Mardi Gras, Carnival’s Newest Ship

by Janean Flowe
exterior of Carnival Mardi Gras cruise ship at night

By Darcy Grimes

Stepping onboard the July 31st inaugural sailing of Carnival Cruise Line’s newest ship, Mardi Gras, and hearing crew welcome you was a truly joyful moment for the more than 4,000 guests sailing out of Port Canaveral to the Eastern Caribbean. After 16 months of paused cruise operations, there was an atmosphere of pure excitement and smiles from ear to ear on crew and guests.

This innovative new ship is not only the first vessel in the Americas to be powered by eco-friendly Liquid Natural Gas but also boasts the first ever roller coaster at sea! The introduction of Zones — six themed areas that deliver immersive eating, drinking and unique experiences is also a new concept for Carnival.

A few days in to the journey I had the opportunity to sit down with a few of the minds behind this new ship, including Glenn Aprile, Director of New Builds Product Development, and Petu Kummala, Senior Director of Design and Architecture, as well as, Vance Gulliksen, Senior Public Relations Manager. Here is how our conversation went with my questions and their answers.

Before we get started, would you mind telling us travelers what your titles actual mean in your day to day work?

GLENN: Sure. I am part of the new build and refurbishment department and I am primarily responsible for guest experience and working with all of the operating teams — food and beverage department, entertainment, retail, casino, our ship designers — basically everyone involved in making this happen. We work define and develop all the innovations on the ship.

PETU: We work closely together and I am sort of the lead designer, overseeing design and architecture teams.

Congratulations. Mardi Gras is an amazing ship and a wonderful experience. So how does it begin? Does Carnival have a master plan of ships and coming down the pipeline?

GLENN: Before you start putting the pencil to the paper you have a strategy. We have goals and targets like how big the ship needs to be, how many guests we intend to carry, how many team members are we going to need onboard to support the number of guests and services we want to have. We have to masterplan the ship and decide what goes where. You might not necessarily know the theme of a restaurant but you certainly have to know where the restaurant is going to be though and think about infrastructure. Like, well if that is a restaurant, we need to make sure we have a galley next to it, so we have a place to prepare the food for the restaurant. If we have the galley there, we have to think about how the food will get from the storerooms down below to this restaurant and make sure that the traffic flow works. Those are the sort of things you have to think about early on.

Carnival Mardi Gras cruise ship roller coaster

With the ultimate goal being the onboard guest experience?

PETU: Yes, we do that for that reason. But if the back of the house doesn’t work…if you design something pretty but it doesn’t function well, it’s not a good experience. It all has to work together as a cohesive unit.

GLENN: And then at that strategy level early on, before we get to the detail design, we’re looking at master planning the ship, not only in terms of operation but how do we disburse the guests throughout the ship. How do we make sure that the ship is fully activated on all decks so that you don’t have areas that are too quiet or pinch points without have enough space for circulation. Once you have the master plan kind of set, we can go and drill down in to what the individual themes.

PETU: Also, Mardi Gras is a prototype ship, meaning it is the first of a series. With this one, which is an Excel- class ship, we look at our other brands that have the same hull structure and then everything guest facing we start laying out and looking closely/planning where everything goes.

PETU: And the layout comes about as well, like there is a box for us here (on the plan) that we have a jazz bar and then we start…first there is that master, general plan where everything is and the flow will be and then the individual rooms get added to the plan, and then the theming and the design as well.

I love the way you have designed the ship with Zones — it is very immersive. Themes carry through more than one restaurant, but as a whole area, and it’s a really nice flow.

PETU: You want the Zones to be different and you want the areas to be different but you want there to be a certain cohesiveness as well.

It also seems there is a pleasing, winding route through the main walkable areas rather than a straight promenade type layout.

PETU: That’s purposeful. One of the things we wanted to do was make it so you could go this way or that way. It’s a little more interesting visually and also you don’t want to give just one straight line where you see everything. When you create a little diversity, it gives you more visually.

From a guest standpoint, I can tell you, it’s also a lot of fun. I am on day five and still finding new features and areas — hidden gems.

PETU: That was definitely a goal we repeated often. If on the last day you discover something, even on your way off you say to yourself “Oh, I didn’t see that”, it makes you want to come back. It’s interesting as a guest to discover new things every day.

Are there more pools on the Mardi Gras? I feel like there are more pools than normally found on a cruise.

GLENN: We look at metrics and we try to make sure we have the right proportions for the number of guests we are going to carry, so we definitely made sure there are enough for the guests.
(By the way there are 13 including hot tub/spas)

exterior of Carnival Mardi Gras cruise ship at night

Mardi Gras in San Juan

And what about the Casino? It seems very large the way it is laid out.

GLENN: It’s large and busy but relative to the number of guests onboard it’s the right size.

