The founding fathers of modern cruising
By Craig Satterfield, Elite Cruise Counselor Scholar
I don’t think there has been any time in the past when major cruise lines have been so aggressive in offering deals and promotions as they are doing now. With so many beds on ships to fill, and new ships on the way, cruise line sales executives know that they must sail full to make money. They will do almost anything to get the attention of travelers to buy cabins on their ships. If you look at some of the old brochures, and I mean really old ones, you will discover that prices for cruises these days are actually much lower than they were in the past.
Mass market cruise lines are nothing like they were when the Sun Viking, Mardi Gras and Sunward II first started sailing year around from the Port of Miami to the Caribbean waters back around 1972. These were some of the first ships that passengers booked just to vacation in the sun. Almost gone were the ships that acted solely as transportation, sailing from the old World to the new replaced by jet airliners. A new industry was being born. With ships ever increasing capacity, size and amenities, the industry has grown from a handful of small ships that catered to between 400 and 700 happy cruisers to a multi-billion dollar international industry with ships that sleep over 4,000 and has no signs of slowing down. Even the latest recession couldn’t stop the progress of building ships like Oasis of the Seas or Norwegian Epic. Gone are the days of the bargain cocktails in the lounges, or around the pool and gourmet meals in the dining room which were included in every cruise. Now it is all about “on board” revenue. The lines need warm bodies on their ships to spend the kind of money keeping today’s cruise lines profitable. This is the only way they can make up for the low prices people are learning to expect for cruises to the Caribbean these days!
Back in 1965, Ted Arison, who would later be the brains behind the creation of the “Fun Ships” of Carnival Cruise Lines and Knut Kloster, founder of Norwegian Caribbean Lines (later to become Norwegian Cruise Lines), were partners operating the original leisure ship, MS Sunward I, which had started her life as a passenger/car ferry sailing from the UK to Gibraltar.
Later Arison and Kloster broke up the partnership and went their separate ways. Almost overnight three ships would be flying the Carnival flag; Mardi Gras, Carnivale and Festivale which had been trans-Atlantic liners converted to their new life as cruise ships to the sun. NCL grew with four ships; Sunward II, Starward, Southward and Skywardand the choices of ships and itineraries really started to grow. American’s were just starting to be interested in the islands of the Caribbean so this was an ideal way to try cruising and visit new, exotic ports of call.
All of a sudden a third party was heard from. Cruise and hotel veteran Ed Stephan was sitting on a plan to convince three powerful Norwegian shipping families to join the party in the Caribbean cruise business. His plan was to actually build brand new cruise ships specifically designed for Caribbean cruising instead of giving older transportation type ships new lives. In 1970 the first ship of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line started sailing from the Port of Miami on 14-night cruises.
In just a short 3 years, Song of Norway, Nordic Prince and Sun Viking were the newest and most modern fleet sailing. Stephan had included revolutionary design ideas for these ships including the flying saucer shaped Viking Crown Lounge still built into all of the newest Royal Caribbean ships to this day. These cruises became tremendously successful and if you didn’t book almost a year in advance, there was little hope of getting a cabin.
The Caribbean cruise industry as we know it was on its way to success. As the industry grew so did the three cruise lines, Carnival building the first new ship since construction of the Royal Caribbean fleet, The Tropicale. She was introduced in 1982 and sailed in the Caribbean for a very short time. In a highly controversial move, Carnival moved the ship to Los Angeles and was the newest cruise ship sailing to the Mexican Riviera. She operated the Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlán and Cabo San Lucas itinerary for over 6 years.
Royal Caribbean also needed to expand and the quickest way to make that happen was to actually expand the ships themselves. After about four years of highly successful service, the Song of Norway and Nordic Prince were sailed back to Norway, cut in half and an 85 foot section was added increasing their capacity another 150 cabins. This was the very first time lengthening of a cruise had ever been accomplished. Royal Caribbean continued their expansion by building a new ship, Song of America in 1982 which was basically a larger version of her three sisters.
Norwegian Cruise Lines was not going to be left behind so in 1979 they purchased one of the last of the great ocean liners, SS France, which had been sitting in a French harbor for over five years. Renamed SS Norway, NCL now boasted operating the World’s largest cruise ship. With a capacity of over 2,000 passengers, none of the other ships out there even came close. This was really the first ship to feature a 500 seat showroom offering a full scale show extravaganzas like we see in all of the big ships of today. The Norway changed the industry, as it proved that a large ship with dozens of passenger options could be popular and she was extremely popular. She had dozens of large, luxurious suites unlike anything on any other leisure ships, which spoiled cruise passengers forever. Many sailings offered top name entertainment in jazz, pop and country music.
Out on the West Coast, the cruise industry actually started around the same time as the creation of Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean with the cruise pioneer Stan McDonald back in 1965. He had chartered Princess Patricia from the Canadian Pacific Company. They used the ship only in summer months for Alaska cruises so she was laid up for the rest of the year. That gave McDonald the idea to operate in the sunny Mexican Riviera when the ship was not used in Alaska. Unfortunately she was not designed for warm weather cruising so guests suffered from lack of air conditioning. A year or so later, a newer ship, Princess Italia replaced the old Patricia and Princess Cruises was born. She offered regularly scheduled cruises in Mexico and the first transits of the Panama Canal. In 1968 Princess Italia was replaced by another charter, Princess Carla. This was the ship that spawned the inspiration for “The Love Boat” book which later inspired the TV show which premiered in 1976. This was the first ship that Princess operated to Alaska starting in 1968.
A lot has happened in the cruise industry since these brave cruise pioneers took the great idea that travelers would love to spend their vacations at sea and created the industry we see today. Just like their covered wagon predecessors they fought for success in unknown territories and it looks like they are winning!