When a cruise ship begins to show its age, how long can a cruise line refurbish, renovate, and update the vessel before it is no longer cost effective to maintain the ship?
This is a question facing Carnival Cruise Line, as many of its older ships are showing wear and could have only a few years of operational service left.
The Age of the Carnival Fleet
While Carnival Cruise Line has one of the largest cruise ship fleets in the world, many of its ships are also among the oldest still to be sailing.
The line’s oldest ship, the Fantasy-class Carnival Ecstasy, debuted in 1991 – making her the oldest of any passenger vessel not only in Carnival’s fleet, but also older than similarly competitive cruise lines.
On similar lines, the oldest ships were built in these respective years: Royal Caribbean International (1996), Princess Cruises (1998), Disney Cruise Line (1998), Celebrity Cruises (2000), Holland America Line (1999), and Norwegian Cruise Line (1998).
In fact, five of Carnival’s current ships were built in the 1990s, and only five of the 23 ships (22%) in the active Carnival Cruise Line fleet are less than 10 years old.
Other cruise ship fleets are much younger. Royal Caribbean International, for example, has eight of 26 ships (31%) younger than 10 years, and Norwegian Cruise Line has six of 17 vessels (35%) less than 10 years old.
Updating Older Carnival Cruise Ships
A cruise ship, even an older ship like Carnival’s Fantasy-class vessels, can effectively serve passengers with safe, enjoyable sailings for decades with proper maintenance, upgrades, and renovations.
Carnival’s latest round of fleet-wide upgrades, for example, was the highly publicized $500 million “Funship 2.0” renovations that began with Carnival Liberty in 2011 and was gradually rolled out to the rest of the fleet though 2015 for most vessels, with continuing 2.0 upgrades on other vessels into 2020.
At that time, older vessels were upgraded with new amenities and venues, including the wildly popular Guy’s Burger Joint, Punchliner Comedy Club, BlueIguana Cantina, RedFrog Rum Bar, and more. Simultaneously, these same features were introduced on vessels being built.
Adding new features entices cruisers to revisit the older Carnival vessels, and permits new advertising and promotions to highlight updated ships. This can be great for promoting sales and ensuring ships sail at full capacity, but there are still limitations to these upgrades.
Modern Update Requirements
While updating guest-facing amenities can be effective for promotions, older ships need more extensive updates to stay competitive as newer, more modernized vessels set sail.
Older Carnival cruise ships do not have the same engine efficiency to power high-tech venues for modern show productions and LED screens, for example, and may be smaller, with less deck space for new outdoor features like go-kart tracks, zip lines, roller coasters, ropes courses, and other adventurous options that may not have been possible when older ships were first built.
Similarly, guest expectations change over the years. Today’s cruise travelers prefer the quiet, exclusive space of their own balcony to enjoy a morning cup of coffee or an evening sunset, but older Fantasy-class vessels do not have as many balcony cabins available.
In contrast, newer ships are often built with far more balcony cabins, as well as larger and more exclusive spaces for family or even multi-generational travel.
Carnival’s newest ships, including Mardi Gras, feature Havana staterooms and suites, Cloud 9 Spa staterooms and suites, and Family Harbor options – all with exclusive amenities and spaces to enjoy.
Even small details on newer Carnival ships are more appealing to today’s cruisers. Having USB ports to conveniently charge cell phones, tablets, and other devices is essential, but older ships do not have them available. Modern vessels, however, have these details easily built in.
Other simple details on older ships can quickly make them seem dated as well. Older vessels, particularly Carnival Cruise Line’s ’90s-era Fantasy class vessels, were often designed with bright, bold colors and stark patterns, creating an exciting and energetic vibe on the vessel.
While bold décor is certainly appropriate in youth spaces, clubs, or discos, today’s travelers prefer a more restful, relaxing ambiance, often with peaceful hues and nautical tones. This makes older ships seem immediately dated, particularly when cruisers might find their senses assaulted with overwhelming neon, zebra print, fiber optics, or other once-innovative-but-now-overused decorations.
It may seem superficial to judge a cruise ship based on décor or features, but those elements are what passengers first notice and what they remember most about their cruise vacation. If the ship appears unattractive or outdated, guests will not have a favorable impression of the ship or the cruise line.
Behind the scenes updates and innovations, however, are often a better predictor of how long a cruise ship can hold on as an efficient vessel to serve guests adequately.
Technical upgrades to a ship’s operational systems such as computers and other electronics allow the vessel to take advantage of the latest software, satellite connections, and data for efficient and safer operation.
Carnival Cruise Line has done well to keep its entire fleet updated with the most recent innovations, but just as upgrading a personal cell phone or computer eventually comes with limitations, cruise ships cannot be upgraded indefinitely. At some point, the ship’s hardware – wiring, consoles, data ports, etc. – will be inadequate for future updates.
At that point, the cruise line may completely replace the hardware, or choose to sell or scrap the vessel instead. Depending on the scope of the hardware update, it may be more cost effective to simply release the vessel rather than continue with limited updates.
Laws Change and Ships Must Change
External influences can also determine how long an older cruise ship may operate, and this is an ongoing concern for Carnival Cruise Line’s older vessels. As different countries update laws for vessels in their waters or visiting their ports, older ships may no longer be able to comply with new regulations.
This could be a factor of the types of engines, power sources, exhaust systems, wastewater treatment, recycling options, and other environmental issues aboard different ships, or may be related to overall fuel efficiency and emissions outputs.
Similarly, different maritime laws may require new firefighting equipment or electrical compliance aboard cruise ships depending on their capacity, and lifeboat regulations can also change. Any of these changes can make a cruise ship instantly outdated and may require major renovations to be brought back into operational compliance.
Future considerations for environmental concerns may include noise suppression technologies on ships’ engines to protect marine wildlife, as well as further advancements to minimize emissions and discharges at sea.
As laws change, older Fantasy-class ships will need increasingly expensive updates. Just as onboard hardware updates may one day become impossible, additional changes for future compliance may also cause older ships to be sold or scrapped, ending their passenger-sailing lifespans.
Next Carnival Ships to Retire
Carnival Cruise Line has already announced the retirement of Carnival Ecstasy, which will end her days with the cruise line in October 2022. After that, only the youngest two Fantasy class vessels – Carnival Elation and Carnival Paradise – will remain with the line. Both of those ships debuted in 1998.
The rest of the Fantasy class ships were retired during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Carnival Cruise Line accelerated plans to modernize the fleet.
Other older Carnival ships may also be considered for retirement in the coming years, continuing the modernization and bringing the fleet further into the twenty-first century.