By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and its fifteen-year-old Majesty of the Seascould use a little good news.
The Miami-based company has been under assault lately. On January 20 the Los Angeles Times reported the world's second-largest cruise ship firm had apparently tried to bury reports of 200-plus rapes, batteries, and other sexual assaults on its ships. On February 5 Royal Caribbean Chairman Richard D. Fain announced that financial problems lay ahead. Shares plummeted five percent.
Her Majesty has had issues too.
In December 2002, 37 passengers were forced to disembark in Key West after developing a flulike virus. That same month 1400 passengers had to spend a cold, rainy night on CocoCay, the company's privately owned island in the Bahamas, because of rough seas. In March 2004 a 29-year-old cabin steward named Symon Dias went missing from the ship somewhere between the Bahamas and Key West. His body was never found, and his parents accused the cruise ship company of waiting to tell the Coast Guard about his disappearance. Another woman, Kimberley Dean Edwards, boarded the Majesty in October 2004 to celebrate her 40th birthday. Three days into the cruise, Edwards said that a drunk passenger followed her into a bathroom and groped her.
In just the past six months, anonymous passengers have complained on a cruise review Website that the bathrooms "stank like urine" and that "the entire ship is looking very tired."
So what did the cruise geniuses do to counter this? They spent $40 million refurbishing the ship, then offered New Times, other local media, and about 1,200-plus travel agents and their guests an all-expense-paid, free, two-night trip to celebrate the "relaunch" from the Port of Miami. (The company spent a fortune a similar, three-night cruise is about $300 per person, excluding booze. You do the math.)
The minute my companion and I boarded the ship, company spokespeople and smiling staff courted us with trays of free champagne. And there were gifts in the rooms balsamic vinaigrette, steak sauce, a cookbook of ship recipes, and, inexplicably, an ice cream scoop embossed with the company's logo, a blue anchor.
Then there were karaoke, Vegaslike shows, and endless buffets. During the first night, a massive barbecue was held aboard the pool deck, complete with ice sculptures and a Broward County DJ named Richie Rich.
The hard sell came at 9:00 a.m. the first morning. Called Common Ground, the hour-and-a-half-long program in the Chorus Line theater urged travel agents to "ride the wave," that is, sell three- and four-night cruises to the "time-starved consumer."
Though you couldn't feel even a hint of moving water, Royal Caribbean's senior vice president for sales Lisa Bauer unleashed a wave of propaganda on the crowd. Among the new offerings, she said, were six ships in Europe, a Valentine's Day special sale, trans-fat-free food, and new bedding in the cabins.
"Did you guys all get a good night's sleep on those fabulous beds?" raved the perky blond. Everyone applauded. I guess that's normal, to applaud sleep. Or beds. Or whatever.
Bauer didn't mention the recent bad news. If Royal Caribbean is concerned about rapes or share price, she didn't show it. I guess that makes sense. Crimes happen on every ship, not just those belonging to Royal Caribbean; industry bigwigs told a U.S. House Committee that between 2003 and 2005, 178 cruise passengers reported being sexually assaulted, and another 24 disappeared.
Of course there's no way to know the real numbers. The ships are registered in other countries, don't pay much in the way of U.S. taxes, and don't need to adhere to U.S. laws. Recently Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, proposed a bill that would require the cruise companies to notify the Department of Homeland Security within four hours of a crime, or face a $250,000 fine.
After the pep-rallylike sales meeting, the company's public relations crew held a mimosa-fueled press conference for los periodistas. In a circular lounge on the ship's fourteenth floor, a dozen journalists drank and snacked on salmon sandwiches while chatting with two company execs. In the distance, CocoCay, a tiny spit of an island in The Bahamas, interrupted the glittering blue Atlantic Ocean.
A writer from El Nuevo Herald who was wearing wacky round-framed sunglasses purred when she talked about the ship's gleaming new bathrooms (which smelled clean and not like piss). "Verrrry nice," she said. "Somehow, it looks, I don't know. Fresher."
The two executives one tall and thin, the other, shorter and stocky; both European beamed and nodded. They started using cruise speak, talking about "soft furnishings" commonly known as bedspreads, pillows, and carpets.
