Going Batty in Austin, TX: Bat CruiseJune 20, 2011 No Comments
Austin, Texas prides itself on being unusual. In fact, the city’s slogan, proudly repeated by tourists and locals alike, is “Keep Austin Weird.” Despite its status as the state capital, Austin is much more reminiscent of the New Orleans’ French Quarter than a traditional government town.
Perhaps the crown jewel in Austin’s “weird” title is the reverence it displays for a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. Spending the spring, summer and early fall under the Congress Avenue Bridge, the bats’ nightly departure in search of food is a major tourist draw. Although you can watch the flight for free along the bridge, Dad and I opted for a river cruise with Capital Cruises.
About the Bat Cruise
Established in 1991, Capital Cruises conveniently docks outside the Hyatt Regency Austin on Ladybird Lake, which is actually a segment of Texas’ Colorado River (not connected to the more famous Colorado River further west). Paid parking is available at the Hyatt, while a free public lot is within easy walking distance.
As of 2011, the cruise costs $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for kids aged 3 to 12. Those aged 2 and under are free. Cruise times vary by season, so check the Bat Cruise official website for the latest updates. Guests are asked to arrive 20 to 30 minutes before departure.
Dad and I arrived at approximately 7:30 p.m. for our 8:00 cruise. The atmosphere at the dock is quite friendly and laid-back, and the staff chatted easily with guests as we awaited our departure. Our guide encouraged everyone to visit the hotel restrooms, as there are no bathroom facilities on the boat. If you’re hungry, an ice cream cart sometimes stops by the dock.
The boat was a large pontoon filled with plastic chairs, but our attention was drawn to the giant bat at the rear. Pretty imposing and a great reminder of what was to come! As the boat filled up, our guide encouraged everyone to squeeze together so that late arriving groups could sit together. Food and beverages are allowed on board.
We left the dock promptly on time, heading away from the Congress Avenue Bridge. Dad and I were pleased to discover that the first half of the bat cruise is a riverboat tour of Austin. Our guide had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the city, and pointed out historic buildings all along the way.
There is a lot of history in Austin, making a guided tour a virtual requirement for developing a deeper understanding. What better way to learn history than kicked back on a relaxing river cruise? Our guide was happy to field questions, and our group was pretty talkative.
After the historical portion of the cruise, our guide turned the boat around and headed toward the Congress Avenue Bridge. The bat flight actually started earlier than expected that evening, and our guide wasted no time in getting us into position. Approximately 1.5 million bats fly each evening, though, so we didn’t miss a thing. I’m actually glad that the bats started flying before we got there, because it was quite impressive to see the massive column of bats from far away and then gradually draw closer until we were directly underneath.
Ladybird Lake is popular, particularly when the bats are flying. Our boat was joined by other tour boats and a variety of watercraft including canoes and kayaks. We also had a great view of people lined up along the bridge.
Our guide proved to have just as much knowledge about bats as he did about Austin’s history. As we watched the bats swarm overhead, our guide shared facts and figures about the Congress Avenue Bridge colony and Mexican free-tailed bats in general.
The sheer number of bats is awe-inspiring. At times it almost looked like a solid wall. The bats’ echolocation is phenomenal, and their flight path reminded me of a very intricate ballet. Apparently Mexican free-tailed bats are so highly maneuverable that they can even dodge a bullet!
As the number of bats flying out began to dwindle, our guide negotiated the boat back to shore. Although the cruise was over, several people stayed to chat. There was no feeling of being rushed off the boat.
Tips for Parents
There were several kids on our boat and on the other tour boats we saw. All were absolutely enthralled with both the river cruise portion and, especially, the bats. Unless your kids have a particular fear of bats, I see no reason to avoid this cruise.
Make sure everyone keeps their mouths closed and their eyes protected while underneath the bats’ flight path. Despite assurances by our guide that guano is used in a wide range of consumer products, bat droppings aren’t the sort of thing I want in my mouth or eyes! I did get a drop on my forehead, but unlike bird droppings, guano is not particularly messy. Several people on our boat were wearing hats.
Advance reservations are recommended, though not always required. Cruises are typically available from March through October, depending on weather and the bats’ migration. Austin, Texas can be quite warm, so make sure everyone is well hydrated and wearing sunscreen. Cruises generally depart shortly before sunset.