Cruise passengers giving good initial marks to city

A Trailways tour bus awaits passengers having lunch on the Queen of the Mississippi Wednesday afternoon on an 8-hour stop in Fort Madison. Passengers seem to be giving Fort Madison favorable marks in the inaugural season of cruises. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


FORT MADISON – All initial reactions from the first half dozen cruise docks are that passengers are happy with what they are seeing from Fort Madison.

After the inaugural ship from American Cruise Lines docked on Aug. 6, to fanfare and welcome from a couple hundred greeters, city officials and business owners are starting to get a read on what the city’s newest tourists think of Fort Madison.

Brenda Derr, of Dollhouse Dreams and Megan’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream on Avenue G, said she’s heard nothing but positive comments from passengers that have stopped in. And although she hasn’t seen a large influx of sales she’s collecting information from newcomers to gauge interest and buying patterns.

Derr ships her toys and supplies across the country and said residual commerce could come from visitors who are interested in the dollhouses.

“The fact that they are coming in and seeing how unique we are, especially with the dollhouses, they say, “so and so’s got one and I’ll let them know’. Then we tell them about our website and that we ship anywhere in the United States,” Derr said Wednesday as passengers milled about downtown and near the Historical Museum.

Passengers could be seen Wednesday afternoon crossing the pedestrian foot bridge over the railroad tracks with packages.

Derr said she’s heard from several passengers that Fort Madison has been the best stop on the cruise.

“They, by far, are saying Fort Madison is the best place or site so far,” she said. “One guy came off and went out to one of the farms and is from Australia and just loved it.”

The farm tour is part of the agritours that were set up as part of excursions planned for passengers in conjunction with their trip. Fort Madison Chamber Coordinator Savanna Collier said that tour was one that really sold the cruise line on keeping the passengers in north Lee County.

“We were on a conference call with them and they wanted to take them to Burlington on a city excursion and I said “No Please! and asked them to keep the passengers in Lee County. That’s when we suggested the agritour and they just loved that idea,” Collier said.

As has been reported, the cruise dockings are for 6 and 8.5 hour layovers, or excursions.

The six-hour excursions, which is an 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. stop, offer riders either a history tour or the agritour, or a shuttle that runs in the downtown district. The history tour takes passengers to the Old Fort and to the Historic Prison and then on a riding tour of the Park-to-Park Historical district featuring the city’s district on the National Historic Register.

“We want to thank the Department of Corrections for allowing us to set up tours there,” Collier said. “We’ve been working very hard for that and it’s not an easy thing to just go and do. They’ve been very generous.”

The agritours takes passengers to Julie, Adam and Kathy Hohl’s Harvestville Farm on Hwy. 2 and to the Hinterland Dairy Farm on Franklin Road.

Collier leads that tour herself and said people are having a great time seeing the livestock and hearing about the farms. Some of the passengers grew up on farms and relate well to the operations.

“I love it too. I get out and cows are sucking on my fingers and that’s been a really cool experience,” she said. “Julie, Adam and Kathy at Harvestville have been great and very welcoming, too”

The 8-hour excursions provide alternating tours with the first being from 9 a.m. to noon and the second from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Passengers on those days can actually take both tours or take extra time to move around downtown with the shuttle.

Collier said it’s important for people in town to know what’s happening with the passengers and what programming is in place so commerce can take hold.

“We’ve worked diligently with the cruise line to create these excursions based on what they felt their needs were and their timelines,” Collier said.

Passengers select what excursions they are interested in prior to the ships docking at the city’s pier. Collier said the numbers are split pretty evenly with anywhere from 100 to 125 passengers taking one of the two or both excursions.

“We’ve had a pretty even split on most excursions and we get from just under 40 to 60 on each one,” Collier said.

“The third option is take a shuttle from the pier to the Old Fort and then stop at the depot museum where they can tour the museum. Then they go up the street and get dropped off at 9th Street so they can get out and walk around downtown and then the shuttle picks them up again.”

That’s when Derr starts seeing and talking with the passengers. The ice cream parlor that’s part of Megan’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor and lunch counter has been a big hit.

“Some of them will get a cone, but they love the atmosphere and they will take pictures of the kids working behind the counter.”

She said the haven’t had lunch because they pay for meals on the boat.

“There aren’t eating. They are on a 5-star floating hotel and they’re telling me the food is awesome on the boat. But they are buying the occassional ice cream. Just a lot of lookers,” she said.

And that’s not a bad thing in her opinion.

“I think it’s going to get our name out there. With them traveling, they don’t want to carry anything back with them on the boat for the most part so shipping is a good option.”

Derr said she spoke with someone who works for the boat and does some writing and is trying to put together a news letter to let people getting off the boats at different sites know what’s going on.

Derr questioned the tours at first because she thought it took away form downtown, but she said she’s since changed her mind.

“I think the purpose is to get them in our area and see what we have to offer and then I think every year it just builds,” she said.

“If our community sees there’s actually people coming in, maybe they would want to take one of these store fronts.”

Collier said the only complaints she’s heard were from the cruise line when they docked on Sunday and a lot of businesses were closed.

“I think it’s been an absolutely positive experience for our downtown merchants, but the need to be open and available,” she said.

“We heard a few people were open, but got a couple complaints from the cruise ship that not enough places were open. It’s gonna take a season for us to get this all down.”

Collier said she’s encouraged business owners to just talk with the visitors and see what their interests are.

She said the visitors only have three hours on the bus and the average age of the passengers is 68 so adding too much to the tours makes things more difficult.

“For what we had to work with and the amount of time we had I’m very proud of what the city has done,” she said.

“In just a few weeks we were able to put this together and were in connection with the cruise line the whole time. There were a lot of questions. We were able to meet in the middle and put it together.”

She said money is also starting to circulate as a result of the tours. The Cruise line pays per passenger on the tours so the Old Fort and the prison are making money off the tours. The agritours are also paid for with some of the money going back to the farms.

“There are funds circulating through the community which is awesome because ultimately that’s what the goal is,” she said.

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