Just then, a Jamaican waitress standing nearby spilled a trayful of mimosas. The tall, fluted glasses tumbled in slow motion onto a gold-colored carpet making a fizzy noise on the way down. The reporters looked alternately embarrassed for the waitress and sad over the spilled champagne.
Not to worry; it wasn't like booze was in short supply on this voyage. Alcohol flows freely on every cruise, and it's often at the root of many of the assaults and disappearances. Probably the most infamous disappearance-after-drinking case aboard a cruise ship in recent years happened on one of Royal Caribbean's other vessels. In July 2005, Connecticut attorney George Allen Smith IV boarded the Brilliance of the Seasin Europe for a honeymoon cruise with his new bride. After a night of gambling and drinking absinthe, the 26-year-old Smith disappeared. His body was never found, and his family has blasted Royal Caribbean. Smith's case also spurred Representative Shays to sponsor his legislation on reporting crime aboard the ships.
After the mimosa binge, er, press conference, Erik Lewis, a fireplug-shape guy in his fifties who was more of a working stiff than P.R. type (he was actually the guy in charge of Royal Caribbean's new building and design), took everyone on a walking tour of the ship. He showed off the 880-foot-long vessel's new amenities and explained the details: All of the work had been completed during a 28-day frenzy while the ship was dry-docked in Freeport. This was the ship's first sail since the renovations.
Lewis slowly guided us around the new Majesty, past a steel-and-red-leather-trimmed Johnny Rockets restaurant, a jazzed-up teen disco decorated in purple and gold, a Latin-themed club named Boleros, and an ivory and light wood spa-gym offering spinning classes. An entire restaurant The Windjammer was torn down and rebuilt to look like an upscale mall food court, Lewis explained. He mostly droned on about the construction details and admitted that he wasn't used to ferrying the media around. "I haven't tasted the pizza yet," he remarked as we passed by a one-ton pizza oven imported from Italy.
After the tour we were all ferried to CocoCay. Onshore there was more food, more booze, and a few canned activities (snorkeling, parasailing, sunbathing) on the sugar sand beach. After a few hours and a few drinks, we got back on the Majesty and prepared for dinner in the Starlight Dining Room. Travel agents occupied most of the tables, while the 26 media people and their guests were corralled in the back of the room, shoveling in the free escargots and prime rib. Nearly all of the reporters said they "loved" the ship (although one freelancer said he wished the designers had used bolder colors while decorating).
Most passengers on the junket were middle-aged or older, content to sip a cocktail from a chaise lounge on deck, go to bed early, and get up soon after dawn for the breakfast buffet. They didn't want to talk about Representative Shays' bill that requires reporting of crime, the company's financial situation, or the nefarious events that had unfolded on past cruises.
"I was kind of surprised when I closed down the bar last night," said James, a lanky engineer from London. With blond-gray hair and blue eyes, he looked a bit like a senior Steve McQueen. He was one of the contractors on the refurbishment. On the second night of the cruise, he sat at the bar in Boleros, the Latin-themed club, drinking a whiskey sour and counting the hours until he could go home to the United Kingdom. A band played "Oye Como Va," as an ice sculpture of a horse rotated on a lit pedestal nestled on a buffet table.
Despite his tales of flying around the world to refurbish multimillion-dollar yachts and cruise ships, James didn't give off a party animal vibe he chatted about London's traffic woes and how he gave up his car five years ago.
The travel agents, however, bought the sales pitch. "I love the new ship," gushed a large woman in her sixties who was backing out of a glass elevator in a motorized wheelchair. The chair beep-beep-beeped as it moved backward; she had posted a sticker that said "American by birth, Texan by the grace of God" on the scooter's back bumper.
Neither she nor William Moseley, a Maryland man who is organizing a smooth jazz cruise, seemed to know, or care, about past criticism. "I had no idea," he said, while sitting in the redone Viking Crown Lounge, with its low lighting and view of the ship's bow. A Harry Connick, Jr. version of "Mack the Knife" played softly in the background. "It's a great ship."