Vacations at sea began with ‘The Love Boat’

10/19/2013 12:00 AM

10/20/2013 8:18 AM

The original Pacific Princess, a cruise ship that was towed this summer to Turkey to be dismantled for scrap, once was a sparkling television star. Though the show was a somewhat soppy sitcom called The Love Boat, it was so popular that it added the word “cruise” to the vacation dreams of millions of Americans.

The Love Boat was the tipping point, the fulcrum that transformed the entire cruise industry, Bob Dickinson, longtime Carnival Cruise Lines executive, said during a recent interview.

“That show put cruising on the map,” said Dickinson. “It moved cruising into the national psyche.”

The Love Boat, which ran each week on ABC from 1977 to 1986 and in reruns for a long time after, showed off the joys of cruising to a huge American audience, most of whom never had been to sea. Fewer still had associated a ship with the image of a glamorous vacation.

The big “aha moment” was yet to come — that travelers on a moderate vacation budget could cruise in luxury like the folks on The Love Boat television show.

But of course, they couldn’t. Not yet anyway, because folks on a moderate vacation budget could not afford to go cruising down to Mexico or around the Caribbean. The cost would have to come down, substantially.

Those days were fast approaching.

I first sailed on Pacific Princess in February 1983, between Acapulco and Los Angeles during the filming of portions of The Love Boat. I was working for a newspaper, interviewing the actors — Gavin MacLeod as Captain Stubing, Bernie Kopell as the doctor, Ted Lange as bartender Isaac, Fred Grandy as Gopher the purser, and Lauren Tewes as cruise director Julie, as well as guest stars, Tom Bosley, Bradford Dillman, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Mark Harman. ABC’s Good Morning America was broadcasting during my cruise, with a temporary host, a young Kathie Lee Johnson, who later would sing the famed Carnival jingle, “If my friends could see me now” (and still later marry Frank Gifford and co-host Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee).

Passengers aboard Pacific Princess, a ship of about 20,000 tons (compare that to the new Royal Princess at 141,000 tons), numbered about 650 (Royal Princess carries at least 3,560).

In 1983, those passengers hardly were representative of vacationers on a moderate budget. Most cruisers in those days were pretty well off.

The cost of a seven-day holiday on Princess ranged from about $1,400 to $2,000 per person. That was in 1983 dollars. With inflation, in today’s dollars, that one-week cruise cost $3,200 to $4,600 per person, far beyond the budget of most middle-income Americans.

Soon, however, into that breach of potential demand sailed such cruise lines as Carnival, Norwegian, and Royal Caribbean. They began expanding to meet the new demand, building ships that were designed for cruising, eventually discarding their old ocean liners that had been converted from transportation vessels to vacation ships.

Carnival, for instance, built three new ships, and from 1985 to 1987 doubled its capacity. With newer ships, the product was getting better, and with more cabins for sale, the rates were getting lower.

“We still had a negative halo,” said Dickinson, “as cruising had the image of an elitist vacation. In our advertising campaign with Kathie Lee, we moved it toward the common man.” That campaign, starting in 1984, cost Carnival millions, but the company soon was on its way to becoming the biggest cruise line in the world, largely as a result of the public’s change in attitude about choosing a vacation at sea.

The cruise industry was on its way, getting another significant boost with the movie, Titanic, in 1997, as the film’s romance of the sea helped new vacationers find reasons to aspire to taking a cruise.

Today, most cruises are aimed at people of moderate income, and most passengers would agree that a cruise vacation provides a better value than a similarly priced vacation on land.

My 1983 Princess cruise cost the equivalent (in current dollars) of about $500 a day per person. Now, you can book a Princess cruise for as little as $100 a day; for $200 a day, sometimes less, you can have your own private balcony.

On that voyage between Acapulco and Los Angeles, which was my first time aboard a real cruise ship, I was hooked by the romance of it all, floating along the Pacific Coast in a world of excited vacationers at a party that would last the week, enjoying special food, polished service, entertainment, and the thrill of being at sea.

From that first fancy cruise, an image still hangs with me

I am standing at a railing, looking out to sea with nothing but water and froth from me to the horizon. The wind blows through my long hair and sends a chill through the neck of my jacket and down between my shoulders. I feel as if I am on the very edge of the dangers of nature’s wrath, should I be foolish enough to test them.

Yet here, behind a simple railing, I am safe, close to a fine meal, a bottle of Bordeaux, a warm bed, and a new port to explore the next morning.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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