Note: This post was first published as “Rubber Duckies and the Road Ahead” in August 2016; it has been revised slightly and updated to reflect new information about the continuing duck craze!
Several years ago I wrote a column about rubber duckies, discussing the pervasive fascination with that familiar childhood bathtub toy. Who doesn’t love a rubber duck?
A personalized rubber duckie was one of the first gifts I bought for my grandson — that turned into a progression (and a collection) of rubber duckies of various colors and costumes. The obsession spilled over into gifts for my then high-school-teacher son (Professor Duck) and various other family members, with ducks for each succeeding holiday. Then, like other enthusiasms, my duck-gifting phase ran its course to echoes of “Enough, Mom, enough.”
Rubber Duckies are available in all sizes, a few varied shapes, numerous colors and with all sorts of “costumes” and personalities. However, the perennial favorite is still the yellow version, with bright orange bill and black eyes. Many collections feature “one of a kind” or limited-edition duckies; Stories are circulated about duck adventures, and tales are told of lost or rescued ducks. Ducks are used in NASA glacier-tracking experiments, and there are still sightings of some of the group of “globe-trotting” ducks that “jumped ship” in the Pacific in January of 1992. Really.
Rubber Duck Races, generally to benefit local charities, are held from Seattle to the Ozarks, from Washington, D.C., to Crested Butte, from Texas to Tahoe. One of the largest duck races is in Hawaii, and some of the most informal are held in small town creeks, canals and even in swimming pools.
I am still tempted when I see an especially appealing little duck in a store window. And I gasped with delight at news photographs of a giant rubber duck making its way through Lake Superior at a Tall Ships Festival in Duluth, Minn. In August of this year, a 25-foot-tall mystery duck with the word “JOY” emblazoned on its chest appeared mysteriously, to the delight of local residents, in the harbor in Belfast, Maine. Then, just as mysteriously, it disappeared.
So, imagine my surprise when I encountered a stylized rubber “duckie” with mane and tail in the middle of Virginia horse country during a summer road trip.
I was immediately smitten, not only with the little rubber horsie that perched on the edge of the Lexington motel room bathtub, but with the motel itself. After the whoops and the grins — and the picture-taking — I thought about the marketing genius that played to the playfulness of tired travelers.
The clerk was accommodating, more than willing to let us pick a mate for our little rubber traveling companion, only exacting a promise that we would honor the commitment to snap pictures as we traveled on. That we did, and the little horsie-ducks happily sat on the dashboard — a pair of cute mascots — for the next 3,000 or so miles of our journey. They traveled through city traffic, along country roads, into Quebec and Ontario, skirted along several of the Great Lakes and sat under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. It proved, I think, that we are never too old for a little silliness in our lives.
Our little companions abandoned their perch on the dashboard when the temperature soared regularly above 100 degrees back home in Texas. But they accompanied us on several other adventures; today they spend most of their time perched happily on a shelf in my office, joined by a sizable “paddling” of ducks collected from many places over the years.
Just recently, during a quick weekend visit to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B, had a pair of ducks perched on the edge of the jetted tub in our bathroom. I was delighted, but I allowed them to stay to greet future guests.
Rubber ducks on cruise ships, some with “passports” and others with “tickets” and messages from previous owners, were regularly hidden on cruise ships prior to the cessation of cruising in early 2020 due to the pandemic. They had gained a large following aboard major cruise lines. Now, we understand, the craze has gained new life, and there are numerous cruising ducks pages on Facebook. It’s a phenomenon of the times, with a number of spinoffs — crocheted ducks, duck jewelry and key chains, duck towels and duck art — for fun-loving children, and equally fun-loving “adult children” at sea and on land.
Some cruise lines have embraced the fun, selling ducks and duck-themed gifts in onboard shops. And some crew members are enthusiastic collectors as well! Rubber duckies don’t take up much space or make a mess; they are exceedingly patient and compliant travelers, requiring no special accommodations or food. But they did, do and will continue to make us smile! So, if you come across a duck in your travels, feel free to befriend it and take it home. Or let it remain in its hiding place to bring a smile to another face. Post a photo on one of the online groups, if you choose, or rehide it to give someone else the pleasure of finding it. Release your inner child, and just enjoy the experience. I have only found one duck on board a ship, but you can bet I’ll be keeping my eyes open next time I sail.
*Multicolored duck photo by Jo Naylor/Flickr; others by Adrienne Cohen; The motel was the Comfort Inn Virginia Horse Center, Lexington, VA, and The Bridgeford House B&B is located at 263 Spring St., Eureka Springs, AR.