The History of Carnival Cruise Line — 1972 through Today


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Carnival Cruise Line was founded in 1972 and has since become one of the world’s leading cruise operators.

Carnival Mardi Gras history of carnival cruise line

Founded by Ted Arison, the cruise line aimed to make cruising accessible and enjoyable to the average American vacationer.

Let’s explore the history of Carnival Cruise Line, from its maiden voyage of the TSS Mardi Gras, which ran aground, to the introduction of megaships with rollercoasters on top. Carnival has consistently pushed boundaries.

How did Carnival Cruise Line start? 

005 empress of canada

In the early days of the cruise industry, Ted Arison envisioned creating a fun and affordable vacation option that would appeal to everyday Americans.

Following a partnership – and subsequent rocky break-up – with Knut Kloster of Norwegian Cruise Line, he established Carnival Cruise Line in 1972, with the help of American International Travel Service (AITS), a well-known travel agency.

This partnership laid the foundation for the world’s largest and most successful cruise operators.

Ted Arison and Carnival Cruise Lines

Ted Arison CCL Founder
Ted Arison Carnival Cruise Line Founder

Ted Arison, an Israeli-American entrepreneur, deeply understood the maritime industry before founding  Carnival, holding diverse roles in the shipping realm, spanning management, operations, and sales. 

At the time, cruising was not a mainstream vacation option appealing mostly to wealthy vacationers – the “newly wed and nearly dead” as the experience was referred to back in the day. Recognizing a unique opportunity, he envisioned a cost-effective vacation alternative with mass-market appeal – truly innovative.

1972 TS Mardi Gras and 2021 Mardi Gras. (CARNIVAL)

The collaboration with AITS, was fruitful: AITS financed the acquisition of their first ship, the TSS Mardi Gras, a converted transatlantic ocean liner, while Arison’s expertise guided the company’s strategic direction. 

However, Mardi Gras’ maiden voyage on March 11, 1972, became the stuff of legends when the vessel ran aground just outside the Port of Miami channel, creating worldwide headlines.

Undeterred, Arison and AITS refined the Carnival Cruise Line experience, capitalizing on the festive onboard atmosphere, hence earning the nickname the “Fun Ships.”  

Carnival’s Early Ships

TSS Carnivale
Before being transformed in the TSS Carnivale (CARNIVAL)

Introduction of Mardi Gras and Carnivale

Carnival Cruise Line started its journey in the early 1970s with the introduction of Mardi Gras. Acquired in 1972 as the former Empress of Canada, the ship embarked on its maiden voyage, setting the course for transforming the modern-day cruise vacation experience.

Soon afterward, in 1975, Carnival added another ship to its fleet, aptly named Carnivale. Both ships provided affordable vacation experiences, bringing the cruise experience to the masses and laying the foundation for the company’s meteoric rise from struggling cruise line to industry leader.

Expanding the Fleet with Tropicale, Festivale, and Holiday

Tropicale Festivale Holiday
Carnival Tropicale, Festivale, and Holiday

As the popularity of Carnival Cruise Line increased, the company continued to enhance its fleet with the addition of:

  • Tropicale: Carnival Cruise Line shocked the cruise industry by announcing the construction of the Tropicale, the first new cruise ship built in many years due to increasing fuel prices. Designed and built exclusively for Carnival, the 36,000-ton vessel debuted in 1982. Tropicale became the flagship of the fleet and an innovator in the cruise industry with innovative features like an expansive promenade, not to mention the first “Fun Ship” to include the line’s distinctive winged whale’s tail funnel. 
  • Festivale:  Following an extensive $30 million refit in Japan, Festivale entered service in 1978 becoming the fastest ship sailing from Miami to the Caribbean. l. Festivale was also the first Carnival ship to feature a water slide, setting the stage for massive water parks and attractions in coming years.
  • Holiday (1985), Jubilee (1986), and Celebration (1987): Launched in 1985, Holiday was the first of three self-described “SuperLiners”  with spacious public areas and a wide range of amenities, helping to propel Carnival to its position as the Most Popular Cruise Line in the World.

