Cruise Terminal Operations, Behind the Scenes

I’ve always wondered what it’s like behind the scenes of a cruise terminal. The things the passengers don’t know or even think about.  Today I got the experience to see just that – behind the scenes at the Jacksonville Cruise Terminal.

Jacksonville Cruise Terminal at 0430 hours.
Jacksonville Cruise Terminal at 0430 hours.

I shadowed Gloria Tomkins, cruise terminal supervisor, who showed me what a day-in-the-life was like at JAXPORT.

To start the day we actually needed a cruise ship, or a report of one inbound from the Atlantic Ocean.

The river pilot was scheduled to board Carnival Fascination at 0400 hours and make the 14 mile trek up the St. John’s River to the Jacksonville Cruise Terminal. Depending on the tide it can take up to a couple hours to reach the pier. The ship made it in just under two hours today.

Here is a play-by-play of the day:

0430 hours

I arrived at a dark cruise terminal and security told me where to park. I met Gloria as she was walking into the cruise terminal for the day. One of the first things Gloria did was turned on the dock lights for the crew, turned on the air conditioners for all the buildings and lights for the baggage claim areas.

Afterwards she printed a cage report, which showed us how many cages of baggage were coming off the Carnival Fascination. Today there were 47 cages. Gloria told me that on Monday and summer disembarkations, cage loads are lighter because people are either trying self-assist debarkation to get to work or they pack light because it’s a four-day summer cruise.

cruise terminal operations
The empty cruise terminal.

0500 hours

Security and line handlers started showing up to get ready for the day. There are a handful of forklifts on the dock that take the bags in and out of the terminal.


The ship was just starting to come under the Dames Point Bridge and approach the dock. The ship docked with the starboard side to the dock. When asked if it’s always docked on the starboard side, I was told that’s the way Carnival Fascination is set up inside the ship.


0615 hours

The captain of the Carnival Fascination did one heck of a parallel-parking job and the first line was thrown to the line handlers to start securing the 855’ vessel.


0700 hours 

The parking and the embark team started arriving.

The ship is secured and the customs agent walked on the ship to make sure the ship was in compliance with local regulations and all the crew checked out. Nothing can come off the ship until U.S. Customs clears the vessel.

The ship checked out, the vessel is cleared and the crazy day begins.

0720 hours

Baggage carts were taken off the vessel and, through a chain of forklifts, were put in the baggage claim area. From there, union workers empty the carts and line them up by the baggage zone numbers.

After all the bags are put out they are inspected by US Customs.

The crewmembers who were heading to vacation or getting off the ship for the day got off and made their way through customs.

Luggage offloaded from Carnival Fascination.
Luggage offloaded from Carnival Fascination.

0800 – 0850 hours

Passengers who chose the self-assist disembarkation option started coming off the ship. Not everyone pays attention though. A lot of passengers who checked bags the night before got off the ship during the self-assist time and were stuck waiting in the terminal for almost an hour. The price you pay for not listening.

By the look of the little baggage laid out, there weren’t a lot of passengers who actually checked their bag the night before – most passengers were using self-assist.


0900 hours

The terminal was in full swing. Passengers were leaving; taxicabs were bringing guests to the airport, tolls were being collected from the shuttles leaving to the airport and officers were making sure the pick-up area was safe and that passengers were using the correct walkways.


1020 hours

This was the end of general disembarkation and the shipboard crew started filling up the recycle dumpsters pier-side with all the recyclables from the previous voyage. The ship recycles everything from glass and wooden pallets to paper.

1030 hours

The cruise terminal opened for general embarkation and the pier-side staff started x-raying passenger carry-on items and making sure passengers had their proper documentation.

Just before boarding begins.
Just before boarding begins.

1045 hours

Customs cleared the ship for embarkation. All the paperwork was in compliance and declaration of security was signed off on.

Provisions such as food, fuel and supplies could now be loaded onto the ship.

1130 – 1545 hours

General boarding began by zone numbers.
A newly married young couple was trying to board Carnival Fascination – the only problem – they didn’t know they needed their original birth certificate or passport. They were trying to contact the father 1,000-miles away to fax the original copy to the cruise terminal.

Bags waiting to be loaded on Carnival Fascination.
Bags waiting to be loaded on Carnival Fascination.

1515 hours

The river pilot arrived to Carnival Fascination. It is the river pilot’s job to navigate the ship from the Jacksonville Cruise Terminal to the sea buoy at the end of the St. John’s River and into the Atlantic Ocean.

1559 hours

Thanks to a last minute fax the couple made the cruise by the skin of their teeth.

The final bags were loaded and boarding was officially over. The gangway was pulled in and the ship sealed up.


cruise terminal operations
About to send Carnival Fascination to sea.

1604 hours

Lines were dropped from the pier and the ship was officially untied and underway. Because of marine traffic in the river the ship had to go a half-mile up river to turn around.

Carnival Fascination heading up river to turn around.
Carnival Fascination heading up river to turn around.

1630 hours

Wrap up reports were ran and people started to call it a day. The water that Carnival Fascination took on also had to be recorded. Today it was just under 2,000 short tons of potable water.

1645 hours
The Jacksonville Cruise Terminal was officially a ghost town as the cleaning crew left, lights were turned off and the building was secured.

Outbound to sea.
Outbound to sea.

The Jacksonville Cruise Terminal was definitely non-stop and action packed from the moment I got there until the time I left. There was so much behind the scenes operations that no one ever gets to see – and probably not think of.


cruise terminal operations
Lights off at the Jacksonville Cruise Terminal.

So, the next time you board your ship remember that it’s the employees pier-side that start your cruise experience and handling the cruise terminal operations.

Special thanks to Gloria Tomkins at the Jacksonville Cruise Terminal for letting me shadow her for the day and checking out cruise terminal operations first hand.

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