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The "Old Ship" Experience

A Guide to 1980-1990 Cruise Ships

by Lisa Plotnick

Over the past three years, we have witnessed the births of more than two dozen new cruise ships. Between them, the five major cruise lines (Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian) introduced 25 ships since 2000, representing one-third of their combined fleets.

Naturally, these newbuilds are the main focus of the cruise lines, the press, and many passengers. There are, however, plenty of tried and true veteran cruise ships among the ranks, as many vessels built in 1990 or earlier are still going strong.

I am a great fan of older liners and have been on several 1950s/60s-era ships, some of which are still in service today. Perhaps this is why I cringe when I hear people refer to ships built in the 1980s and early 1990s as "old." I prefer to think of them as teens or pre-teens. They are proven, reliable and, in many cases, pioneers of today's mega-ships.

Some examples of "teen ships" and the dates they entered service, are:

Noordam Holland America Line 1984
Royal Princess Princess Cruises 1984
Holiday Carnival Cruise Lines 1985
Celebration Carnival Cruise Lines 1986
Jubilee Carnival Cruise Lines 1987
Sovereign of the Seas Royal Caribbean International 1987
Norwegian Sea Norwegian Cruise Line 1988
Fantasy Carnival Cruise Lines 1990
Horizon Celebrity Cruises 1990
Nordic Empress Royal Caribbean International 1990
Monarch of the Seas Royal Caribbean International 1990

So, Why Bother?

With all of the new, modern ships available to today's cruisers, why select an older model?

  • One of the main reasons passengers select a teen ship is price. As many passengers are anxious to try new ships, sailing an identical itinerary on an older ship is less expensive. Prices are also favorable as several teen ships also run shorter itineraries, such as 3-, 4-, or 5-night cruises to the Bahamas or Mexico.
  • In some cases, the itinerary calls for the use of a teen ship. For example, many of the new mega-ships are too large to visit the Bermudian ports of St. George's and Hamilton. As teen ships are typically a line's smallest ships (although this can range from 35,000 to over 70,000 gross registered tons), they are well suited for ports that their younger, larger sisters cannot reach.
  • Nostalgia also plays a role. For many of us, these were the ships that made us fall in love with cruising years ago. Many passengers like to revisit a favorite ship to see how she's fared over the years. Teen ships also offer a number of wonderful amenities -- as we'll see later -- that are no longer standard on recent newbuilds.
  • For passenger ship historians, the teen ships hold special appeal. These ships are living examples of the cruise industry's transition from the post-"Love Boat" era cruise ships to today's cities on the sea. Several industry innovations, such as towering atriums, were introduced on some of these ships. Also, some of these models were so successful that they gave rise to one or more sister ships. For example, Fantasy was the first of Carnival's most popular class, which ultimately led to eight ships (most recently, Paradise, built in 1998).

What to Expect from A Teenager

First of all, don't let the age throw you. All of the teen ships have been refurbished numerous times, ranging from new carpeting and fixtures to complete overhauls. Amenities have been added over the years, such as alternative dining areas, spas, and Internet cafés. Royal Caribbean even announced that it is retrofitting its older ships with rock-climbing walls.

Even so, there are still a number of differences between the teen ships and their baby sisters.

(1) Ship Size and Passenger Density:

As mentioned earlier, teen ships tend to be smaller than today's newbuilds. For the most part, they measure in at under 50,000 GRT. There are exceptions, however. Sovereign of the Seas, Monarch of the Seas, and Fantasy all exceed 70,000 GRT.

One thing to keep in mind is that the space-to-passenger ratio of a teen ship is often significantly lower than that of a newer ship. For example, compare Norwegian Sea (42,000 GRT, 1,518 passengers = 27.2) to the new Norwegian Dawn (91,740 GRT, 2,224 passengers = 41.3). Another example is Nordic Empress (48,563 GRT, 2,020 passengers = 24.0) versus Navigator of the Seas (138,000 GRT, 3,114 passengers = 44.3). Space-to-passenger ratios on some teen ships, however, are more comparable to the newbuilds, such as Carnival's Fantasy (38.6 vs. 37.0 for Carnival Conquest), or Royal Princess (37.4, the same as for the upcoming Caribbean Princess).

Even considering these figures, I have rarely found the teen ships to be more crowded than the newer ships. Passenger flow is usually very good (see below). And, with fewer passengers on a teen ship, there are generally shorter wait times for embarkation and tendering.

(2) General Ship Layout:

One reason for the smaller gross tonnage of the teen ships is that they have considerably fewer decks than their newer counterparts. On average, teen ships have 9 passenger decks, whereas the 2002-2003 newbuilds average 14 decks. This makes getting around the teen ships easier with less reliance on elevators for many passengers. Additionally, indoor public rooms on teen ships are usually on adjacent decks and are very often just a few decks away from the lido and pool areas.

[Fantasy's Grand Spectrum Atrium]

Passengers who try a teen ship after cruising on a newer ship often lament the lack of certain features, such as a grand atrium, glass elevators, and balcony cabins. There are, however several exceptions. For example, all of the Royal Caribbean ships and Carnival's Fantasy each offer atriums of five to seven stories. (In fact, Sovereign of the Seas was the first cruise ship to introduce this feature.) As we'll see later, several teen ships do offer private balconies.

