Interview with an Original Wisconsin Dells Ducks manager - Matt Oeftger

Matt Oeftger has worked for the Original Wisconsin Dells Ducks for the last seventeen years. He started off working as a teenage driver of the Ducks for a summer job, and now works as one of the company’s assistant managers. Matt’s joy for working at one of the Dell’s most-loved attractions was obvious as he took the time to answer some of my many questions, as well granting me one of my childhood wishes of driving one of the Original Wisconsin Dells world-famous Ducks for myself.

Tell me a little about yourself Matt - are you originally from the Dells?

Yes, I’m originally from the Dells. I was born and raised here, went to high school in the Dells, and I drove a Duck through my college years. I ended up graduating college, getting a job for about 10 months – in the real world I like to call it, but that didn’t pan out. I ended coming back for a summer and I was fortunate enough that they put me on full time. I was a driver until 2002, and have been in this position ever since.

What made you decide on the Ducks?

Well, for a summer job - it's one of the best jobs you can have! You’re outdoors, entertaining up to twenty people at a time, all while looking at the beautiful scenery.

What’s your favorite part of the job besides entertaining & nature aspects?

As far as the Ducks itself – I’m a big WWII buff – I think this place has a lot to do with that. It’s just the uniqueness of the vehicle – being land & water – and what they were used for in the war.

Tell me a little about that…

General Motors made the D.U.K.W.s – which is an amphibious truck - because they needed something to go from the ships to the beaches. They had boats to transport the troops, but they couldn’t get the ammunition or supplies up on the beach, so they decided to come up with this amphibious truck called a land and water.  

So how did they end up here in the Dells?

Herman Breitenbach was from the Milwaukee area, and while vacationing in the Dells one year saw the national beauty and potential to possibly give some tours on Ducks. He ended up buying one, brought it to the Dells mid-to-late summer in 1946, and it was just a huge hit. He then bought up all the land he could, ended up buying a fleet of twelve the summer after, and the Ducks have been here ever since.

Tell me a little about the tour?

Our tour is 8.5 miles long – land and water together – it’s about 4.5 to 5 miles on the land and 3 miles on the water. We’re on the Lower Dells portion of the river, and then on Lake Delton there is also another part on the water.

So how fast do they go?

On land they can do speeds up to like 50 miles an hour – but we usually don’t reach those speeds on the trails. On water - about 6 miles an hour – they’re pretty slow moving vessels – which is great for families.

You been here 17 years – what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen? Any customers that try to jump off or do something stupid?

It’s pretty much straight forward, but there are some people that can’t judge the time as far as bathroom breaks. We get requests in the middle of the tour to stop at the restroom! We basically tell them there are a lot of trees out there - as kind of as a joke - but half the time they’re not joking!

How often do the tours run?

This time of year we are running pretty steady non-stop from 8am-7pm, at an average of every 5-7 minutes. During the hours of 10:30am and 3 O’clock it’s like every 2-3minutes.

While looking around earlier I saw quite a few of them. How many Ducks exactly do you guys have?

There’s 92 in our fleet – 60 which are operational. We have 44 tour ducks, 8 shuttle ducks (which take customers from the downtown Dells area to the loading docks), 2 service ducks (which help the Ducks that get stuck in the river’s sand bars from time to time), one Duck wrecker (which tows a broken down Duck to the shop area), and the rest are just waiting to be transformed into tour Ducks. The non-operational ones are reserved for parts.

Now how many of these things were originally made?

Over twenty-one thousand.

Wow, that many?

Yep. There were over two thousand used in the D-Day invasion alone. An interesting fact is that for a lot of the Ducks that were sent overseas – the military never brought them back. They left them there in sheds, or a lot of them were driven off the coast & sunk – which breaks our heart since we’re in the business that we’re in!

Do you still look for them or do you have enough?

We never have enough. Were always looking for them!

Where do you find them?

Military magazines were a big thing I’d say probably about 15-20 years ago. Military collectors would either have them, or sell them. A lot of municipalities used to have them for flood recovery and things like that, but they found that the cost of maintaining them was just astronomical – so they decided OK, we’re going to sell these. We’ve actually had some municipalities call us up – hey we know your in business, we got a couple here, would you be interested in purchasing them?

So are there a lot of Duck attractions around the US?

I’d say there are about a dozen of them around the country. The more popular one is the company called: Ride-The-Ducks which I believe is in Branson, Boston, Seattle, down in Georgia there is one – they have like 4 or 5 different locations. There also is on in Florida, then there’s DC Ducks, there was one in Hot Springs Arkansas, one in Hawaii. There is even one in London – so they are worldwide.

The Dells was one of the first I would imagine?

I would think so – as far as the tours & using the vehicles for that purpose – yeah I think we were one of the first. Another interesting thing is that now a days, a lot of the Ducks don’t use the military ones like we do – they have a version of a Duck that was made probably about ten years ago. It’s like a 40 passenger Duck, all modernized…

Who wants that?

Yeah, you want the original! That’s why we promote us as the "Original" Wisconsin Ducks.

As a kid, my favorite part was going into the water – is that true for most?

Yeah, as far as one of the most thrilling parts of it – the splashdown when you hit the water – a lot of the kids & adults like that. But we do have some hills that will get your stomach churning a bit as well – that’s during the faster pace part of the tour.

Does the route ever change?

We’ve had the same route for probably 17-18 years. 1991 or 92 was the last time we changed the route, and I think it’s changed 3 or 4 times over the course of the company – maybe more. I started in 1995 so I’ve only known the one route, but we’ve had a few changes. The Breach (when Lake Delton emptied completely of water) came through over our land in 2008 – we had a wildflower prairie that we used to drive through, but it took all the trees and the sand out to the river - draining the lake. So, we ended up cutting our trail a little bit – nothing major – just little differences.

Did people come especially to see the lake that was drained?

I think so – I think they were curious to see what had happened. It did put a damper on some of the Lake Delton businesses, but we tried to make the most of it. We were able to go down to the breach site – people would come just to see that and their eyes got wide – jaws dropped – it was quite a sight that’s for sure. That’s probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen – the lake draining – just the force of water.

So you actually got to see it drain?

Yeah, I got a call at like 3am – get everyone you can over to Lake Delton dam – were going to sandbag it. The dam actually held up, but the problem was that the water found a weaker spot – the shoreline – and that’s what eroded away.

Mother Nature can’t be contained…

Yeah that’s for sure – it’s a powerful thing.

Well it sure sounds like you have quite an exciting job. Anything else stand out?

When I used to drive – seeing the happy families get off the tour – I think that is one of my highlights.  Driving, and now also as a manager, seeing the families – and some families come back year after year – and just seeing their faces. It can’t help but put a smile on your face.