The Wichita Wagonmasters had been feeling a little left out of the Wichita River Festival the past few years.
Sure, they get to carry their mops and shoot their guns in the Sundown Parade. And the Hiland Dairy Ice Cream Social is still their thing
But ever since their signature event – the Antique Bathtub Races – was eliminated in 2008, the Wagonmasters have been a little underutilized, members say.
So this year, a few of them got together to create an attraction that would elevate the festival presence of the Wagonmasters – a group of about 200 business executives whose purpose is to support the festival and other community projects, such as the annual Downtown Chili Cookoff.
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The attraction is a pontoon boat dubbed the SS Waterwagon that the group spent more than a month crafting into a sea-worthy replica of the Windwagon, the elaborate boat-on-wheels helmed every year by Admiral Windwagon Smith.
“This is Riverfest,” said Chris Owen, a Wagonmaster who was put in charge of “shore operations” for the ride. “We wanted to get something on the river.”
Thought up by Wagonmaster Don Grant and fashioned in the home shop of one of the Wagonmasters, the boat features wood paneling, a canopy fashioned out of black poly and mesh, and river-friendly details such as an anchor-shaped wooden clock and a bell that small passengers are invited to ring upon boarding.
Each day of the festival, they’re offering rides that depart just west of the Broadview, near the Douglas Avenue Bridge, and take a maximum of 30 passengers on 15-minute rides to the Keeper of the Plains and back. Along the way, a Wagonmaster narrator tells the story of a fictional character, Windwagon Willie, and shares bits of non-fictional Wichita history. The ride, $5 for adults and $4 for kids ages 3-16, offers a rare, up-close look not only at the front side of the Keeper of the Plains but also of the murky Arkansas River water.
Along the way, riders cruise past Exploration Place and the West Bank Stage area. The boat goes under the Second Street bridge and past floating ducks and soaring water cranes.
The Wagonmasters staff the ride, offering kids temporary tattoos, boat hats and lifejackets. They help people on and off the vessel and take turns driving and narrating.
On Saturday, the ride proved popular. More than 600 people rode through the course of the day, Owen said – a respectable start considering that their capacity for the day was about 750.
Among Sunday morning’s passengers were Cindy Riddle and her 2-year-old granddaughter, Cheyenne.
The two had stumbled across the ride after stopping at the yet-to-be-inflated inflatables at the Cessna Kids’ Korner.
As she exited the boat, proudly donning her cardboard sailor hat, Cheyenne offered her approval.
“I want to go on it again,” she told her grandmother.
The ride departs four times an hour and is open weekdays from 4 to 8 p.m. and final Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Life jackets are required for the ride. Children must wear them, and adults must keep them nearby.
But riders needn’t worry, said Wagonmaster Mike Madden. The river is no deeper than four feet at most spots along the route.
“The standing joke is that we hand out life jackets, but if you fall overboard, just walk to shore,” he said.