By Larry Schwingel
A single-deck wooden boat built in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1935 carried only 50 passengers, but it started a concept that became an iconic slice of Fort Lauderdale history. When owner Al Starts added a second deck in 1947, he billed the aptly named Jungle Queen as “the largest, newest and most modern double-deck boat in Fort Lauderdale,” which resembled more of a jungle—with its overgrown flora, bushes and palm trees—than a city at the time. He set up a booth at Las Olas Boulevard and Poinciana Drive and sold tickets for voyages along the New River.
Over a decade later, Starts sold the boat to Earl Faber, a retiree from New York City who lived on his yacht at Bahia Mar. The two became friends and drinking buddies at Brownie’s Bar. Faber had the foresight to envision the Jungle Queen as a business with great potential, and the boat has remained in the Faber family for three generations. “My grandfather was a vaudeville comedian who married a Ziegfeld Follies girl,” says Michael Faber, who co-owns the boat with his brother, Todd, and sister, Pamela. “He was friends with Milton Berle and Duke Ellington and loved the spotlight, but Jungle Queen stole the show.”
When the Jungle Queen cruised by, people turned on house lights and ran to the river’s edge to wave as it passed. Besides daytime excursions, the evening cruise brought passengers to “The Island” at the South Fork of the New River for dinner and entertainment. As guests disembarked, the aroma of barbecued ribs, shrimp, grilled chicken and french fries filled the air. A great meal, the chance to socialize and laugh and Captain Earl’s “Zany Vaudeville Review” made the experience the talk of the town.
Multitudes cruised the New River aboard various iterations of the Jungle Queen, listening to tales of the rich and famous, viewing Millionaire’s Row and ogling the mega yachts lined up neatly side by side. Over time, tiki huts, torches, palm and oak trees, waterfalls, exotic birds, lemurs and monkeys were added to the island, lending a Hawaiian feel. Today’s fast-paced four-hour evening includes a scrumptious all-you-can-eat dinner, along with live entertainment, variety shows and a Polynesian revue.
The three-hour sightseeing day cruise to “The Island” that featured alligator wrestling was suspended due to COVID-19 concerns. “We felt it was too dangerous with the pandemic, but we still offer 90-minute cruises and evening cruises,” Michael says. Jungle Queen IV—which was built under Michael’s father, Jerome—is now operating at 50% capacity (just under 200 people) to comply with social distancing guidelines, but he hopes to return to full capacity by summer’s end.
Continuing to reinvent the riverboat tour experience, the Faber family is working to create the Jungle Queen V, which will no doubt continue entertaining a new generation of sightseers for years to come.
Originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.