various aspects of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles.
“I came home from Hollywood for what I thought would be two weeks – that was almost two years ago,” Russ said, adding that he decided to stay in Northwest Ohio to be closer to his parents, Joanna and Robert “Rusty.”
“I had been gone for awhile and really got to look at Toledo with ‘fresh eyes,’” he said. “I don’t think Toledoans realize how much progress has been made here. I see the city going up.”
A living, breathing embodiment of “Toledo Pride,” Russ wanted to be a part of the city’s renaissance.
“Some years ago, I had corresponded with Mayor Carty Finkbeiner about possibility of making an independent film in Toledo,” Russ said. “I know how much Carty loves the city. Last year, I approached him with the idea of lighting up my downtown apartment building for the 4th of July fireworks celebration.”
The mayor put Russ in contact with the building’s owner, who supported the plan. Those who attended the fireworks may remember seeing the words “Toledo” and “Pride” shining in the 20th and 16th floors of the Toledo Trust building.
Russ’ bit of cheerleading for the city, along with his professional experience, led to an invitation to join Toledo’s Best and Brightest Committee. “The mayor was looking for cool ideas that would inspire people to think young in an effort to move the city forward,” Russ said. (The mayor’s challenge inspired the name Russ eventually chose for his business - Think Young, LLC.)
The idea for his new business came as Russ was flying kites along the banks of the Maumee River. “One day, a guy from Dallas who was in town with some friends, asked me what there was to do in Toledo,” Russ recalled. “I gave him a whole list of things that might be fun and he said, ‘You should write a tour book for Toledo.’”
Russ started to think of fun things that would spice up the downtown area. “I came up with about 10 things, including an outdoor ice skating rink and the pedal boat business,” he said.
“Some of my earliest memories are riding the pedal boats at Pearson Metropark, which is one of the reasons this really appealed to me,” Russ said. “I thought if we could create that kind of memory for little kids – having fun on a pedal boat while looking at downtown Toledo, maybe they’ll want to share their memories with their children someday.”
“I was just pitching ideas that I thought the city would be interested in pursuing,” he said. “Then they suggested I start the pedal boat business.
“I had done some research,” he said. “I knew I’d want these bright yellow, rubber-ducky looking high-tech boats.”
Requests for sponsorship from local businesses netted him a stack of rejection letters and a coupon for a free Whopper. “I laughed when the coupon fell out of the letter, which was pretty good as far as rejections go,” he said. “I really did appreciate the coupon for the sandwich, though.”
Investing his own money, he was able to put the boats in the water at the end of last summer. “It was Sept. 9 before I could get the boats, the insurance, etc.,” he said. “But people really loved it and that got me really excited for this year.
“I had tons of people who came from out of town – from Boston, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Dallas, San Diego,” he said.
“Right now, there’s a family in China with a picture of themselves riding one of my boats holding the Toledo Pride flag with the city in the background,” he said. “There was also a family who had moved here from India who came down to ride the boats and they had a blast.
“Afterwards, the man thanked me for treating his family so well,” Russ said. “The best part was, they said they loved Toledo.”
Those who want to take the boats for a spin can stop by Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to midnight, and Sunday noon to 9 p.m. The boats are closed Monday. Weather and river currents may affect hours, Russ noted.
“It’s really beautiful at night, with the lights from the city shimmering off the water and the fountain going,” he said.
"Lots of couples pedal out into the water, drop an anchor and talk and enjoy the view,” he said.
The rental cost is $7 for a half hour and $10 for an hour.
“I’ve kept the cost of the pedal boats at a bare minimum,” he said. “I’m probably not going to make money on this thing – that’s not really why I’m in it.
He recently donated 300 free passes to three non-profit organizations to be given to families in a pinch and for kids who may not otherwise be able to afford to ride. He credits Toledo City Councilman Lindsay Webb for her help with the effort.
“Downtown Toledo is the ‘postcard’ that people take away, not just for the city but for the region. If you create a cool downtown, people will come,” he said.
Being able to be close to his parents is also a benefit, Russ said.
“When I was going to L.A. to work, my parents suggested I get a job and do something ‘normal,’” he said. “They were proud of my successes in Hollywood, but what’s nice about the pedal boats is they can see how hard I work and where my heart is.
“I’m trying to help change the image of Toledo – not just for visitors but for Toledoans too.”
For more information about the pedal boats, call 419-481-3965 or stop by the bright yellow and blue rental booth at International Park. (Sorry Michigan fans – the booth’s palette is inspired by Toledo’s colors, Russ says.)