READ: 11 Former Carnival Ships — Where are they now?

These new ships dramatically contributed to the company’s growth, ushering in an exciting new era of cruising and attracting more passengers to sample the unique Carnival experience.

By focusing on expanding, including constructing new purpose-built ships, Carnival Cruise Line solidified its position as the number one cruise choice for consumers. 

The 9 Classes of Carnival Ships

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Carnival Spirit and Carnival Splendor in Australia. (CARNIVAL)

Carnival Cruise Line has a diverse fleet of ships, each belonging to a different class. These classes have evolved over time, with newer ships boasting modern amenities and design features.

Fantasy Class


The Fantasy class began Carnival’s modern era in the 1990s. This class includes eight ships:

ShipEntered ServiceRetired
Carnival Fantasy19902020
Carnival Ecstasy19912022
Carnival Sensation19932022
Carnival Fascination19942020
Carnival Imagination19952020
Carnival Inspiration19962020
Carnival Elation1998In-Service
Carnival Paradise1998In-Service

These 70,000-ton ships – massive for their time – were true innovators with new features like a towering seven-deck high atrium, a 12,000-square-foot spa and a double-width promenade lined with themed bar and lounges, making them a popular choice for first-time cruisers.

From a design standpoint, the Fantasy class put Carnival on the map, not only from its guest-pleasing layout but also the decor created by interior architect Joe Farcus, who created lounges modeled after ancient Egypt, the New York skyline, Faberge eggs, even placing a vintage Rolls Royce on Carnival Ecstasy’s promenade. 

Carnival Fascination
Carnival Fascination was the fourth Fantasy-class ship. (CARNIVAL)

Spirit Class

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Carnival Spirit headed under the Dames Point Bridge. (CRUISE RADIO)

The Spirit class, launched in 2001, embraces a more intimate cruising experience, with a smaller guest capacity and unique features like a single dining room, a ship-long promenade, and a cozy winter garden in the bow of the ship.

ShipYear Launched
Carnival Spirit2000
Carnival Pride2001
Carnival Legend2001
Carnival Miracle2003
Carnival Luminosa (transferred from Costa Cruises)2008

These ships feature innovative designs, with upwards of 80 percent balcony or ocean view cabins providing guests unparalleled views.

Conquest Class

Aerial view of Carnival Conquest cruise ship
Carnival Conquest after her 2022 dry dock. (CRUISE RADIO)

Carnival expanded its fleet with the Conquest class in 2002.

ShipYear Launched
Carnival Conquest2002
Carnival Glory2003
Carnival Valor2004
Carnival Liberty2005
Carnival Freedom2007

Expanding on the amenities of the Destiny class, these 110,000-ton ships offer a larger guest capacity and even more amenities, taking the Carnival experience to new heights.

Splendor Class

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Carnival Splendor (CARNIVAL CRUISE)

The unique Splendor class, with its only ship, the Carnival Splendor, debuted in 2008. As a standalone class, the 113,300-ton Splendor is slightly larger than the Conquest class. It offers a distinct cruising experience, complete with a massive spa, a magradome covering one of the pools, and other impressive amenities.

Dream Class

Front view of Carnival Breeze
Carnival Breeze (CARNIVAL)

The 130,000-ton Dream class represents a new generation of Carnival ships, offering innovative designs and amenities.

ShipYear Launched
Carnival Dream2009
Carnival Magic2011
Carnival Breeze2012

Each Dream class ship features a sprawling water park, top-deck restaurants, a wrap-around outdoor promenade, the line’s first cove balconies cut out of the ship’s hull, and other cutting-edge attractions. Carnival Magic was the first ship to offer the RedFrog Pub, now a staple across the fleet.

These ships began a new interior design style that relied less on the inventive – and sometimes controversial – creations of longtime interior architect Joe Farcus. 

Sunshine Class (Formerly Destiny)

Carnival needed to start thinking what the back half of the Destiny-class ships would look like. So in 2012, they announced this massive undertaking which would take Carnival Destiny and give it a total transformation to Carnival Sunshine, followed by Carnival Triumph to Carnival Sunrise, and Carnival Victory to Carnival Radiance.

