Carnival Cruise Line is about to embark on a familiar jig it calls “the cruise ship shuffle.”
When the dance is over by the end of September, the 26-ship line will have its newest, biggest ships sailing from Miami, and Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Galveston, Texas — three of the country’s top four busiest ports.
And the stage will be set for even bigger moves coming in the next two years: The first new Carnival ship to debut in Southern California in 20 years arrives next year in Long Beach. And the line’s biggest vessel yet — called the “XL class” for now — launches from Central Florida’s Port Canaveral in 2020.
“Moving their newest ships around has been a consistent strategy for decades,” said cruise industry observer Stewart Chiron, CEO of CruiseGuy.com, in an email. “Carnival wants to show off their best hardware coast-to-coast.”
After a four-year lull with no new ships between 2012 and 2016, Carnival is about to have plenty of new hardware to spread around. And unlike the days when the biggest ports in Florida would automatically be home to the newest big ships, cruise lines have become more comfortable sending new capacity to markets such as Shanghai, New York, Seattle, and Southern California.
That’s not to say powerhouse Florida ports are being ignored. Carnival’s newest ship, the 3,954-passenger Carnival Horizon, starts sailing from Miami Sept. 22 after spending the summer in New York. Sister ship Carnival Vista, which launched in 2016, heads from Miami to Galveston for weeklong Caribbean sailings that begin Sept. 23. Carnival Breeze, a 3,690-passenger ship that debuted in 2012, shifts from Galveston to Port Canaveral to start Caribbean cruises Sept. 30.
Cruises You Can Drive To
The latest moves fit in with Carnival’s long-held strategy of placing cruise ships within an easy drive of Americans. About half of the U.S. population is within a day’s drive of a Carnival port, the line says.
That includes major gateways like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Galveston, Canaveral, and Seattle, as well as smaller ports including Norfolk, Baltimore, Charleston, San Juan, Mobile, and Tampa. In all, Carnival sails from 18 year-round and seasonal ports.
“We say we’re America’s cruise line; we’re putting more capacity in the markets that are great for people that drive to their vacation,” Carnival Cruise Line President Christine Duffy said in an interview.
Next year, the new Carnival Panorama — sibling to Vista and Horizon — will head directly from the shipyard in Italy to its new home of Long Beach. The line hasn’t debuted a new ship on the West Coast for 20 years; the last new ship to sail from Long Beach was Carnival Splendor in 2009, which spent several months first in Europe and the Caribbean.
And in 2020, the biggest Carnival ship ever — a 5,286-passenger behemoth known for now as “XL” — will start sailing from Port Canaveral. A second XL is slated to join the fleet in 2022, but its home port has not been named yet.
“We obviously send the bigger capacity where we have demand and the market can support it,” Duffy said. “Canaveral has been a great port for us. People can drive from Georgia to Orlando pretty easily and from other markets, but for people who want to fly, Orlando has tremendous airlift at reasonable pricing. It’s a great family destination as well. … Having our first XL ship in 2020 home ported in Canaveral made a lot of sense to us.”
Campaign Takes to the Air
To raise awareness of the redeployments and its “Homeport Advantage,” Carnival is mounting a publicity campaign featuring a ship of the sort that isn’t typically associated with the company. The “Carnival AirShip” — a blimp bearing the image of a cruise vessel — is flying over seven states during a 30-day stretch.
The campaign kicked off Wednesday during a Carnival event at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, a nonprofit the cruise line supports. The blimp is set to visit Houston, Dallas, Miami, and Atlanta, and fly over 11 other cities.
As part of the blitz, Carnival is asking people to post photos or videos of the blimp on social media with the hashtag #ChooseFun — part of a long-term brand campaign — for chances to win free cruises or other prizes. Carnival will donate to St. Jude’s with every post.
“In this market of the Southeast for us, which is such a great market, we thougth this was a very visual way for not just the people who are taking a cruise or the people who are near the port who see the ships all the time and will actually see the blimp with the ship, but the people who are attending football games and other big events in their town to have the Carnival AirShip fly over,” Duffy said. “We thought this was a great way to raise awareness of Carnival Cruise Line and cruising overall for those cruise rookies.”