River Cruise American Queen celebrates 20 years plying U.S. rivers By Michelle Baran / May 27, 2015 Share 1 The American Queen docked in Memphis in 1995, the year the vessel originally launched. -- Twenty years ago, the American Queen was launched on the Mississippi River, and when the 436-passenger paddlewheeler sails a celebratory cruise in early June marking the landmark anniversary, it will represent both how much and how little has changed in U.S. river cruising over the past two decades.“It’s still the biggest riverboat that’s ever been built,” said Ted Sykes, president and COO of the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC), which owns the American Queen. According to Sykes, there are several defining features that set the American Queen apart, including its steam engines. “Nobody would build something with steam engines anymore,” he said. The public areas on the American Queen are also notable features of the now-historic vessel, including the Grand Saloon, inspired by Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.; the two-deck-high J.M. White Dining Room; and a Mark Twain Gallery that features a large collection of Tiffany glass.But as much as the American Queen is a testament to the history and lore of the Mississippi River System that it calls home, the vessel is also witnessing a changing tide in U.S. river cruising. Since spearheading the rebirth of U.S. river cruising in 2012, when the AQSC purchased and relaunched the American Queen, reigniting overnight passenger cruising on the Mississippi, the American Queen is seeing more interest and getting more company along the Mississippi River.American Cruise Lines this year said it has plans to begin building a fleet of modern river cruise vessels, some of which are likely destined for the Mississippi River, where the company already sails two paddlewheelers, the 150-passenger American Eagle, which launched last month, and the 150-passenger Queen of the Mississippi, which also relaunched in 2012.Earlier this year, Viking River Cruises said it too will be building for the Mississippi River with plans to launch six modern river cruise vessels on the Mississippi River starting in 2017. With all the added interest and investment in U.S. river cruising, Sykes said the typical U.S. river passenger has been changing and evolving onboard the American Queen as well.“The whole development of river cruising has introduced a more sophisticated passenger over the years,” said Sykes. And thus, the American Queen has worked to upgrade its product to meet the standards of that more sophisticated passenger, having introduced modern amenities, such as flat screen televisions and Egyptian cotton bedding in staterooms, and replacing curtains with mahogany shutters in outward facing staterooms. “It’s much more sophisticated vessel now,” said Sykes.As for how and whether the increased competition will impact the American Queen, Sykes responded, “We’re delighted that we’ve got more competition because more competition brings more awareness.”To celebrate the 20-year anniversary, AQSC Chairman John Waggoner and his wife will join the anniversary cruise, which departs New Orleans on June 6 and will pay homage to the river communities where the American Queen docks. There will also be special lectures and presentations onboard about the history and legacy of the vessel and the Mississippi River.