Is there a science to deciding on guest room floors vs open venue floors?

PETU: Well this is different in that we have the three public decks, and they are taller, with more height in the public decks than the cabin decks. Traditionally it has been Deck 5 on Fantasy-class and decks 2 and 3 on Destiny, so you start from that and always place your public decks in your tallest decks. Then you have your cabin decks and then you have the Lido deck which on this is traditional but we do have 3 decks (decks 16, 17 and 18) for public rather than 1 or 2.

Speak a little about the wind screens. are they for aesthetics or is there an actual purpose to them?

PETU: Yes. Sometimes they are for technical reasons too, for enough comfort from the wind point of view. Like, what is the maximum velocity that guests can take on deck but then there are some areas where we just want to use them to have privacy, like little separate spaces. On the sides of the ship there are also windscreens that we use for comfort as well. The clear glass on top of the side rails and how high those are at different locations has to do with cutting down the wind velocity.

What goes in to launching a new ship from the public relations or press stand point and when do you start?

VANCE: It kind of goes in stages. The first thing we like to do is, we obviously have to announce the name of the ship, it was really a fun opportunity as the name Mardi Gras was the name of our first ship. It gave us the opportunity to talk about how this ship was going to be a game changer like the original Mardi Gras was a game changer.

Then we start releasing different areas of the ship. Then you release the itineraries and open the ship for sale. A lot of the time we will open the ship for sale before we even release the features of the ship and people still booked the ship like crazy — we had some of our best reservations days ever on Mardi Gras. Then some of the stuff is such obvious fun to announce, like announcing the roller coaster got billions and billions of impressions/views which was a slam dunk in the PR world. Then as we went along, I would work with Glenn and Petu on announcing features like Grand Central. We announced Zones as we went along and build that excitement until we get to the ships launch. We brought the ship to the United States for the first time June 4th, in to Port Canaveral, at 6 in the morning. We didn’t allow people to come onboard but we still had media and 1500 people waiting for us at 4:30 in the morning. It’s a lot of incremental things leading up to the big day.

It is so exciting. I would have to think that after 17 months of operations being ceased that the excitement was even greater.

VANCE: Yes. We were trying to find ways to stay in the news in a positive way and yes, while there were cancellations through that time, there were also really great images coming from the shipyard. This is a really great ship! This is a landmark for Carnival Cruise Line and this is something, all as a team, we were looking forward to and it was just a great moment for the company and for the cruise industry.

Speaking of the original Mardi Gras, I love the fact that you incorporated art of the original ship next to this new Mardi Gras. Side by side, the original ship looks like a tug boat by comparison.

VANCE: Yes, that one was 247,000 tons and this one is 180,000 tons, so about 1/6 of the size.

The Atrium Theater is an awesome feature. I happened upon it one day when Bingo was in progress. The Bingo experience in the Atrium is amazing. The space is so inviting because of the layout and location — you just walk right in.

PETU: When the early, master planning was happening, we actually had it in the center, but then Glenn had the idea of putting it on the side of the ship. There are a lot of benefits…

GLENN: It was definitely a challenge from a structural point of view. Typically speaking you don’t put large openings/areas on the side of a ship but we have a really good partner with Meyer Turku in Finland. They were up for the challenge. They looked at us sideways when we first suggested it but with their help, their engineers plus the naval architects from our team they were able to get it done. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to have a 3,000-square-foot glass wall with  incredible ocean views during the day, but we also wanted a space that was transformational like Petu described earlier. When you walk thru a space, every time you walk thru, you discover something different. So, if you walk thru the space now, you see these beautiful views, if you walk thru later in the evening the lighting is completely different — the LED screens are covering the windows, completely changing the atmosphere within the space.

Not only that, but I noticed the experience is completely different depending on which level you enter — the ground floor of the Atrium, the 2nd or the 3rd — they are completely different.

PETU: Oh yes. It is different. One of the things I love a lot, is the ceiling which is like a sun with a flat chandelier we called it. It’s amazing and if you are on deck 8 you completely miss it. If you’re on Deck 7 you can see it, but if you are on deck 6 looking up you really see it and get a completely different perspective.

Well, I know what I am doing after this conversation, I am going to deck 6 to look up.

PETU: That’s my favorite shot is in the forward of the atrium kind of near the stage where you can take this panoramic shot of the space.

Who thought up Fortune Teller?

GLENN: It was part of our group, I mean we knew we wanted to do something based on the Mardi Gras given the name of the ship is Mardi Gras and having the New Orleans themed zone made perfect sense. And Fortune Teller was just one of those unique assets inspired by the more mysterious, magical side of New Orleans.

It is magical. I just love it.

