Major makeovers for older cruise ships

What does a cruise ship get for $155 million and 10 weeks in drydock?

In the case of the Carnival Destiny, a new identity. Carnival Cruise Lines took the 17-year old vessel and essentially recreated it. The ship got a three-deck adults-only area; 182 new staterooms; completely redone spa; eight new dining spots; a variety of new outdoor places for fun, exercise and recreation; seven new bars; and décor and design changes throughout the ship.

And a new name. The makeover was so far-reaching that the ship was renamed the Carnival Sunshine.

It was the most extensive refurbishment in modern cruising. But it was hardly the only one. This year, at least 17 ocean-going ships from U.S. lines will spend time in drydock, getting everything from new paint and bed linens to new decks and water parks. As with Carnival Destiny, makeovers are becoming more extensive as technological advances make it possible.

On Carnival Sunshine, some of the additions were Fun Ship 2.0 changes that are already in place on five other Carnival ships — new bars, eateries, interactive games and entertainment. But the makeover also cut into the structure of the ship, increasing its guest capacity from 2,642 to 3,006.

“Two factors came into play,” said Gerry Cahill, Carnival’s president and CEO. “The Fun Ship 2.0 enhancements we had been introducing across various ships were proving hugely popular with our guests. At the same time, Carnival Destiny, which was built in 1996, was due for a major renovation. So we decided to embark upon a complete makeover of the ship that would enable us to implement all of our Fun Ship 2.0 innovations and essentially create a new vessel at the same time.”

An example of the extent of this refurbishment is the main show lounge. Based on a study of guests and how they move in and around the ship, Carnival recognized the vessel did not need a huge show room. So the designers creatively redesigned the space, a three-deck room that seated about 1,200. They eliminated the lower level by adding a new floor/ceiling — not an easy thing to do — reducing the seating to about 800. They also made it a multi-purpose room: After the last evening show, the crew takes away the chairs on the new lower level and turns it into the Liquid Lounge disco, curtaining off the dance floor, making it seem like a private club. It was very impressively done, and on a recent cruise, the floor was packed with dancing guests.

The space occupied by the original lower level now houses 40-plus staterooms, which mostly match the décor and content of older but refurbished rooms in the same categories, although some of the new rooms have mini-bars that the older rooms do not. Thus the rehab made the show lounge more effective and increased revenue opportunities at the same time.

In most cases, cruise ship refurbishment takes the form of new carpets, upholstery, new furniture, maybe wall-covering or new linens. This kind of work has to be done regularly in order to keep ships looking fresh.

In the past, some lines literally cut their ships in half and added cross-sections of staterooms and other facilities, primarily to give the ship more accommodations to sell.

But now, advances in ship-building technology have made it easier to make extensive changes, often while the ship is in its regular drydock rotation. And given the high cost of building a ship from scratch even a pricey makeover of a ship that’s five to 20 years old can be more economical.

The work on the Carnival Destiny/Sunshine “was the most significant and complicated re-construction undertaking we have ever attempted,” Cahill said. “A new ship, which requires construction of the hull and all the needed machinery and equipment, is substantially more expensive. For example, Carnival Breeze, which entered service last year, had a final all-in cost $740 million.”

Other lines are making big changes as well.

Royal Caribbean International will revamp five Voyager-class ships, adding up to 80 new staterooms per ship, starting with Navigator of the Seas in January. “We’re able to do a lot more work in a shorter period of time,” said Lisa Lutoff Perlo, executive vice president of Operations. “We need to go back and modernize and update the older ships to keep them relevant.”

Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice-class ships were so well-received that since 2010, the company has spent more than $100 million adding some of their most popular features to four older ships. The Millenium-class ships got spa-inspired AquaClass staterooms, several new restaurants and bars, a new iLounge, with Mac iBooks, and other upgrades.

Before it moves to Miami in October, Disney Magic will get a new thrill ride, adult entertainment area, and for its guests ages 3 to 12, a completely redone Oceaneer Club. Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America is getting 24 new suites, four studio staterooms and four more inside staterooms; Brazilian-style steakhouse; flat screens in all rooms and more as part of a $30 million upgrade.

“Our industry has grown in leaps over the past decade. The advancements in design and catering to our guests’ expanding desires has challenged us to always do more and go further,” said Rick Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises in the United States, which will begin homeporting a ship year-round in Miami for the first time later this year.

Cruise lines must keep their ships up to date in order to stay competitive, Sasso said. “The variety of on-board amenities and the quality of the software must be as fresh as the new generation. These vessels need to offer the experience that has become the norm and do so well into the next decade and beyond. Refitting and refurbishing is the key to the long and successful life of today’s cruise vessels.”

When Carnival Destiny was transformed into Carnival Sunshine, many of its additions were Fun Ship 2.0 changes, three of which brought land-based brands aboard: the always-busy Guy’s Burger Joint (Guy Fieri); Punchliner Comedy Club presented by George Lopez; and the EA SPORTS Bar, which is tied in with the popular video game company. Carnival has also tied in with toy company Hasbro for special at-sea versions of its popular board family games..

In addition to the other Fun Ship 2.0 standards —BlueIguana Cantina, BlueIguana Tequila Bar, RedFrog Rum Bar, Library Bar and Alchemy Bar — a new spot is the Havana Bar. The bar, already one of this traveler’s favorite bars at sea, serves Cuban coffee, pastelitos and complimentary snacks during the day but the best part is at night with several hours of Cuban music by a great live band alternating with recorded music. The nattily attired wait-staff adds to the fun.

A new addition to the fleet, not just this ship, is Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, which offers dishes from nine different Asian regions and drew unanimous raves. The food is deliciously cooked, beautifully presented and expertly served by a specially trained staff. Much of it is spicy but it can be toned down upon request. It’s not only one of the best alternative restaurants at sea but, at a surcharge of $12 per adult, it’s the best $12 meal at sea. And, for kids, it’s only $5.

The totally new “Cloud 9 Spa” has the normal range of spa and salon services but also has a thermal suite with thalassotherapy pool, a slightly-funky DIY Scrub Experience, medi-spa services (non-surgical) and a special teen program. The gym has more than 25 treadmills and dozens of other pieces of equipment. And located near the spa are 95 new spa staterooms and suites with special amenities and privileges.

For adults, the three-deck Serenity area (Decks 11, 12 and 13) has a pool/waterfall area and whirlpools. This is an exceptionally popular spot on sea days. But it picks up the loud music from the adjacent pool area so it’s not quite as serene as might be preferred.

Atop the ship, the new racing-themed WaterWorks play area includes three awesome looking slides. I didn’t indulge but a friend from the UK told me, “Climbing up to the top of the slides was scary enough but coming down, wow! Seriously fast. So much so I’m not sure why Carnival bothered to put a transparent section where the Twister extends over the side of the ship. I wasn’t stopping to admire the view!”

The ropes course, with all users securely harnessed in, drew mostly the younger set but the occasional adult ventured forth. Also new is the SplashZone kids’ water play area, featuring a 300-gallon drenching bucket.

The ship will reposition from Europe to New Orleans in November, then move to Port Canaveral in April for a variety of two- to seven- night Eastern and Western Caribbean sailings.

For fans of the old Carnival Destiny, there may not be that much left of the original ship, but they are sure to love the new facilities. There are no dotted lines to help them distinguish the old from the terrific new.