by Katy Koontz
The Peabody is a beautiful historic hotel in the middle of downtown Memphis that may well be known for its classy decor and topnotch service, but it’s famous for yet another reason entirely: its five fine feathered mascots swimming in its rather grand marble lobby fountain. Not only do these celebrity ducks (mallards, specifically) spend the day paddling around the fountain, they actually waddle to a John Phillip Sousa march down a red carpet both to and from said fountain in a twice-a-day procession that is totally over the top, yet utterly charming. Your kids will love it, and if they’re lucky, they’ll even get a chance to serve as honorary duckmasters during the festivities. To visit this western Tennessee city on the banks of the Mississippi and not see the Peabody ducks is to miss a bit of Memphis magic.
The very first Peabody Hotel dated from 1869 and sat at a different downtown location (at the corner of Main and Monroe). That hotel closed in 1923 and the current hotel opened just two years later, a fine example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture whose elegant lobby was graced with a grand fountain carved in Italy from one gigantic block of travertine marble. The Peabody continued to be the posh place to see and be seen for several decades. In the ’30s and ’40s, several big-band entertainers like Tommy Dorsey played there and broadcast their performances live on the radio.
When downtown Memphis went downhill in the ’70s, the Peabody closed, a shabby shadow of its former self. But in 1981, after a six-year, $25 million restoration, the hotel reopened with much fanfare and led the way to a revitalization of Memphis’s downtown.
Now Memphis’s only historic hotel, the Peabody is as proud as ever, and with good reason. The hotel offers 464 elegantly furnished guestrooms and boasts four eateries, ranging from a casual deli to a fine, four-star French restaurant. Guests are automatically charged a hotel service fee that covers morning coffee, high-speed wireless Internet, all local and toll-free calls, an overnight shoeshine, a morning newspaper (upon request), and use of the Peabody Athletic Club (containing Nautilus weight-training equipment, aerobic machines, and an indoor pool and hot tub area graced with Grecian columns). Other hotel features include valet parking (available for a fee) and a full-service day spa and salon.
The hotel’s downtown location is ideal, just two blocks from legendary Beale Street and close to plenty of attractions, restaurants, and shops. The Peabody also operates two sister hotels (with their own signature ducks) in Little Rock and Orlando.
Our Editor Loves
- Exquisitely decorated rooms with antique-style furnishings
- Fabulously over-the-top duck march
- Pet friendly
- Connecting Rooms
- Onsite Dining
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The Peabody offers 464 guestrooms (including 15 suites, a few with kitchenettes) exquisitely decorated with antique-style furnishings. Adjoining rooms are available, and kids stay free in the same room as their parents. (Ask for a room on the inside if you want to eliminate any chance of street noise.) Wi-Fi is available in all the guestrooms, included in the hotel's mandatory service fee. All rooms are smoke-free and include 42-inch flat-screen TVs.
You can request a mini-fridge, crib, or rollaway bed for a fee. The rooms don't have coffeemakers (unless you specifically ask for one), although you can get complimentary coffee in the deli every morning from 6 until 8 a.m. on weekdays or until 9 a.m. on weekends. Expect lots of ducky accents, right down to the adorable duck-shaped soap in the bathroom. (You'll also find a gift bag sitting on the desk with a pair of rubber ducks and duck soap -- it's available for a small charge.)
The hotel's suites include Junior Suites (with one to two bedrooms), Romeo and Juliet Suites (with loft bedrooms and spiral staircases -- not suitable for families with small children), and the super posh Celebrity and Presidential Suites (with king bedroom, refrigerator and microwave, formal dining room, and large living area).
The Peabody Club on the hotel's 12th floor is a private-access concierge level that offers free food and beverages, including a continental breakfast, mid-day drinks and cookies, and cheese and crackers, along with hot hors d'oeuvres every evening.
A limited number of rooms at the Peabody are pet-friendly, but be sure to make your reservations as soon as possible if you want to nab one.
You'll have two chances to see the hotel's marvelous mallards do their red-carpet thing -- at 11 a.m., when the Peabody's duckmaster brings the ducks from their penthouse home on the roof down to the lobby, and at 5 p.m., when the entire procedure reverses itself and the ducks go back to their penthouse digs. The march, first enacted in 1933, is as dramatic an entrance as they come. As the elevator doors open, John Philip Sousa's "King Cotton March" plays over the sound system and the ducks waddle across a 50-foot red carpet leading straight to the lobby's octagonal travertine marble fountain.
They mount a small set of stairs, jump into the water, and swim to their hearts' content all day long, until it's time for them to return to the rooftop in the late afternoon. (If your kids are curious about where the ducks live, you can actually go to the rooftop to peer inside the duck's fancy glassed-in "palace" for yourselves.) Be aware that the lobby gets extremely crowded as the time for the march approaches, so for the best view, you should arrive early and stake out your space. For a lofty view of the proceedings, consider looking over the railing from the mezzanine.
For each march, the hotel chooses a guest (often a child) to serve as an honorary duckmaster, assisting the venerable staff duckmaster in his duties. Occasionally, a celebrity does the honors; Patrick Swayze, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Collins, Larry King, and Kevin Bacon are just few examples. To nab honorary duckmaster status, purchase the Ducky Day family package and schedule your visit when there's a spot open. The honorary duckmaster receives a wooden cane with a brass duck-shaped handle, a special Peabody celbriduck (a rubber duck dressed like the duckmaster, with red jacket, top hat and cane), a proclamation with his or her name on it, and duck-shaped chocolate chip cookies from the deli. (Spring break, summer, and holidays are the toughest times to find an opening, so if you want to visit during any of those times, make your arrangements as far in advance as possible.)
