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-   -   Tall Stacks Experience (http://www.steamboats.org/forum/river-talk-cruises/557-tall-stacks-experience.html)

Richard Weisenberger 10-09-2006 10:11 AM

Our experience on the Natchez itself was generally good, with the exception that no passengers were being admitted on the calliope deck. This would have been the icing on the cake for me, as I love calliopes and steam whistles. We did enjoy a great cruise and a good dinner and got to tour the boiler room and engine room.

We were disappointed at the Tall Stacks committee's handling of this year's event itself. When we arrived Saturday morning, the people at the ticket counter said there would be no problem getting on the boat, since we already had purchased dinner cruise tickets. When we got to the end of the line, however, we were hassled by ticket takers who said we would also have to purchase three $25 gate passes to get on. We stood our ground and got on the Natchez with only two minutes to spare! Thumbs up for the Natchez. Thumbs down to the planners of this year's Tall Stacks. We have been to all but one of thes events and this is the only year we have ever been hassled!


[QUOTE=BillStreit;1559]I am a repeat cruiser with both the Mississippi and American Queens, having served aboard both several years ago as a dance host. I also taught dance lessons during a couple of these trips. This was my first time strictly as a passenger and I was anxious to share this peaceful and nostalgic lifestyle with my lady friend and 84 year old father. Unfortunately, I have had enough steamboatin' experience to be able to recognize a real step backwards in the delivered product. At this stage in my own life, the cost of a trip is significant, but not the major determining factor. But whatever I pay for anything, I look to receive VALUE for my money. With all the competition for customers in the cruising marketplace, I typically expect excellence, regardless of the company or the type of cruise.

Boy, was I disappointed and apologetic to my guests after building up their expectations for this grand vacation.

Yes, the big production shows were great - the best I have ever seen on the river boats. Glenn, Brian, Suzie and Corinne were simply fabulous. No, they were better than that! I still hate canned, click-track music with fake musicians and there were more fakers now than ever before. Travis, the Riverlorian, was also above top notch. Dining room food was much better than I remember from the crew mess but a few of the meals were not served hot. There seemed to be some grumbling, bitching and complaining among wait staff that never should have been heard by passengers.

My biggest disappointment was seeing how the bean counters have cut so much from entertainment that I will probably not return for another cruise unless some of these issues are remedied. One of my biggest reasons for riverboatin' is that I am a real dixieland fan. I remember so much great, hot dixieland jazz from past voyages, that I NEVER would have expected this to be one of the things the costs cutters would eliminate. There is simply no way any band can play dixieland without a trumpet or trombone. This is like an orchestra with no strings! How ridiculous and how sad. What can it cost for 2 musicians, compared to the real drop in perceived product delivery to the passengers. For those of us who know better and remember the 6 piece band, 4 guys just won't cut it, ESPECIALLY when they charge me as much as they do for passage. What IDIOT made this decision? How much do they have to save on salaries to be able to lose even 4-5 passengers/voyage who won't accept this lowered standard? Doesn't anybody up in the ivory tower have the sense to realize cause and effect relationships between excellent entertainment and passenger dollars? Duhhh.....

I was also saddened to see the quality of paddlewheel lounge entertainment changes. I love ragtime piano and banjo music, but most of what we were fed was guitar. I know that Paul prefers guitar to banjo, but that's NOT what I go on a riverboat to hear! In by-gone years there was so much more energy and excitement in the P/W lounge, including great, funny banter back and forth between piano and banjo players. That's gone now. Ambience has also changed. The musicians' area is cluttered and messy, the girl on the swing is gone (supposedly the Coast Guard said she could fall down and go boom) but one little item that was a big deal to me in the past was seeing the lighted, authentic paddlewheel churning its way up the river at night out those big windows, which unfortunately also looked like they had not been cleaned for 2 years. Nobody even bothered to turn on the paddlewheel lights for the first 3 nights of this cruise. I asked 5 different people from bartenders to guitar player to bar manager to hotel manager and nobody could get anything done about finding the light switch or was able to locate the mysterious person who could flick that switch! They all made noises like they cared, but NOBODY got that simple little switch turned on. It was only after asking the captain himself at a repeaters' party before there was a light on the wheel on night 4.

