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In a ceremony often punctuated by the “sound of freedom” — the Blue Angels practicing above — officials from the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Escambia County, and City of Pensacola gathered at Fort Pickens Wednesday to officially launch Pensacola’s long-awaited ferry service.

“If you build it, they will come,” said Gulf Islands superintendent Dan Brown, quoting the film Field of Dreams. “So come. Come ride the ferry. Ride it often. Bring your family, invite your friends, tell others.”

Originally envisioned 40 years ago, the ferry service will connect downtown Pensacola to Fort Pickens and Pensacola Beach. Two 149-passenger ferries, named Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch by local fourth grade students, will run between the three stops. Each leg of the trip will last about 45 minutes.

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward, ferry captain George Aswad, and Gulf Islands superintendent Dan Brown celebrate the launch of the new Pensacola Bay ferry service. (Bruce Graner/The Pulse)

“In our incomparable beaches and our beautiful waters of Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound, we have what few other communities have,” said Brown. “And now we have a very special way to enjoy them.”

All-day ferry tickets will cost $20 for adults and will include admission to the Gulf Islands National Seashore, which normally costs between $10 and $20 itself. Children’s tickets will be $13, with discounted tickets for active duty military and seniors offered for $18.50. Children under 2 will ride free.

“You’ve got the lighthouse behind you, you have the national seashore, you’re out on Pensacola Bay,” said Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward. “I don’t think there’s a backdrop anywhere in the world that’s this good. This is world-class.”

Fort Pickens becomes the second area within Gulf Islands National Seashore — which spans 160 miles of coastline in Mississippi and Florida — to launch a ferry service. The seashore’s Ship Island and historic Fort Massachussetts, located off the Mississippi coast, can only be reached by ferry.

Pensacola’s new ferry service underway on Wednesday. (Bruce Graner/The Pulse)

Local officials have pursued ferry service since the 1970s, both as a tourism amenity and to ensure continued public access to the seashore and Fort Pickens should the federal government someday decide not to rebuild Fort Pickens Road, which has washed out frequently during hurricanes and even heavy rain events. Gulf Islands’ original General Management Plan, published in 1978, called for the establishment of a ferry service, Brown said last week.

Pensacola’s ferry service will be run by Pensacola Bay Cruises, whose founder currently operates the ferry at Cape Lookout National Seashore and has years of experience working with the National Park Service, according to park officials.

Gulf Islands National Seashore superintendent Dan Brown. (Bruce Graner/The Pulse)

The service launches after a series of setbacks in the park’s contracting process delayed the ferry launch by more than a year. And despite that delay, construction of permanent ferry facilities in downtown Pensacola and at Quietwater Beach still hasn’t been completed. Escambia County officials said that landside Quietwater Beach facilities should be completed by late July, while the City of Pensacola’s permanent ferry terminal in downtown Pensacola won’t be open until October. Temporary ticketing facilities will be used at both locations until the permanent facilities are completed.

Built by Washington-based All-American Marine, Turtle Runner and Pelican Perch feature a climate-controlled enclosed main deck and a shaded upper deck for observation, and are equipped with a snack bar for food and beverage service, a well as restrooms and passenger storage. The boats are ADA-accessible and have bike racks for those wishing to explore Fort Pickens or Santa Rosa Island by bicycle.

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