Back At Sea

After a much debated deal with FEMA, Carnival’s ships set sail with new perks onboard

By: Marcia Levin

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” area.

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 Ecstasy.

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 of call.