Love boat

Marty and Tina Wehner enjoy a glass of wine on the top deck of the Philadelphia Belle before taking a dinner cruise. SARAH SCHU / FOR THE TIMES

The Philadelphia Belle is making major waves on the Delaware River.

As Ryan O’Connor watches passengers get ready to board the Philadelphia Belle, he sees plenty of “wow moments.”

O’Connor, the director of sales, explained that the riverboat can handle as many as 1,000 people for a reception-style event.

“She’s a big ship,” he said.

The Philadelphia Belle, located on the Delaware River between Market and Chestnut streets, is billed as the largest passenger/dining vessel on the East Coast. It features four decks, including three enclosed, climate-controlled decks and an open-air observation deck. It is 65 feet high and nearly 262 feet long.

Christened in 1994 as the Mississippi Belle II, it served as a stationary gambling boat in Illinois before being purchased by a company that wanted to bring it to Philadelphia.

The paddlewheel-style riverboat was, of course, renamed and underwent $2 million in interior renovations. It arrived in Philadelphia last August after a

120-day, 3,600-mile journey and was christened for a soft opening in December. Philly performer Lauren Hart smashed the champagne bottle and sang God Bless America.

The nicer weather in the spring has brought more activity for the vessel. The customer base is in the city, suburbs and South Jersey, and the Philadelphia Belle, as expected, also is a hit with tourists and groups.

The ship sits on previously unoccupied space owned by the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., and O’Connor believes it is a nice addition to a waterfront that welcomed the SugarHouse Casino last September and the Race Street Pier last month.

Passengers get to view the city skyline, historic landmarks, the sports complex and other sailing vessels while enjoying live musical entertainment during a two-hour lunch or weekend brunch or a three-hour dinner.

The Belle usually heads north to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge before turning around on its way south to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It then returns to its home at Pier 3 at Penn’s Landing.

“It’s a very, very smooth sail,” O’Connor said.

All food is prepared on board, and a grill is being added to the top deck. “We wanted to offer a best-of-Philadelphia experience and attraction,” O’Connor said. “There are panoramic views on each deck.”

Cruise-only tickets are also available, with an option of buying food and beverages from an a-la-carte menu or outside concession stand.

A two-hour moonlight cruise includes a disc jockey and dancing for the 21-and-older crowd. For an after-work celebration, adult-only Taste of the Belle Fridays features unlimited hors d’oeuvres, local beers and wines, and music.

“It’s a great way to end the work week,” O’Connor said.

Father’s Day is Sunday, and there is a brunch buffet cruise that sails from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a four-course dinner cruise that lasts from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Dads receive complimentary beer and Bloody Marys, and children 3 and under board free, as they do for all lunch, dinner and brunch cruises.

Cruises on June 25 and July 2 will be timed to coincide with fireworks displays, and a barbecue menu will be available. The ship sails throughout the year; other specialty cruises take place on Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, July 4 and New Year’s Eve.

The Belle also is available for wedding ceremonies, receptions and rehearsal dinners, proms and other private functions. For smaller affairs, a parlor room on the second deck accommodates 30 to 40 people.

Inclement weather might discourage passengers from spending time on the top deck, but the other decks provide shelter. “We cruise rain or shine,” O’Connor said.

The new ship’s competition includes the Spirit of Philadelphia, and the Belle has been busy wooing customers through hotel concierges, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and its Young Professionals Network, the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau and the

Independence Visitors Center.

The Belle, which is handicapped-accessible and equipped with an elevator, employs about 100 people on board and in a nearby office.

“It’s our first season, and we’re excited to be here in Philadelphia,” said O’Connor, a Delaware County native now living in Manayunk. “The waterfront and the city needed a product like this.” ••

For tickets, group reservations, rates, schedules, gift certificates or more information, call toll-free 1–888–516–4889 or visit www.philadelphiabelle.com

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com