Hayden Fitzpatrick, 24, who has been a gondolier for Gondola Getaways for four years, navigates a couple through Long Beach's Naples canals Wednesday, July 20, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

When Michael O’Toole started his Gondola Getaway service 40 years ago with a repurposed Pakistani fishing boat and a lifeguard dory, it wasn’t exactly something he expected to stick. He started the business as a project while attending USC in January 1982 and continued it as a full-fledged operation after he graduated that summer because he “needed something to do.”

But somehow, it’s stuck around for all these years.

O’Toole grew up in Naples, an area inspired by (though not named after) the gondola’s birthplace in Venice, Italy. Many of the streets have names with Italian roots, and there were efforts around 1906 to bring gondolas to the area to help bolster the connection. But that movement faded away by the late 1910s—that is, until Gondola Getaway arrived in 1982, when O’Toole thought it would be interesting to give the idea another try.

“We were taught the history of Naples Island at a young age, and in all the local stores and bars and restaurants, there were old pictures of gondolas,” O’Toole said. “It was pretty enticing to learn a little bit more about that or picture what it would be like with gondolas now.”

When he first started, O’Toole and his team did not have the proper equipment to provide the genuine Venetian experience that they were looking for. Instead of traditional gondolas, O’Toole initially used his two repurposed boats to carry passengers around the canal.

But there were a couple of problems. First, the boats relied on electric batteries, which could inconveniently die mid-ride. Second, the boats could not handle wind well.

O’Toole came to see that no matter how hard he worked, Gondola Getaway would not meet its potential without using actual gondolas. So he traveled to Venice for the first time in 1983 with a mission.

“I flew over to Venice to just start to immerse myself in what it is that we are trying to replicate,” he said.

That initial trip did wonders for O’Toole.

He recalled being on the back of a boat as it went down the Grand Canal—one of the main waterways that cuts through the center of Venice in a reverse S pattern—as a moment that truly solidified his passion for the gondola business.

“I’ve been around boats my whole life, but I had never rode Venetian-style,” O’Toole said. “All of the sudden, there I was on the Grand Canal, on the back of a gondola in Venice, Italy, and if that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will.”

Now that he had an understanding of what made Venetian gondolas so special, it was time for him to get his boats together. Many of his boats needed to be specially built because of the size constraints back in Long Beach. The design of the boats was faithful to their Italian counterparts but had to be scaled down from 37 feet in length to 25 feet to fit both in Gondola Getaway’s storage facilities and in the canal in Naples itself.

The 14 boats that O’Toole has today—which have capacities ranging from six to 14 passengers—mostly come from Italy. He has also built some of his gondolas, but now he has many of them custom-made.

With gondolas, another requirement for operation is to have competent gondoliers. The role goes beyond simply piloting the boat with the authentic “voga veneta” rowing style; gondoliers act as guides through the whole gondola experience.

“They’re an ambassador to Long Beach, they are an ambassador to Gondola Getaway … and they need to be an ambassador to Venice, Italy,” O’Toole said. “So our gondolier will know more about [those things] than everybody else on the boat.”

O’Toole started initially with around 10 gondoliers that were women that he had grown up sailing with. That number has since expanded to 35.

And yet, despite the niche nature of the business and the knowledge and training required for it, he has never needed to advertise for a gondolier once in his 40 years. Instead, the hirings have stayed in-house, with new gondoliers coming in at the recommendation of current ones.

“The gondoliers have friends, and they know which ones would make a good gondolier,” O’Toole said. “They might have some friends that are great friends, but they say, ‘You’re not really a gondolier,’ because they know the rigors and personality” that are needed.

Since O’Toole’s fateful trip, Gondola Getaway has flourished as the only gondola business in Long Beach, and one of few in Southern California. During the summertime, O’Toole estimates that Gondola Getaway embarks on about 200 trips per week, with that number jumping to around 300 during the month of December.

Riders start at the harbor just off of Naples at 5437 E. Ocean Blvd. where Gondola Getaway is docked, going to and around the Rivo Alto canal that creates the central island in Naples before exiting and returning to the initial dock. The trip takes around 50-55 minutes and includes a variety of options to create different experiences.

While providing an authentic experience is a crucial part of the business, it isn’t the only selling point. With their connection to Italy, gondolas carry romantic connotations, and Gondola Getaway has crafted many of its offerings to cater to that association.

“Romance is the easiest part of the business,” O’Toole said. “People associate the gondola with romance and Venice.”

One of these services is called “Message in a Bottle,” in which the gondolier is given a message to leave in the canal in a bottle adorned with seashells for a significant other.

“If the gondolier has done his job right, he or she will be completely discombobulated about how that bottle got there,” O’Toole said. “That just adds this amazing layer to the trip.”

Another twist that O’Toole offers is a “pizza cruise,” which brings more of the Italian experience to the boat through food. He started this in part to find more use from some of his larger gondolas, but the program quickly became one of his most popular when it started 10 years ago.

Gondola Getaway partnered with Italian restaurant Domenico’s in Belmont Shore to provide gondola rides with meal experiences. Pizzas and other ordered dishes are delivered directly to the boat before embarking, an experience O’Toole said is unique to his business.

“It’s the only place you can get on a gondola and have a big table down the middle, and float through canals while you’re eating pizza,” O’Toole said.

Like every other business, Gondola Getaway faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. But O’Toole was allowed to reopen quickly after the initial shutdowns. He wrote several letters to the city’s Health Department, outlining the specifics of the business and how it could operate safely during the pandemic.

“We really checked off a lot of the boxes,” O’Toole said.

First, the business operates outdoors. And it also offers long boats—ideal for social distancing.

“It was very easy and honest to say that of all things, maybe the gondola was built for a pandemic,” O’Toole said. “The gondolier is 6 feet away the whole time.”

Gondola Getaway was approved to reopen in April 2020, just a month after the harshest of the pandemic lockdowns began. Even in the midst of COVID, O’Toole said he was inundated with customers when the business reopened.

“As soon as we got open and got the word out, we got hit pretty hard with customers,” O’Toole said.

Even so, there was still a pressing issue. While the business was closed for only a month, O’Toole worried his gondoliers would be hesitant to return to work. Whether it was because of fears stemming from the virus or because of the unemployment money they were collecting, O’Toole needed to find a way to keep his gondoliers engaged.

His solution was to start a program where gondoliers would ride every night and sing opera to residents along the Rivo Alto canal. While the endeavor didn’t make money, O’Toole said it still achieved its goals.

“It engaged the gondoliers with the residents a lot more,” he said. “Now they know all the gondoliers’ names, and they have kind of a relationship with them because they pull over and chat.”

These days, O’Toole says he thinks business is actually better than it was prior to COVID. His operation is hard to match not just because of O’Toole’s efforts and knowledge, but also because of the unique nature of Naples Island.

“Nobody has canals like we do here in Long Beach,” O’Toole said. “Nobody had the width of the canals, the number of bridges, the height of the bridges, the light westerly wind, all of these things.”

Competitors have popped up over the years in Southern California—some from former gondoliers of O’Toole’s that became enamored with the business. But he says that many don’t stick because the experience just isn’t the same as it is in Long Beach.

“They have popped up here and there,” O’Toole said, “but they just don’t have the blessings that we naturally have here.”

Christian May-Suzuki

Christian May-Suzuki is a reporter at the Long Beach Business Journal.