The Spirit of Chicago Dinner Cruise is one of the most attractive ideas in Chicago if you want a romantic get-a-way. After all what could be better than going over to Navy Pier, getting on a decent sized yacht and heading out into the great blue Lake Michigan for a romantic night cruise. The idea doesn’t get better, unless you pick the Wednesday or Saturday cruise… those cruises overlook the Navy Pier fireworks show and that puts a nice cherry on the top of the evening.
No… the problem isn’t the idea, the problem is the execution of that idea. The Spirit of Chicago needs work. If you are going to have a semi-formal $100+ per person dinner cruise (We paid $280 for two people) then you should have your whole program on point. I was asked to wear dress slacks and a dress shirt with a collar in 85 degree weather but when I get to the boat the first thing that stood out was the string of flags… They had a number of different country flags on a stringer going from stem to stern and every single one of them was tattered almost to the point that they could not be identified. If you don’t have the respect for the flags that you fly or you can’t follow proper procedure to take them down in the evening or when the weather doesn’t allow for it… if you don’t care about your presentation enough to allow a tattered despicable sign of neglect to fly openly for all to see… then something is broken in your process. Right away I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that the rest of this trip was going to be full of shortcuts and mis-steps. Unfortunately, I was right.
We boarded the ship and one of the crew told us where to sit. We paid a “Small fee” to guarantee a window seat. That “Small fee” was $80 extra (for two people). It seemed excessive after the fact. The reason I say that is Dinner lasts for about 30 – 45 minutes, and then as long as the weather is nice you will want to go upstairs on the top of the boat for the duration of the Spirit of Chicago voyage so you can see the Chicago Skyline. It is simply not worth paying extra for because they cramp all the tables together so there is barely enough room to sit without banging into the person behind you, there is no room to adjust the table for belly room (I need belly room) and the inside tables are just as uncomfortable… it just isn’t worth the extra money for a 30-45 minute window view.
The Spirit of Chicago dinner is buffet style. It is probably the worst buffet food I’ve had in a long time. Everything is overcooked, dry and flavorless. I can’t tell you what desert tastes like because 10 minutes into dinner the vent they put my 280 dollar table under sprung a leak and soaked the entire left side of my jacket and slacks with half a gallon of ice-cold water (I hope it was condensate and not some bilge pump water, or waste water… I still don’t know the answer to that). It ruined dinner, embarrassed me, and all they did was offer to change our table and put a pad in the vent. Wow. We had to go upstairs onto the top deck early because there is nothing to dry clothing with on the ship other than the air outside.
The Spirit of Chicago wait staff were excellent, our waitress was attentive, she was caring, and she had a personality. If it wasn’t for her I would have blown a gasket, but she made us feel comfortable upstairs on the deck and brought us a few complimentary flutes of champagne to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary.
Unfortunately the water thing really just put a damper on the whole occasion, and the seats upstairs were wet because it had been raining on and off (it stopped just before the cruise started).
The Spirit of Chicago had an annoying DJ who played all the wrong music and the highlight of the ‘dancing’ part of the cruise seemed to be a congo line and some weird staff karaoke sung off-key to old songs like “it’s raining men”. We could only hear what was going on from upstairs because I was soaked and the air-conditioned interior of the boat didn’t mix well with soaked clothing.
The highlight of the evening was the not the Spirit of Chicago cruise. They go around in a circle, never leaving the barrier so we didn’t get to go out into the lake. This gets really very old on a 3 hour boat ride. The highlight of the evening was when the sun started to set and the Chicago skyline was standing out in the night sky. It was breath-taking. We took some photos, and finally around 9:30 the fireworks started. Navy Pier put on a great little 10 minute show complete with a very nice finale. People congregated on the top deck to drink and socialize and the night was very laid back and pleasant.
The trip back to Navy Pier wasn’t very long (we never really lost site of it going around in small circles) and we docked. It took them about 15 minutes once we docked to start disembarking passengers and people (including us) were irritated it took so long. After 3 hours on the boat going in circles we were all ready to get off and go home.
I would rate the entire experience a 2 out of 10, if I took the getting soaked issue out of the equation it would really only bump it up a star or two. The entire trip was not worth anywhere near $280 and I left feeling disenchanted and taken advantage of. Originally this voyage was going to be included in our Presidential Stays set of feature articles… but instead all we can advise is to stay far away from the Spirit of Chicago it is a possessed Spirit filled with shortcuts, and poorly run facility.
The video I included in this article is the dripping part of the water issue… it had already dumped its contents on me and I was able to get my cell phone camera out and take video of the remaining drops which came out in a never-ending stream while we hailed a waitress to help us out. I asked for a refund on Saturday but they told me they didn’t have the authority to do so. We’ll find out what is going to happen on Monday and see if the company will at least be good enough to refund my trip.
***UPDATE: So I called on Monday and got another mini-run around, so I called the business side of the sales department figuring the folks closing the big deals would know a lot more about what is going on than your average double ticket selling agent. I was right. I was immediately transferred to the correct individual (Colleen) and she indicated that there was a training issue at play and wanted to know which numbers I called and to whom I spoke so she could rectify the situation. According to Colleen I should have been issued a refund Saturday (the day I called), and Monday I should have never been transferred to the corporate office to leave a voice mail in the general mailbox, I should have been transferred to her. That said, Colleen issued a full refund immediately, which took a few days to show on my debit card, but it did go through fine. In addition, she apologized for what happened, indicated that they were aware of this issue and that guests were not supposed to be placed under those vent tables for that very reason. She was almost as upset about the situation as I was. That made me feel a little better about what happened. In addition, she offered us a couple of complimentary tickets on a different ship (the Odyssey, it’s a higher end trip). My first inclination was to say no, because I figured my wife would have nothing to do with it… but she warmed up to the idea and I may take them up on the offer. If I do I will certainly write about it.
That said… I’ll have to bump my experience up a couple of notches and say it was a 3.5. I’m giving them an extra 1.5 stars because they did all of this without knowing that I was a writer, without knowing that I was anyone other than an average guest that paid them to have a good time on his anniversary. They took care of my refund and made the offer of a second free trip on a better boat. I like that and they should get points for that. It’s easy to say “Oh wow we screwed up and the press is involved let’s give them a bunch of really cool stuff”… it’s another thing entirely to say “Wow we screwed up, I’m sorry, let me make this right.” without caring who we are. Anyway, I’ll likely call Colleen shortly to get this sorted before the season is over. Stay Tuned.