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Quack on! KID Duck Fest Derby returns to New River

The 11th annual KID Duck Fest Derby returns to downtown Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, March 25, when it will fill the New River with 30,000 rubber ducks in a race that is excruciatingly slow, but not lacking in crowd-cheering intensity.

Because while Duck Fest is a fundraiser for the vital work done every year by Kids in Distress for more than 11,000 children and foster families in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and a fun day out with the family, including the Kid Olympics, face painting, bounce houses, food trucks and live music, it is also a competition, with a $10,000 grand prize.

You can adopt a duck for $5 each (including an anniversary discount of 11 ducks for $50) at DuckFestDerby.org and at the festival, which takes place in Esplanade Park, 400 SW Second St., from noon to 3 p.m., with the race at 2 p.m. Prizes awarded to the top 10 finishers will include a seven-day Norwegian cruise for two and a foursome of golf at Fort Lauderdale Country Club.

Mark Dhooge, president and CEO of Kids in Distress, is hoping to raise from $200,000 to $250,000 through sales of the ducks and corporate sponsorship. He expects more than 2,000 people at Duck Fest.

“It’s the one event our children and families can attend. That’s just huge for us,” Dhooge says of KID, which he describes as the largest foster-care licensing agency in Broward and Palm Beach counties. “Normally, you do fundraising events and it’s just people with big money that can attend, and this is something our foster families can go to and all the kids we have in our care.”

While discussing the event, Dhooge set us straight on the KID Duck Fest Derby and these web-footed thoroughbreds.

These races are chaotic, and the ducks seem pretty aimless. The rumor is they are wearing sunglasses because they are feeling the effects of spring break parties the night before.

“Yes, they push each other around pretty significantly. ... The Fort Lauderdale Fire Department, they bring their hoses, and if those ducks are not floating fast enough, they hose the ducks down and push them down the river as best they can.”

I am told that to prevent the influence of gamblers, the ducks are under tight security before the race.

“They are kept in a locked warehouse. People, when they adopt a duck, they have a specific number that is assigned to them. [On Friday night], we have a lottery that assigns random numbers to all the ducks going in the river. It’s done with our IT guy, along with our auditors. It can’t be rigged. It can’t be fixed.”

When these ducks are done racing, can you adopt them, like retired greyhounds?

“I wish that was the case. We collect them all up, put them in the boxes, and we ship them to the next city. They are in constant training no matter where they go.”

Traditionalists have lobbied for a ban on duck calls, to prevent a recurrence of the infamous crash on the final turn in 2010, which claimed three racers. But you believe modern race fans enjoy the added element of danger.

“Yes, we actually have duck callers that quack, that we sell at the event, so you can cheer your duck on as much as you want to. If people want to bring their “Duck Dynasty” duck quackers, or they want to buy one of ours, they’re welcome to quack on.”

I hear that as they enter the river on Saturday, many of the competitors will be doing the duck walk, in honor of Chuck Berry.

“Our whole tag line is “Duck Fest Rocks,” and we’ll have a live band out there from the ‘60s, so if they want to go ahead and do some kind of duck dance, we are absolutely fine with that.”

While Duck Fest is a major source of donations for Kids in Distress, Dhooge says there is another urgent reason for the festival.

“We are in desperate need of foster parents out there,” Dhooge says of KID. “We are constantly recruiting foster homes, and there is a huge need out there right now, especially for kids that are very young.”

For more information, ask a KID rep at Duck Fest or go to KidInc.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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