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Queen of Hearts a river showoff


The Queen of Hearts is the only local river boat that doesn't involve gambling. The boat hosts lunch, dinner, tours and all-day tours during the warmer months.

MOLINE -- It was snowing. Puffs of white smoke spurted from a tiny chimney alongside a barge on a Moline pier where the area's only non-gaming riverboat is docked for the winter.

Inside the toasty-warm office on the barge, father and son, Joe and Scott Schadler, and their Jack Russell terrier, Max, were enjoying a slow work day -- slow, at least, by their standards.

``In winter, we try to take it easy,'' Scott Schadler said. ``It's nothing to work 14-hour days for months at a time'' during the boating season.

That's when the Queen of Hearts, their floating restaurant and entertainment hall, hosts guests for lunch, dinner, tours or all-day cruises up and down the upper Mississippi River.

``Winter's hard on me,'' 27-year old Scott Schadler said, ``because I'm not much of an office person.''

Scott Schadler was just 12 in 1984 when his dad had the Queen of Hearts built and launched it as one of several entertainment vessels in the Quad-City area.

He immediately started working on the boat, helping his dad however he could. The younger Schadler worked his way up to more important positions. Then, after he graduated from college in 1993, he joined his dad.

The soft-spoken, laid-back pair are partners in the business, called Celebration River Cruises. Scott Schadler calls his dad by his first name.

``We want to be known as a family boat,'' Scott Schadler said, ``not like the casinos'' where kids aren't allowed. ``We feel there will always be a market for a non-gaming riverboat.''

Just because there's no gambling doesn't mean there's no fun.

During the summer, family fun is the name of the game. The Queen of Hearts offers a Family Fun Night, including pizza and chicken, a banjo player and a magician to keep kids' attention.

On other cruises between April and November, there's live music, drinks and dancing. One of the Schadlers provides historical narration as the boat steams by notable places and goes through Lock and Dam 15.

``People are fascinated by that,'' Scott Schadler said.

Specialty cruises feature big band music, bingo and line dancing. Groups also can charter the boat for special occasions such as weddings.

Then there's the food. It's all made on the boat each day.

``We're cooking all day long, and everything's nice and fresh,'' from the prime rib and chicken entrees, Scott Schadler said, to the ``French puff pastry and homemade cookies,'' Joe Schadler added.

Joe Schadler, a businessman who owned dry cleaning and advertising businesses for years, said opening a steamship restaurant was quite a departure for him.

``I never even had a boat,'' he said, flashing the same wide smile as his son, ``not even a canoe or a rowboat. (Running this business) seemed like a vacation.

``It was a full-time hobby at first. It opened with such a bang that it became a full-time business.''

However, there were some lean years after riverboat gambling hit the Quad-Cities in the early '90s. The other area pleasure cruisers sold out to the big gaming companies or were forced to close down because of the competition.

``The casino boats took a chunk of the market,'' Scott Schadler said. ``It was hard on us for a while there. Not just hard on us, but for restaurants and other businesses in the area as well, because people only have so much money to spend,'' and they were spending it at the casino boats.

``Since about 1993, our markets have been growing,'' he added.

That didn't happen by accident. The Queen of Hearts toughed it out while the Schadlers learned to adapt, even to work with the gaming behemoths.

In off-season, they travel around the Midwest, and up and down the East Coast promoting the Queen of Hearts and other Quad Cities attractions, hoping to draw tourists.

``We have to sell the Quad-Cities. (Tourists) are not going to travel nine or 10 hours just to go on the riverboat,'' Scott Schadler explained. ``There's a lot to offer in the Quad-Cities area, and people just don't know it.''

He said they promote attractions like John Deere Commons, The Mark of the Quad Cities, and of course, the huge casinos, which in turn, promote the Queen of Hearts, Scott Schadler said.

``We let people know they can get out on the river, have a nice dinner, then go on the gaming boats.''

The steamship again is enjoying a popularity boom that prompts its brochure to announce in boldface lettering, ``Reservations recommended.''

Of course, the Schadlers' hard work has a lot to do with the business' success, but Joe Schadler gives a good deal of credit to the lazy flow of the Mississippi, too.

``Water is magic for one thing,'' he said. ``It relaxes people. It's an experience they can't get in a restaurant, just a magic experience. They can come on board in any mood, but when they come off, they're in a happy mood.''

He gets a kick out of uptight customers from the East Coast. ``They even talk fast when they get here. This gives them a chance to watch the world go by real slow, not zooming down the highway at 80 mph. It's going by at about 8 mph.''

It's a way of life Scott Schadler said he can't imagine ever giving up. ``It sounds like a cliche, but they say when you get the river in your blood, you can't get it out. I never see myself away from the river.''

-- By Marcy Norton (January 22, 1998)

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