When the gangway to the Lantern Queen is down, the owners of the riverboat docked in Havre de Grace never know who might wander aboard.
It could be a couple planning a wedding; a family organizing a reunion, birthday or anniversary celebration; or just a group looking for a party with food, drink, music and dancing against a slightly different background. It also might be a visitor who wants a look at a riverboat.
The boat is a replica of those that plied the Mississippi. When it was launched in 1983, the Lantern Queen sailed the Missouri River. In its 25 years, it has also been to Florida and Philadelphia.
The Lantern Queen promises passengers sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River. It can seat 60 in an enclosed, weatherized space and accommodate dozens more on its upper deck.
"Our most successful parties are those where people mingle up and down on the boat," said Rebecca Fitzgerald, a former museum director, who owns the boat along with her husband, Carroll.
The couple, who live in the city along the Susquehanna River, were looking for an investment that could carry them into retirement.
"You can't get a storefront in Havre de Grace, and I didn't see myself as a shopkeeper anyway," said Carroll Fitzgerald. "I thought about a boat, but my wife said you can't make money from a boat. You can, if it's big enough."
They have found 26 tons big enough. A few months after touring the Lantern Queen, the couple hired a captain and crew. They cruised to a municipal dock from the ship's berth on the Elk River, restored the vessel and opened for business last fall after adding two more captains, a caterer and a bartender to the staff.
"The only other boat we have is a canoe," he said. "We are basically running a business. The expertise is everybody else's."
Their first passenger cruise was in October and they have stayed afloat since, with a Thanksgiving outing, a breakfast with Santa, a Valentine's Day dinner and a St. Patrick's Day party that went on until all hours of the night.
"We put the gangway down, but musicians kept playing and nobody left," Rebecca Fitzgerald said.
The captain, who is Coast Guard-certified, makes the ride so smooth, passengers often do not realize that they have left the dock, said Carroll Fitzgerald.
"There is really more boat rocking sitting here at the dock," he said. "Sometimes, especially at night, people ask when are we leaving and we are already halfway up the river."
So far this season, they have booked 40 charters and several public cruises. A Mother's Day riverboat tour sold out months ago and seats for the Father's Day cruise are going rapidly, the couple said.
"I feel like the queen of the Nile," said Rebecca Fitzgerald. "I am enjoying my fantasy."
Her husband added, "I have always loved the lure of the water."
Rebecca Fitzgerald has not missed a single trip, and her husband has skipped only a few. The riverboat typically takes a two-hour cruise up the Susquehanna River to Port Deposit, at a comfortable speed of 4 knots. On busy days, the boat might go out again.
A floating restaurant adds to the city's ambience, the couple said. And just because this restaurant floats does not mean it lacks elegance.
The tables are covered with linen. Lace curtains and white lanterns adorn the cabin windows, and anchors are imprinted on the carpeting.
"All the comforts of home," said Carroll Fitzgerald, who works as a sales representative for an electrical firm and assists in any manner needed aboard the Lantern Queen.
"He folds a mean napkin," his wife said.
At 53, Carroll Fitzgerald has a while before he retires, but he has set a goal for himself.
"I want to have this boat paid for and my captain's license by the time I retire," he said.
That means 360 days of piloting experience and an arduous written exam in addition to all those loan payments on a boat valued at nearly $1 million.