Carnival strikes a balance: Sophisticated, but still fun

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ONBOARD THE CARNIVAL VALOR -- Bob Dickinson, Carnival Cruise Lines CEO, has been spending a good bit of time these days talking about Todays Carnival.

Its a different product than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. And I think things have changed dramatically, but not with a lot of hoopla, Dickinson said.

The venue for this discussion was the Paris Hot jazz club on the Carnival Valor, designed to invoke the spirit of one of the Carnival Valors heroes, Josephine Baker.

Carnival described the room this way: A statue of Baker dancing in her famous banana costume rests on a base that resembles a giant pearl. Bar stools and table bases look like stacks of pearls, and the floor is done in white granite with inlaid bananas in a contrasting yellow stone.

Walk out to the Valors atrium and youll see the faces of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and other famous American figures covering the walls, bathed in pink and purple lights. Eagles stand sentry over the elevator banks, which, not surprisingly, have a red, white and gold color scheme. The disco has a moonscape theme. 

This is todays Carnival?

Absolutely, said Dickinson, and he defended the lines longstanding commitment to entertainment architecture with his trademark candor.

Were not trying to be some kind of elitist, stuffy, country club at sea, he said.

Let other lines worry about sophisticated decor. What Carnival wants is the sophisticated traveler who can appreciate a little (or a lot) of whimsy in the design. 

Were still the fun ships, but its a different kind of quality, Dickinson explained. The psychographics are the same, but the demographics are different.

On todays Carnival, passengers dont throw each other, beach chairs and all, into the pool. On todays Carnival, beer-chugging isnt part of the festivities (although they still do a hairy-chest contest). You can dine seriously on todays Carnival. 

Take, for example, a dinner in the Valors Supper Club. The reservations-only alternative restaurant on the Valor is Scarletts -- the decor is patterned after Tara, Scarlett OHaras home in Gone With the Wind.

People in the room were dining seriously. Champagne and high-caliber wines flowed, and the food -- lobster bisque with cognac, beef carpaccio, Chilean sea bass and grilled lamb chops -- was of high quality and served on fine china.

All this wont be news to the Carnival enthusiast. The line has been changing its product for years. The Valor doesnt have anything outside of the Carnival norm, and, as its the third ship in a series (the Carnival Conquest and the Carnival Glory are sister ships), its nearly identical in layout and concept to the previous two.

As featured on most ships these days, the Valor has a golf program, elaborate (and pricey) spa treatments, low-carb meals and an enormous Camp Carnival for the kids.

Food is good outside of the supper clubs. Cabins, as always, are sized adequately. Entertainment is fun, fast and flashy.

But potential guests who havent been onboard may still be under the impression that Carnival is partying as though its 1984.

We did a significant amount of research, Dickinson said. There was an enormous drop-off between the reality of people whod been on the ships and the perception of people who hadnt.

On the Valor, passengers still get several doses of that unmistakable brand of Carnival fun. And if you cant enjoy the spectacle of your waiter donning a wig and dancing on the serving station between courses -- well, youll have to lighten up considerably before you sail on todays Carnival.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected].

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