I don't think a passenger should have to be the one to ask and persist in following up on something that should be as elementary and simple as adding water to the boilers.

Other not-so-pleasant surprises included filthy floors in the movie theater, watching porters drag tables and chairs across the dance floor (instead of lifting them) and scratching the dickens out of that beautiful wood, no more birds in the pursers' lobby, no greeting on boarding (formerly a barbershop quartet or banjo player, dance hosts, etc), spiders and spider webs all over the decks and balconies (don't they own a pressure washer or does NOBODY in management have eyes or standards), chipped paint on rocking chairs, really UGLY stenciling job on the elevator doors and sides of the staircase- who ever ordered this gross travesty against the "olden days" decorating theme, and too much more.

I have so much love and nostalgia for the boats, the rivers and the river music, that I truly fear for the demise of this national treasure - our steamboats. It was only a few years ago that one could not even book a cruise on any of the 3 Queens less than 8 months out. Now ever without the AQ capacity, they can't fill the MQ. How sad!

In my past life I have worked primarily as a business management consultant. It does not seem too strange to me that business owners would carefully survey their own EXISTING customers to see what they do and do not like about the product and then LISTEN TO THEM !!!!! I commented years ago that the customer satisfaction survey is not specific enough to elicit any MEANINGFUL feedback and is intended primarily to convince executives that they are doing a great job because most people will simply check Excellent or Very Good, either because they are not discerning enough or because they do not want to hurt someone's feelings. Why is there a separate line item to evaluate the riverlorian and tour manager, but not the different forms of entertainment. Why can't we have a line to evaluate the cruise director? I thought the "kids" were outstanding but the rest of the night-time shows were mediocre at best, but there is only one line to comment on evening entertainment.

Too many businesses go belly up because arrogant higher-ups think they know everything but never go to the staff who are closest to the customer to seek feedback from them. The attitude seems to be - I'm an owner or manager, so I don't have to listen to any customer or direct-line service staff. I know everything. Right up 'til the time we go broke, then let's wonder what went wrong while we were asleep at the switch.

Before new owners think about TV sets in cabins, they had better fix what brings REPEAT passengers back on these boats. I don't know about others, but I want EXCELLENT service, cleanliness everywhere and top-notch entertainment. I can get it on every other cruise line for a better price, so these riverboats have to have something truly special to get my cruising dollar. Anybody else still young enough to handle a 4 ft. wave will be thinking the same thing.

Although I missed the dixieland band, I must say that Nate's quartet provided the best DANCE music I have ever experienced on any of these boats. As a good ballroom dancer and former instructor, I do know good dance music and these guys really provided it. Good tempos for each different kind of dance, short enough individual numbers, instead of 12 minute marathons with jazz riffs and solos. The dixieland bands (Tom Hook) played great jazz but did not know when they were playing a concert or amusing themselves and when they were playing for dancers.

Nate's group played good dance music but they could all have used an infusion of energy. I never saw such lack of enthusiasm from any band. It looked like they were just going through the motions. Maybe that's a result from the demoralizing treatment they have received from the new entertainment agent company, which has likely sucked the life out of these poor guys. No heads bobbing, no body movement, no eye-contact with passengers while they played. They just looked tired and bored to death.

The boat could use a GOOD cruise director with personality, humor and energy. The night that Glenn was emcee for Phil's show, we could all sense a phenomenal difference.

At the risk of sticking my neck out, I think one of the big problems that needs to get resolved by new ownership is something that manages to kill excellence in other businesses too and that is UNIONS. It seemed that too many people, particularly the musicians, were more concerned about how LITTLE they could do, rather than how much. There is no way that union labor can meld with excellence in service delivery. I don't know how management can fix this problem, but unless they can sweep all unions off those boats and get excited, efficiency-oriented staff in each and every personnel slot, their product is doomed to go down the drain. Foreign flagged vessels without U.S. workers and unions offer far, far superior products and have much happier crews, which result in much happier passengers.