ShipYear Refurbished
Carnival Sunshine (Destiny)2013
Carnival Sunrise (Triumph)2019
Carnival Radiance (Victory)2021

Vista Class

Carnival Vista
Carnival Vista (CARNIVAL)

Introduced in 2016, the 133,500-ton Vista class builds upon the features introduced by the Dream class. It takes the “Fun Ship” cruising experience to a new level, with guest accommodations like the Havana Retreat area and Family Harbor staterooms.

ShipYear Launched
Carnival Vista2016
Carnival Horizon2018
Carnival Panorama2019

These ships offer revolutionary features, such as an onboard brewery, the first IMAX Theater at sea (Carnival Vista and Carnival Horizon) and an onboard trampoline park (Carnival Panorama).

Venezia Class

Carnival Venezia New York
Carnival Venezia dock in NYC. (CRUISE RADIO)

Carnival recently created another class of Italian-inspired ships with the launch of Carnival Venezia, originally built for Costa Cruises and transformed into an Italian, yet entirely recognizable version of a “Fun Ship.” 

ShipEntered CCL Service
Carnival Venezia2023
Carnival Firenze Scheduled 2024

Excel Class (LNG Ships)

carnival celebration miami florida
Carnival Celebration leaving PortMiami(CRUISE RADIO)

Carnival continues to innovate with the 180,000-ton Excel class, the largest “Fun Ships’ ever constructed.

ShipYear Launched
Mardi Gras2021
Carnival Celebration2022
Carnival Jubilee2023

These massive ships are among the most technologically advanced at sea while offering never-before-seen features like a roller coaster and signature restaurants from Guy Fieri, Shaquille O’Neal, and Emeril Lagasse.

They are powered by environmentally friendly liquefied natural gas (LNG), the world’s cleanest burning fossil fuel.

Each ship class represents a unique cruising experience within the Carnival Cruise Line fleet, catering to various preferences, tastes, and budgets.

Notable Moments in Cruise History

carnival spirit miami
Carnival Spirit leaving PortMiami. (CRUISE RADIO)

Carnival Cruise Stock Market Era

Carnival Cruise Line made a significant milestone by going public in 1987. The initial public offering (IPO) allowed the company to raise much-needed capital and expand its presence in the cruise industry.

By becoming a publicly traded company, Carnival Cruise Line increased its credibility and attracted more investors to support its growth.

Fast forward to today, where there are Carnival shareholder benefits if you hold 100 or more shares of Carnival cruise stock.

The shareholder benefits extend to every cruise line that Carnival Corporation operates.

Introduction of Kathie Lee Gifford Branding

In 1984, TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford became the official spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Line, helping to increase its brand awareness. Gifford’s presence in the company’s marketing campaigns was critical in showcasing the fun atmosphere of Carnival Cruise Line voyages.

As a result, the company began reaching a wider audience, and its cruise ships became synonymous with leisure and enjoyment.

Kathie Lee Johnson

First Non-Smoking Cruise Ship

In 1998, Carnival Cruise Line launched Paradise, the seventh in the line’s Fantasy Class and the first smoke-free ship in the industry (even workers were forbidden to smoke during construction – a rarity in European shipyards). 

Paradise was launched to much fanfare with a concert benefiting the American Cancer Society but alas the ship never really caught on with vacationers.

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While the ship attracted spa goers and those looking for a healthier alternative, group business – a mainstay of the cruise business model – was hard to come by.

After a few years, Paradise’s smoke-free environment was no longer. Carnival certainly was ahead of its time. Paradise was a novel concept that may be repeated at some point.

Evolutions of Fun 


In the mid-2000s, Carnival Cruise Line launched “The Evolutions of Fun,” a refurbishment program targeting their older fleet. With an investment of over $250 million, the initiative aimed to modernize these ships to meet the expectations of today’s travelers.

The upgrades included expansive new water parks, the line’s first adults-only retreats, refreshed accommodations, updated dining venues, and new entertainment options. 

