They come from Japan. They come from the United Kingdom. They come from Indiana. Last year 10.2 million tourists came to Seattle and King County, and every single one of them clogged up the crosswalk at First Avenue and Pike.
Actually, visitors spend about $5.9 billion on hotels, food, and smushed souvenir pennies at the top of the Space Needle. And while visiting the city’s usual haunts, they had a darn good time—the city has ranked in the top 10 U.S. travel destinations by Condé Nast Traveler’s reader poll, Travel and Leisure, and travelocity.com.
What do they know that we don’t? Maybe where to find a free national park in the city or where you can sit on a chair gifted by the last empress of China. We poked behind the scenes of places you probably haven’t been in a while—the EMP, the Fremont Troll, the Museum of Flight. Sure, some of it’s cheesy (as if there was anything wrong with that)—so we measured the cheese factor at every destination. Turns out there’s a lot here for locals.
1. Ask the Captain
By land or by sea, the Ride the Ducks tour is a happy barrage of local facts, dumb jokes, Starbucks games, goofy headwear, and crowd participation. Marcus Luce, a UW grad with long brown hair and a penchant for showboating, goes by Captain Chaos when he leads a tour. Though his job includes seat-dancing to “East Bound and Down,” blowing a duck kazoo, and introducing himself with “Call me Chaos, call me crazy, call me maybe,” the four-year Ducks vet also holds a masters degree and Coast Guard certification.
Did you pick your own name?
Mine is a high school nickname. My brothers would call me Mar-chaos.
And you’re really a captain?
Everyone that drives the Ducks is a captain, because you have to have that Coast Guard license.
How many hats do you wear on a given tour?
Depends on the tour. When I do a tour with a lot of kids, it becomes less high-minded humor, more “Look at that stupid hat!”
What do you do when you have a grumpy group of people?
In my intro, when people are still a bit sleepy, it’s even more in your face. “Hey! You need my Starbucks?” Even if it’s awkward for a few minutes, I’m in your face, dancing. If I have to pull my hair out early, I will. That’s kind of my trump card.
You mention that the boat is only a few years old; are they all new?
We have four Ducks that are refurbished WWII landing craft, vehicles that saw action. Now the company figured, Why don’t we just fabricate our own machines?
What would locals like about the Ducks tour?
The thing is, locals may know it’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, but they may not know its unique history with World War II. Locals come off the tour saying, “I didn’t know that; it’s so cool!”
Any favorite tour memories?
By far, the fact that I met my wife on a Duck tour. About four years ago, she and her friends came…I meet people before the tour, see where they’re from and— this time—I made a really good personal connection! A little Duck romance. For Seattleites, if online dating isn’t working for you, maybe try the Ducks.
516 Broad St, Lower Queen Anne, 206-441-3825; ridetheducksofseattle.com $28
2. There’s a national park right next to Pioneer Square—but you might’ve missed it, since it doesn’t include a single tree, mountain, river, rascally bear, or even a mound of dirt. The single building of the Klondike Gold Rush National History Park is all about Seattle in the 1890s, when the Post-Intelligencer’s headlines screamed, announcing a “NEW LAND OF GOLD” in Alaska. There’s a recreated log cabin and a wheel of fortune that simulates the prospector’s 0.3 percent chance of striking it rich (and 0.05 percent chance of staying rich).
Because it’s a national historical park, yes, the staff up front are rangers, complete with green and khaki uniforms. A model of Pioneer Square during the gold rush showed Seattle’s priorities at the time—the light-up display shows six outfitters in the area but at least nine saloons.
319 Second Ave S, Pioneer Square, 206-220-4240; nps.gov/klse
3. Breakdown: The Fremont Troll
What’s in the time capsule inside the Bug? “Kurt Cobain’s ashes,” jokes Steve Badanes, a UW architecture professor who helped sculpt the troll. The only item of value in the capsule, a bust of Elvis Presley, was quickly stolen, and all that remains are drawings made by schoolchildren, now sealed in sand and cement.
