Paddleboat Cruises Coming to Philly Waterfront

Bringing a little Mississippi to the Delaware River

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCPhiladelphia.com

    There’s a new attraction expected soon on the waterfront: a 260-foot, four-deck paddlewheel riverboat replica providing dinner cruises up and down the Delaware River.

    The newly dubbed Philadelphia Belle arrived at Penn’s Landing on Tuesday amid fanfare that included a Mummers string band and a Ben Franklin impersonator.

    A group of investors, led by Norfolk, Va.-based CI Travel, bought the engine-powered steamship replica three months ago for a little more than $3 million and expect to make a total investment of about $10 million, said Tom D’Amato, vice president and general manager of Philadelphia Belle.

    The investors chose Philadelphia as the spot where they wanted to make the former gambling boat into a tourist attraction because there aren’t many ships offering dinner cruises in the city, D’Amato said.

    “If you go to Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, there’s dozens,” said D’Amato, whose group began negotiating the deal to come to Philadelphia at the end of May. “It’s an underserved market.”

    The ship, which can seat 1,000 people, will have cruises with food and live entertainment on loops up and down the river.

    The ship -- built in Houma, La., and christened as the Mississippi Belle II in 1994 -- just completed a 3,200-mile journey from its most recent home in Moline, Ill., down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, and up to Philadelphia, where it will get final renovations.

    Its arrival would bring about 250 new jobs and provide a boost to a waterfront still reeling from a July 7 accident in which two Hungarian tourists were killed when a barge rammed into a disabled amphibious sightseeing vessel known as a duck boat, sinking it.

    The investors in the Philadelphia Belle project have elaborate safety procedures and felt confident in the Coast Guard’s ability to make the river safe, D’Amato said, so the accident did not deter them.

    “It’s a tragic, freak accident,” D’Amato said of the duck boat accident, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Operations for the duck boats, which look like boats with wheels, have been suspended in Philadelphia since the accident.

    At a news conference Tuesday, D’Amato said he hopes that legendary Philadelphia singer Patti LaBelle can provide entertainment on the Philadelphia Belle’s christening cruise, expected in late October.

    Now, Philadelphia officials are hoping the paddleboat can help lure more tourists to Penn’s Landing, which draws an estimated 1 million visitors a year.

    “Philadelphia is a river city,” said Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. “Independence Hall is where it is because the river is where it is.”