Complementing its newbuild program, Carnival chose to reinvest in its existing ships, ensuring they remained relevant and functional, optimizing resources, and helping to standardize options across the fleet. 

Fun Ship 2.0 Launch


In 2011, Carnival Cruise Line introduced Fun Ship 2.0, a comprehensive redesign to enhance the guest experience.

New partnerships with recognizable entities like Guy Fieri, new F&B choices like the ever-popular Alchemy Bar, improved entertainment offerings, including Playlist Productions, and new onboard activities highlighted Fun Ship 2.0.

Acquiring Three Costa Ships

Carnival Venezia New York

Carnival Cruise Line strategically acquired three ships from Costa Cruises in 2022: Costa Luminosa, Costa Venezia, and Costa Firenze to strengthen its fleet and expand its offerings.

This acquisition was part of Carnival Corporation’s efforts to restructure and optimize its global operations.

Carnival Cruise Accidents

1998’s Carnival Ecstasy Fire 


In 1998, a sudden fire erupted in the laundry room on Carnival Ecstasy as it departed from the Port of Miami on a four-day cruise.

As confirmed by an investigation by the NTSB, the incident was caused by two workers who were welding equipment near the laundry room, igniting lint that spread throughout the ventilation system, causing panic and chaos among the passengers and crew.

Fortunately, the fire was eventually contained and extinguished, preventing structural damage to the cruise ship. No casualties were reported, but the Carnival Ecstasy was out of service for an extended time.

Carnival Splendor Fire (Spam Cruise)


In November 2010, Carnival Splendor experienced a significant incident during a cruise to Mexico when a fire broke out in the engine room, causing a major mechanical failure.

Thankfully, thanks to the quick response of the ship’s command and crew, none of the 3,299 passengers and 1,167 crew members were injured.

The fire led to a complete loss of power on the ship, which was stranded 200 miles south of San Diego, California. As a result, the Carnival Splendor required towing to return to port safely. This process was slow and painstaking, as the ship had to be carefully towed into the Mexican port of Ensenada.

Passengers on the ship were stranded for days due to the engine room fire, and it took a coordinated effort from multiple parties to recover the vessel safely. 

carnival splendor australia

The ship had to be provisioned with food from helicopters and vessels from the U.S. Navy, including what was reported to be pallets of a certain Hormel-brand canned meat product, with the incident referred to by passengers and media as the “Spam Cruise.”

As it turned out, Spam was on the original provisions list, but no Spam was served on board.    

The Carnival Splendor fire was also one of the early instances of a cruise line utilizing social media to keep guests and media apprised of the situation.  

In addition to keeping Carnival Splendor guests updated, amused, and entertained on board, Cruise Director John Heald posted a series of blogs called “Smoke on the Water.” Carnival has since down John’s blog, but you can read part of the first entry here.

Heald was widely praised for his authenticity and transparency – delivered with a dash of British humor – despite a very challenging situation while playing a key role in helping Carnival weather the intense media storm.

Carnival Triumph (Poop Cruise)

Carnival triumph poop cruise ship
Carnival Triumph docked in Cozumel. (CRUISE RADIO)

In 2013, while sailing on a western Caribbean cruise from Galveston, Carnival Triumph experienced a significant maritime incident when an electrical fire knocked out the ship’s propulsion system and, subsequently, all on board non-emergency services, leaving passengers and crew stranded. 

Media dubbed it the “Poop Cruise” due to the unsanitary conditions passengers were forced to endure. The situation attracted extensive worldwide media attention, and criticism was directed at Carnival Cruise Line for handling the crisis.

The incident served as a wake-up call for the industry, and many cruise lines began to reevaluate their safety protocols and contingency plans in case of similar crises.

In response, Carnival Cruise Line launched a comprehensive multi-million-dollar fleetwide enhancement program focused on improving safety, reliability, and guest comfort.

The Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) also took action, creating a Cruise Passenger Bill of Rights that changed how cruise lines communicate and compensate guests should things go awry. 

