Local Obituaries

He made Miami ‘the cruise capital of the world.’ Royal Caribbean’s Ed Stephan dies at 87

Edwin Stephan had lofty goals when he envisioned Miami as a cruise capital.

It was 1969, man had landed and walked on the moon that summer, and Stephan, seven years into the cruise industry by that point, figured man would want to take advantage of South Florida’s waterways, too, and sail upon them for great terrestrial adventures.

“We believe Miami has a destiny as the cruise capital of the world,” Stephan said at the time, the Miami Herald reported. Stephan helped found Royal Caribbean Lines in 1968. (The name is now Royal Caribbean Cruises after the 1997 purchase of Celebrity Cruises.)

We had the weather. We had the proximity to the Caribbean. We had willing customers.

Stephan, who died Friday at the age of 87 in Miami — the city he loved — knew how to put it all together.

In their obituary notice, Stephan’s family called him “the founding father of the modern-day cruise industry.”

Royal Caribbean founder Edwin Stephan, featured in the book, “Miami in Our Own Words,” in 2003. C.W. Griffin Miami Herald File

‘Icon of the cruise industry’

By the fall of 1970, Royal Caribbean’s The Song of Norway was cruising up Government Cut, delighting locals and tourists alike who marveled at its grandeur from aboard or simply from watching it go by from a perch on the jetty rocks on the southernmost end of South Beach.

The Norway was then “the biggest ship built for warm-weather cruising and a testament to Stephan’s conviction,” the Herald wrote in 2003 when the founder, then 71, announced his plan to retire from the board of Royal Caribbean Cruises.

“The icon of the cruise industry,” Peter Whelpton, one of Royal Caribbean’s former executive vice presidents, told the Herald at the time. “He figured out how to fill cruise ships and make money.”

Added his family: “An outstanding philanthropist, humanitarian, war hero and industry pioneer, Stephan was a man with incredible vision whose forward thinking changed the cruise industry forever.”

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A post-war Miami vacation

Stephan was born on Dec. 15, 1931, in Madison, Wisconsin.

He attended the University of Wisconsin but left to serve in the Army during the Korean War as a lieutenant in radar and guided missiles and field artillery. He was awarded two Bronze Stars and, after his stint, decided on vacationing in Miami in 1954.

While on vacation, Stephan ran out of money, the Herald reported. He figured on studying hotel training so he opted to enroll at the Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center on the GI bill.

To make money, he worked as a bell captain at the Casablanca Hotel at 63rd Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Then he managed the Biscayne Terrace Hotel in downtown Miami and joined two early cruise companies by the close of 1962: the Yarmouth Steamship Co. and Commodore Cruise Line, where he’d become president by 1967.

But a decade after Frank Sinatra helped romanticize air travel with “Come Fly With Me,” jet travel had supplanted cruising the Atlantic.

Stephan was undaunted. “We could see all the lines were going out of business. But nobody really had new ships,” Stephan told the Herald in 2003.

Cruise industry pioneer

Like other cruise industry pioneers such as Carnival’s Ted Arison and Micky Arison, who would later call his competitor “a true pioneer in the cruise business who was instrumental in creating year-round Caribbean cruising,” in a 1995 Miami Herald story, Stephan was sure that Miami had great potential.

So he went about securing his fleet, even journeying to Oslo, Norway to find investors to help build them in 1967.

He wanted them safe. He wanted them grand and modern for the space age and staffed by nautical experts.

Stephan convinced three shipping companies to help him form a fleet and what would become Royal Caribbean by 1968: Anders Wilhelmsen & Co., Gotaas-Larsen Shipping Corp. and I.M. Skaugen A/S.

The $14.3 million, 724-passenger Song of Norway, was the first of the fleet. The fare in 1969: $48 a day, a bit cheaper off-season.

Stephan had his legacy. He built Royal Caribbean, hired its staff and designed the signature Viking Crown cocktail lounge that sits atop every Royal Caribbean vessel.

“At the time smokestacks were a sore point. We wanted to hide them,” Stephan told the Herald in 1995.

Sovereign of the Seas

Still innovating, in 1988, he led Royal Caribbean to debut the Sovereign of the Seas, the first ship with a five-deck atrium — a feature integral to the line’s subsequent ships, the South Florida Business Journal reported in 2003.

Stephan’s family called their patriarch a humble man and quoted him saying, “Although I am not much for legacy, I still find it rewarding that this line will be around for a long time.”

Stephan, a philanthropist who also enjoyed poetry, astronomy and nature, served Royal Caribbean for more than 35 years in various capacities and was honored with the 2009 Hall of Fame Award by the Cruise Lines International Association.

Survivors, services

His survivors include his wife Helen; his children Samantha, Michael, Gary and Kristina; and grandchildren Olivia, William and Devin.

Services will be private. His family requests donations in memory of Edwin Stephan to be made to Mount Sinai Miami Medical Center Foundation in honor of his physician, Dr. Eugene J. Sayfie. Donations can be mailed to 4300 Alton Rd., Ascher Building #100, Miami Beach, Florida, 33140.

Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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