How the Cruise Industry Has Evolved in 50 Years

Delving into five decades of cruising, from traditional ocean liners to the next megaship

Los Angeles-based travel agents on a cruise ship in 1971 © 2019 TravelAge West

Los Angeles-based travel agents on a cruise ship in 1971 © 2019 TravelAge West

Over the last 50 years, the cruise industry has evolved to an incredible extent. (See “The Golden Age,” page 14, for just a few of cruising’s most impressive milestones in context of the industry at large.)

As a 35-year-old who has been cruising since toddlerhood, I’ve been privileged to witness firsthand many of cruising’s defining moments. Still, to learn more about and truly grasp the magnitude of the industry’s history, I went to an expert: Michelle Fee, a 38-year industry veteran and the CEO and founder of Cruise Planners.

“The ships I sailed on years ago were more like tugboats when compared to the massive ships with the bells and whistles of today,” Fee said. “I remember when ships had two dining times — early and late seating — cabins with beds that were bolted down; rooms with portholes instead of balconies; and shows that were mostly Las Vegas-style revues rather than the incredible Broadway shows you see today.”

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From Then ...

Princess Cruises' Princess Italia (left) and Princess Carla dock in their home port of Los Angeles in 1969. © 2019 Carnival Cruise Line

Princess Cruises' Princess Italia (left) and Princess Carla dock in their home port of Los Angeles in 1969. © 2019 Carnival Cruise Line

The initial concept of cruising for pleasure goes back long before both Fee’s and my time. But hints of modern cruising began to emerge as early as the 1960s, when new passenger jets dramatically reduced transoceanic travel times, changing what took days of sailing to just hours of flying.

With that reality, booking transport ocean liners as a means to get from point A to point B swiftly grew out of favor, while itineraries boasting several ports of call within a single sailing gained momentum. Not all ocean liners were up to the task of transforming their offerings to accommodate client demand, but some were.

Take Carnival Cruise Line, for example. It started operations in 1972 with the Mardi Gras vessel, which was originally built in 1961 as Empress of Canada. Fast-forward to today, and Carnival Corporation & Plc comprises nine brands and has the most ships of any one company. (Fun fact: the Mardi Gras name is set to be reinstated for Carnival’s upcoming 2020 flagship.)

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Carnival Cruise Line introduced Mardi Gras in 1972. © 2019 Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line introduced Mardi Gras in 1972. © 2019 Carnival Cruise Line

But perhaps the industry owes its biggest debt of gratitude not to the aviation industry, but rather to entertainment. “The Love Boat” television series, which ran from 1977 to 1986, made Princess Cruises and its Pacific Princess ship household names. It even spawned “Love Boat: The Next Wave,” a spinoff that ran for two seasons and featured Sun Princess.

I should note that during the time the original “Love Boat” was still on the air, I sailed onboard my first cruise — Princess’ 1984-christened Royal Princess — which was considered cutting-edge at the time for its exclusive use of exterior cabins. The 1980s also saw many newbuild vessels that were constructed specifically for cruising.

The sheer size of these ships changed, as well. For years, ocean liner SS France (which later became cruise ship SS Norway, sailing for Norwegian Cruise Line from 1979 to 2003) held the title of the largest passenger vessel. But in 1988, Royal Caribbean International launched the first so-called “megaship”: Sovereign of the Seas, which held 2,850 guests (a comparatively small measurement by today’s standards).

The next year saw the inauguration of high-end brand Crystal Cruises and its first vessel, Crystal Harmony, on which I was lucky enough to embark during its maiden voyage in 1989.

Before Crystal’s launch, the legacy of luxury cruising could arguably be credited to Royal Viking Line, which operated from 1972 to 1998.

Now, along with Crystal, several more companies have stepped up to carry the torch, including Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises.

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... To Now

Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas is the world's largest cruise ship. © 2019 Royal Caribbean International

Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas is the world's largest cruise ship. © 2019 Royal Caribbean International

Another segment of the industry — river cruising — took off relatively recently and has grown to be one of the largest markets in cruise travel. The 1992 opening of the Rhine-Main-Danube canal was undeniably a catalyst for this, facilitating many of today’s favorite inland itineraries.

Viking River Cruises entered the scene in 1997 and has since grown to have the largest fleet on the rivers. In terms of vessel size, AmaWaterways’ spacious double-wide AmaMagna, which will be christened next month, takes the cake as one of the largest.

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Viking debuted in 1997. © 2019 Viking

Viking debuted in 1997. © 2019 Viking

Companies cater better to kiddie cruisers, too. Back when I was a child, kids’ programs were nothing like they are today. But Disney Cruise Line changed that when it launched Disney Magic in 1998. Forgoing a casino onboard, Disney instead offered more room dedicated to children, tweens and teens, including larger staterooms and split bathrooms.

Disney’s ships are modeled after the exterior aesthetic of vintage ocean liners — similar to Cunard Line, which is one company that has survived the test of time. When other liners were struggling, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2 — which entered service in 1969 — persevered as a transatlantic mainstay before Queen Mary 2 came online in 2004. Now, the modern vessel serves as a perfect ocean liner/cruise ship hybrid, crossing seas and calling on many ports worldwide.

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 resembles a traditional ocean liner. © 2019 Getty Images

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 resembles a traditional ocean liner. © 2019 Getty Images

Cruising’s traditional class system has also disappeared, but exclusive spaces available only for passengers in certain accommodations are making a comeback. The ship-within-a-ship format can now be found onboard vessels from MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and a growing list of other lines.

And ships only continue to get bigger. In 2018, Royal Caribbean once again built the largest cruise vessel in the world when it launched the 5,518-guest Symphony of the Seas. It’s expected that the line’s fifth Oasis-class ship will take the title when it debuts in 2021.

However, travel advisors shouldn’t rule out the little guys. Smaller expedition ships are the next generation of vessels to make a splash.

Indeed, the cruise industry has been through a lot over the past 50 years. But whatever the next 50 brings, you can bet that TravelAge West will be covering it.

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