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Can a 20-year-old cruise ship be made new again? Carnival Cruise Line is betting $200 million that the answer is yes.
That’s how much the Miami-based cruise giant has spent over the past few months overhauling one of its oldest vessels in one of the biggest cruise ship makeovers in history.
The revamp of what until now has been known as Carnival Triumph was so massive — significant areas of the ship were completely gutted and rebuilt — the line basically considers it a new vessel. To make the point, it has given it a new name: Carnival Sunrise. It was rechristened Thursday at a ceremony in New York.
Carnival has never spent so much overhauling an older vessel, and we can’t think of any other line that has, either. Royal Caribbean’s just-announced makeover of Oasis of the Seas, billed as its biggest ship overhaul ever, is expected to cost $165 million. That’s $35 million less than what Carnival spent on Sunrise. A massive makeover of Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas earlier this year cost a “mere” $115 million.
To put the $200 million price tag of the Sunrise overhaul in perspective, Carnival only spent $420 million building the ship in the first place (although when adjusted for inflation, that number jumps to about $640 million in today’s dollars).
For that sort of money, you should expect some major changes. After testing out Triumph-turned-Sunrise on a quick getaway to Bermuda over the weekend, we’re not yet ready to call it as-good-as-new. But the changes (which include the addition of a snazzy new waterslide complex; an adult-only top-deck escape; multiple restaurants; and more cabins) go a long way toward making it one of the most alluring ships in the Carnival fleet. If you’re a Carnival fan, you’re going to love the new Sunrise. Here’s what to expect.
Editor’s Note: TPG always tries to pay full price for any travel its staff takes and usually doesn’t inform companies in advance of our plans to review. However, there are times where — especially with cruise lines — we need to work with travel providers to gain early access to a product. For this four-night sailing, TPG paid a media rate of $249, as well as additional fees for extra-charge beverages, food and amenities.
There’s Way More Top-Deck Fun
Perhaps the most noticeable addition to Sunrise — you can see it atop the ship from a good distance — is its new WaterWorks waterpark, which replaces a single waterslide on one of its top decks.
Similar to waterparks of the same name already found on a number of Carnival ships, it plays to the family market with two large waterslides called AquaTunnel and Twister, and a kiddie splash zone dominated by a 75-gallon dump bucket known as the PowerDrencher. While neither of the slides come close to the length and pizzazz of the just-unveiled The Blaster on Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas (the new longest waterslide at sea), they measure in at a none-too-shabby 203 and 212 feet in length, respectively.
In another nod to families (a growing focus among big-ship lines), Carnival also has added one of its signature SportSquare areas to the top of the ship with a ropes course, basketball court, miniature golf and outdoor pool and ping pong tables. But Carnival didn’t end the deck-top changes there. It also found space for another signature offering that had been lacking from this older ship: An adults-only Serenity deck with padded loungers, day beds, a hot tub and a full bar.
Popular Carnival Restaurants and Bars Have Arrived
Eating, you may have heard, is a big thing on cruise ships.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Carnival made it a priority to pack Sunrise with half a dozen new food and beverage venues. All the newcomers are concepts well-known to Carnival regulars, having already debuted on other Carnival ships. They include a version of Carnival’s signature steakhouse, Fahrenheit 555, and Italian eatery Cucina del Capitano (if you’re a Carnival fan, you know this one as the place where the waiters sing and dance for you between courses). The ship also finally got a Bonsai Express sushi outlet, a dedicated Chef’s Table and one of the Guy’s Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouses that the line has created in partnership with The Food Network’s Guy Fieri.
I’ll say right off the bat that Carnival was nothing if not clever in figuring out how to add all these new outlets on board. Fahrenheit 555 is carved out of what used to be a section of the main London Dining Room (now renamed Radiance Restaurant). Cucina del Capitano occupies an upper-deck portion of the Lido Marketplace buffet.
The cynic in me can’t ignore that many of the new eateries come with an extra charge. At the high end, Fahrenheit 555 levies a flat fee of $38 per person for dinner, which is a splurge for Carnival’s budget-minded customers. Cucina del Capitano is $15 per person. But, then again, Carnival needed to make up for that $200 million investment somewhere.
