By Paul Motter, and CruiseMates' Staff Aug 14, 2006
August 25 will mark CruiseMates' seventh birthday.
We came online in 1999 as the Internet's first magazine-style, free online cruise guide.* We didn't realize it at the time, but when we started in 1999, the cruise world was still in an "age of innocence." The mega-ships then sailing were just over 100,000 tons, and there were only a handful. The vast majority of cruise ships were still around 80,000 tons or less.
Homeland cruising - the deployment of ships to home ports circling the United States - was a term we had not yet heard. Most ships left from Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Vancouver or Los Angeles, with a few from New York City for brief summer season. Today, just a few years later, there are terminals on Manhattan, New Jersey and Brooklyn working year-round.
Many security precautions we now deal with routinely had not been conceived -- mandatory passports, long lines at airports. Back then, most ships didn't even have x-ray machines and you could board a ship with nothing but your birth certificate.
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To celebrate our birthday, we asked our staff, and invite you, to share your memories and impressions of the more significant changes in cruising for you since the advent of the 21st Century. To share your own thoughts, please visit this message board: Cruising; 21st Century!
"Mega-ships" are now everywhere; the concept of the ship as destination is more true now than ever. One must credit Royal Caribbean as the leader of the pack - the sheer size and abundance of activities on its largest vessels means you can spend an entire week exploring the ship and find something new every day, and it hardly matters what ports you visit.
Homeland cruising, brought about by the post 9-11 fear of flying, proved to be a greater success and boost to cruising than anyone imagined. It was a "why didn't we think of that" moment for all the cruise lines when ships from ports like Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Houston, New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston began sailing full, mostly with passengers from the local region who drove to the ship.
We witnessed the advent of the first mainstream U.S. cruise line. In the 20th Century, American Classic Voyages -- an umbrella company managing a host of smaller, U.S.-based cruise lines including American Hawaii Lines and Delta Queen Coastal Voyages -- brought out the MS Patriot (formerly Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam) and announced "Project America," which would include the first new ships to be built, crewed and flagged in the U.S. in 50 years. Just as they were about to turn the corner to success, 9/11 happened. Luckily, in 2003 NCL picked up the pieces, taking over and expanding Project America to create the first mainstream cruise line operating brand new cruise ships solely in U.S. waters and crewed by U.S. citizens.
Perhaps the most significant thing about cruising in the 21st Century is the opposite of a change: It is the continuation of cruising as a bigger and "better than ever" vacation choice for millions of people, despite the worst efforts of envious malcontents who tried and failed to ruin our American way of life.
On that note, we asked the CruiseMates staff to relate in their own words how they have seen cruising change since 1999, and once again, we invite your comments on the topic here: Cruising; 21st Century!
Mary Lou Scanlon
The cruising industry has grown steadily since 1999. In 1999, there were 149 vessels generating $11 billion in gross revenues for the cruise industry. By 2004 there were 192 vessels generating $16.8 billion. The Caribbean (including the Bahamas) is the most popular destination, with 43% of all cruises in 1999 and slightly increasing to 45.1% of all cruises by 2004.
I discovered cruising in 1997 and have been fortunate enough to sail at least once a year since then. I fit right into this pattern by cruising to the Caribbean on all but one of my cruises.
The cruise lines' answer to the continued market growth is to build larger and larger ships. A lot of folks feel the cruise experience will suffer with these larger ships. The largest I've sailed on is Royal Caribbean's Voyager class. I did not see a noticeable decline in customer service on this size of ship compared with some of the smaller ones I've tried. I personally prefer the Radiance Class ships -- not because of the number of passengers, but because of the decor.
I welcome the larger ships and cannot wait to experience them. We are booked on Freedom of the Seas in September 2006 and we plan to sail on Liberty of the Seas in December 2007. And I feel certain that once the Genesis class sets sail, it won't be long before we are booked. I cannot imagine future ships being larger than the Genesis class, but who knows? Time will tell and I'm anxious to see what the future holds in the cruise industry.
It's been six years since I took my first cruise. I now have 19 under my belt, and there have definitely been changes since February 6, 2000. That's when I boarded the Celebrity Mercury for my first cruise. It was a standard Western Caribbean cruise. I chose Mercury and Celebrity because I wanted a more upscale line and a nice suite for my wife and me. At that time there weren't a lot of choices out there for a larger cabin with a balcony, higher quality food, and a quiet (but not sedate) atmosphere.
