For a boat its size, there's a surprising amount of entertainment to be found on American Queen -- and some of it breaks out at unexpected times. We're talking about the singular delight (or horror, depending on your tolerance for high decibels) of the boat's calliope, found on the top deck next to the bar that bears its name. There are red-white-and-blue concerts when leaving river ports and passing through locks that have visitors' viewing platforms. Stand close enough, and you can feel the mist from the steam producing the music.
The main entertainment venue is the Grand Saloon, a posh two-story showstopper. The theater is a sea of gold and red, with dark wood and box seats surrounded by thick curtains, plus an ornate lighted proscenium that frames the stage. Its design is based on Washington's Ford's Theater and it even has a replica of the box in which Lincoln sat on that fateful evening; on the ship, the "Lincoln box" is named after Ralph Waldo Emerson. A wide variety of performances take place there, though most are geared toward an older clientele. Expect lots of music, from big band sounds to a revue of made-in-America classics and Broadway favorites. Depending on your sailing, you might also be treated to magicians or Mark Twain impersonators. In addition, some voyages feature the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Rat Pack Show (a Sinatra tribute) and groups of yore like the Platters and the Lovin' Spoonful. It's all good fun, and there's a chance for dancing with the chairs cleared away at least once per cruise.
You can catch daily lectures in the Grand Saloon by the boat's "riverlorians," experts who provide historical and often lyrical context on the boat, famous American figures connected to the rivers, and the passing landscape. They're mini-celebrities onboard; many passengers latch onto them as they pass by on deck, and they're always happy to answer any questions. Often one can be found in the Chart Room, where maps of the river are laid out for inspection.
Puzzles and various board games, as well as large tables, are available in the Mark Twain Gallery and Ladies' Parlor. Bridge players can post their availability. There is no casino onboard.
American Queen's two main watering holes (the alfresco, horseshoe-shaped Calliope Bar on the top deck and the Deck 2 Engine Room Bar) feature Dixieland jazz and Broadway standards from time to time. The Calliope Bar, at the back of the ship, has lots of small chairs and tables scattered about, some with umbrellas for shade, and a great view of the paddlewheel.
We found the Engine Room Bar -- where you watch the paddlewheel spinning away outside the windows and nurse a cocktail at the gleaming mahogany bar -- to be a particular delight. Whatever you do, don't miss a trip to the engine room itself, down a flight of steps to the right of the bar. The crew is happy to chat up passengers about the amazing mechanism that brings the paddlewheel to life.
The Captain's Bar is located just outside the dining saloon as part of the Main Deck Lounge; there's piano music or singalongs every night. It's the best place for an after-dinner cocktail.
In every port of call, American Queen offers passengers a free hop-on, hop-off tour. Buses adorned to look like American Queen, courtesy of a "skin" overlay, transport passengers around ports of call, and you're free to hop on or off at any number of predetermined spots. A guide narrates the route and explains what's attractive about each stop. Most routes take 20 to 40 minutes to complete the full circuit, and good walkers can also do most of the loops on foot at their own pace (varies by port), should they wish.
Depending on the itinerary, you may end up in a small town you've never heard of. For instance, we visited Henderson, Kentucky, and Madison, Indiana, the latter being a particularly winsome find with its shops, restaurants and interesting architecture and history. In other cases, ports include some of America's most interesting cities. In Louisville, for instance, passengers can pick and choose among the Museum of Arts and Crafts, the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts (for a 35-minute multimedia extravaganza called "Kentucky Show!") and the Louisville Glass Works, among other spots.
Conversely, passengers can also book Premium Choice Tours for an extra fee in a number of towns. Akin to standard shore excursions on bigger vessels, they include private transportation, more personalized service and occasionally a meal. Louisville's Premium Choice option is a $59, four-hour excursion that includes a visit to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs and lunch at Lynn's Paradise Cafe, a local legend that serves the town's famous Hot Brown sandwich.
And don't hesitate to borrow one of the cruiser bicycles from the ship's collection; many of the smaller towns we visited had lovely (and flat) towpaths that flanked the river -- perfect for cycling.