Last year, when Carnival Cruise Lines chartered three ships to FEMA
after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf
Coast along Alabama, Mississippi and elsewhere in Louisiana, it
caused a lot of commotion.
Mainstream media scrutinized the details of the Carnival-FEMA
deal, but the cruise industry in general was supportive of
Carnival’s decision. The ships did, after all, house crucial
first-responders, such as police and firefighters. When asked at
the recent Cruise3Sixty conference if Carnival would charter ships
to FEMA if another catastrophe occurs, Carnival’s president and CEO
Micky Arison responded, “absolutely,” and was met with thunderous
applause. Unless and until the need ever arises again, the Ecstasy,
Holiday and Sensation are back to doing what they do best: setting
the pace in the short-cruise category.
Sensation and Ecstasy are Fantasy-class ships, while Holiday is
an earlier vessel, the oldest in the Carnival fleet. The Sensation
came on line in 1993, Ecstasy debuted two years earlier and Holiday
in 1985. After an extensive dry dock for the trio in February and
March, the ships are up and running and looking good.
On my recent sailings, I was impressed by a number of new
features, such as new soft goods (items such as draperies, carpets
and bath towels). The ships have all been spruced up and painted.
Salon, fitness and spa areas have been attractively redone, and sun
decks feature a new nine-hole miniature golf course and “City Park”
A new and huge Camp Carnival, with state-of-the-art audio/visual
equipment, has been created on Sensation and Ecstasy. The
well-received children’s program separates kids by four different
age groups. Carnival expects to carry a record 525,000 children
this year, the most in cruising. During a spring break cruise on
Ecstasy, for example, 20 counselors were onboard and a record
number of 650 kids sailed the five-day itinerary.
Cabins on all three ships feature new beds, duvets and pillows.
New in-room safes and flat-screen TVs have been installed on
Food, not traditionally a major draw for the Fun Ships, has
become superb across the fleet. An alliance with famed French
master chef and restaurateur Georges Blanc has enhanced the
quality, presentation and taste of many menu items. Blanc’s
“Signature Selections” are part of Carnival’s Total Choice Dining.
His duck breast, free-range chicken and grouper entrees are the
most popular choices when offered.
One thing that did occur to me on each of the ships was that the
neon and glitz of a generation ago appeared a bit dated. But since
the ships have been brought into the 21st century in so many other
ways (Internet centers, satellite television and more), the mix of
yesterday and today and value pricing still resonates with a large
segment of the cruise market, namely those interested in shorter
cruises from “drive-to” ports. These are ideal cruises for families
and multigenerational travelers who return well fed and well
entertained. Approval ratings are quite high.
Carnival has made some changes in the ships’ itineraries, as
well. The Sensation is currently offering three- and four-day
cruises from Port Canaveral to Nassau and Grand Bahama Island;
Ecstasy is sailing from Galveston on four- and five-day cruises to
Cozumel and Progresso, and Holiday is sailing four- and five-day
cruises to Mexico from Mobile, Ala.
As another selling point, the line has extended its “vacation
guarantee” through December 2007. The guarantee allows guests to
disembark in the first non-U.S. port of call for any reason and
receive a pro-rated refund for the unused portion of their cruise
fare and reimbursement for coach air back to the ship’s home port
by notifying the purser’s office prior to arrival at the first port