Disney deal another piece in PortMiami's expansion campaign

Royal Caribbean's "Crown of Miami" terminal at PortMiami is expected to open in November. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

PortMiami is on a 10-year campaign to strengthen its position as the busiest and most prestigious global cruise port. 

Already, Miami handles about one of every five passengers who embark on a cruise from a U.S. port. With recent developments, it is poised to play an even more substantial role in the future.

Among those developments is an agreement between the county-owned port and Disney Cruise Line that would make Disney a year-round tenant starting in 2023. The agreement also lays the groundwork for the building of a terminal where Disney would have preferential berthing rights.

The line would guarantee a minimum of 360,000 passenger movements by 2023, up from 100,000 now. It also would commit Disney to homeport a large ship year-round in Miami beginning in 2023, with a second large ship to sail seasonally starting in 2024. 

Five years ago, the self-proclaimed "Cruise Capital of the World" had only two cruise lines sailing from it year-round. But in 2014, Norwegian Cruise Line resumed a year-round presence with the Norwegian Getaway, and in 2015, MSC Cruises added its name to the year-round roster with the MSC Divina.

Now, with the Disney agreement, PortMiami is poised to be the only cruise port serving as home to five year-round cruise lines. 

The foundation for the current expansion was laid 10 years ago when the port learned that Royal Caribbean International would base its gargantuan new Oasis-class ships at Port Everglades instead of at Miami.

A PortMiami master plan prepared in 2011 noted that the terminals packed along the port's Cruise Boulevard, built between 1980 and 2007, were "misaligned" and generally designed for smaller ships.

Ideally, the berths should be at least 1,200 feet long and 60 feet apart, the plan said.

The first fruits of this strategy will arrive in November, when Royal Caribbean opens its "Crown of Miami," a $247 million, 170,000-square-foot terminal with its own adjacent parking garage.

Space for the terminal, which will be the new home of the 1,188-foot Symphony of the Seas, was carved out of a cargo property east of the existing cruise row. And Norwegian Cruise Line has broken ground on a 166,000-square-foot showcase terminal that will replace its current berth at Terminal B/C.

A third new terminal just to the east of Royal's is in the planning stages for MSC Cruises. And Disney's terminal, if it is built, would be the first for large cruise vessels on the south side of the port, adjacent to the current Terminal J, which is used for midsize luxury ships.

Several factors are driving the growth. First is the port's unparalleled proximity to the Caribbean and Miami airport, which has particularly good international connections. Second, the port has stabilized its finances and eliminated some of its once-heavy debt.

Most importantly, fleets are growing. Disney is building three ships by 2023, MSC has made a high-profile commitment to the North American market and Royal, Norwegian and Carnival Cruise Line are keeping pace.

In 2011, the port projected it would handle 5.9 million passenger movements by 2035; already last year it hit 5.3 million.

With so many terminals dedicated to year-round operators, will PortMiami have room to accommodate new cruise lines? Yes, say port officials who point to the terminals being vacated by those moving to new ones as well as to flexible scheduling that makes use of nonpeak, midweek departure days.

Another question centers on encroachment into the port's cargo operation. But the 590-acre port devotes about 60% of its space to cargo and only 6% to cruise, with the rest dedicated to administrative needs, parking, etc. The 2011 master plan estimated 12.1 acres would be needed for new berths by 2035, plus unspecified land for terminals and support areas.

"We are just making better use of space and land," port director Juan Kuryla said.

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