Catalina Express Ends Free Birthday Ride

Kirt Ramirez

For six years, the Catalina Express has given people free boat rides to Santa Catalina Island on their birthdays.

However, the special promotion will end come December 31.

“Catalina Express wishes to thank its more than 45 island partners who participated in the Birthday Island program over the past six years, offering discounts, perks and value-added products and services for birthday celebrants,” Catalina Express President and CEO Greg Bombard said in a statement. “This program made visitors’ special day on the island even more meaningful with other visitors, residents and business owners wishing them a happy day.”

The free trips were in response to the passenger ferry service – founded in 1981 – turning 30 in 2011.

“We launched the program not only to celebrate our 30th anniversary, but to provide an incentive for visitors to get a ‘taste’ of the new Catalina, which has grown and evolved with the opening of new attractions, restaurants, culture and entertainment,” Bombard added.

Chris Wright spent four of his birthdays with his wife and friends on the island courtesy of Catalina Express, with Wright not having to pay the fare.

“We will miss celebrating on Birthday Island with the golf carts, beautiful beaches, snorkeling and good food,” Wright said. “We’ll still be going to Catalina but maybe not on our birthdays.”

Wright enjoyed the island freebies and deals offered by the various restaurants, coffee shops, miniature golf course and others over the years. He said the incentives led him to vacation there more frequently.

“Sipping a buffalo milk at the beach bar on my birthday will be especially missed,” he quipped.

Guests had to register online for the free birthday ride. Close to 500,000 did so, but more than half did not keep their reservations. Altogether, about 200,000 took round-trip voyages during the run of the promotion, Catalina Express spokesperson Karen Gee-McAuley explained through email.

More than 90 percent of the birthday travelers traveled with at least one other person, she said.

The commercial campaign drew people to Catalina that otherwise might not have gone. About 60 percent of the birthday celebrants were first-time visitors. Many stayed for the day while others remained overnight, or longer.

Tourism to the island increased from the promotion, said Jim Luttjohann, president and CEO of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, through email.

“We supported it through our website and marketing,” he said.

Various up-and-coming events are featured on the bureau’s website with the New Year’s Eve Gala next month being the biggest of them, he added. The event takes place in Avalon’s Casino ballroom. More information can be found at

Meanwhile, Catalina Express provides daily departures via three ports; Long Beach, San Pedro and Dana Point. Long Beach only goes to Avalon while San Pedro goes to Avalon and Two Harbors.

About one million passengers travel with Catalina Express annually. The boats provide airline-style seating as well as grouped table seating. The journey can take as little as one hour. Adult round-trip tickets from Long Beach and San Pedro cost $73.50 with seniors, children and infants discounted. More details can be found at

The island’s main city, Avalon, features shops, restaurants, hiking, colorful homes stacked high and other tourist attractions. Golf carts are used for transportation and purr through the quaint Mediterranean-style cove. The town’s lights glow at night and reflect off the waters like glitter on glass.

Located on the other end of the island, Two Harbors is a quiet, mostly undeveloped, rustic village with natural features. Sunlight mirrors off the crystal waters and the air smells crisp and fresh.

Like Avalon, personal sailboats float in the bay, campers camp, sea gulls squawk and pelicans hover against the bright blue firmament. Carved cliffs drop to the sea and native shrubs carpet the rolling hills. Gentle ripples lap onto the rocky shore but waves hit the backside of the island with full force.


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