Sunday, October 20, 2002

Early look at Tall Stacks 2003

Riverfront festival plans big-name music, themed cuisine and cruises

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two newcomers will join the world's largest gathering of historic riverboats, when Cincinnati's Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival recreates the steamboat era next October.

The Chattanooga Star and General Jackson will be among 17 paddle wheelers that will congregate Oct. 15-19, 2003 at Port of Cincinnati for tours, harbor cruises, lunch and dinner cruises, races and the riverboat festival's new themed cruises.

  For information or to purchase Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival cruise or tour tickets ($18-$75 per person), beginning at noon, Nov. 3:
•Call (866) 497-8255
• Visit the Tall Stacks store at Tower Place, downtown. The store opens Monday for questions and merchandise sales.
• For Delta Queen or Mississippi Queen overnight cruises, call AAA Cincinnati at (513) 762-3390.
  All tour tickets include the Tall Stacks general admission pin. Pins ($12 for adults; children 12 and under are free) will go on sale in July.
General Jackson will be the setting for Tall Stacks' first Opryland-style show with country fiddler/comedian Tim Watson and his band, Black Creek, in an ornate Victorian theater. The boat, whose home port is Nashville, is owned by Gaylord Entertainment, which also owns Nashville's Opryland hotel and Grand Ole Opry.

It fits Tall Stacks' new name and aim to be a multi-dimensional festival. In 2003, there will be a variety of entertainment onboard boats, while onshore will be five nights of live music with national headliners, educational experiences, nightly fireworks and more diverse food options, so people can sample food from several ports of call.

"The whole vision for this new event is to expand it based on what the river contributed historically and currently to our region. That can be as simple as the music, the culture, the people and the qualities that moved from river port to river port," says Mike Smith, executive director of Tall Stacks, and CEO of Music & Events Management Inc., a subsidiary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. "The fact that the General Jackson has a Nashville-type variety show, combines many of the elements that we're looking to link with our riverbank activities, and with the spectacle of the boats. "

More than 650,000 people are expected to visit the Cincinnati riverfront during the five-day festival, celebrating the glory days of the steam-boating era. Next year's spectacular Parade of Tall Stacks will include three of the six remaining historic steamboats in operation today: Delta Queen, Belle of Louisville and Mississippi Queen.

For the first time, visitors can purchase tickets over the Internet ( . Riverboat cruise tickets will go on sale at noon, Nov. 3. The most sought-after tickets will be Friday and Saturday night dinner cruises, says Karen Bender, marketing manager.

"Dinner and lunch cruises, in general, tend to be our fastest sellers," she says. "People who want those cruises should be online at noon, Nov. 3."

Music on the river

New themed cruises, priced at $26 per person, will include "Cruisin' with the King," a cruise with an Elvis impersonator on the Island Queen. Other cruise options will be wine tasting, an old-fashioned Graeter's ice cream social, breakfast and dessert cruises and a family cruise.

In the evening, cruises on a musical theme - such as jazz, bluegrass, country, big band, disco and blues - will feature music by some of the Tristate's best local groups. The specific entertainers will be announced in the next two months.

On-shore activities will include a Tom Sawyerville river town for kids, and a "Passage to Freedom," where visitors can learn more about slave journeys to freedom, in collaboration with Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. An upgrade of food offerings will complete the riverbank picture, Mr. Smith says.

"We've got boats coming from Memphis, New Orleans, Galveston (Texas), Charleson (W.Va.) and elsewhere. So, where those cities have (gastronomic) specialties, we intend to have options available on the riverbank," he says.

In honor of Ohio's Bicentennial, there will be nightly fireworks. Also new will be at least two hot-air balloon races and balloon glows.

All-event pin

There will be five nights of live music, drawing upon the rich heritage of musical genres linked to Cincinnati or to river culture, such as R&B, gospel and even Chicago blues. Although it's too early to name names (Mr. Smith plans to announce them in July), the acts will be a spectrum of "well-known artists, as well as those who are off the beaten path," he says.

A Tall Stacks 2003 general admission pin will make its debut. The $12 collectable pin, which will go on sale in July, is good for all on-shore activities, musical shows and displays along the riverfront, good for all five days. All cruise tickets include the pin.

Organizers hope the expanded attractions will draw more than the 660,000 who attended in 1999. This will be the fifth Tall Stacks celebration since the first event in 1988, when 14 boats participated as part of Cincinnati's Bicentennial celebration. By 1995, Tall Stacks had grown to 19 boats viewed over five days by 850,000 visitors. But that year, the festival lost $800,000. Although it broke even in 1999, poor weather was blamed for 22 percent fewer visitors than anticipated.

Mr. Smith is optimistic.

"The event has proven to draw a lot of people to the riverbank," he says. "Our approach is to give those people who have come down for the river spectacle a real role in participating, as simple as wandering through Tom Sawyerville or experiencing the Freedom Center walk, or happening upon a concert. It's to create a bigger, more inclusive and better event."

Growing also means more cost. The event, which cost about $8.5 million to produce in '99, has a budget of around $11 million for 2003. It will be aided by a $600,000 grant from the Ohio Bicentennial Commission. A large portion of the cost goes to just bringing the boats to Cincinnati - "sort of like booking a big rock star," says Mr. Smith, who also manages Riverbend for the CSO and oversees production of Pepsi Jammin' on Main, the downtown rock fest.

As in previous years, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen will be available for overnight cruises (Oct. 17-20), which must be booked directly through Cincinnati AAA. Those boats, however, will participate in opening and closing ceremonies and the Parade of Tall Stacks on Oct. 17.

So far, group sales are brisk.

"It really is a beautiful spectacle when you see all the boats, but to enhance it with changes will cause more people to get excited," Mr. Smith predicts.