Nov 21, 2023 - News

A first look at new Bradenton-Anna Maria Island ferry service

A catamaran with "Gulf Island Ferry" painted in orange on the side cuts through water.

The Downtown Duchess, viewed from the Miss Anna Maria. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios

More than a century ago, before the Anna Maria and Cortez bridges backed up with snowbird traffic, the only way to travel between Bradenton and the barrier islands was by boat, Manatee County Commission chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge told a small audience on Monday.

  • The pair of catamarans docked behind him along the Bradenton Riverwalk "sort of brings us full circle, doesn't it?" he said.

What's happening: The roughly 50-passenger vessels make up the new Gulf Islands Ferry service connecting downtown Bradenton with Anna Maria Island.

  • The water taxis are set to open to the public Dec. 8, but on Monday, local elected officials and members of the media set out on the service's maiden voyage.

Why it matters: The service gives tourists and residents another option to get to Anna Maria Island's world-famous beaches that doesn't involve sitting in traffic. Plus, it's another form of transportation in a car-dependent region.

How it works: The service will have three stops: the dry docks along the Bradenton Riverwalk, the Anna Maria Island City Pier and the Bridge Street Pier. The ferries will run 10am-9pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting.

  • One-way tickets cost $8 for adults, $6 for seniors 65 and older, $5 for children aged 3-11 and free for children under 3.
  • Gulf Coast Water Taxi will operate the boats. The company also runs the Clearwater Ferry, which connects downtown Clearwater to Dunedin and the beach.

By the numbers: The two boats, called the Downtown Duchess and the Miss Anna Maria, cost about $900,000 in tourism bed tax money, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau director Elliott Falcione told Axios.

  • Another quarter-million dollars for dock upgrades came out of revenue from county-owned concession stands.
  • Falcione expects the public will have to subsidize the ferries by about $300,000-400,000 in the first year, but the goal is for the service to pay for itself.

The voyage: I was on the Miss Anna Maria with Captain Ted Shonts, who said the new boat "handles like a dream, like a Cadillac." That's how it felt onboard, too: Even going as fast as 24 mph, the ride was smooth, easy and dry.

  • We turned around just before the De Soto National Memorial, about 20 minutes into the ride. The full voyage to the Anna Maria City Pier is about 40 minutes.
  • Overall, it was a cool experience. We even saw a dolphin, which is definitely something you can't see from a car. And for my fellow small-bladdered folks, there's a bathroom on board.

What's next: Local officials hope to eventually add stops on Longboat Key and across the Manatee River in downtown Palmetto, where what will become the largest hotel in Manatee County is set to open beside a soon-to-expand convention center.

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