The troll’s nose is modeled on Badanes’s—“well, a little exaggerated,” he says—after the artists reached a consensus that his was the most appropriate.
Troll upkeep is a constant battle. It’s tempting to plaster new cement over the vandalism, says Badanes, but it’s used sparingly so the troll doesn’t fatten up with the extra layers.
The Volkswagen Beetle’s nose is buried in the troll because its front end was mashed in a collision before it was donated by the now-defunct Black Duck Motors.
The four artists who built the troll (Badanes, Will Martin, Donna Walter, and Ross Whitehead) still own the copyright of the troll image, which they release only for nonprofits, a few movies, and a few fun items like the Troll Chia Pet.
3405 Troll Ave N, Fremont, fremont.com
4. Which way to Bruce Lee’s grave?
To find his headstone (and that of his son, Brandon) among all the Dennys and Borens and Yeslers in Lake View Cemetery on Capitol Hill, head for the circular road on the top of the hill and look behind a massive heart-shaped monument beyond the loop’s eastern edge. One gruesome epigraph to the life of Seattle’s martial arts legend: Shots from his open-casket funeral—including Lee’s embalmed body—were worked into his last film, Game of Death.
1554 15th Ave E, Capitol Hill, 206-322-1582; lakeviewcemeteryassociation.com
Sure, the Pike Place Market Starbucks has the original logo, with the signature mermaid flashing her breasts like it’s Mardi Gras. The blackboard inside reads, “This is where it all began”—but the chain’s first baristas actually began a half a block north in 1971 before opening here five years later.
1912 Pike Pl, Pike Place Market, 206-448-8762; starbucks.com
6. Even when the Seattle Great Wheel is only half full, operators worry about balance, loading six gondolas before rotating the wheel 180 degrees and letting more people on.
1301 Alaskan Way, Waterfront, seattlegreatwheel.com $13
7. Most of the 230 verdant acres of the University of Washington Arboretum complex are free to ramble, but it costs $6 to enter the walled Japanese Garden run by the City of Seattle—unless you shell out for a $75 Photographer’s Membership, which gives shutterbugs regular early access to the manicured grounds, like when the bubblegum-hued cherry blossoms are in bloom.
2300 Arboretum Dr E, Madison Park, 206-543-8800; depts.washington.edu/uwbg/gardens/wpa.shtml Free, $6 for Japanese Garden
8.How do you do eye surgery on a fish? Very carefully.
No, really, it can be done, and Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner is something of an expert. The canary and yelloweye rockfish are stars of the massive Window on Washington Waters tank, the first thing visitors see when they walk into the pier aquarium. Several of the rockfish are missing eyes, removed by Lahner in an OR setup that involves a V-shaped table (the fishy patient goes right in the crook) and a tube system that washes water full of general anesthetic over the fish’s gills.
Sounds like a lot of trouble, but since rockfish live, on average, more than 100 years, they’re well worth the primo health care. They’ve even brought human dentists in to treat the teeth of the aquarium residents.
A brand-new harbor seal habitat will open in June, bringing home the seals that have been vacationing at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo, but Seattle Aquarium hopes to double in size in coming years.
Dr. Lahner’s expansion plans are considerably smaller—she’s working on prosthetics for the one-eyed rockfish. (What, you thought they’d wear eye patches like common pirates?) Since select other aquariums won’t display fish with an empty eye socket, she’s been experimenting with the eyes used by taxidermists, though she won’t try them on actual residents until the procedure is guaranteed not to hurt, only make them look more pretty.
1483 Alaskan Way, Waterfront, 206-682-3474; seattleaquarium.org $22
9. Tour the twisty, angled halls of the Rem Koolhaas–designed Seattle Central Library one of three ways: Download an audio tour on the library website, prebook a tour with a group of five people or more, or simply call -206-686-8564 and enter the codes posted around the building under signs that say “Cell Phone Tour.” You’ll learn what acoustic pillows do for the library and where to find the best views (that’s on level 10 in the Betty Jane Narver Reading Room). What else are you going to do there, read one of the million or so books?
1000 Fourth Ave, Downtown, 206-386-4636; spl.org