Carnival Sunshine metamorphosis was ambitious and complicated

By Tom Stieghorst
Carnival Sunshine VeniceThe teens are such an awkward age.

Cruise lines, having gone on a building spree in the 1990s, now find themselves with a generation of ships that are too young to scrap but too old to be fully competitive with the latest newbuilds.

One solution to that dilemma emerged last month from the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, where Carnival Cruise Lines sent its 17-year-old Carnival Destiny to be rejuvenated.

After more than two months in drydock, what emerged was a ship so transformed that it had to be given a new name: Carnival Sunshine.

Since May 5, the freshly scrubbed 101,000-ton ship has been doing nine- and 12-day cruises in the Mediterranean. In November, it will transition to its year-round home in New Orleans.

The $155 million makeover was the industry’s most ambitious in more than a decade. It involved 3,000 workers putting in 2 million hours of round-the-clock labor, first to demolish much of the old ship, then to fit it with all the features of Carnival’s Funship 2.0 package.

“This is the most aggressive refit ever attempted in our industry,” Christian Compton, Carnival’s project director for conversion, said in a video documenting the 73-day project.

Complicating the agenda and extending the length of the drydock was Carnival’s decision in March to add $300 million of contingent power and other upgrades fleetwide to make its ships more reliable. Because it was already in drydock, Sunshine was one of the first two ships to get the upgrade.

That added 24 days to its stay in Monfalcone, Italy, and required Carnival to cancel two initial cruises. The Sunshine also came out of the drydock with several of its signature features incomplete and a group of cabins that needed further work to be ready.

On the June 7 cruise, a small number of passengers were bumped and their cabins turned over to contractors who were still finishing parts of the ship. Carnival gave the displaced passengers full refunds and an additional free cruise.

Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen said the enhancements complicated what was an already ambitious time frame.

“Needless to say, there were some start-up issues which have largely been resolved,” Gulliksen said.

The Carnival Sunshine is not entirely new. The hull and much of the technical equipment are left over from the Destiny, the world’s largest cruise ship when it was delivered in 1996. But its public spaces have been brought into the 21st century.

Since the Destiny debuted, alternate dining venues have mushroomed on cruise ships everywhere. A notable change to Sunshine is the lineup of new bars and restaurants.

Full-service alternates to the main dining room include Asian, Mexican, Italian and steakhouse offerings. Passengers can also visit a shake shack, a 24-hour pizzeria, a burger joint and a coffee-and-pastries shop.

Dinner at the Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse is $35. Charges at the other venues vary, with some charging for dinner but not for lunch.

The expanded bar lineup includes the RedFrog Pub and its poolside adaptation, the RedFrog Rum Bar; the Blue Iguana tequila bar; the Latin-themed Havana Bar; the EA Sports Bar; the cozy Library Bar; and the Alchemy Bar, which specializes in trendy “molecular” cocktails.

Many of these have been retrofitted onto other, older Carnival ships, but the Sunshine is the first vessel to have all of them together.

The Sunshine also boasts Carnival’s first three-deck version of the adults-only Serenity area, which offers parents and childless guests a place to retreat to for a break from the kids. Carnival introduced the Serenity area to its ships in 2007, 10 years after Carnival Destiny’s debut.

Carnival Sunshine SerenityAnother big change in cruise ship design since then has been extra emphasis on sports. The upper deck of Carnival Sunshine is crowded with courts, courses and table games, including pool, ping-pong and foosball.

The water entertainment is also more highly engineered than it was back in the Destiny’s early days. The Sunshine includes an expansive water park with 40 interactive features, a gigantic drenching bucket, five different slides including the new racing-themed Speedway Splash, and a 334-foot-long Twister slide, the longest on any Carnival ship.

In addition to the public spaces, Carnival also raised the capacity of Sunshine, bumping it from 2,642 to 3,006 by putting another 182 cabins onto the ship.

By making the Destiny over, Carnival not only brought many of its newbuild features to an older ship but did so at about a quarter of the price it would have paid to build a new, 3,000-passenger ship.

One unanswered question is whether this is a model for the future or a one-off project. The largest previous refit in recent times was the 2005 stretching of Royal Caribbean International’s Enchantment of the Seas, which added a 74-foot segment and 151 staterooms to its midsection, after cutting the ship in half. Although the $60 million project was seen as successful, Royal did not repeat it.

Carnival has several ships in the Destiny class, including the Victory and Triumph, which received much unfavorable publicity after its February engine fire. Several cruise observers, including social media commentator Lin Humphries, have suggested that an overhaul and renaming of the Triumph could retire a “tarnished name.”

Asked about a possible overhaul of other Destiny-class ships, Gulliksen said, “At this point, there have been no announcements of any large-scale refurb projects.”

Travel agents in New Orleans, where the ship will take up residence in November, said they are seeing interest in the ship.

Bob Wall, owner of Vacations at Sea, said he had not done much in the past month to promote the Sunshine because of the issues surrounding the Carnival Triumph, but he has nonetheless sold one or two cruises.
“We think it will do well here,” he said.

Pat Daly of Cruise & Vacation Specialists in Metairie, La., said, “Most of the people here are very familiar with Carnival. They’re pretty excited that we’ll have a new ship.”

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.
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