The Rise of the Graceful Giants - Royal Caribbean International - A Brief History

The obvious economic gains from larger ships would serve Royal Caribbean exceptionally well in the decades to come. In particular, the dedication to studying how people experience a cruise, and interact with the ship, would become the foundation on which future classes of ships would be based.

Sovereign of the Seas would enter service in 1988, sent into service by her Godmother, Roslyn Carter. She came in at over 70,000 GRT, with over 2,000 passengers, and introduced features that have become integral to the Royal Caribbean experience. Most notable in her legacy to the entire industry, was the  Centrum. Though named differently on other lines, this six deck atrium has become the essential design feature of nearly every ship built since then. It connects the major public spaces, and creates an lobby able to channel traffic flow through the ship. The Sovereign was a huge hit. Two more ships would be built in the class, and later, the Vision class would evolve from it.

Royal Caribbean would “merge” with Admiral cruises about the time Sovereign was coming online. With the merger, Royal Caribbean gained a converted car ferry which was renamed the Viking Serenade, and a soon to be finished ship later known as the Empress of the Seas. As the merger with Admiral was underway, the original trio of owners were approached by the increasingly profitable Carnival Cruise Lines.

In what became known as “The 40 Days,” the company would eventually fight off Carnival, change two thirds of its ownership, and see the rise of the leadership which remains 20 years later.  Richard Fain would assume the leadership mantle both as a result of the failed Carnival takeover attempt, and from what amounted to a leap of faith. The battle over Royal Caribbean also created a heated rivalry between Fain and Carnivals Mickey Arison. The event is legendary among old salts in the cruise community, and remains a touchy issue even to this day. The two lines have only become larger, more successful, and far more different in their approach to cruise travel.

Throwback Thursday - Getting There is Half the Fun. (1999)

At the time, I had a great aunt living in the Tampa area.  I decided to drive down and visit her, before flying to Miami.  My thinking at the time, was that I didn't want to pay for parking at the port of Miami.  The flight from Tampa didn't actually add much more than what I would have paid for both gas and parking anyway, and I wanted to arrive at Miami early.

I took a shuttle van from my Aunt's to Tampa International Airport.  I was the last of 6 people to be picked up by the taxi/van, which was likely for the best. The driver wasted no time getting us to the airport. I might well have gotten to Miami faster than by plane if he had just kept driving. We might well have broken the land speed record on the way across the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

I requested an early departure to Miami, as to arrive and be able to board the Sovereign as soon as possible. The 9:00 a.m. flight was on a DeHaviland Dash 8, a twin engine turbo-prop aircraft coyly referred to as a Jet-prop by U.S. Air.  People it seems don't like turboprops, and with good reason. Some of these planes sound like giant blenders inside. The trip was not overly taxing, and only lasted an hour.

I flew into Miami at 10 a.m. the day of the cruise.  The arrival at Miami was uneventful. I was actually able to see the Sovereign of the Seas from the plan. We had to have been 10,000 feet up, but the ship was clearly visible at dock. A pair of neatly dressed RCI personnel were waiting at the gate as I walked into the terminal.  I proceeded down to the baggage claim area, and to a non-descript "Cruise Information Desk." There I was able to check in, take care of the preliminary on-board charge and check-in paperwork. I was given a colored ticket for boarding the bus, and had an hour to relax and people watch until we departed.   Here you can see the old Cruise Passenger Information desk at the Miami International Airport.

Now, since the old days back in 1999, the cruise desk is basically obsolete.  Nearly all of your pre-boarding paperwork is done at home, on a computer, before you arrive at the port.  To my knowledge, none is  presently done at the airport itself.

The creation of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Entering the 1960s, the fleets of veteran ocean liners and vessels converted for passenger travel, filled the demands of the early Caribbean cruise industry. Passengers were often the same as those who were raised traveling the Atlantic on ocean liners. The traditions which had carried over from that time and the vessels designed for that era were both familiar and entirely satisfactory. By the mid 1960s a generation of executives and management had come of age in what was no longer an emerging niche industry. These men began to think of the future and one in particular would prove seminal in the creation of the modern cruise industry. He was Edwin Stephan, who conceived of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

Stephan's idea was to establish a line created solely for offering Caribbean cruises on ships designed specifically for the purpose. At the time, no such cruise line existed, and no vessels were in service that were designed from the keel to funnel as pure Caribbean cruise ships. To financially back his project, Stephan was able to secure funding from Anders Wilhelmsen, I.M. Skaugen, and eventually the Gotass ­Larsen company. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines was officially founded on January 31, 1969, though the process of creating the company's initial partnership had been underway for several years prior.  RCCL (which would later become RCI) began with an order for the Song of Norway, a roughly 17,000 GRT vessel with a passenger capacity of 700. It was quickly followed by exercising an option for a second ship the Nordic Prince. Curiously, both ships were placed on order before the actual founding date of the company that would operate them. The cost to RCCL 13.5 million dollars. At the time, RCCL was a partnership between the companies of the Wilhelmsen and Skaugen's. The Gotass ­Larsen company came on board shortly afterwards when the desire for a third ship was realized. The ships were built by what is now known as STX in Finland. A third ship, the Sun Viking was ordered as Nordic Prince was being completed.  The original three RCI ships featured what would become a signature feature on all future vessels in the fleet. The Viking Crown Lounge (VCL) was a disk­like structure incorporated into the funnel of the ship. It afforded an unprecedented view from well above all other public areas of the ship. All subsequent ships would feature a VCL. So distinctive was the concept that legal protection for the idea was obtained. To present day, rival cruise lines have yet to duplicate the view and function the VCL, and the design makes RCI vessels instantly distinct from other ships.

RCI was well received running seven and fourteen day itineraries in the Caribbean. Their creation spurred the start of a building boom that arguably has yet to end nearly forty years later.  Norwegian Cruise Lines introduced a massively renovated France under the new title Norway.  

Carnival Cruise Lines was begun by the father of current CEO Mickey Arison. Bookings were strong enough that consideration was given to building more ships. Economics and creative thinking lead RCI's leadership to an innovative solution. The Song of Norway, and later Nordic Prince were returned to their builders to be cut in half and a new section of cabins added in the middle. The result were ships with an added 350 passengers, enhanced public spaces, and the same qualities which had made RCI's ships so well received. Still, demand called for yet more capacity.

The fourth ship in the RCI fleet began a new trend which has continued almost unabated for the line and industry at large. Song of America was more than 31,000 GRT, with a passenger capacity of over 1,500.  She was at the time of her completion, the largest Caribbean cruise ship designed and built for the purpose. She started her career with RCI in late 1982.  Even as Song of America entered service, the need for even more aggressive new building became clear. RCI's response to the growing and increasingly competitive marketplace would revolutionize the entire industry. Rather than build a slightly larger version of its previous ships, RCI choose to build a ship more than twice the size of Song of America, which would carry nearly twice as many passengers.

There were several reason why such a leap was logical. The first ties to a basic fact of the cruise industry related to economics. Bigger ships have marketing value, but they create an economy of scale which makes their operation cheaper than smaller vessels. Secondly, the trend was already clear which told RCI's leadership that larger ships were the wave of the future. Though aside from the converted ocean liner Norway, there had not been anything approaching this new concept, new built ships were increasingly large. The Norway had demonstrated that a ship with a passenger capacity of over 2,000 was able to draw well in the Caribbean. RCI's newest vessel would be named Sovereign of the Seas, and was less an answer to the developing industry as it was a statement and challenge.

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