Carnival Magic: experience is the name of the game

New cruise ships seem almost commonplace in recent years, with several cruise lines pumping them out quickly. Worldwide economic concerns slowed down new orders but ships still emerge with more features and more attractions than ever. One could say that Carnival Cruise Lines new ship, Carnival Magic, is a bit light on the bells and whistles expected of a big new ship today. One would be wrong.

If features on a ship are the ingredients that go into making a good cruise experience, new 130,000 ton Carnival Magic would come up short. You won’t find a rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, Broadway show or a dozen different restaurants to choose from.

What you will find is a very nicely appointed ship that has everything one might need to have a great cruise experience, a cruise line that knows how to deliver it and is now talking about it.

“We’re encouraging our guests to try something different, to go outside their normal comfort zone” said Carnival President and CEO Gerry Cahill, on board the Carnival Magic this week for the ship’s inaugural sailing.

Gadling is along for the ride too. Our focus after the Inaugural Ceremony that began this voyage has been on the intense itinerary and exploring the notion of using a cruise ship as merely transportation between places for Gadling readers, much like one might take a car, plane, train or bus.

Let’s just go ahead and give that test a passing grade right now.

One might do a whole lot worse than visiting 8 different places in 9 days via cruise ship for a fair sampling that might result in a future, longer visit. Of the ports visited so far, Dubrovnik in Croatia plus Sicily and Naples, in Italy, I have captured enough information make future plans. (We will be going back to Dubrovnik) We still have three more ports to go, Rome and Livorno in Italy then Monaco and Barcelona, but to give “by cruise ship” a thumbs-up for a way to get there works.

To stop right there though would only tell a small part of the story. There is something a whole lot bigger and better going on with Carnival on the new Carnival Magic.

Carnival Magic is like an artist’s blank canvas, waiting for us to create life-changing experience.

I know, that sounds too good to be true, but this is where we get right down to the true nature of today’s cruise vacation. It’s an experiential form of traveling like no other that has earned at least a look if not a try from even the most anti-cruise people among us. Cruise fans will love this one too.

Yes, Carnival Magic does have bingo, a hairy-chest contest and a buffet; standard elements one might find on any ship. What makes this one different is that Carnival, unlike any other cruise line, is talking about what was a pretty closely-guarded secret up until now.

Before, only those passengers who completely immersed themselves in the cruise experience, chose not to sweat small inconveniences that come along with any kind of travel and really “get into it” gained a life-changing experience.

They got it.

By immersing themselves in what was being offered on board, they were able to put their heads in a place that heads need to go sometimes: away. From sailing away on the first day of any cruise until the last night at sea, cruise lines made available all the elements to make that happen, they just did not directly tell you about how it all worked. Still, many got it and came away refreshed and renewed, surely a goal of any vacation.

Now, Carnival Cruise Lines is talking. They are telling guests right up front that “we have your life-changing experience right here” IF they embrace the programming on board. The line then encourages guests to jump in with both feet.

Following their past success, Royal Caribbean added an almost theme-park feel to their new Oasis-class ships. They find themselves wondering “What will we add next?” to the extent that the next new ship from them is a secret, buying them time to gauge the market, size the ship and add features appropriately. They don’t quite get it but they are close, close enough to realize “big is not always better so let’s rethink this shall we?”

Following their past success, Norwegian Cruise Line went for first-class entertainment options for their newest ship, long-desired solo cruiser accommodations and top-shelf alternative dining options. They went overboard and find themselves in the familiar profit doghouse once again.

Building on their past success, Carnival paid attention to their guests and got everyone in their organization on the same page saying “we create experiences” and, new with this ship; “we will show you how to make this work for you”.

That’s the significant part that nobody else is talking about. Allowing those experiences to happen is the secret ingredient that only those who managed to fully immerse themselves took advantage of.

In our family of four, we almost always came away from a cruise as changed people in some way. I always thought it was the mark of a good vacation; to come back home and have the clarity to break up with that boyfriend, quit that job, go after that next goal or simply define us a little bit more. We went on vacation, we relaxed, and we were ready to resume real life, perhaps with a fresh look or from a different perspective.

When we first started cruising our then teen, now Gen Y kids always agreed: a cruise was the best vacation ever. But a lot of changes go on in teen years so being able to attribute that “I always feel a little different after a cruise” feeling to anything other than growing up was hard to do. Teens feel different every 12 seconds. That ambiguity was no problem for us: we got it. Others had to be told, led to the experience and shoved into it.

If they were lucky enough to have someone there to do that, great, they had a chance. If not, they often amused themselves complaining about stupid things that don’t matter/you can’t do anything about like slow service in the dining room. Someone into the whole experience would either use that slow service time to engage others in conversation or break away and do dining differently, maybe on their own in a variety of venues.

We have noted before that a cruise is what you make it and that there is a cruise for everyone. Recalling the essence of that and a story we did not long ago about theme cruises, helps make the point.

Every sailing of every ship is like that blank canvas, waiting for us to create a one-of-a-kind travel experience. Carnival Magic makes that easier by having all the elements needed for a good experience in place AND providing a crew that knows what to do with them.

In other words: Carnival is giving away the big secret. That is actually the easy part.

The big trick to this magic will be to see if the cruise line can keep crew in place that will deliver the experience.

A year from now, the ship, ocean, ports and other elements will be pretty much the same. The single most important factor to continuing this grand plan of immersing their guests is the crew. Right now, the ship is staffed with a high percentage of the best crew members from other ships around the fleet. At some point the best, happiest, most productive crew members will rotate out and a regular crew will be left.

Can Carnival reproduce this in your face “we got the experience for you” thing fleet-wide?

Time will tell. Let’s take a brief look at how it is playing out right now.

The Red Frog Pub is a perfect example of the listening and delivering Carnival is up to on Carnival Magic that can lead to a life-changing experience. Yes, other lines have many more alternative dining venues. But to fund those, a cover is charged, up to $50 per person extra on top of the cruise fare paid. There is no cover for the Red Frog Pub and typical bar food is offered at a truly nominal price of $3.33.

“We don’t want to nickel and dime our guests” says Cahill, leading a unified management team on board Carnival Magic who all echo exactly the same credo. That’s huge news to cruise lovers who have tried multiple cruise lines and are quick to observe that the all-inclusive nature of a cruise vacation is not what it once was. The cruise fare that used to cover about 85% of the total cost of a cruise has covered less in recent years on many lines. Carnival’s experiential focus brings that back.

For the most part, we won’t pay extra like we might on a different cruise line for what is included in the reasonable price of a Carnival cruise which can be exactly what we want it to be.

If what we want is simply a way to get from place to place, that’s a good reason to choose a cruise that helps fulfill your travel plans. We were glad to see our familiar ship at the end of an exhausting day sampling various ports.

But if what we want is an experiential travel experience like no other, Carnival is partnering with us to make that happen and Carnival Magic has what it takes.

The question we asked back in January: “Can Carnival capture the magic?” has been answered: Absolutely, and then some!