You can also go up on the roof to see the duck's palace, a 24-by-12-foot marble and granite replica of the Peabody Hotel with a glassed-in front. If you are there either a bit before or after the duck march, chances are good that you'll be able to catch the duckmaster and ask a few questions. In fact, once you've seen the march in the lobby a time or two, it might be fun for your kids to see the ducks leaving or returning to the palace, as well. (The rooftop is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
The Peabody is just two blocks from Beale Street, a historic entertainment district made famous by W.C. Handy, known as the father of the blues. You can still hear plenty of music today in this district where Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and other classic blues artists got their start. The Beale Street of today is also home to the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, the FedEx Forum (where the Memphis Grizzlies professional basketball team plays), and A. Schwab's, a dry goods store dating from 1876 whose motto is, "If you can't find it at Schwab's, you're probably better off without it." You can also tour the Gibson Guitar Factory, right across the street from the Rock 'n' Soul Museum.
The hotel has three restaurants, including the classy Chez Philippe (possibly the only French restaurant in the world that doesn't serve duck). This upscale, formal restaurant is open for dinner on Wednesdays through Saturdays. The menu includes tender steaks, fresh seafood, and creative soups (like tarragon lobster bisque), and a nod here and there to southern specialties (such as roasted squab breast with Roquefort blue cheese grits). The decadent desserts include an impressive flaming bananas foster and a chocolate coffee gateaux with peanut butter caramel, as well as banana rum ice cream. Chez Philippe also offers a tasting menu and a wine pairing.
Although this isn't typically a family restaurant, there is one notable exception. Chez Philippe offers afternoon tea on Wednesdays through Saturdays from 1 to 3:30 p.m. (Reservations suggested.) This classic three-course English afternoon tea includes a kiddie tea option, featuring caffeine-free teas, tea sandwiches, sweets, and warm scones.
The less formal Capriccio Restaurant is an Italian steakhouse open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There's a great breakfast buffet in the mornings, along with made-to-order omelets and other a la carte breakfast options (including Belgian waffles). The lunch and dinner fare includes steaks and chops, sandwiches, omelets, seafood, gourmet pizzas, soups and salads, and a pasta and salad bar (where the chef prepares your pasta choice exactly the way you want it, and then you fix your own salad at the salad bar). Capriccio has a kids' menu as well, with fairly standard kid fare. Your kids will enjoy the Peabody's signature old-fashioned milkshakes (in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry), not to mention the warm Godiva chocolate cake (if you're lucky, they'll share it with you.)
Capriccio also offers a Sunday brunch featuring salads, pasta, freshly baked breads and pastries, crab, smoked salmon, lamb, beef, and ham -- not to mention sinful desserts -- from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Children under 4 years old are free.
Peabody Deli & Desserts
Peabody Deli & Desserts is the hotel's most casual eatery, serving continental breakfast items, gourmet sandwiches, salads, specialty coffees, and desserts. (Be sure to check out their popular duck-shaped cookies.) The deli is open daily, starting at 6 a.m.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
At check-in, kids receive a welcome packet in a recyclable grocery bag. The packet contains a scavenger hunt map as well as a Peabody-themed scrapbook, complete with stickers. When the kids find the last scavenger hunt clue, they can take their map to the doorman, and he will present them with a voucher which they can exchange for a free duck-shaped chocolate chip cookie in the deli.
The impressive Peabody Athletic Club includes Nautilus weight machines, aerobic machines, an indoor heated pool, and a whirlpool tub.
The spa, located near the athletic club, offers various body treatments (including massage), as well as beauty treatments (such as facials, manicures, pedicures, and hair styling). Although it doesn't have specific services for kids or teens, they do also offer an acne complex facial and an acne back treatment.
Of the hotel's shops, the Lucky Duck is the one your kids will gravitate toward. Here, you can buy duck-themed clothing, jewelry, stuffed animals, and other toys (including, of course, official Peabody-Hotel-logo rubber ducks), as well as a wide range of Memphis souvenirs.
If you're interested in the Peabody's history, you'll enjoy visiting the small but intriguing history room on the mezzanine level, which includes exhibits tracing the hotel's past as well as displays of early artifacts. The Peabody also offers free 45-minute history tours (led by the duckmaster himself) on Thursday and Saturday at 11:30 a.m., right after the morning duck march. The tours are appropriate for adults and kids alike.
Although the Peabody doesn't have babysitters on staff, the concierge can arrange for a sitter through a local babysitter service.
The Art of Smart Timing
The Peabody is busiest in spring and summer (although you'll find spring more comfortable than Memphis' hot and humid summers). May is the most popular month, thanks to Memphis in May, a month-long celebration of local and International color, customs, cuisines, and culture (including the wildly popular Sunset Symphony, with its music and fireworks, which takes place at the end of the month).
January is the slowest month, and also the time when you're most likely to find good deals. The December holiday season is a great time to come because the hotel is beautifully decorated with a 30-foot Christmas tree, model trains, and a lighted garland that goes all the way around the lobby. The hotel's pastry chef also makes a different giant gingerbread house every year.
The Memphis airport is 11 miles from the hotel. Although the Peabody does not provide complimentary airport shuttles, the concierge can arrange for a town car or limo van to pick you up and drop you off for a fee.
Guests can walk the two blocks to Beale Street or rent a vehicle to travel further around Memphis.
For Mom and Dad
Ever since 1939, the Peabody has been known for its rooftop parties. A different live band (sometimes local or regional, but occasionally of national scope) plays every Thursday night from 6 to 10 p.m., starting in April and running through August. The rooftop parties are only open to those ages 21 and up, making this the perfect kid-less night out for parents. Hotel guests get in free before 7 p.m., and those who arrive later pay a small entry fee that includes one drink. If you get there before sunset, you'll be able to enjoy a great view of the city as well as the music.