Eighty years ago, a tradition began in the lobby of one of the South’s most grandiose hotels that remains to this day. Every morning and afternoon (11 a.m and 5 p.m.), the famous Peabody Ducks march into the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star hotels The Peabody Memphis and The Peabody Orlando to keep watch over their fountain in the lobby. The tradition of the Duck March is presided over by Duckmaster Anthony in Memphis and Duckmaster Donald in Orlando and is one that draws people from all across the globe to these two star-studded hotels.
We spent an afternoon getting to know Duckmaster Donald and learning what it’s like on an average day in the life of The Peabody Ducks:
How did the tradition of The Peabody Ducks begin?
We always try to add a little whimsy when telling this story, because otherwise the whole thing might sound a little made up. In 1933, Frank Schutt, the general manager of The Peabody Memphis, set off on a duck hunting trip with a few friends and a large supply of Jack Daniels. When the group returned, the only ducks in their possession were the live decoys they had used, and the whiskey was completely gone. Mr. Schutt thought it would be fun to play a joke on the staff and leave the ducks swimming in the lobby fountain. The guests and locals alike quickly fell in love with the ducks, and The Peabody Memphis lobby was soon made their permanent home.
A few years later, a bellman named Edward Pembroke asked the hotel’s management for The Peabody Ducks to be put into his care. See, Pembroke was brought up in the circus and knew that the ducks were highly intelligent creatures that could be trained. Before long, the ducks were taught to march into the lobby each day, and Mr. Pembroke was made our first Duckmaster.
When did you become the Duckmaster?
I’ve been the Duckmaster at The Peabody Orlando for three years. I had retired from a career at AT&T and was doing what retired people do, playing golf mostly, when I saw an ad in the Wall Street Journal for the Duckmaster job. I had stayed at the hotel many times on business and loved both the property and the ducks, and something inside me said I should apply. They received over 300 applicants for the Duckmaster job, but in this town I was a shoo-in — I was the only one named Donald.
Is there just one family of ducks?
We actually have three families of Peabody Ducks, but only one is at the hotel at any given time. A family will stay at the hotel for three or four months, and then they are sent to a nearby farm for a year where they basically live out a normal duck life. We repeat that cycle until the ducks turn five years of age and then they are permanently retired from The Peabody. The idea is that by limiting the amount of time they live in the hotel they never lose their natural instincts. These are wild animals and we want them to stay that way.
One unique thing about our ducks is the concept of a family. Each group is made up of one male and four females, and they form a bond early in life that is simply unbreakable. When they leave the hotel, these ducks will never leave each other’s side, and that’s something that isn’t normally found in ducks in the wild.
Where do the ducks live when they’re not “working?”
Oh, believe me, they have it made. We have a Duck Palace upstairs, complete with Italian marble, two fountains and a pool. The Duck Palace cost over $100,000 to construct and the entire space is renovated nearly every year.
Do you name the ducks?
We don’t, and for a very simple reason. To name the ducks would be to treat them as pets, and we never want the staff or our guests to forget that these are wild animals. Plus, naming them would also form an emotional attachment to them; one that would be more difficult to break each time a family leaves the hotel for the last time. It’s still hard on me. It’s impossible to not form a bond with them when you spend so much time together, but I could never let that emotion show through.
Each day you have an Honorary Duckmaster that joins you for the march. Has anyone famous had the honor?
Absolutely! Oprah Winfrey was an Honorary Duckmaster, so was Florence Henderson. Plus, just about every politician in Florida comes through The Peabody at one time or another to declare it “Peabody Duck Day.” We even had a guest in her 90s come down with 30 of her family members just to serve as the Honorary Duckmaster. It was on her bucket list, and it was a great thrill to see that happen for her.
What do you think makes The Peabody Ducks so special?
Well, it’s tradition, for one. When something has been around for 80 years, people naturally treat it with added respect and want to be a part of it. These ducks are famous across the globe. It’s not uncommon for me to be talking with someone from Egypt in the morning and Peru in the afternoon, and they’re both here to see The Peabody Ducks. But really, it’s more than that. Just look at these ducks, swimming and splashing about. There’s something charming about the ducks that you can see it in the smiles of our guests — both young and old — as they sit and watch them for hours on end.
Photos courtesy of The Peabody Orlando Hotel