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End of an era – the death of the "classic" cruise industry in America.
Stewart Mandy

Monday April 28, in Port Manatee, Florida. Regal Cruises closes its doors, and slips quietly into the history books. The event, while noted by those in the industry and a few thousand passengers with future reservations to sail on the company's sole ship, went largely unnoticed by anyone else, the rest of the state, the country, and the world having much bigger and more complex problems than the bankruptcy of a small, insignificant cruise line.

The death of Regal Cruises in itself is admittedly a minor event in the overall picture, however it carries a much greater significance, which was a topic of conversation among industry executives at a convention a number of us attended this week in Mexico. The fact is, that when Regal Cruises died, so died the "classic" cruise industry on American shores. Regal was the last, and smallest of the "Final Six", the last group of small cruise lines operating classic vessels, trying to cling on in a market that was fast slipping away from them. The first of the six to go was a larger member of the group, six-ship operator Regency Cruises, who's spectacular and largely unexpected collapse in November 1995 sounded the death knell for the classic cruise industry. Long lay-ups followed for many of the line's vessels, with three of them (the former Regent Rainbow, Regent Spirit, and Regent Jewel) ultimately finding new homes with other operators in Europe. Two sank on the way to the breakers yard (Regent Sea and Regent Sun) and the sixth (Regent Star) remains laid up in Europe.

Another sure sign that the end was in sight for classic vessels was the exodus of older ships from the fleets of the major operators, who could not divest themselves of them quickly enough. In short order, Princess removed the original Fair and Dawn Princesses from it's fleet. Carnival removed the Mardi Gras, Carnivale, and Festivale. Celebrity removed the Meridian. These veteran vessels headed away from US shores at speed; either to lay-up, or to other operators in Europe or Asia, the one exception being the Festivale, which found employment with Dolphin Cruise line in the Caribbean as Islandbreeze. Develop or die seemed to be the rule.
Next to go was Dolphin themselves, who, experiencing financial difficulties were sold to the "new" Premier Cruises, with the Seabreeze, Oceanbreeze, and Islandbreeze joining the Premier Fleet. The Dolphin IV went to Cape Canaveral, where it sailed for new operator Cape Canaveral Cruise Line until that line itself failed a few years later. At time of writing, the Dolphin IV is on the beach at the breakers yard in Alang, India.

After a period of relative tranquility came the collapse of Premier Cruises in September, 2000, another spectacular bankruptcy on a par with that of Regency, and affecting at least as many people. The vessels went various ways; the Oceanic (Big Red Boat I) found work in Europe, the Seabreeze sank on the way to the breakers. The Oceanbreeze, under charter at the time of the collapse continues to be operated by the same company, Imperial Majesty Cruise Line. The Islandbreeze (by now known as Big Red Boat III) was laid up in Freeport, and in fact in recent days has departed for the breakers yard. The Rembrandt, Big Red Boat II and Seawind Crown remain laid up.
Less than four months later, in December 2000, it was all over for Commodore Cruise Line, a veteran and respected name in the industry, who had been around for 34 years, initially as Bermuda Star Line. Their Enchanted Seas (now as Universe Explorer) continues sailing, with the University of Pittsburgh, where it operates the popular Semester at Sea program. The Enchanted Isle remains laid up.
Following the events of September 11, 2001, American Classic Voyages bit the dust, and with it went subsidiary American Hawaii Cruises, and their beautiful vessel the SS Independence.

And then there was one.
Port Manatee based Regal Cruises, who's single ship, the elegant, fragile looking Regal Empress was a museum piece, and a reminder of a bygone age, sailed on and on, defying the odds again and again. The ship sailed from Port Manatee in the winter, and New York City in the summer, becoming something of an institution in both places. That was until Good Friday this year, when the vessel was arrested by US Marshals, held due to an unpaid bill of some $750,000. The line cancelled two cruises, while it attempted to resolve the matter, but on April 28 was forced to give up and close the doors. The vessel is now temporarily laid up in Tampa, awaiting sale.
The glory days were over for the classics long ago, but with this small event, the classic lines were gone. It seems unlikely that any of the laid up ships will sail again, except on one-way voyages to the breakers yards, although there can be slight hope that European operators may perhaps rescue the more seaworthy examples. Even this, given the world economy, seems remote.
The classic vessels are not entirely gone, even if the classic, old time operators are. The Islandbreeze sails on with Imperial Majesty, and of course the legendary SS Norway is still in the fleet of Norwegian Cruise Line. An interesting recent development for classic ship fans was the purchase of the SS Independence and the SS United States by Norwegian Cruise Line, supposedly for their future planned US Flag operation; it seems likely however that if the vessels ever enter service they will be unrecognizable as their former selves, since the intention is to totally rebuild them on the existing hulls. Other classics make occasional visits to US shores, taking us back for a brief moment to a more elegant age, where style was king, and ships did not feature Broadway shows, rock climbing walls, ice rinks, and all you can eat buffets. The mega ships pull in and out of the world's ports with scarcely a glance from passersby, but a rare movement of a classic vessel can still bring traffic to a standstill.
Their days are over, but they live on in our memories and our dreams.

© Stewart Mandy May 2003

*About the author: Stewart Mandy is an accomplished international freelance correspondent and travel writer, and a member of Agora International Press Corps. He has been published in various print and online publications, on a wide variety of topics including travel, hospitality, industry specific topics, and current affairs. He is always available for worldwide assignment, and all offers and story ideas will be considered. He can be reached by email at or via his website at

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