Two Cozumel Collisions (Bumper Boats)


Carnival Cruise Line has experienced two collision incidents in Cozumel.

On September 30, 2009, Carnival Legend made contact with Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas. There were no injuries reported. 

Ten years later, Carnival Legend collided with Carnival Glory in December 2019. Carnival Glory was docking when it struck the docked Carnival Legend, causing extensive damage to the aft-starboard section of Carnival Glory’s main dining room.

Although there were no serious injuries, six passengers were taken to the medical center. 

Cruise Industry Shutdown


The cruise industry was not an exception to the COVID-19 pandemic. It became the only industry to be completely shut down beginning on March 13, 2020, dramatically impacting cruising with those even questioning its future.

Like all cruise operators, Carnival Cruise Line faced significant challenges on several fronts, including its financial health, crew members’ well-being, and passengers’ expectations.

RELATED: 21 Carnival Ships Sold During the Cruise Industry Shutdown

The company strategically decided to sell off some of its less efficient Fantasy-class ships to offset costs. This helped to minimize debt and allowed the company to focus its resources on maintaining and upgrading its remaining fleet.

Keeping the ships operational


Contrary to popular misconceptions, cruise ships cannot just “shut down.” They must continually be maintained, particularly the engine spaces, and that requires a team of engineers and other nautical experts to keep the vessels ready whenever the COVID-19 cruise ban would be lifted.

Through “minimum manning,” roughly 125-150 crew members remained on board, not only the engineers but also other related personnel to serve them – food and beverage personnel, housekeeping staff, the medical team, HR, etc.

Operating under minimum manning costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a month per ship. 

Carnival Cruise Line crew members also faced challenges during the shutdown. The reduction in fleet size led to job losses, as did the decreasing number of voyages.

carnival sensation crew members vaccination mobile alabama
Crew members receiving their vaccinations at the port (Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line)

However, the company worked to ensure the well-being of those still on board by providing support in an ever-changing landscape. When many countries would not allow air arrivals, Carnival, working with its worldwide partners, used its ships to help crew members return home to faraway lands like India, the Philippines, South Africa, and other countries.

Carnival also assisted in getting its crew members vaccinated during port calls, serving to help speed up the recovery process.

Passengers who had planned or booked Carnival cruises were also significantly affected, which led to uncertainty and disappointment.

carnival fantasy scrapyard
Carnival Fantasy joins Carnival Imagination and Inspiration a the scrapyard in Turkey. (CRUISE RADIO)

Despite these challenges, the company made efforts to communicate information consistently and transparently, provide alternative options, and introduce new safety measures in preparation for the eventual resumption of cruising.

After all was said and done, the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted Carnival Cruise Line, its crew members, and its passengers, costing its parent company billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Carnival Cruise Line Full Fleet

The company navigated the challenges of these unprecedented events by taking strategic measures to manage debt, maintain its fleet, and communicate with all stakeholders.

These efforts have paid off and resulted in a pent-up demand for cruising, with passengers booking at pre-COVID-19 levels and a resumption of profitability. 

Return to Service

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Carnival Cruise Line returned triumphantly to service on July 3, 2023, with its first ship, Carnival Vista, setting sail from Galveston, Texas, and Carnival Horizon from Miami the following day.

Carnival’s return marked a significant milestone for the cruise industry, showcasing its resilience and adaptability after facing challenging times.

In late July 2021, the much-delayed Mardi Gras entered service as the first new ship of the restart. 

Carnival Mardi Gras port Canaveral

Ensuring the health and safety of passengers was a major focus of Carnival’s return to service. The cruise line implemented stringent protocols, including thorough sanitization, social distancing measures, and upgraded advanced air filtration systems.

These efforts contributed to the success of Carnival’s return and boosted confidence in the safety of cruise travel.

carnival horizon sail away PortMiami
Carnival Horizon’s first cruise back post-shutdown. (CRUISE RADIO)

The successful return of Carnival Cruise Line after a 14-month shutdown demonstrated the dedication and hard work of the company’s team members and crew. Their efforts and determination paved the way for Carnival’s resurgence and continued status as a leader in the cruise industry.