Sunrise now, finally, is also home to a RedFrog Pub — that staple of Carnival ships that serves Carnival’s tasty housemade beers on tap as well as plenty of others. It’s not just any RedFrog Pub, mind you, but the biggest one ever in the Carnival fleet. In addition to a large bar, it has a stage that’s home to live music nightly and some of the most raucous karaoke sessions I’ve ever seen at sea (Carnival regulars do like their karaoke). There’s also a game area and plenty of seating. The venue sits next to a new Piano Bar and across from the pretty-much-as-it-was, pharmacy-themed Alchemy Bar (where bartenders fill your drink “prescriptions”). So, yeah, there’s no shortage of places to get a drink.
The Interior Design Has Taken a Sophisticated Turn
Here’s where things really get crazy.
The new décor on Sunrise is almost … normal. And by normal, I mean the sort of contemporary, classy look you’ll find at any number of recently-built resorts from the Caribbean to California. The line has massively toned down the over-the-top, flashy Las Vegas vibe that was a hallmark of Carnival ships built in the 1990s and 2000s.
Gone are the days of covering every square inch of floors, walls and ceilings with a wacky mix of multi-colored marbles, faux woods and metallic panels. By way of contrast, there are parts of the new Sunrise that almost look subdued. The main Radiance Restaurant, for instance, is now topped with a decidedly neutral white ceiling in place of the swirling red-and-blue, Milky Way-like fresco with lightbulb “stars” that once greeted passengers.
In cabins, the dated burnt-peach color scheme that was such a thing on Carnival ships for years is gone, replaced by soothing creams and blues. Cabinetry in the rooms has been resurfaced with crisp-and-clean faux wood, and cabin bathrooms now are blissfully neutral.
In another major design change, Carnival shook up the flow of Deck 5, the ship’s main interior public deck, by rerouting the main passenger thoroughfare through the middle of the casino instead of along its side. Though this greatly opens the deck to passengers, it also greatly opens the deck to the smoky smell emanating from the casino bar, one of the few places on the ship where passengers are allowed to light up.
Sadly, the ship’s redesign did nothing to improve the flow issues around the main restaurants that are common with Carnival ships of its era. Walking from bow to stern on Decks 3 and 4, where the restaurants are located, still requires a detour up or down stairways to other decks, as there is no straightforward way to get around on those levels. And good luck finding the new Limelight Lounge on Deck 4, which is hidden away between the two main restaurants.
Carnival Entered the 21st Century
Carnival has finally gotten religion on providing plenty of USB ports and electrical outlets in the cabins. My favorite little upgrade on the entire ship was the addition of two USB ports right above the pillows on my bed and every other bed on board. (Yes, you now can stay fully charged while blasting out Instas from under the covers.)
Carnival also has wired the ship for new, faster internet service (available for an extra charge). It’s so fast, Carnival gloats, you can now stream Netflix shows from the comfort of your room: a level of speed that, until recently, has been rare on cruise vessels. It’s a development Carnival is in the midst of rolling out across its fleet.
There’s just one big caveat: On my sailing, the reality didn’t live up to the hype. Not even close. I paid up for the fastest Premium plan ($68 for the voyage, versus $48 and $32 for two slower-speed plans) and found I still had trouble streaming my new favorite Netflix show, “Derry Girls.” Hey, no judgement!
The show would run for a couple minutes after I pushed the play button. But just when the latest silliness with Erin, Orla, Clare and Michelle was getting good, it would freeze. Thankfully, I had loaded plenty of episodes of the “Crime Junkie” podcast onto my iPhone as a backup for middle-of-the-night entertainment.
There Will Be Bigger Crowds
Now, for some bonafide bad news.
One of the big “improvements” Carnival made to the ship during its overhaul wasn’t really an improvement at all — at least, not for customers. In addition to renovating the vessel’s existing 1,379 cabins in a major way, the line added 115 new cabins in an effort to pack in more paying passengers. While that’s good for Carnival’s bottom line, it has done nothing for the already cramped feel of the ship.
Assuming a sold-out sailing, which is almost always the case for Carnival, the vessel now will sail with 2,984 passengers, based on “double occupancy” of two people per cabin. That’s up more than 8% from its old double-occupancy number of 2,754.
One of the ways that Carnival keeps its prices low (and they truly are low; it’s a top choice for budget-conscious cruisers) is by jamming a lot of people on its ships. So, at one level, it’s hard to complain about this. But I really noticed the crowds on my short sailing to Bermuda. The Lido buffet, in particular, was insanely packed, with lines for food stations 30 people deep at times and not a free table in sight.
