Ten years ago, Michael Kraus and Russ Davis started Riverwalk Boat Rentals & Tours with four paddleboats and a single, 10-person boat. Today, the company employees 20 people and rents three large-sized boats and four pontoons.
Riverwalk’s mission is to provide an affordable river experience.
"We found our niche in the everyday person who didn’t want to spend a fortune to have fun on the water," says Kraus.
Riverwalk offers private charters and public tours every night of the week. The public tours have a different theme every night, reflected in the drinks and snacks. Monday nights are "Margarita Mondays;" Tuesdays are "Tiki Tuesdays;" Wednesdays are "Wine Wednesdays;" Thursdays are "Thirsty Thursdays;" Fridays are "Funky Fridays;" Saturdays are "Social Saturdays."
All of the tours are $25, and run from 6 to 7: 30 p.m. or 7:45 to 9 p.m. At least 15 people have to sign up in order for the boat to launch.
A Sunday brunch costs $35, and is from noon to 2 p.m. Two-hour private dinner cruises are also available.
On a recent Tuesday night, we gave Tiki Tuesday a whirl and boarded the Brew City Queen II, a 30-person pontoon, just before the 6 p.m. departure time. The following Saturday, we took a second booze cruise.
Overall, we had a lot of fun. The weather was perfect on Tuesday, and cool but choppy on Saturday. The 7.6-mile route is a comfortable amount of time to enjoy the view of Downtown Milwaukee, imbibe in a couple (OK, maybe more like a few) cocktails and taps of Miller Lite, eat a few Swedish meatballs and chat with friends. Saturday's trip was totally sold out, and our group of three grabbed the last seats on a tour of at least two bachelorette parties and one 21st birthday.
"It's like the three-hour tour in Gilligan's Island. Only most of the clients are Ginger / Maryanne types, and there's a lot more drinking," says Paul Connolly, who was visiting Milwaukee from Washington, D.C.
The ride begins at the docks at Pere Marquette Park, 948 N. Old World 3rd St., and continues south along the Milwaukee River until it meets up with the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. It then brings you out into Lake Michigan for stunning sunset views of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Pier Wisconsin and Downtown’s skyline.
Because of the choppy waters on Saturday, we didn't get onto the lake, instead we cruised up and down the more placid river.
Tuesday’s all-you-can-drink menu included Blue Hawaiians, Mai Tais, Pina Coladas or Miller Lite. The featured snacks were pineapple salsa and chips, a fruit and cheese platter and teriyaki chicken.
Our friendly bartender kept the blender spinning, providing our thirsty crew with plentiful sugary drinks served in plastic take-cover souvenir mugs. Though served modestly with no garnish or frills, the colorful slushy concoctions were mixed well and packed a nice punch -- the perfect complement to a smooth cruise around Milwaukee’s pleasant shoreline. And you can keep your mug.
Saturday night's cruise -- to the best of our hazy recollection -- featured Miller Lite, rum punch, cheese, crackers, quesadillas and Swedish meatballs.
The pontoon is a simple structure -- unlike the double-decker, enclosed Iroquois -- but we appreciated the closeness to the water. The openness of the pontoon made us able to really enjoy the elements, yet miraculously, we managed to stay completely dry during the ride. Fortunately, there's a tiny, portable bathroom aboard. But the appeal of this cruise isn't the boat itself.
"Intimacy is one of the best qualities of a Riverwalk boat tour," says Kraus. "On our boats, you get a little closer to everything: the wind, the sun and the water."
Our only complaint was the music, which was classic rock piped through tiny speakers, even though the Web site promises Polynesian and Caribbean tunes for Tiki Tuesday.
Because we chose the early evening tour Tuesday, most of the other passengers were Downtown workers enjoying happy hour. Krause says the boat brewery tours are more of a college crowd (over 21, of course) and that the later cruises tend to have a younger crowd, too.
Smoking is permitted on the pontoon, but because of the open nature of the vessel, it’s not a problem for non-smokers. During our cruise, smokers asked our permission to have a cigarette and then went to the back of the boat to light up.
Riverwalk employs a few captains, including Bob Gates, AKA "Captain Bob," who was in command for our Tuesday tour. Gates has been with the company since it started. Our Saturday captain pointed out birds and wildlife, but mostly left the passengers alone to chat amongst ourselves.
It's also notable that Riverwalk offers the only boat brewery tour in the state. During the tour, the boat stops at the Ale House, Lakefront Brewery and the Rock Bottom, where passengers sample a variety of micro beers and learn about the brewing process.
The cost is $26 and runs Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 31, and every Saturday during the month of September.
"These have become really, really popular," says Kraus.
Kraus says the increase in gas prices did not affect the cost of a booze cruise.
"We raised our prices on large, private boats, but not on the nightly cruises," says Kraus. "We’ve always been affordable and will continue that way."