As of 2023, the cruise line still carries billions of dollars in debt, but thanks to high onboard spending at an all-time high, mostly fueled by casino play and other onboard expenditures, the company is slowly reducing its debt. 

Carnival jubilee Germany shipyard
Carnival Jubilee prepares for her December 2023 debut. (CRUISE RADIO)

Today, Carnival sails from 12 U.S. homeports from the east to the west coast, up to Alaska, through Europe, and even Australia.

What started out as an idea to provide valuable vacations for families.

Even though the parent company Carnival Corporation & PLC (CCL) is collectively made up of nine cruise brands (Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn, Cunard, P&O Cruises, P&O Cruises Australia, Costa Cruises, and AIDA Cruises), Carnival Cruise Line remains the affordable brand for families.

Carnival Cruise Line has a fleet of 26 Fun Ships
Carnival Cruise Line has a fleet of 26 Fun Ships.

Carnival helped expand the demographic of cruise travelers. They targeted a broader audience by creating a fun, family-friendly atmosphere and offering shorter, more affordable cruises, which made cruising accessible for people who previously may not have considered it a viable vacation option. This strategy eventually led most cruise lines to adapt and diversify their offerings.

These efforts have allowed Carnival to grow from a single ship in 1972 to 26 modern ships today (2023) and pushed other cruise lines to improve their products and target a more diverse client base, thus expanding the industry even further.

Carnival Cruise Timeline of Events

  • 1972: Maiden voyage of Carnival’s first ship, the TSS Mardi Gras, which runs aground on a sandbar outside the Port of Miami.
  • 1975: Acquisition of Empress of Britain, rebranded as the TSS Carnivale.
  • 1978: The Festivale, formerly the S.A. Vaal, undergoes a $30 million refurbishment and begins service as the largest and fastest vessel sailing from Miami to the Caribbean.
  • 1982: Launch of the Tropicale, initiating a significant shipbuilding boom in the cruise industry.
  • 1984: Carnival becomes the first cruise line to advertise on network TV, with Kathie Lee Gifford (then Johnson) as the spokesperson.
  • 1985 – 1987: Introduction of the Holiday, Jubilee, and Celebration ships. Carnival becomes the “Most Popular Cruise Line in the World” and undertakes an initial public offering.
  • 1990 – 1991: Debut of the Carnival Fantasy and Carnival Ecstasy, marking the start of the “Fantasy-class” series.
  • 1993 – 1996: Introduction of Carnival Sensation, Fascination, Imagination, and Inspiration. Carnival launches the Carnival Destiny, the first passenger vessel to exceed 100,000 tons.
  • 1998 – 1999: Launch of the Carnival Elation and Paradise, completing the “Fantasy-class” series, and introducing the Carnival Triumph.
  • 2000 – 2004: Continuation of the “Destiny-class” with Carnival Victory, and introduction of “Spirit-class” and “Conquest-class” ships.
  • 2005 – 2008: Expansion of the “Conquest-class” with Carnival Liberty, Freedom, and Splendor.
  • 2009 – 2012: Introduction of the Carnival Dream, Magic, and Breeze, the largest “Fun Ships” at that time.
  • 2013: Renovation and re-entry of the Carnival Sunshine (formerly Destiny).
  • 2016: Launch of the Carnival Vista, the largest “Fun Ship” with unique attractions.
  • 2018 – 2019: Introduction of Carnival Horizon and Panorama, and renovation of Carnival Sunrise (formerly Triumph).
  • 2021: Debut of the Mardi Gras, the first Carnival ship powered by LNG.
  • 2022: 50th anniversary of Carnival Cruise Line, introduction of Carnival Celebration, and the announcement of new ships, including Carnival Luminosa, Venezia, and Firenze.
  • 2023: Scheduled sailing of Carnival Venezia from New York and the expected launch of Carnival Jubilee in Galveston, TX.
  • 2024: Planned debut of Carnival Firenze from Long Beach, CA.

READ: Carnival Cruise Line Ships by Size

Carnival Celebration Review and Tour [VIDEO]

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