On the other hand, fans of older ships enjoy the features that the teen ships usually offer that are not standard on today's ships. These include wraparound teak promenade decks and an abundance of public aft spaces closer to the water line.

(3) Stateroom Selection:

[Norwegian Sea, outside cabin]

One of the frequent concerns I hear about teen ships is the relatively small size of the cabins. While there are certainly some very nice cabins to be had on these ships, most of the standard cabins serve as excellent examples of efficiency in small spaces.

The most notorious of the small cabins are on Norwegian Sea, Sovereign of the Seas, and Monarch of the Seas, [Royal Princess, outside cabin]on which standard cabins may be as small as 110 square feet. The reason behind the small size is simple -- these ships were built at a time when passengers spent most of their waking hours outside their cabins. Some of the space-saving techniques used inside these cabins are pretty ingenious. On Norwegian Sea, for example, the beds are configured as sofas during the day, with a padded back attached to the wall behind the long side each bed. At night, the cabin steward flips the backs up and out of the way, so that the entire surface of the bed is available for slumber. On Royal Princess, one bed can actually fold into the wall, giving passengers more floor space during the day.

Again, there are exceptions. The cabins in the lowest category on Horizon are 172 square feet, comparable to the size of similar cabins on Celebrity's newest ship, Constellation. All of the teen ships also have a number of larger cabins, and some even have cabins with balconies. Royal Princess has two decks of balconied cabins. There are also a limited number of balconies on Carnival's teen ships.

Although cabin amenities have been modernized over the years, remnants of the original dëcor may remain. This can be either charming or dated, depending upon your perspective.

(4) Dining Options:

Most of the teen ships have two, single-level dining rooms. This is a carry-over from the early days of cruising, in which former two-class liners were converted to single-class cruisers. The same menu is served in both venues.

[Sovereign of the Seas Dining Room]

The older teen ships were built at a time when many passengers took all meals in the dining room, including breakfast and lunch, and buffets were limited to quick snacks. Today, buffets are quite extensive, and open sitting dining is the norm for breakfast and lunch, while NCL and Princess have also extended this concept to the dinner hour. Thus, the buffets on some teen ships tend to get crowded, especially as some ships now close the main dining rooms for lunch when the ship is in port. In response, the buffet areas of several teen ships have been recently reconfigured to better handle the increased traffic they were not originally designed to accommodate.

Alternative dining is also available on the teen ships, although the number of choices may be fewer than that of newer ships. Norwegian Sea, for instance, offers two alternative dining venues (Le Bistro and a new Pasta Café), and Horizon offers the Coral Seas Restaurant.

(5) Lounges and Entertainment:

[Horizon Show Lounge]

On average, entertainment on the teen ships is similar to that of the newer ships. The venues, however, may be different, as some ships have a nightclub rather than a tiered show lounge. One notable exception is Horizon, which presents its evening extravaganzas in a two-level theatre. Even so, one of the best shows we have ever seen on a cruise was in the single-level show lounge on Norwegian Sea. Special effects were astounding, and included mist and water during a fabulous performance of "Singing in the Rain."

[Norwegian Sea Show Lounge]

The teen ships offer the usual bars and casinos found on the newbuilds. On some ships, you will even find cigar lounges, champagne bars, and karaoke bars. Shopping -- a form of entertainment for many of us -- is also not lacking on the teen ships. Programs for the kids also abound, although the facilities are often much smaller than those on the newer ships. For example, Horizon's children's playroom was built into a space about the size of two standard cabins. On the other hand, Sovereign of the Seas features fairly large facilities for both children and teens.

(6) Pools and Spas:

The main difference between the pool decks of teen ships and newer ships is, quite simply, size. Teen ships tend to have just one or two pools, most often located in the central part of the deck. Carnival ships offer a smaller aft pool, as well, while Noordam has just two aft pools. Sun worshippers may notice a relative lack of outdoor seating by the pool and lido areas as compared to the newer ships. Additionally, some older ships do not offer retractable domes over one of the pools, as is nearly standard on today's newbuilds. There are some modern touches, however. For example, the pools on Carnival's teen ships have slides, just as on the line's new ships.

[Sovereign of the Seas gym]

Spas, for the most part, have been retrofitted into existing areas and are smaller than today's versions, although they offer many of the same treatments and amenities (thalassotherapy pools aside, in most cases). Similarly, all of the teen ships have gyms, although they range in size from tiny to more than adequate.


While a ship from the 1980s or early 1990s may offer significant differences from a ship built years later, they still offer plenty of amenities for today's cruisers. As with most ships, passengers have a myriad of activities available in a multitude of venues. Certainly, knowing what to expect from a teen ship is important, but passengers should not be dissuaded from giving one of these ships a try. Who knows -- you may fall in love with cruising all over again.

[Signal Flags]

Lisa Plotnick, SeaLetter Columnist and Forum ManagerLisa Plotnick, a writer who lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Neil, and young son, has written many SeaLetter Cruise Magazine articles, cruise ship reviews and book reviews. Lisa is a fan of the classic liners, unfortunately a dying breed in the early 21st century. The Plotnicks have cruised once or twice a year for the past twelve years and have been on most of the major cruise lines as well as several lesser-known lines.

Lisa is a SeaLetter Columnist and also assists in the management of the SeaLetter Cruise Forum. She may be reached for questions or comment at: lisa@sealetter.com

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