Once the fastest ship in the world, the Queen Mary has been permanently docked in Long Beach, California for over 50 years, a grand reminder of a time when ocean liners sped across the sea between America and Britain.
With sleek lines and art deco decor, the Queen Mary from the Cunard/White Star Line was built for both luxury and speed. She won the ‘Blue Riband’ — awarded annually to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic — in 1936, the year she was launched.
Over the next three decades, the ship played a major role as a troop ship in World War II, with its speed enabling it to outrun Hitler’s U-boats. She then spent decades carrying passengers between New York and London. A victim of the jet age, the Queen Mary’s maritime career ended in 1967 as she completed her 1,000th crossing of the North Atlantic.
Despite her stationary status, the ship has long endured rough seas in its adopted home, as a series of hopeful operators have failed to earn a profit. Now the Queen Mary’s future is in doubt once again, with its lease going up for auction May 20 after its current operator filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January.
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Long Beach has owned the grand old lady since she arrived from Scotland in 1967 as a hotel and tourist attraction. The city leases it to operators, who commit to maintaining the Queen Mary with funds generated from events, the hotel operation, and passenger fees levied on Carnival Cruise Line ships docking at Long Beach.
But it is maintenance that represents the biggest stumbling block to the 1,019.4 ft long, 81,237 gross ton ship’s success as a marine museum, hotel, and event space.
The Walt Disney Company once operated the vessel but dropped its lease following a 1992 marine survey that identified $27 million of necessary repairs. Over 20 years later, a city-commissioned 2015 study revealed a distressing cost spiral, projecting costs of up to $289 million for urgent repairs over the next several years.
The current leaseholder is Singapore-based Eagle Hospitality Trust, which counts 18 hotels among its portfolio. The company ran into financial trouble before the pandemic, and filed for bankruptcy in January with over $500 million in debt. As part of its bankruptcy process, the company is selling its interest in 15 of its properties, including the Queen Mary. Opening price for the portfolio is $470 million.
Eagle could also choose to sell the Queen Mary lease or any of its properties individually in the auction, according to reporting from the Long Beach Business Journal. The chief restructuring officer in the bankruptcy told the publication that it hopes to sell the ship’s lease individually and has already received multiple offers.
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“The Queen Mary is a special asset that has tremendous redevelopment opportunity on the 45 acres of waterfront,” Alan Tantlief said. “It’s a world-renowned asset and we hope the next custodian can allow it to reach its full potential.”
It’s that 45 acres of land which Eagle Hospitality subsidiary Urban Commons hoped would make operating the ship viable. ‘Queen Mary Island’ was the name for an ambitious project that would see an entertainment destination created on the current parking lot area. Plans include a 2,400-foot-long boardwalk, a 200-room hotel, bars, restaurants, and retail space.
There are hurdles to overcome before that project can come to fruition, partly due to stringent waterfront environmental regulations.
But Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler told the Long Beach Business Journal that he’s confident the Queen Mary will remain a city icon. “The long-term economic outlook for leisure, hospitality, and entertainment in Long Beach remains incredibly strong and the Queen Mary will be a centerpiece to that economic growth,” he said.
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“Once health orders related to COVID-19 are lifted and the new operator of the Queen Mary is identified, the City looks forward to restarting the preservation and development plans at the Queen Mary and the surrounding property.”
Adding to the current woes for the Queen Mary is the fact that it has been closed to visitors since May 2020 due to the global pandemic. And the modern Carnival Cruise Line ships that share the harbor have been absent since last March, cutting off another source of income.
Ocean liner historian and journalist Peter Knego told Cruise Radio that “the challenges with preserving ocean liners is never the cost in purchasing them, but converting and properly maintaining them for their static afterlife.”
But Knego, who runs the website midshipcentury.com, says the Queen Mary is irreplaceable.
“She put Long Beach, then a rundown port city, on the map when they acquired her and despite her having had some challenging periods, stands to this day as their mascot and is the highlight of their waterfront and skyline. Having her there is like having the Statue of Liberty in New York. She is a treasure that absolutely must be preserved.”