The company brochure says there is entertainment in the lounge until "the wee hours of the morning". In actuality, music in the paddlewheel lounge does not start until 9:30pm and ends PROMPTLY at 11:30 with a nice break in between. The popcorn machine gets emptied out at 11:05 because the bartender wants to get out as soon as possible too. Damn the customer, just take care of the workers, so they can get off as early as they can. Although there have been a few cuts in number of musicians, the ones who remain certainly can't complain about being overworked and are more concerned about what the union says you can't do to them, than they are in service delivery to the customer. Well, when you don't please the customer, he doesn't shop as often, spend as much money, then look what happens to the workers - duhhh! Does anybody notice what we are learning about American vs Japanese automobiles? Too many rules to cut back what the worker CAN'T do eventually impacts the perceived quality by the customer, who then stops buying that product.

I believe the new ownership has a LONG way to go to win back the formerly loyal repeat customer, who is the backbone of this business. When I worked on the QE2, we typically had around 80% of our passengers as repeaters, not newbies. I think there were about 300 guests on the MQ this week and about 120 were repeaters. Hmmmmm....

Those who have no experience with the Queens from the good old days 5 years ago don't know what they are missing. Most of the new passengers probably enjoyed themselves and many will likely return for another shot at this riverboat experience. But I would bet a lot of money that repeaters are not repeating enough and that all the new TVs in cabins will not keep this company afloat if some much deeper changes do not happen.

When I worked on the boats before, I knew the crew grumbled and was not really happy. What I saw last week was a lot worse. Although they are professional enough to smile around the passengers, there is an attitude problem festering, likely stemming from management issues that need to be fixed a lot more than the aging paint job does.

I hope and trust that somebody who can make big decisions will read comments like mine and will try to save this product because the boats won't steam on the rivers if the passengers do not come. The problem is not PRICE, it is perceived VALUE. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that this latest change in new owners will FINALLY get smart enough to look at what they are selling and whether the paying public is willing to pay enough to buy it, so our historic steamboats can keep on steaming.
Bill Streit
Brandon, FL[/QUOTE]

Darin Schuld 10-09-2006 11:02 AM

Richard, I do have an answer to two of your questions. The Natchez has never allowed passengers to the roof of the Texas Deck, where the calliope is located. The boat was never designed with this in mind. So, this wasn't just a Tall Stacks thing, but an everyday thing. Unfortunately, there is no way to see the calliope while on the boat. The other question in regards to access to the boats probably falls into the category of a confused ticket seller. The only way for normal people to gain access to the boats was to purchase a cruise ticket. There was no general admission ticket or in-dock tour ticket for any boat. At the 2003 event, there was a morning in-dock tour ticket, but they discontinued it for 2006. If you tried to access the boat at a different time than you were booked for, then no wonder you were hassled. One ticket for one cruise.

Richard Weisenberger 10-09-2006 06:12 PM

If not allowing passengers on the Texas deck of the Natchez is their policy, so be it. We all still had an enjoyable experience. The cruise tickets, however, were purchased on the internet in November of 2005 for the 11:30 AM dinner cruise on the Natchez. It wasn't the ticket seller who had a problem. They told us that we could get in line. When we got to the gatekeepers, however, they were the ones who were confused that the cruise tickets wouldn't admit you to the event.

Apparently they were doing this to a lot of people who had already purchased their dinner cruise tickets. They were telling them to go back to the ticket office and purchase $25/person gate passes. I had heard about this happening on this forum before we left, so we were prepared for this. We contested this and got in just under the wire. I'm wondering how many other people were forced into paying the additional $25 gate fee in addition to their dinner cruise tickets?


