MEMPHIS — As Priscilla Presley broke a champagne bottle over the bow of the 436-passenger American Queen on Friday, the ship’s godmother ushered in the resurrection a piece of American history — overnight cruising on the Mississippi River.
Mississippi cruising had slowed to a near halt after the vessel’s previous owner, Majestic America Line, ceased operations in 2008.
The refurbished American Queen has been a labor of love for Memphis-based Great American Steamboat Company, whose passionate executives sought to bring Mississippi River cruising back to life.
The company spent $30 million to purchase and refurbish the American Queen, which was built in 1995. A portion of the funding came from the city of Memphis, which has a vested interest in the American Queen and the jobs and tourism it promises to bring the city.
The result is a new American Queen that looks much like the American Queen of lore — grand dining halls, lounges, bars and salons reminiscent of a bygone era of steamboating. The cabins have 20th century riverboat
details such as antique furnishings, with 21st century upgrades like flat-screen televisions and plush bedding.
“You feel like you’re on a floating Peabody Hotel,” Presley said at the christening ceremony, referencing the iconic hotel in downtown Memphis. The relaunch of the American Queen “brings back a lot of nostalgia for the heartland,” she said.
The Great American Steamboat Company continues to tweak and enhance the product. A new chef was brought on board after the inaugural sailing the week prior to the christening, an example of ensuring that the luxury experience lives up to the $500 per diems.
“Once we had acquired the American Queen, we had to work really hard to renovate a 419-foot steamer that had been laid up for two years,” said John Waggoner, chairman of the Great American Steamboat Company.
In the end, he said, the company accomplished something “many people said couldn’t be done.” Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.