You’ll also feel the crowds in the ship’s interior public areas, particularly around the bar and lounges on Deck 5 and in the central Atrium. And the ship’s top decks quickly filled up on a sea day when the sun came out. There were particularly large pile-ups around the hot tubs. At one point, I counted 21 people trying to jam into one hot tub with a sign saying it was designed for eight!
One area that, surprisingly to me, wasn’t overly crowded in the evening was the ship’s main showroom, the Liquid Lounge. It got a major downsizing during the overhaul, and the bottommost of its three levels, on Deck 3, was removed to make way for 42 of the new cabins. It now seats just 900 people (down from 1,300). But I had no trouble finding a seat during multiple evening performances.
Another 53 cabins were added at the rear of Deck 5 in a space that formerly offered several lounges, knocking out more public areas where passengers once could spread out.
All in all, the “space ratio” of the ship — a measure of the amount of interior space available per passenger — dropped from around 37 to 34. That puts it near the low end of Carnival’s 26 vessels. By contrast, most Royal Caribbean ships — including the new world’s largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas — have space ratios above 40. The typical Norwegian Cruise Line ship has a space ratio between 36 and 41, while luxury lines such as Seabourn have some ships with space ratios above 70.
The Bottom Line
This was indeed a biggie of a ship makeover — not just for Carnival but for the entire cruise industry. The vessel really does look close to new, despite a history that dates back to the 1990s. Of Carnival’s more than two dozen ships, it’s definitely now one of the most up-to-date and enticing.
That said, Sunrise still doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Carnival’s truly new ships, such as the one-year-old Carnival Horizon or soon-to-debut Mardi Gras. In recent years, Carnival vessels have gotten significantly bigger, allowing for more and bigger attractions, restaurants and lounges. At 101,509 gross register tons, Sunrise is more than 20% smaller than Horizon and more than 40% smaller than Mardi Gras (which will be so big, it’ll have room for an industry-first roller coaster on its top deck).
The other thing to keep in mind is that, whatever the changes, Sunrise still is a Carnival ship. If you haven’t liked Carnival vessels in the past, you’re not going to suddenly fall in love with this one, no matter how much money the line has poured into it. The choice of one out of every five cruisers in the world, the self-described “Fun Ship” line is all about fun . . . in a very loud and lively sort of way, with entertainment that at times is as low-brow as the line is low-cost. This is, after all, the brand that famously holds a Hairy Chest Contest around the pool deck on every voyage, to a standing-room-only, hooting-and-hollering crowd.
If that’s not your thing, don’t expect overhead USB ports to change that.
What It Costs
In general, Carnival ships are among the most affordable at sea, and Sunrise is no exception. In the wake of its overhaul, the vessel is operating eight-night voyages to the Caribbean out of New York City that start at $540 per person. That works out to just $67.50 per day for a package that includes your lodging, transportation and meals.
Sunrise also is running four-, six- and eight-night trips to Bermuda out of New York City that start at $406 per person, and seven-night Canada and New England sailings from the city from $511 per person.
In October, the ship will move to Norfolk, Virginia, for a single six-night voyage to the Bahamas that starts at $704 per person before redeploying to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for the winter. Its Fort Lauderdale schedule revolves around four- and five-night trips to the Bahamas and the Caribbean starting at $244 per person.
But the above rates aren’t quite as low as they seem. For starters, they don’t include taxes, port charges and fees, which vary by itinerary but run about $100 to $200 per person, per cruise. The fares are also “based on double occupancy” of your cabin, so the per room rate really starts at twice the quoted amounts.
The fares also don’t include any extra charges you ring up on board, either. While meals are included at most on-board eateries, you’ll pay extra for Fahrenheit 555, Cucina del Capitano and Bonsai Express. Just like at most land resorts, you’ll also pay extra for drinks. Beers at the bars on Sunrise run $5.95 to $6.50, while wine starts at $7.75 per glass ($27 for the least expensive bottle).
The aforementioned fares are also for the least-expensive windowless “inside” cabin. To upgrade to a room with a window, the starting rate for the eight-night trips to the Caribbean jumps to $669 per person plus the taxes and fees. Cabins with balconies start at $889; suites begin at $1,349.
One other thing for which you’ll need to budget is the automatic service gratuity that Carnival adds to bills, which runs $13.99 per person, per day for most cabins. Suite passengers pay more.
Gene Sloan has written about cruising for more than 25 years and for many years oversaw USA TODAY’s award-winning cruise site, USA TODAY Cruises. He’s sailed on nearly 150 ships.
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