[QUOTE=Darin Schuld;1580]Richard, I do have an answer to two of your questions. The Natchez has never allowed passengers to the roof of the Texas Deck, where the calliope is located. The boat was never designed with this in mind. So, this wasn't just a Tall Stacks thing, but an everyday thing. Unfortunately, there is no way to see the calliope while on the boat. The other question in regards to access to the boats probably falls into the category of a confused ticket seller. The only way for normal people to gain access to the boats was to purchase a cruise ticket. There was no general admission ticket or in-dock tour ticket for any boat. At the 2003 event, there was a morning in-dock tour ticket, but they discontinued it for 2006. If you tried to access the boat at a different time than you were booked for, then no wonder you were hassled. One ticket for one cruise.[/QUOTE]

Darin Schuld 10-09-2006 06:55 PM

I see now. Now that you have given more information, it was indeed the fault of the ticket takers. I, too, would have been mad. Yes, [U]any[/U] cruise ticket for that day was your admission ticket. It said so on the website. I hope that not a lot of people fell into that trap, because the event doesn't need that kind of bad press.

As for the entry gates, the ticket takers were pretty decent overall. But, one of them was completely confused with the ticket scanner. She even pulled out a stylus and was poking at the scanner. I got out of line and into another. If I hadn't I would have surely missed my cruise. Those people still in that line are probably still waiting.

I had a great time, overall. I can't wait for the next edition.

Judy Patsch 10-10-2006 09:44 AM

[QUOTE=Richard Weisenberger;1589]If not allowing passengers on the Texas deck of the Natchez is their policy, so be it. We all still had an enjoyable experience.
Richard: Passengers were all over the Texas Deck on the NATCHEZ. That's where the Gift Shop, Texas Bar,ladies rest room and aft food line were. The calliope is on the ROOF, not on a deck! There is no railing up there and it's access is via steep steps up to the pilothouse. This area is forbidden by the Coast Guard for passengers while cruising. In NORMAL circumstances in New Orleans, an occasional guest is escorted out onto the roof by a deck officer to catch a glimpse of the calliope. I certainly hope you can realize that these were NOT normal circumstances and that there were no crew available for anything but getting the boat ready for the next trip in the few minutes we had between cruises. You could have had a great view of the calliope if you had been up on the Mehring Way observing area anytime during the week, as many people did while Debbie performed. Hopefully you'll get to NOLA sometime and can be escorted up to the roof to see the calliope.

Keith Norrington 10-10-2006 09:48 AM

Darin: As an established St. Louis steamboat buff perhaps YOU can enlist interest with the powers-that-be in hosting an event similar to TALL STACKS in your gateway city. Goodness knows that with that LONG, WIDE and very EMPTY levee at St. Louis, there would be plenty of room for boats to land (rough cobblestones abound but no serpentine walls!) not to mention the close proximity of hotels, LaClede's Landing, etc. Just a thought!

Keith Norrington 10-10-2006 09:59 AM

In the early years of the NATCHEZ operation the calliope was very visible to passengers, but when the heavy canvas roof extension was added to the stern of the Texas to provide shelter for passengers from the blistering sun, the calliope is no longer within sight when aboard the boat. Last November, when I was a guest calliopist on the NATCHEZ during her Louisville sojourn, I kept reminding myself to NOT walk beyond the calliope during intermissions, as I was very used to doing aboard the BELLE during the years I was her calliopist and the keyboard was on the roof with the whistles. Natchez Capt. Don Houghton told me about a newspaper photographer who had been escorted up to take some pictures of the calliope while it was being played and was grabbed and pulled back just in the nick of time when, while shooting photos, she absentmindedly took a step out onto the canvas awning, thinking it was part of the roof because both are the same color. It's very narrow up there and limited by Coast Guard regulations to crew members and/or supervised visitors in the interest of safety. As Judy said, under "regular" and not-so-hectic conditions, I'm sure that a NATCHEZ crew member would be happy to show you the calliope.

Richard Weisenberger 10-11-2006 02:25 PM

The calliope on the Natchez is indeed on the roof, as it is above the gift shop. Someone on this forum referred to what I called the "calliope deck" as the Texas Deck, so I accepted it. A canopy blocks a direct view of the whistles. I did manage to spot them through small gaps where the canopy was fastened. My wife, son and I still got to hear it and we bought a CD in the gift shop. I've been enjoying that CD of the Natchez' 3 bell chime whistle, bell and calliope since arriving back home in Paducah.