Carnival was known for a younger crowd with a lighter and "fun" reputation. I wanted fun but the idea of neon and glitz didn't appeal to me. Princess was about the same as Celebrity but their ships didn't seem to reflect what I was looking for in decor, and the suite perks weren't as good. Call me spoiled but it was a contributing factor.
Royal Caribbean just didn't hit me where I wanted to be as a first timer, and the luxury lines were way out of my budget.
I would hate to be taking my first cruise now, because the greatest change I've seen in the cruise industry is in the amount of choice. You now have to choose from a myriad of itineraries and almost double the number of ships there were just six years ago.
While many people have said one cruise line is just like the other, I feel that can't be more wrong. The basic concept is still the same -- you get on a ship for x number of days and have your meals served and visit different ports -- but the differences between the lines and ships are strikingly different. In 2000, you basically had traditional two seating dinners everywhere. The number of balcony cabins was at a minimum, and the average size of a ship was around 70,000 tons.
You now have to choose first which size of ship you want to sail on. Do you like huge ships? They come as large as 158,000 tons for a Royal Caribbean Freedom Class ship, or 1,500 tons for a Windjammer sailing ship.
How do like to dine -- the traditional dining with the same table mates and waiters each night, or do like to eat where you want, when you want and with whom you want? These choices are up to you, and cruise lines like NCL, Princess, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania give them to you.
What type of cabin do you like? You no longer have to book a high-end suite just to have a private balcony. You can book a low-end balcony guarantee and have your own balcony. On most new ships, 50 per cent or more of the cabins have balconies.
Do you want quite and refined, or Las Vegas shows, glitz and glamour? There are cruise lines and ships that will give you either, or both. The Carnival fleet still has the neon ships but also has built new ships with a more refined decor; and Royal Caribbean's Brilliance Class, in my opinion, has some of the most beautiful ships at sea.
Last but not least are the itineraries. All cruise lines have expanded their itineraries. If there is a place on the planet where you want to cruise, there is a major cruise line that will cruise there. You can cruise to the Far East, Polynesia, Antarctica, Europe, South America, Australia on Holland America, Princess, Celebrity, NCL; even Carnival is now in Europe. It's not just the luxury lines or the traditional lines that handle the "exotic" itineraries. Alaska, once almost exclusive to Holland America and Princess, is now available from almost all of the major lines.
Yes, there are choices to be made but these choices pay off in the end. There are more people cruising now than at any time in cruising history, and because of the variety offered, there is something for everyone. That is what makes the customer happy, and a happy customer is a repeat customer. Look at me -- 19 cruises in six years reflects one happy customer (or one that may need a 12-step program). I think I'll hold off on the 12-step program for six more years.
I've noticed a few changes throughout the years, some very noticeable and others not as much. Even on my first cruise, I learned that cruising is not an all-inclusive type of trip; there are always extras.
When we first started cruising, it was our major family vacation, so we always had two kids. They both loved to drink soda, and that was always an extra charge, so those kinds of charges added up quickly. At least they would enjoy a glass of lemonade and the fruit juices offered.
I think the main concept behind cruising is still there, and on most ships now there are so many more activities for families that were not available years ago. Nowadays, the mega-ships have rock climbing walls, ice skating, etc. Some of those changes have been major and the ships now are more like floating resorts. I love them. Some cruisers just don't care for all that and won't use any of those facilities.
Until a few years ago, when you went to dinner and ordered your choices, they would come with a bowl of rolls... Well, now they come by and offer you a roll and don't leave it at the table. I happen to love the fresh baked breads and would love an extra one without waiting to see if they come back and offer you another piece of bread or a roll. Certainly it's a cost saving measure, but really, how much are they saving?
Every year more and more cruise ships are built, and there are more itineraries to choose from, so it's becoming difficult to decide where you want to go and on which ship. I love having all those choices, along with a few more ports that are now available to cruise to. I have now been to Belize twice, and I can see that port being more built-up to accept cruise passengers in the near future. Costa Maya is also a new port stop on Western Caribbean itineraries that wasn't around a few years ago.
I think we'll see more new and interesting ports in the next few years; who knows, maybe someday we'll have Cuba as a cruise port. I'd sure be interested in seeing what Cuba has to offer.
When we first decided to cruise, things were different back in 1990. After watching reruns of the Love Boat, we decided it was time to cruise, rather then watching it on TV.
Back in the olden days, the only line really promoting itself was Carnival, with the "Fun Ship" promotion. Well, we thought, we want fun too, so we picked up some brochures. That first cruise was included my daughter; when she took a look at some of those old ships, she said, "no way"...We ended up selecting the Celebration, due to the itinerary, which was the eastern Caribbean -- a shopping mecca personified, according to the exciting blurbs we read.
