How Carnival Changed the Way We Think About Cruises

Former Israeli army colonel with 3 ships created a new industry

In the past few weeks, the travel industry's been buzzing with talk of a new resort destination called the Vista that's so packed with amenities that boredom seems impossible. The place boasts an IMAX theater, a brewery, a water park, a golf course, three pools, 13 clubs and bars, 19 restaurants and 1,967 rooms.

And where might this resort be? Well, that's the thing. It arrived in New York from the Mediterranean last week and will soon head for the Caribbean. The Vista is a passenger ship owned by Carnival Cruise Line. 

AVI Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

If you haven't heard of the vessel, you certainly know its owner. Carnival is the biggest operator by passenger volume in the business. Its 24-ship fleet carries some 4.5 million vacationers each year. Carnival's vessels aren't the fanciest afloat, but they were never meant to be. They are "fun ships" whose blend of high activity, low cost and informal atmosphere revolutionized vacationing.

"Back in the day, cruising was for the wealthy. Ted Arison's vision was that a cruise can be fun," explained Carnival president Christine Duffy. "So we're a brand that makes everyone feel welcome. We're the fun ships—relaxed, accessible, convenient and affordable. I like to say that we're America's cruise line."

Cruise Activities: Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line; Older Vessels: Courtesy Carnival Cruise Line

Such confidence was a shaky bet in 1972, when Arison—a former Israeli Army lieutenant colonel who first wet his feet in the car-ferry business—bought the Empress of Canada, an aging trans-Atlantic liner he converted to a cruise ship called the Mardi Gras. Arison operated on a shoestring. Legend has it he had to empty the slot machines to get the cash to buy fuel oil for the return run. But the company survived because it offered something new. At a time when life at sea was stuffy and dull, Arison's ship (soon to be a small fleet) was a pool-splashing, margarita-tipping party—a Carnival atmosphere. For centuries, boarding a ship was about reaching a destination. Carnival marketed the destination as the ship itself.


And, as the Vista attests, those ships have only gotten bigger. In 1985, Carnival's Holiday was a then-staggering 46,000 tons. Today, Vista weighs in at 133,500 tons. And while ships that size typically boast a mall-like atrium stuffed with retail, food and entertainment features, Vista has actually nixed that design in favor of more open-deck dining and recreation. "There's been a big effort to integrate the outside," Duffy said. "Wherever you're at, you'll be able to appreciate that you're at sea."

That tactic doesn't surprise Daniel Craig, founder of travel marketing firm Reknown. The paradox of today's cruise industry, he said, is ships have gotten so huge that you no longer feel like you're aboard a ship. "So they're doing anything they can do to make people feel that they're at sea," Craig said.

For those who really want that feeling, there's Vista's SkyRide, a recumbent cycle hitched to a track—150 feet over the water.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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