Waiting to depart

Two nights in Florida before cruise are as expensive as the ship's fare

Posted: Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mark Sabbatini

Cruisin' for a deal

When playing the role of ignorant tourist, it helps to be in the habit of setting off for unfamiliar destinations with no plan upon arrival.

My expedition into bargain cruise ship travel and its effects on port communities gets off to an uneconomic start shortly after arriving at Orlando's airport at 11 p.m., about 40 hours before the scheduled departure of a $299, three-day Caribbean voyage. Those hours offer opportunities to splurge on cultural marvels such as Walt Disney World, space center tours and family buffet restaurants, but my "who-needs-plans" attitude eats the most Florida funds.

"Contrary to what most people think, cruisers sailing from Port Canaveral do have a choice of things to see and do before (or after) departure other than visiting the nearby Orlando theme parks," an August 2004 article at CruiseMates.com notes. Studies show passengers spend $13 million a year on lodging, restaurants, entertainment, transportation and shopping in the area.

I imagined a port that deals with thousands of passengers daily would be packed with cheap motels, 24-hour fast food and other staples of freeway culture. Not only am I wrong, but recent hurricanes meant the most important sign at motels are not "vacancy," but "open."

The port itself has no obvious lodging and, driving a few disoriented miles past it, the first signs of late night life are seen in Cocoa Beach, a coastal town about six miles long and a few blocks wide. I pay a gut-wrenching $149 a night for an admittedly impressive waterfront suite at one of the few available lodges. That means two nights cost as much as my initial cruise fare. I increasingly realize this isn't going to be a cheap trip.

Smarter travelers can find rooms in nearby non-waterfront towns for one-half to one-third as much.

While checking in I notice a bulletin board announcement about a rocket launch early that afternoon at the Kennedy Space Center about 20 miles away. I learn from the clerk the space center fee is $35, but that I'll get a comparable view from my room or the beach. OK, there's some savings, plus maybe the parking fee, gas, a $5 coffee at a Starbucks with Internet access ... such is my thinking all day.

The media touts the NASA mission as a chance to study the makeup of comets and possible origins of the solar system by taking a first-ever subsurface look.

"This feat, if the space agency can pull it off," notes an editorial in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, "could prove the U.S. space program isn't drifting aimlessly, as some critics contend."

The sparse morning crowd at the beach swells to several hundred shortly before the scheduled 1 p.m. rocket launch, with a few scattered people wearing Walkman-like radios providing updates about minor delays. The reward for maybe 45 minutes of waiting is a bright ooh- and aah-inducing flash, followed several seconds later by a loud boom and perhaps a minute of watching the rocket as it leaves a massive contrail.

The remainder of the afternoon is a futile quest to find a thrift store selling a sports coat able to pass muster on the Fantasy's formal night. The closest thing I find is a pawn shop where Kirk, the store's manager, says he actually sees a lot of cruise ship passengers.

"They buy a lot of jewelry" he says, noting it's cheaper than in the Bahamas.

Passengers are a large part of the local economy and occasionally an item of political discussion, Kirk said. A scan of local newspapers and other media reveals some concern in recent years about increasing visitor crowds and limiting growth, but the debate pales in comparison to the one in Alaska.

I bypass the Perky Puppy Bakery, Fairvilla adult megastore and casino ships to see how everyday businesses are faring from visitors. Grocery stores do a brisk business in snacks and soft drinks; Walgreens is popular for medicine and suntan lotion. Restaurants seem geared more to informal and value-oriented than gourmet dining, and there's a fair number of relocation and land investment companies hoping to attract the long-term interest of tourists.

Welcome aboard

Carnival isn't shy about acknowledging it wants your money. Along with supplying passport and other personal information, a credit card number is nearly as mandatory before boarding so various expenses can be charged to an on-board "sign and sail" account.

Wary of long delays in the post-9/11 travel world, I am at the port shortly after noon, four hours before departure, where expenses continued to grow with a mandatory $30 parking fee.

It's like being in an airport security line, although cases of Diet Coke instead of laptop computers are the metallic item of choice because Carnival charges for all drinks besides coffee, tea, milk and juice.

Next is the ticket line, which moves quickly thanks to a large number of staff, including an older woman who takes my documents and provides the first taste of cruise ship culture when she sees I'm traveling alone.

"That won't last for long," she assures me cheerily, something she has doubtless said a thousand times, yet without the forced quality often seen in overtaxed employees.

I learn a bit about the unspecified "open" cabin a travel agent aggressively marketed to me when she says it's one floor below the main deck and should be quiet, bidding me farewell with "don't spent too much time in there."

Upon reaching it, I'm not sure if I have a winner or loser.

A four part series examining what it's like to be a cruise ship passenger

• Part one (April 14): Booking a bargain cruise.

• Part two (today): Bargain cruisers in Florida and the mechanics of getting them aboard.

•Part three (May 12): Life aboard cruise ships and port stops.

• Part four (May 26): Highs and lows of an industry in which the goals of fun and profit aren't always harmonious.

It's an outside cabin with a porthole view. But it's all the way at the front of the ship, meaning a rocky ride if seas get rough, plus a long walk back to where the action is. Everything is immaculately clean, although even with a view there isn't much reason to linger with barely enough space for two twin beds and a simple table.

It's a five-minute walk, including four decks of stairs, to the main recreation deck where a welcoming buffet, loud live reggae and swarms of staff carrying drinks with umbrellas await. The first thing I notice is metal seats with no cushions at the tables, perhaps a sign they didn't want diners lingering. Next is the buffet line with Vegas-style food - palatable for the widest range of tastes with no gourmet aspirations. Few people seem to care, focusing on socializing with travel mates and greeting whatever strangers they run into.

Needing to get into the social spirit, I look for something I can relate to. A giant chess board on an elevated platform by the pool finally catches my eye, where a tall, skinny teenager named Chase puts me in check within five moves and forces me to resign in less than 15. He spends much of the cruise at the board, and I never work up the nerve to attempt revenge.

The first loud-speaker announcement is for an orientation seminar in the main theater shortly before departure, which the voice assures us is important for new cruisers. I'm not surprised to find it sparsely attended by perhaps several dozen people. What I didn't expect is how it is mostly a sales pitch for all of the ship's extras and shore excursions.

The departure is anticlimactic. Unlike "The Love Boat," there are no well-wishers at the pier offering a sendoff and many passengers engage in various socializing didn't seem to notice the ship was moving. I abandon the observation deck and head back to watching the action at the chess board.

• Mark Sabbatini is a freelance journalist and a former reporter at the Juneau Empire.

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