May 27, 2007

Yellow Buses Return to Yellowstone

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) -- The buses are coming! The buses are coming!

The much anticipated return of the yellow touring buses to Yellowstone National Park will begin June 4.

The story of how the buses came back to the park is as intriguing as the buses themselves.

The fleet of eight buses was bought by the Xanterra Co., which runs tours and concessions in Yellowstone, from the Skagway, Alaska, Streetcar Co.

The White Model 706 tour buses, built in Ohio, were made exclusively for the National Park Service. Yellowstone had as many as 98 Model 706s by 1940.

"At least one good thing came out of Cleveland," joked Mike Doran, a driver and guide for Xanterra.

The Yellowstone yellow bus fleet was sold and disbanded in the 1960s.

Eight of the buses had been gathered in the Alaskan panhandle town of Skagway in the 1980s. Skagway is located along the inland passage shipping route, where the town gave historic tours with the 706s until 2001.

The Skagway Street Car Co. began in 1923, when local Skagway Ford dealer, coal delivery man, and undertaker Martin Itjen took visiting U.S. President Warren G. Harding for a tour "To All Points of Interest" in the back of his painted coal delivery truck. Martin continued touring for nearly 20 years.

The tour company is now run by Steve and Gayla Hites.

"We loved those buses," said Gayla Hites in a phone interview. "They were like members of our family."

Skagway needed buses for their tours in the 1980s. The Hites had seen pictures of the Yellowstone buses.

"They were the perfect bus," Gayla said.

They bought their first one in 1987.

Over the next several years, the Hites scoured the country for more Yellowstone buses and named all the buses after the towns where they found them.

For example, the 706 named "Monty" was bought from a Vermont collector.

"We bought Monty the same year the movie came out, so when the bus would fill, the guide would say we have the 'Full Monty,"' Gayla chuckled.

Other buses are named Great Falls, Hollywood, Yellowstone (from West Yellowstone), Cripple Creek, Mason City, Little Rocky and Big Rocky.

The Hollywood bus was featured in the film "Big Trouble in Little China" starring Kurt Russell.

Little and Big Rocky both came from Estes, Colo. Little Rocky had a seat that was jammed close to the steering wheel so only a short person could drive it. For years Big Rocky was driven by the same guide in Skagway, Diana, who was 6 feet tall -- thus the label "Big Rocky," said Gayla.

The names stuck and are now monogramed on the interior above the front passenger seat.

Gayla said when park representatives and Xanterra Director of Support Services and Activities Todd Scott approached them about buying the 706s, she was happy the buses would be going home.

Scott was instrumental in every phase of bringing the buses back to Yellowstone.

The eight buses cost a total of $1.9 million to buy and refurbish, Scott said.

The buses were overhauled in Livonia, Mich., by Transglobal Design and Manufacturing.

TDM installed new Ford E-450 chassis and a 5.4 liter gasoline engine.

When asked Monday how fast the buses will go, Scott shot a look at the driver Doran and said, "45 miles per hour, the exact speed limit for park roads."

Xanterra looked into alternative fuel engines, but could not find the right fit for the buses. With open tops, it was feared diesel fumes would waft back into riders' faces. The new Ford engine they decided on gets 14 miles per gallon, said Scott.

With all the excitement around the refurbished buses, Scott expects them to be driven upward of 15,000 miles per season each.

TDM refurbished the interior seats and oak trim throughout the vehicle. They replaced the old canvas tops with more modern materials and installed a public address system for guides to narrate the tour.

"We looked at old pictures of the buses and tried to match the yellow paint exactly," Scott said. "Basically, they got a complete makeover."

Other upgrades are heaters under the seats and boxes with warm lap blankets, so even on brisk Yellowstone days, passengers can see the beauty of the park through the open top.

The buses are 25 feet long and 8 feet wide with a soft top that rolls back for an expansive view.

The buses fit 13 passages and a driver.

Ticket prices range from $16 for a one-hour tour to $87 for a full-day tour per person. Buses can also be privately chartered for the day.

"We wanted to keep the bus rides affordable, so everyone would have a chance to ride in them," Scott said.

Tours will officially start June 4.

Shorter tours will be first-come, first-serve. Reservations can be made for longer tours. Five buses will be stationed in Canyon Village to drive routes to the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls as well as other tours. Two will be at Old Faithful, and one will be based at Mammoth.

Themed tours focusing on history, photography and geothermal features will also be offered.

For complete tour and route information and reservations for longer tours, call Xanterra central reservations at (307) 344-7311.

There will be a two-day Yellow Bus Celebration starting in Livingston at 1 p.m. on June 1 and ending in Gardiner on June 2.