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Why Carnival Is Spending Millions to Remake Its Oldest Ships

June 01, 2019
8 min read
20190528_Carnival Sunrise_GSloan-29
Why Carnival Is Spending Millions to Remake Its Oldest Ships
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There’s been a lot of buzz over the past year about the new Carnival ship debuting in 2020 — and for good reason. Costing nearly $1 billion, the 180,000-ton Mardi Gras will be by far the biggest vessel ever for the line and chock full of head-turning features including a massive, deck-top waterpark and the first-ever roller coaster at sea. It’ll be able to carry more than 6,000 passengers.

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)
Carnival Sunrise docked in Bermuda.

But even as the development of Mardi Gras has been hogging the limelight in the Carnival universe, the 26-ship line has been chugging away at another big project that, while less superlative, might be just as significant: The bow-to-stern makeover of one of its oldest vessels, Carnival Triumph.

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As I wrote about earlier this week, the just-completed, $200 million overhaul of the 1990s-era vessel is one of the biggest revamps of a ship ever: so big, the line basically considers it as-good-as-new. To make the point, it just rechristened it on May 23 in New York City with a new name, Carnival Sunrise.

The makeover is a big sign that Carnival remains committed to its older ships, which are significantly smaller than the vessels it has been rolling out in recent years.

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)
A colorful seating area fills a nook on the top deck of the revamped Carnival Sunrise.

That’s good news for the small-ship lovers among Carnival fans, of which there's no shortage.

“There are a lot of guests that prefer the smaller ships,” Carnival’s president, Christine Duffy, was quick to point out during an interview with The Points Guy aboard Sunrise shortly after its christening.

But it’s not just customer demand for smaller vessels that's prompting Carnival to double down on an older ship like Triumph. Because of their smaller size, older vessels also offer the line a lot of flexibility when it comes to itinerary planning.

“It gives you the ability to go to [smaller] ports that not all of the big ships can reach,” Duffy said.

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The line also concluded that investing in older ships, even when it costs as much as the Triumph-turned-Sunrise makeover, makes a lot of financial sense.

Duffy noted that recent, somewhat smaller overhauls of two more 1990s-era ships — Carnival Elation and Carnival Paradise — resulted in an immediate boost to the bottom line.

“The demand [for the ships] that we saw increased immediately . . . ” she said. “These [overhauls] were very successful.”

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)

In addition to upgrading Elation and Paradise, Carnival has significantly revamped more than a dozen more older vessels since 2011 in a fleet-wide, $2 billion renovation program it calls Fun Ship 2.0. But what was done to Triumph-turned-Sunrise was on a different scale.

Only one other ship in the Carnival fleet, the similarly-sized Carnival Destiny, had previously undergone a makeover on a similar level. Completed in 2013, the overhaul cost $155 million and also prompted a name change. The vessel is now called Carnival Sunshine.

Carnival already plans one more giant, bow-to-stern makeover on the scale of Triumph-turned-Sunrise in 2020, for the two-decades-old Carnival Victory. It, too, will see $200 million in improvements and reemerge with a luminous new name, Carnival Radiance.

The overhauls have been bringing the older ships many of the features that have become standard on the newer, bigger Carnival vessels. Additions to Sunrise included such signature Carnival attractions as a WaterWorks waterpark area; a deck-top fun zone with a ropes course, basketball court and more called Sport Square; and an adults-only, outdoor lounge area called Serenity.

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)
The new WaterWorks waterpark on Carnival Sunrise includes a 75-gallon dump bucket that periodically rains water down on passengers.

Sunrise also received a dozen new branded bars and restaurants that have been popping up on vessels across the Carnival fleet, including steakhouse Fahrenheit 555 and Italian restaurant Cucina del Capitano. Also added was the biggest version of the line’s signature RedFrog Pub yet, and a new piano bar.

Duffy said a key goal of the overhauls of Carnival’s older ships has been to bring consistency across the brand. She noted there was confusion among customers a few years ago when the line was heavily marketing some shipboard features such as Guy’s Burger Joint outlets that weren’t on every ship. The concept was created in partnership with The Food Network star Guy Fieri.

“People were hearing about Guy’s Burger, and then they would come on a ship [without one] and say, ‘Where’s the Guy’s Burger Joint?'” she said. “If that is something that is important to people, or an expectation, then we want to be able to deliver.”

The Fun Ship 2.0 overhaul program is centered on the idea that a core group of amenities such as Guy’s Burger Joint will be on every Carnival ship by 2020.

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The overhauls are also bringing a more contemporary feel to the vessels. The décor on Sunrise, in particular, has changed noticeably, with the line massively toning down the over-the-top, flashy Las Vegas vibe that was a hallmark of Carnival ships built in the 1990s and early 2000s. Walls and ceilings that once were covered with a wacky mix of multicolored marbles, faux woods and metallic panels have been resurfaced in more neutral tones.

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)

“It’s a lighter, brighter, more contemporary feel,” Duffy said of the new look. “Obviously, we wanted to modernize the ships.”

It’s a big change for Carnival, which for years was known for its exaggerated décor.

Noting that just about every area of Triumph-turned-Sunrise was touched during its overhaul, Duffy likens what was done to the ship to the most extreme home makeovers.

“People update their homes a lot with soft goods, and you might put in a new kitchen or a new bathroom,” she said. “But then there are other times when you move out and gut it and redo it. That’s really the way I think about these things.”

(Photo by Gene Sloan / The Points Guy)

Duffy said the true cost of the Triumph-turned-Sunrise makeover, which took place at the Navantia shipyard in Cadiz, Spain, was even higher than the official number of $200 million. That price tag doesn’t include tens of millions of dollars the company spent renovating cabins and cabin corridors on Triumph while it was still in service before it headed to the shipyard, she said.

To put that sort of money drop in perspective, Carnival only spent $420 million building the ship in the first place (though that number is closer to $640 million when you adjust for inflation). 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.

It was a big chunk of change, no doubt. But it’s what was needed, Duffy said.

“You really wouldn’t be able to do the kind of transformation that we’ve done and call it a new ship with much less.”

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.