Oklahoma City’s Bricktown turns 20

Bricktown Water Taxis have carried more than 2 million passengers since the canal opened 20 years ago
Bricktown Water Taxis have carried more than 2 million passengers since the canal opened 20 years ago Courtesy photo

In 1999, Chad Huntington was on the opening day crew when the first water taxi launched into the newly created Bricktown Canal in downtown Oklahoma City.

He loved telling the city’s narrative in his role as executive director of another nearby fledgling district, Automobile Alley, so this looked like a fun part-time gig.

“At that time, driving a boat on the canal was probably the coolest job in the city,” said Huntington, who considers himself a sixth-generation Oklahoman though he was born and raised in Wichita after the Air Force brought his dad to Kansas. “Everyone was fascinated with it.”

They were intrigued but not everyone thought turning a street into a waterway to spark visitation numbers that could attract development to transform blocks of historic warehouses into an entertainment and dining destination would work. After all, it was a canal that many joked would offer a “ride to nowhere.”

Yet 20 years later, it is the area of Oklahoma City where I nearly always spend at least a few hours, if not my entire stay, when visiting this getaway 160 miles south of Wichita. Minor league baseball games at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark; concerts or basketball games at Chesapeake Energy Arena; staying the night at one of the hotels in the district; or just stopping in to walk around the roughly 45 restaurants, bars and retail shops.

We visited this summer and took the water taxi for the first time. The 40-minute narrated tour gave me a better overview of Bricktown, its history and what there was to do there. There’s also some mostly light-hearted history of the city and the canal, though our guide Daniel had not yet been born when it was built two decades ago.

The taxi ride ranges from $3.50 for ages 5 and below to $11 for adults and can be purchased online at https://bricktownwatertaxi.com/ or at the ticket booth at street level across from the west entrance of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.

I was surprised at some of the new entertainment options that weren’t open during my last visit or didn’t catch my attention previously. Brickopolis offers Lazer Tag, gemstone Mining and children’s games as well as an outdoor miniature golf course canal-side. HeyDey has bowling and an adult arcade. There’s still not a ton of shopping, but I did find a couple of gift boutiques, Jumpin Jackalope, Scissortail Gifts and Painted Door Gift Boutique, along with anchor retailer Bass Pro Shop, about half a mile from the canal and one of the areas that people use the water taxi to reach.

“We’ve been really glad to see Harkins Theatres and, more recently, Brickopolis and HeyDay because they create a great destination that can entertain families for an entire day or a weekend,” said Huntington, who joined the water taxi business full time as general manager in 2002 and last month purchased the business from the estate of longtime owner Bob Bekoff, who died. “There’s the ballpark right across the street from our dock and across the train tracks you have the Myriad Botanical Gardens, other family friendly attractions.”

At the lower end of the canal, we floated by the Centennial Land Run Monument that I had not yet seen on foot either. A 20-year work-in-progress by artist Paul Moore and his sons, it is close to being completed. When done, it will have 45 bronze sculptures of cowboys, horses and wagons stretching out 365 feet long depicting the Land Run of 1889.

While you can use the taxi for transportation – your ticket allows you to flag down a boat or if you’re already aboard ask the driver to stop for the remainder of the day – everyone on our trip seemed to be there for a leisurely ride. During our Saturday afternoon ride, many areas were bustling though there was a section at the upper end of the canal with abandoned buildings. Many businesses have come and gone through two decades, including two anchor restaurants I’d dined at over the years: Spaghetti Warehouse and Chelino’s.

We were among the nearly 100,000 who will ride the water taxis this year. They’ve had more than 2 million passengers since 1999, first attracting locals to see the new canal and hear the tour. Now almost three of every four on board are out-of-towners as Oklahoma City has become more of a tourist destination.

Bricktown also has a dueling piano bar and other live music venues, two museums and a gallery, among other attractions. The district’s website is the best place to see a full listing: https://welcometobricktown.com/.

Bricktown existed as a district before the canal came in 1999, but it was more of a local hangout for the younger crowd than a tourist attraction. The ballpark had opened in 1998 and that helped drive traffic to the area but Bricktown Brewery, two blocks north of the canal, saw a 30% spike in business in the months after the waterway opened.

Charles Stout was a bartender when Bricktown Brewery opened as Oklahoma’s first brewpub in 1992 on the street level of a former candy factory. Stout is now area manager for the brewpub that has grown to 16 locations in five states, including two in Wichita. Unlike the Wichita restaurants, though, all beer served at the Bricktown location is brewed on site which also means patrons stopping there have access to limited edition brews.

“Bricktown is considered our test market of sorts,” said Charles Stout, who started in 1992 as a bartender and is now the restaurant group’s area manager. “You might find a brew that we only made a few kegs of.”

Stout and Huntington said they’re seeing increased business since the Oklahoma City Streetcars (http://okcstreetcar.com/) began running in December 2018 because the cars help people more easily flow between multiple downtown districts, from Midtown to Automobile Alley to the new Scissortail Park. It also helps, Huntington said, that other districts have developed.

“When we were the only district there was a lot of pressure on Bricktown to be amazing,” Huntington said, “and sometimes it succeeded at that, sometimes it fell short. I really feel that having a bunch of other great districts contiguous takes that pressure off and allows people, as they are interested, to filter out into other districts. The streetcar also makes it easier for people who maybe haven’t visited Bricktown for a while to come back to see all that we have now. I’m really proud of how broad the appeal is of Bricktown. All socio-economic groups are drawn to it, and they are welcomed.”