Sometimes there is an attraction that has been around for so long it gets a reputation of being old fashioned and kitsch, perhaps a bit boring. It’s a thing we did as a kid in the 1960s, 70s & 80s, and loved it then, but it has not changed since. It’s something you may be taken on during a school excursion or a family outing with your Grandparents. It’s definitely not something the “cool kids” do! But over the years it has become an icon, and like many similar attractions around the world, that iconic status is deserved. With the Popeye River Cruises, Adelaide has it’s very own version of that icon, and both visitors and locals alike should find out why.
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About The Popeye
The very first Popeye was a timber boat built in 1935. At the time the Popeye the Sailor cartoon was very popular, so the name was chosen for the boat. The short Popeye cruise went up and down the lake created by the River Torrens weir, leaving from Elder park, going down to the weir, then back up the Torrens past the Adelaide Zoo before returning to Elder Park. It was often used as the start of an outing to the zoo as there is a stop near the entrance to allow people to get on and off.
The Popeye motor launch cruise was so popular soon a second boat was acquired. But no one wanted to be on that one, they all wanted to be on The Popeye! The owner soon resolved that issue by naming them all Popeye! Over the years the boats have come and gone. The current boats were custom built in the 1980s and are called Popeye I, Popeye II and Popeye III (although Popeye II is no longer in use).
Popeye has had some high profile passengers over the years, with The Queen and Prince Phillip taking a ride on her in 1977, and before that, Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, was on board in 1958. In 2001 The Popeye was officially recognised as a State Heritage Icon.
Enjoying the Popeye River Cruises
I haven’t been on Popeye since I was a child. I have those childhood memories of getting on at Elder Park and getting off for a visit to the zoo. I took my children on Popeye, and they got to ride the iconic boat on school excursions to the city centre. On a perfect autumn day, it was a great opportunity to take my niece and nephew for their first ride on Popeye.
Since it was a spur of the moment decision, we had not purchased tickets in advance. We arrived at the Elder Park landing with some time to spare, but we need not have rushed. Payment is taken once on the boat. I do however recommend booking in advance. Those who had prepaid tickets are boarded first, and only after they were all on board were others invited on board. Our cruise was relatively empty, but the one that finished before us was quite full, so there could be a chance that without a prepaid ticket there may not be a seat available, particularly during these times of reduced capacity thanks to Covid.
Once on board our captain started the cruise by giving us a brief rundown on Popeye, the history and some interesting quirks and facts. This was followed by our orders being taken for complimentary tea or coffee. Other drinks are available too, from soft drinks to something a little harder, all mostly South Australian beverages. A glass of bubbly would be the perfect accompaniment to this relaxing cruise.
We then worked our way down toward the weir, with commentary telling us about the historic boat houses on the river banks and the big modern buildings behind them. Who knew that the operating theatres of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital are located on the site where the abattoirs were in days past?
After turning at the weir, the real fun began – we were all offered the chance to “captain” the boat. We could sit in the chair, don the captain’s hat and steer the boat for a few minutes. Even the kids got to have a turn. They were very excited to toot the horn as well. I’m not sure if this would happen on more crowded Popeye river cruises, but it was a real treat. It is actually something that was started right back in the beginning, with the original skipper offering kids the same opportunity.
By now we were making our way back past Elder Park and on the way to the zoo. As we went under each of the bridges we heard about their construction and some memorable tales. The University Footbridge, for example, has often been the location of student pranks. In 1971 the engineering students suspended one of their professors cars, a FJ Holden, from the bridge! I wonder what grade they ended up with!
As we came towards the stop for the zoo, we were asked if we wanted to get off, but today we are all going bak to Elder Park. Unfortunately a Popeye ride to the zoo is not so convenient as it was in the past as the Popeye cruise times are more limited. On the day of my cruise, there were only three times, at 10am, 11am and 12pm. This would mean for a day out at the zoo we could catch Popeye there, we would just have to find another way back later in the day. This could be a challenge for those with young children.
At the place along side the zoo where were turned Popeye, Torrens Lake turns back into the River Torrens continuing for another 35 or so kilometres to where it starts near Mount Pleasant. The last section of the cruise back to Elder Park was an opportunity to sit back and relax, taking in the beautiful surroundings as we meandered along.
This nostalgic walk down memory lane showed me that the Popeye River Torrens cruise is still a worthwhile activity in Adelaide. Without the Popeye Cruise, Adelaide childhood memories would have been very different. Locals should come along and relive their youth, bringing children and grandchildren to show a new generation one of our icons. Visitors will find this a great way to learn more about the history of Adelaide and some of the buildings on and around the Torrens, while enjoying a relaxing, peaceful cruise.
All the Details for The Popeye Boat Cruise Adelaide
The Sightseeing Cruise that I took is run three times a day during the week, with a fourth cruise at 1pm on the weekends. I recommend getting your tickets in advance below to ensure your place on your preferred cruise.
While the most popular, these sightseeing cruises are not the only ones available. There are a variety of themed cruises that run at various times throughout each month. High Tea is available on a cruise each Sunday afternoon. You will be handed a glass of bubbly, a beer, cider or soft drink on boarding, then spend ninety minutes floating along the Torrens while enjoying cute little sandwiches, decadent cakes and endless cups of tea. If tea is not enough, then there are more alcoholic drinks available to be purchased on board.
On Friday and Saturday afternoons you can enjoy a cruise while doing a tasting from Kangaroo Island Spirits. On occasional Thursday, Friday or Saturday evenings a Prohibition Gin Masterclass is held on the cruise. Popeye can be booked for private cruises too, and would be a great way to celebrate a birthday or other milestone. Also look out for special events during the year, such as party cruises during the Adelaide Fringe. For more details on these special cruises see here.
Find Popeye on the River Torrens at Elder Park. This is on the other side of the river to Adelaide Oval, and between the new footbridge and King William Road.
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.