Some of the changes we have seen over our 16 cruises have made cruising an even better choice for people who are still unsure about this wonderful way to see the world.
Watching a sail-away from the bridge was a highlight, but now it is just a memory. How lucky we were to see it from that vantage point. Our tour of the kitchen, with dancing chickens and butter statues, is another behind-the-scenes option that has been pulled for security reasons. I am glad I got to take a peek!
But what I think has changed the most are the varied dining and dressing options. Back then you only ate at the designated dining hours, and only in the dining rooms.Now, people who do not want to dress for dinner have so many varied options, it's wonderful.
As for the entertainment options from then to now...Musicals were the staple back then, and for the most part they still are...But instead of watching another person sing or tap dance from a Broadway musical, you can now enjoy a fabulous ice skating show. Imagine an ice rink on a cruise ship. Back in 1990, this was not even an inkling! And now, surfing on the back of a ship...are you crazy? But it's a popular option on the Freedom of the Seas. Imagine!
Look how far we have come in such a short time. Could you even think that one day you could own a home on a ship? Now if someone can dream it, chances are it will be done. What the future holds, who knows? One thing I do know is that I want to be part of it!
Dan Polulak -- Teen Editor
The cruising population is taking a turn toward family cruising, and as a teen, the world of cruising has changed dramatically. We have seen major innovations, such as Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas, and due to its success, Freedom of the Seas, which now features tons of venues for teens such as rock climbing, ice skating, miniature golf, teen clubs, and even a surf wave machine. As ships are getting bigger, so are the teen activities.
Many cruise lines are also creating a separate age bracket for older teens. Royal Caribbean features Fuel for their teens, which is a hangout by day, and a high energy teen club at night. However probably the largest contender for the teen programs at sea has to be Carnival.
Carnival introduced its Club O2 program at the beginning of July, 2005. Since then Club O2 has taken teen cruising to a whole new level. Many ships now feature a Club O2, but with the Carnival Freedom being introduced in 2007, the program will be full fledged. Created strictly for 15-17 year olds, Club O2 hosts an array of exciting and energetic activities for their teens. Activities range from deck parties, discos to chill outs during the day.
It is crazy to think back on how much the teen world of cruising has changed, in the past it seems that cruise lines over looked the teen population, but now it is their goal to please the teens- for all, us teens are the cruisers of tomorrow!
In 1999, one of the first articles I wrote for CruiseMates was a debate with another writer about which is better, large ships or small ships. In that article I was pro mega-ships because of the amenities they offered compared to the smaller ships. At that time, large ships were in the 50,000- 70,000 ton range and the mega-ships were just over 100,000 tons.
Today - just seven years later - if I were writing that article again, I'd be talking about ships a full 50 percent larger than the largest ship of 1999. In 1999, the most unusual amenity was a 200 foot water slide on the ship's top deck. Today we talk about ice skating rinks, full size boxing rings, surfing pools, and on upcoming ships, onboard bowling alleys.
And if I were writing that same article today, I'd be taking the "small ship" side of the debate... only I'd be touting the benefits of the "small" 90,000 ton ships.
I remember people asking us when we came online, "Well, what are you? A club, a dating service, what?" I suppose the name CruiseMates does suggest a few different possibilities. The answer came quickly: "An Online Cruise Guide and Cruise Community." And if that wasn't enough, we summed it up: "a free-to-join online cruise community in a magazine format with message boards and other interactive features." And so we are still. Yes, there have been changes over the years; design changes and people coming and going, but surprisingly, more people have stayed with CruiseMates over the years than have gone, and I think that speaks volumes for us.
If you are a cruise enthusiast and you decide you wouldn't mind getting to know some of us in person, be sure to check out our Cruisemates Cruises. These are group cruises we organize solely to get our readers together. We do not profit from them (like many other cruise sites offering group cruises), because we want to keep the price as low as possible. The idea is that cruising is always more fun when you make friends on board, and even better if they are friends before you get on board. The simple fact is that cruising is more fun when you have people to share the experience with. Come on a CruiseMates cruise and join the fun. Click here for more information: CruiseMates Cruises
*(Cruise Critic was only available on AOL then, and did not make it to web until the 21st century.) There were a few very good cruise sites online already, notably The Wheelhouse and Cruise2.com, both created as hobby sites by technology-oriented cruise enthusiasts.