The trip seemed harmless. Tour Cincinnati with a bus load of tourist industry types in town for the National Tour Association's convention. Get their impressions of the Queen City. Nice way to spend four hours on a sunny afternoon.
On the bus, a guy sits across the aisle. I notice his ID tag. Last name: Gilligan.
Tour? A guy named Gilligan?
Words to that catchy TV sea chanty crash like surf in my ear: ''Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip . . . a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.''
Help! Skipper! I want off!
The driver - more like Letterman's Larry ''Bud'' Melman than Minnow skipper Alan Hale - has closed the doors. I'm off to see what Cincinnati looks like through the eyes of people who send tourists to town.
The bus starts rolling. Joyce Graeter, our guide from Accent On Cincinnati tours, runs down the itinerary.
First stop, the Cincinnati Fire Museum. Then, William Howard Taft's boyhood home and the plant where they make Graeter's Ice Cream (the family business of Dick Graeter, husband of Joyce the tour guide). Last stop, Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption.
I give my fellow passengers the once over. No professor. No Ginger, Mary Ann or the millionaire and his wife.
Just Gilligan. Raymond Gilligan and his wife, Sondra. Their California company is one of 300 tour operators - as bus-tour bookers are called - attending the convention.
If the Gilligans and the other tour operators like Cincinnati, they'll put this town on their destination maps and maybe millions into the city's coffers.
After Kansas City hosted the National Tour Association convention in 1988, tourism rose 84 percent.
If that happens to Greater Cincinnati, 8.28 million tourists (vs. 4.5 million in 1995) could be visiting the area in the year 2003. And, they would spend $3.86 billion compared with last year's $2.1 billion.
Raymond Gilligan - a first-time visitor - is already sold on Cincinnati. ''We went to the Montgomery Inn Boathouse. Great view. Best ribs I've ever had.''
To his wife, Cincinnati is a clean, well-lit place. ''No litter. The buildings are lit up at night.''
Krista Renning, from Arizona's Grand Canyon Airlines, chimes in: ''It's quaint, like Monterrey, California.''
Later in the trip, Joyce Graeter points out two of Cincinnati's seven hills, Mount Adams and Mount Auburn.
''Why do you call them mountains?'' wonders Jan Tilzey, a Reno, Nev., tour operator. ''They're hills.''
A moment later, as the bus struggles to reach the summit of Mount Auburn, she looks at the hillside houses and gushes: ''Cincinnati is San Francisco without the bay windows.''
At the Taft house, Russ and Jan Beery, who run bus trips out of South Bend, Ind., talk business. They've led seven mystery tours to Cincinnati. Even though the city looks pretty good from the windows of a tour bus, it's still a mystery to me why anyone would want to come here.
''Be proud of what you have,'' scolds Jan Beery. ''The river. The steamboats. The sports. The food. This town has so many hidden secrets for tourists.''
Such as Graeter's chocolate chip ice cream. At the plant, Krista Renning finishes a spoon of vanilla ice cream and one huge, dark chocolate chip.
''I always thought Haagen-Dazs had the best ice cream,'' she says. ''Until now.''
At the Covington Basilica, necks crane as visitors try to take in the Gothic cathedral's vaulted ceiling and the world's largest stained glass window.
''If I woke up in this place, I'd think I was in one of the great cathedrals of Europe,'' says John Webster, sales director for a resort in British Columbia.
The tour ends across the river in downtown Cincinnati. Raymond Gilligan is ready to bring his buses to town. ''Best ribs in America. Best chocolate chip ice cream. What other reasons do you need to visit Cincinnati?''
When he and his wife turn to leave, they start to go in the wrong direction to their hotel. Some quick directions set them straight. Wouldn't want anybody lost in downtown. Especially some guy named Gilligan.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.