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VOL. 122 | NO. 38 | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ship Shape

Tunica Queen's renovations to be completed in March

By Rosalind Guy

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AYE, AYE, CAP'N: Captain Don Lancaster pilots the 400-passenger Tunica Queen Riverboat, which is undergoing extensive renovations. -- Photo By Rosalind Guy

Right near the spot where Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in 1541 sits a $26 million, 3-year-old tourist attraction that not many people know about.

The Tunica RiverPark overlooks the Mississippi from a harbor on its eastern bank. The park offers four large aquariums with native aquatic life and a museum with interactive exhibits, a two-mile eco-trail and the 19th-century style Tunica Queen Riverboat.

It also boasts a three-story outdoor observation platform and a verandah with a long row of rocking chairs that offer an unobstructed view of the river.

And now, the park's 400-passenger riverboat is undergoing an extensive renovation costing several thousand dollars.

The cosmetic revamp has included gutting the boat and replacing all the carpet, furniture and wallpaper. Also, the riverboat's exterior has been repainted red and white.

"The Tunica Queen is going to have a totally different look inside," said Lynn Barton, one of the riverboat's owners. Other owners include Lynn's husband, Frank, and her brother, Richey Bibb.

Subjective truths

The renovations are set to be completed in a couple of weeks. The boat's first trip is scheduled for March 8 with about 250 local school children.

Captain Don Lancaster, who usually pilots the boat, said many people don't realize they're seeing the river as it was back in the 1800s.

"You have no industry or tall buildings down here," Lancaster said, "so what you're looking at is exactly the way the Mississippi River was in the day of Mark Twain."

For almost 20 years, Lancaster worked on the Memphis Queen Riverboat.

In Memphis, he said, you see nothing but buildings and you never get away from all the businesses and industry when sailing down the Mississippi River. But, standing on the river park's verandah and pointing a mile or so downriver, he said, "Once you get right up there or down there, it's just like it was many, many years ago."

These are among the bits of information Lancaster shares with passengers as they ride down the Mississippi.

He also tells passengers about the scenery and gives them details about the 2,343-mile river.

Tunica Queen
Offers three sightseeing and
one dinner cruise daily
Passes are $12 for adults, $11 for senior citizens and $7 for children.
Dinner cruises are $39.50 for adults and $37.50 for seniors and children

"It starts at Lake Itasca, Minn. - the overflow from a small lake," he said. "There are no locks or dams on the lower Mississippi River, and there's no cheaper way to move freight than on the river. More than 500 million tons of freight is moved up and down the river each year.

"I like to tell stories in an amusing format, and at least 20 percent of what I tell passengers is true," he said with a smile.

Let the good times ... float

As an example of the yarns he likes to spin, Lancaster points out to the river.

"You see how the river is flowing now, it's running at about seven miles an hour," he said. "Well, at night when the wind's not blowing, it gets as flat as a sheet of glass. And we tell tourists that at night the river quits running and becomes a lake and starts back up in the morning."

Besides being entertained by the stories Lancaster tells, passengers also get to enjoy live entertainment. On the daily sightseeing trip - there are three a day, six days a week - a banjo player strums his tunes. And on the dinner cruise, there's what Lancaster calls a "one-person band."

The boat also provides another draw to Tunica, besides the area's nine casinos.

More than 10 million people visit Tunica each year, according to a recently released study commissioned by the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

And 13 percent of those who are visiting Tunica for the first time visit the river park, said Claire Pittman, public relations manager for the visitor's bureau.

"Since the RiverPark opened two years ago, the number of paid visitors per year is a little over 50,000," Pittman said. "A lot of casinos give vouchers and we've just recently started counting those numbers."

"The Tunica Queen is a first-class tourism amenity that complements the success of the Tunica gaming industry and the world-class Mississippi River Museum at the Tunica RiverPark," said Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The new Tunica Queen is a big attraction for the millions of visitors who travel to Tunica each year, and the new renovations will be something visitors can enjoy."

Rolling in dough

The Tunica RiverPark is near all nine casinos in Tunica.

Lancaster said many of the park's visitors have never seen the Mississippi River before. He tells the story of a family from London who arrived one day after the park closed. They were disappointed about showing up after hours, he said.

There were still enough people around for Lancaster to assemble a crew, and he fired up the boat and sailed the family of four down the Mississippi.

Another attraction, which is something park officials added last year, is the airboat rides. The speed of the airboat can get up to 50 miles per hour. The boat's pilot takes the boat out past a sandbar in the middle of the river. The area behind the sandbar is too small for any of the other boats to traverse.

"We take them back there to where we have the jumping fish," Lancaster said.

Actually, the fish are carp, that, when they hear the noise of the boat's motor, jump out of the water to see what the noise is. Some jump so high, they end up landing in the boat.

"We usually come back with three or four big fish in the boat," he said.

Since the first casino opened in Tunica County in 1992, more than $3 billion has been invested there, according to data from the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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