Showboat back in business

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) — The entertainment season has begun aboard a Branson showboat that was forced aground last December, but the owners of the vessel are still waiting for permission from the U.S. Coast Guard to resume dinner cruises on Table Rock Lake in southwest Missouri.

The Showboat Branson Belle has been docked at the lake since the accident on Dec. 11 stranded more than 600 people overnight on the lake. No one was injured and everyone was safely unloaded from the showboat the next morning.

Curtain went up on the first show of the 2011 season Friday in a “soft opening,” said Lisa Rau, spokeswoman for showboat owner Herschend Family Entertainment.

The company and boat operators are waiting for final paperwork and a last visit from the Coast Guard before beginning the dinner cruises. That approval could come as early as next week, Rau said.

“We’re not guaranteeing that, nor are they,” said Rau, who praised the Coast Guard for its help and said the federal agency “deserved our patience” while waiting for final approval.

Since the accident, the showboat has undergone a major renovation, with more than $400,000 in replacement parts. It now has a new digital propulsion system, new controls and new drives. The section of the hull that was dented when the vessel was grounded in December has been repaired, Rau said.

“The captains are near giddy with the difference,” she told The Springfield News-Leader. “It’s literally like comparing a TV antenna with television today. It’s been an incredible three-and-a-half months of projects, weather delays and nearly $400,000 in replacements.”

The company has also changed its policy so that cruises will be called off during 20 mph sustained winds and 25 mph gusts. In the past, calling off the cruise was up to the captain.

The 750-passenger showboat got into trouble after leaving its dock near Branson for what was supposed to be a 2 1/2-hour dinner cruise and a Christmas show. Strong wind gusts forced the showboat aground near a site known as Poverty Point, not far from the inlet where the boat docks.

The boat’s captains decided it was safer to leave the boat on the rocky shore than try and guide it between private boats during dark, stormy conditions. Most of the 643 passengers and crew members had to spend the night on the boat until a makeshift road and ramp was constructed to rescue them. Rau said that no one was in real danger when the boat ran aground.

The company is not worried about ticket sales being affected by the grounding of the Belle, said Brad Thomas, senior vice president of Silver Dollar City Attractions.

Four shows were scheduled for Friday and Saturday, before the grand opening April 9.

About 700 tickets had been sold for each of four weekend shows, Rau said. After the grand opening, the company expects to serve about 2,000 people daily over three performances.

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