American Cruise Lines (ACL) has big plans for the future of U.S. river cruising that go far beyond the handful of paddlewheelers currently plying the Mississippi and Columbia rivers.

The Guilford, Conn.-based river cruise line has unveiled an ambitious strategy to begin building a fleet of modern vessels alongside its existing and forthcoming paddlewheelers. Starting in 2017, the company says, this new fleet will begin sailing inland waterways across the U.S. — many of which haven’t seen overnight passenger cruising in a very long time, if ever.

The list of waterways that ACL is eyeing for development include the Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, Missouri River, Des Moines River, Wabash River, Illinois River, Apalachicola River, Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Mid-Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, Erie Canal, Hudson River, Oswego Canal, Potomac River and Alaska’s Inside Passage.

In terms of the company’s cruising options, ACL President Charles Robertson said, “There’s more than 15,000 miles of navigable waterways in the United States.”

In April, ACL will launch on the Mississippi its second paddlewheeler built from the ground up, the 150-passenger American Eagle. It will join the company’s 150-passenger paddlewheeler, the Queen of the Mississippi, which launched on the river in 2012, as well as the refurbished Columbia River paddlewheeler Queen of the West and four yacht-style coastal cruisers: the Independence, American Star, American Spirit and American Glory.

Following the launch of a new paddlewheeler on the Columbia and Snake rivers in 2016, Robertson said he expects the pace of construction of new vessels to start ramping up, starting with at least two new vessels in 2017.

Asked whether the modern-style river vessels will look more like the river ships in Europe, Robertson responded that in fact, they will not look like the European models, or like anything else for that matter.

“You won’t look at one of these and say, ‘Oh, that’s like a European boat,’ ” he said.

On the other hand, he added, “You won’t say, ‘Oh, it looks like a Mississippi Victorian riverboat,’ because it won’t look like that either. It will be a new look.”

In Europe, the dimension and size of the vessels is much more constrained by the height of bridges and the size of locks than it is in most of the U.S. So in designing its new fleet, ACL has much more freedom to play with the dimensions of each vessel.

Each will be built to accommodate the specific constraints presented by the waterway it will navigate. For example, he said, the locks and the bridges on the Erie Canal are much smaller and lower than they are on the Mississippi, and the constraints along the western portion of the Erie Canal are different from the eastern part of the Erie Canal.

Some of the vessels will be smaller than ACL’s current vessels, while others will be the same size or larger. As for the overall look and feel, generally speaking, these more modern vessels are being designed to feature more glass to let in more natural light and will feature more open layouts, he said.

On the other hand, ACL doesn’t plan to stop building paddlewheelers, which the company will continue constructing alongside the modern vessels, Robertson said.

“If you look at the Mississippi River, it just sort of screams for a Victorian riverboat with all of the history of the Mississippi River and Mark Twain and so on,” he said. “That’s less true on some other waterways. … The Victorian feel of it becomes less important, and that gives us more freedom to do stuff with glass and more contemporary designs.”

Even so, where the paddlewheeler style fits a particular river, ACL will go with it.

“We spent a lot of time talking to folks, particularly travel agents, about what their customers would like, and we think there’s another portion of the market that would be more attracted to something with a more contemporary feel,” — ACL President Charles Robertson.

Pricing for cruises on the more modern vessels will be in line with pricing for those on the paddlewheelers.

“We spent a lot of time talking to folks, particularly travel agents, about what their customers would like, and we think there’s another portion of the market that would be more attracted to something with a more contemporary feel,” Robertson said.

He added that along with a growing demand in the U.S. river cruise market in general, river passengers in the U.S. are increasingly expecting something more in line with the amenities and services they experience in the evolving, rapidly modernizing hotel and ocean cruise markets, whether than means private balconies, quick and efficient elevators or larger cabins.

Hardware aside, Robertson seems determined to introduce travelers to some of the country’s less well-known scenic waterways and the towns and cultural and historical heritage through which they wind. Many areas of the country, he said, are “gorgeous.”

He acknowledged that ACL is not the only player that senses opportunity along these untapped waterways.

“I don’t expect that we’re going to be the only ones in this business,” he said.

Indeed, in 2013 Viking Cruises teased plans to bring a version of its latest European river vessels, the Viking Longships, to the U.S. in 2015. But by the end of the year, Viking said it was exploring options on the Mississippi for the 2016 season.

As for the other major player on the U.S. rivers, American Queen Steamboat Co. (AQSC), its senior vice president of sales, Bill Diebenow, said that while AQSC has considered looking into other North American waterways, its current focus is “to maximize our two terrific assets on the rivers we currently cruise.”

AQSC owns and operates the 436-passenger American Queen on the Mississippi, and the 223-passenger American Empress on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.


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