For the first time since the Grand Romance Riverboat came to Long Beach more than a decade ago, the ship — and its chipper calliope — will be turning its big red stern wheel during daytime tours.
Typically, the ship is used for nighttime parties as well as evening dinners or murder mystery cruises and special events, but owner and captain Bill Barker said he wants more people to be able to be able to afford and experience the Grand Romance with one-hour daytime cruises. He also is working to refurbish an old pirate ship that he said soon would be used for free pirate reenactments in Rainbow Lagoon.
“I’m really trying to expand our audience and give the community more of an opportunity to enjoy this ship and bring the whole family to Rainbow Lagoon for a good time,” Barker said.
The skipper, who built the Grand Romance alongside family members and friends to look like a 100-year-old Mississippi river boat, first captained the ship in 1992 in Fort Bragg. It took two years of planning and then three years to construct the ship — Barker, who was formerly a charter fishing boat owner, said he sold his fishing boat and never looked back.
After operating the Grand Romance in Northern California for several years, Barker heard about a new, unique opportunity in Long Beach, where a breakwater and newly built marina could be the perfect home for the riverboat, which uses a hydraulic system (not steam) to power the stern wheel.
“It took five days and nights on the ocean to get the Grand Romance to Long Beach,” Barker said. “When we got here, Rainbow Lagoon was basically just parking lots — there wasn’t much around here… We arrived on Sept. 11, 2001, so we arrived here the day the World Trade Center got hit — there was supposed to be a Dixieland Band here to welcome us, but it was all cancelled because of the terrorist attacks.”
Despite a lackluster arrival in Long Beach, Barker settled in. He has hosted several entertainment acts on the ship, including singing follies and murder mystery acts. He said most business nowadays comes from private parties, weddings and other events — the ship cruises inside the breakwater with about 400 passengers each weekend.
“When people come on board for parties or weddings, they like to dress up and make a big event of it — we get folks dressed for casino night or other themes,” Barker said. “We used to do a lot more corporate parties before 2007, and our busiest month of the year was December, but now a lot of those corporate parties have dried up, so we’ve shifted our focus and summertime is our busiest time — we’ve got parties booked almost every weekend all summer.”
The three-story, 8,000-square-foot ship is tricked out for a good time — there’s a stage, piano, dance floor, disco ball and plenty of space to eat or drink for 300 people on board a ship decorated with tin-stamped ceilings, framed photos of old riverboats, a functional calliope (a keyboard instrument resembling an organ that was historically used on riverboats to signal the ship’s arrival) and two towering smokestacks.
Starting July 4, day cruises will depart at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m., every day. The cost for day cruises is $24 for adults, $22 for seniors and $14 for youngsters, the price includes a country-style meal.
For details or a schedule of cruises, including The Dinner Detective mystery cruises and day cruises, call 628-1600. The Grand Romance Riverboat docks at Rainbow Harbor, 200 Aquarium Way, Dock No. 4.