By Lynette Carrington
There is no other attraction in Arizona that provides an opportunity to experience desert beauty in an entirely unique way than The Dolly Steamboat. The majestic stern wheeler boat has undergone several incarnations since it was launched on Canyon Lake in 1979. The boat lovingly accommodates 140 passengers. Once on board, guests experience stately canyon walls, cool lake waters, Southwestern wildlife and desert vistas for regularly scheduled lake cruises, dinner cruises and special events, parties, corporate events and weddings.
The story of The Dolly Steamboat is one of taking risks and pure perseverance that began in 1979 when Dolly Kennedy and her husband P.K. were at a career crossroads. “After 35 years in the aerospace industry, my husband was asked to take early retirement,” says Dolly Kennedy who is now the PR Director for the Dolly Steamboat. “That was the bad news. But the good news was that he pursued his dream.”The couple bought the Canyon Lake Marina at a time when there weren’t even restrooms or a drinking fountain. “It was so bad. It was deplorable, really,” adds Dolly. “There were no phones and all we had was a walkie-talkie connecting us to the sheriff’s station in Apache Junction.”
“We had the marina for three years and after that time we were on the verge of financial disaster. That was another ending and another beginning-The Dolly Steamboat,” says Kennedy. “We were standing in an empty marina parking lot trying to figure out a fate other than bankruptcy.” Just about that time two tour buses jam packed with winter visitors were rumbling over the one lane bridge on their way to nearby Tortilla Flats. “My husband looked at me and said, ‘There has to be a way to bring those people in here,’” Kennedy recalls. The idea of a tour boat was quickly born; although Dolly wasn’t entirely convinced the idea would work. “Once that determined Irishman made up his mind, it was full steam ahead,” she says. The enterprising duo obtained a permit from the U.S. Forest Service, put a sign out on the road with a sign saying ‘Lake Tours’ and immediately people began to want the unique lake tour. The original tour boat was a runabout and a small group of eager visitors that wanted to experience Canyon Lake took off on the maiden voyage of what has now become an iconic Arizona attraction.
The demand for tours necessitated a boat upgrade and the Kennedys rented a pontoon boat that could accommodate 20 people. Demand continued growing and soon the Kennedys rented one more boat so the tours could accommodate 40 guests in total. The couple approached Valley National Band for a loan. Once it was approved, the money was used to build a big Dolly Steamboat over the course of nine months-a double decker boat that could accommodate 48 people.
“I didn’t think building a boat was a good idea but when he named it ‘Dolly,’ after me, I thought it was great and I had an immediate attitude adjustment,” laughs Kennedy. The couple kept that boat for five years and Dolly Kennedy began to relish her role-dressing up in fancy long dresses, elaborate hats and carrying a charming parasol as she waved to guests who cast off from the Canyon Lake dock. She also convinced P.K. to trade in his jeans for pin striped pants, a pastel brocade jacket with a velvet collar, a black riverboat gambler hat and a silver handlebar moustache was the perfect finishing touch. The stylish couple embraced their roles with The Steamboat Dolly.
In 1987, the boat was sold to Roger Grimh and his family, and that family operates The Dolly Steamboat to this day. Although P.K. and Roger have since passed on, Dolly Kennedy relishes her role as the PR Director of The Dolly Steamboat and serves as the ambassador to the company. She can also be found at networking events around the valley. Everywhere she goes, people flock to meet Dolly Kennedy and listen to her charming stories.
The Twilight Dinner Cruise is 2 ½ hours and includes a full buffet dinner as you watch the sun sink behind the cliffs and capture the dessert beauty as the moon rises and the stars reveal themselves. Private charters are also available for just about any event. The Dolly Steamboat has full catering available to guests who need it.
There is also a 2 ½ hour Astronomy Cruise (including dinner) with Dr. Sky, Steve Kates who will give cruise guests a breakdown of the night sky and interpret the constellations in a fun and engaging way, complete with a huge telescope.
On October 10, 2015 there will be a “Dolly Cruise!” The boat’s namesake, ambassador and PR Director will step aboard and join guests for a special dinner cruise where she will meet and greet guests and regale them with her fun and exciting tales of The Dolly Steamboat and her life that now includes seven adult children, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren! Don’t miss the chance to meet Dolly Kennedy, who in 1999 was declared “Arizona’s Dolly” by Secretary of State, Betsy Bayless, a title that that she is proud to hold to this day.
For additional information on The Dolly Steamboat, a photo gallery and directions to the Canyon Lake Marina, visit www.dollysteamboat.com. For any other questions or to arrange private charters or corporate events, please call (480) 827-9144.