[QUOTE=Judy Patsch;1604][QUOTE=Richard Weisenberger;1589]If not allowing passengers on the Texas deck of the Natchez is their policy, so be it. We all still had an enjoyable experience.
Richard: Passengers were all over the Texas Deck on the NATCHEZ. That's where the Gift Shop, Texas Bar,ladies rest room and aft food line were. The calliope is on the ROOF, not on a deck! There is no railing up there and it's access is via steep steps up to the pilothouse. This area is forbidden by the Coast Guard for passengers while cruising. In NORMAL circumstances in New Orleans, an occasional guest is escorted out onto the roof by a deck officer to catch a glimpse of the calliope. I certainly hope you can realize that these were NOT normal circumstances and that there were no crew available for anything but getting the boat ready for the next trip in the few minutes we had between cruises. You could have had a great view of the calliope if you had been up on the Mehring Way observing area anytime during the week, as many people did while Debbie performed. Hopefully you'll get to NOLA sometime and can be escorted up to the roof to see the calliope.[/QUOTE]

Tom Schiffer 10-11-2006 06:02 PM

The Tall Stacks experience has been observed in our household since the beginning in 1988 when I had "duty" elsewhere, and could only cruise by after hours. For several of them now, we have had house guests from out of town and our experiences have ranged from fair to excellent and don't necessarily reflect the relative quality of the events. For Carol and me, this one was outstanding. I heard lotsa gripes about not getting answers to questions asked off the TS website etc, but we had a great time. This is partly because that, over the years, we have gotten to know how to "do" the event to satisfy OUR interests and our guests...not necessarily those of others. Due to logistics, we spent much of the time on the Kentucky side of the river. One of the best experiences is the People Bridge from which much can be seen...at no charge. Naturally, to get to the three cruises that we took...all on REAL steamers, we were on the Cincy side and there was much to see there, I suppose, that we did not have time or energy for...no music or theater other than what was on the boats. We "did" the cruises during the week to avoid the crush of the weekend leaving the last three days for cruises in MISSIE. But, you don't have to have a steamboat to appreciate the harbor from a small boat. We put in at Wilder, three miles up the Licking River from the Ohio and it takes MISSIE about forty minutes to negotiate that distance...not much current to buck, but, at five mph... The Coast Guard was at TS in FORCE and many of their boats were manned to the point of what appeared to be overkill, but they did their job. My view is that the traffic was well handled in spite of how heavy it appeared at times. I did think that the river ferries were over priced and resulted in a diminished experience for many and an irritating financial drain to others. There was little play on the Kentucky side early on and I think the ferry fee had something to do with that. I have to say that the LST experience was OUTSTANDING in that it was manned by veterans who had made an important part of the history that we all enjoy. In my opinion, the percieved value received for the five dollar LST admission compared to the five dollar ferry fee was not even close! The two dollar parking fee at the Newport On The Levee garage was inexpensive and gave access to a great part of the event if you could walk the bridge which is right there. I am thankful that the event was relatively accident-free as there are many opportunities for big-bad things to occur. I think that the weather was a BIG factor in my enjoyment of the event and know that the overnight rise of four feet in the river stage sent much of the river participants into a mad scramble to accommodate the change. On Friday, I took MISSIE under the second span out of the Big Mac Bridge and set her at no forward speed, at which time the speedometer registered 3.6 mph. By Sunday, this went down to a more or less normal 1.7 mph...that water was headed for New Orleans on Friday! But, after the rain on Wednesday, the rest of the weather was OUTSTANDING. I took hundreds of pictures from several vantage points and times of day and night. I cannot say too much about how much I appreciate the two real steamers being there. The BELL OF LOU is certainly not out of reach all summer for some one who lives in Northern Kentucky, but the NATCHEZ is not... In all, it was a great experience for us. Till next time...


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