How far have cruise ships come in the past three decades? More than you can even imagine. Because the differences are so stark, the best way to understand the differences between old cruise ships and new is to compare them side-by-side.
Below, we do exactly that with two ships from Carnival Cruise Line. Two ships from the exact same cruise line, yet completely different.
The first is Carnival Ecstasy. It was built in 1991, and until October 2022, it was the oldest ship in Carnival’s fleet before it was retired.
The second ship is Carnival Celebration. It first started sailing in November 2022, making it Carnival’s newest ship to its fleet.
Within the past few months we sailed both of these cruise ships, and the differences between old and new have to be seen to be believed.
Let’s start just with the size of these ships. Carnival Ecstasy, before it left the fleet, came in at about 70,000 gross tons and carried roughly 2,000 passengers. But during the past few decades there’s been an arms race in cruising to continue to go bigger and bigger.
Carnival Celebration measures roughly 180,000 gross tons — that’s about two and a half times larger — and carries 5,300 passengers at double occupancy. So you could have two copies of Ecstasy, and it wouldn’t even match the size and scale of Celebration.
Of course, as we look around the rest of these two ships to compare past and present, keep that size difference in mind. The bigger size means that newer ships can pack so much more onboard to offer passengers.
What about the passenger cabins? Honestly, it’s hard to compare directly as Ecstasy had barely any balcony cabins. Today a cruise ship without huge rows of balconies is almost unheard of.
When we sailed aboard Ecstasy, it was an interior cabin that was actually pretty spacious for this sort of room, as they are normally a bit smaller than balcony cabins. As you can tell, the room décor was definitely a bit dated.
On the new Celebration, the style is completely different and obviously more contemporary. And there are also an amazing variety of cabin types from interior to balcony to suites, to special cabin areas like the Havana rooms. That wasn’t the case back then.
One other difference is in the cabin bathroom. Funny enough, the bathroom on the ship that was more than 30 years old was actually larger than the one on the brand-new ship.
Design and Décor
What about just the general design around the ship? When we sailed Ecstasy, it felt like a time capsule. Everything was very dated — including neon lights and lots of shiny metal — but kept in great shape like it was built just yesterday.
As well, the carpets and wall décor design was very busy. You’d never see this in a ship built today. The design had lots of personality, but it was certainly not modern by any means.
Compare that to Carnival Celebration, which has a completely different style. That “loud” style that was common with Carnival in the ’90s is much more muted with a very contemporary design that you’d expect with a ship built today.
How much have casinos changed in cruising? Well, from the actual gaming standpoint the casino is pretty easy to keep updated. As new games come and go, they can be swapped out. So no, on a ship built 30 years ago there aren’t any of the old slot machines that still spit out nickels or quarters.
But the design itself… well that’s changed. Check out how much darker the casino is on the older ship. Today casino design on many ships has changed — especially when it comes to making things lighter and brighter. No longer do you feel like you’re in a “cave” when you’re playing blackjack. Instead, it’s much more open and airy.
Just about any cruise ship you sail will have an atrium or a center point in the middle of the ship where all the traffic passes through.
On Carnival Ecstasy, built in 1991, the atrium was a main focus. It was wide and open with a huge skylight bringing in natural light. And it was also decked out in mirrored metal and color-changing neon-colored lights. And don’t forget the glass elevators that looked out into the atrium. If you sailed this ship, you don’t forget seeing this area.
Carnival’s newest design? The atrium has been turned into a theater. It’s still in a central location but now the traffic flows around it. There’s no big open area, skylights, or elevators. Yes the space is more open compared to the rest of the ship, but apart from that, it’s not really an atrium at all. But perhaps more noticeable is that the style is a whole lot more modern than neon and shiny metal.
One thing that will never change in cruising is that the top of your cruise ship better have a big pool for people to enjoy. However, the design of that pool deck has definitely changed.
Check out the ship built three decades ago. The pool and hot tub themselves aren’t bad and frankly pretty large compared to the size of the ship. In size, they aren’t far off from what’s available on the pool deck of a ship built today. But with the smaller size ship, the space around the pool is decidedly smaller.
Compare that to the cruise ship built today. The pool is roughly the same size. But then there is a lot more space for seating, a two-story bar, and a huge video screen. And what you also don’t see is that the new ship also has three other pools available for passengers both forward and aft, giving lots more options.
Aft Pool Deck
Speaking of aft, perhaps nowhere is the difference more dramatic between old and new than when it comes to the back of the ship.
Let’s start with the old. The back deck of Carnival Ecstasy featured a waterslide, some deck chairs, lots of empty space, but not much more. Up forward there is a mini-golf course with a small jogging track.
Yeah, things have changed just a little bit since the 1990s.
On a new ship, no space is wasted. The Ultimate Playground is at the back of Celebration, featuring a full-fledged waterpark with three different slides. There’s a mini-golf course, a ropes course, full basketball court, and even an actual roller coaster. Go down a deck and you’ll find more seating, and then another deck lower is another pool with hot tubs.
Some people like that calmer and less busy style of older ships, but that’s simply gone with the times.
Sail old and new and you realize that it’s not just the ship that’s different. Even things like the production shows onboard have changed dramatically.
When we sailed Ecstasy, what was offered was a classic cruise show in the theater with lots of singing and dancing, and that was in 2022. It’s just on the older ships you can’t add in technology or have the space to go bigger with the show.
Carnival’s newest ship in comparison has two different theaters, including one that’s in the middle of the ship. And the shows have definitely changed. Now there are things like a legit live version of Family Feud and one circus-themed show that has performers twisting three decks in the air. And the introduction of video backgrounds makes the performances even more visually stunning.
In comparison, a little song and dance number seems very dated.
Bars & Restaurants
Of everything discussed, there is perhaps no bigger difference between now and then than the variety of food and drink options onboard.
Sailing Ecstasy, when it came to food there were just a handful of restaurants. Don’t get us wrong, on the short four and five-day cruises, having the buffet, dining room, and a couple of other options like Guy’s Burger Joint was just fine.
And when it came to bars there were plenty of places to get a drink (it is a cruise, after all) and actually there were some pretty interesting spots to enjoy it like The Neon Bar, which was actually the piano bar on the ship.
But 30 years later food and beverage are huge draws and Carnival’s newbuilds have an amazing amount of options. In our opinion, they are way above what’s been offered on older ships.
Oh there’s still a buffet and main dining room. But now there are options for Italian, Mexican, Asian, steak, seafood, and casual spots for chicken, burgers, and tacos. You could literally sail for a week and maybe eat the same spot only once or twice.
And bars? It’s come a long way both in style and what’s available. It’s much more than just a wooden counter serving up rum drinks. For instance, spots like Latitudes are on the newer ship, which serve drinks from around the world.
You weren’t going to go thirsty before, but it’s just on another level now.
What Hasn’t Changed?
Of course, one thing that was the same both three decades ago and today is the fun of being at sea, visiting new ports, and letting loose in a way that’s just not quite the same on land. That sort of fun is timeless.
But it’s obvious that things have come a long, long way in cruising. And for those that just can’t get enough, I’m going to leave you with some more images that compare old versus new