PETU: It is very good and will give the Alchemy Bar a run for its money. Brass Magnolia; was more natural if you will, a jazz bar, New Orleans, horns — I mean it just fit. We made all the fixtures and lights out of horns.

GLENN: You want to capture certain aspects of New Orleans so that was one aspect, what you see in Fortune Teller and in Brass Magnolia, it’s more focused on the music and the garden district of New Orleans. We have Emeril’s which focuses more on the cuisines, we wanted to cover all the bases or as many as possible with the space we have.

From the personnel side, the servers in the Fortune Teller do a great job. They really add that hint of mystery as they are making the specialty drinks.

PETU: There is a marketing video that goes thru all of them and show the space while they are preparing the drinks. That’s what it is. The guest experience is not just good food or good service or good design, it has to all be there and Fortune Teller is a great showcase of that.

GLENN: It’s a total team effort. I mean to design something like Fortune Teller, design plays a big role but then we have to determine what drinks are we going to serve, what uniforms are they going to wear, how are they going to interact with the guests. What is the menu going to look like and what are we going to name the drinks? That’s a collaborative effort. In the case of a bar, we work very closely with Eddie Allen, VP of Beverage Operations… and we talk about the design being a game changer on this ship, I would argue that the beverage offerings on this ship is a game changer for Carnival and it’s just really impressive to see. We work together with entertainment. What type of music are you going to be playing? And those are things where the outcome is going to be better, the more we know and define in the beginning because we can make sure that we are all moving in the same direction.

VANCE: Eddie was saying there is even a matrix of the color of the drink, the glass, the garnish, the ingredients, the price and how it all comes together. He knows he doesn’t want 5 yellow drinks, he wants each to be different and a unique experience. It’s a real science you don’t even think about until you get to the bar, or maybe you don’t ever think about it but it’s subconsciously there.

PETU: Most of these things don’t just happen. You might think of something and think, oh that looks cool or that tastes good but a lot goes in to it.

ME: I have spoken to probably 100 plus guests while onboard and one thing I keep hearing is how excited they are with the new location of the 24-hour pizza! Relocating it to where it is — huge hit, everyone is so excited.

GLENN: I guess to add to that, we were happy to see on day 1 of the cruise, while we are still in Port Canaveral, how activated and lively the La Piazza zone was. Guests, realizing that was a place to have lunch, that you don’t have to go to the traditional Lido pool deck as a place for your breakfast and lunch, there are places throughout the ship. It seemed like right away we saw people everywhere and that really played out exactly how we had hoped.

PETU: Yes, we were like, “Oh my God, that is exactly how it was supposed to work.” That was one of the big, early on questions we asked, “what if they don’t come down” and then that space ends up being underutilized. I have walked by that place, any hour of the day and there is always guests there.
ME: Do you ever come up with what you think is a great, new idea and then you pitch it to the powers that be and they shoot it down?

PETU: All the time! A lot of time ideas don’t go anywhere, I mean even the roller coaster has been discussed before but as a designer you come up with something and think, oh wow, it’s so beautiful and amazing and people look at like, I don’t like that. You have to just let it go and sometimes it comes back when the time is right.

GLENN: I think these types of conversations are healthy. It speaks to the team effort. Concepts evolve over time but they nearly always get better from what the initial idea was given added input. Even if one concept doesn’t happen as initially envisioned it can inspire something even better.

Thank you again for your time. Before we wrap this up, I wanted to ask one last question. What does it mean for you to be on this first sailing with guests and see the vision realized?

PETU: It means a lot. It’s incredible. I mean we were on the top deck when we left and there were tears, I mean it was emotional. When you plan it and design it and hope it works…when you actually see it doing what you intended it to do, it’s incredible. We are very happy.

GLENN: I agree, it’s very emotional, very gratifying. There’s so much theory that goes in to it yet you have to see it to see how your theories play out in reality. I’d say for the most part, it’s coming together the way we hoped and expected.

PETU: We have seen the ship completed for a long time already and it’s beautiful and all that but it’s not really completed until the guests come onboard. You overhear people talking, you hear music, you see their faces, you see drinks being poured and that’s when it comes alive.

GLENN: That’s what probably made it particularly emotional. I mean how many months have we been walking thru the ship, since we left the shipyard and even before, but you see the ship empty and it’s finished but it’s not finished.

PETU: It’s lifeless. It’s like a ghost town. There is a major difference in how everything looks and feels.

The guests really bring it all to life?

GLENN: And the team members. One of the most interesting things to see when a ship is finished is how the shipboard team members turn the ship on. Activating everything and breathing life in to it.

PETU: And, they are so good. I mean I’m a Carnival guy, but they are so good.

They are amazing. And I have been sure to share with them how impressed I am with the elevated experience they deliver. Especially after potentially 16 months of not working. It’s hard work and they have to be “on” every time they step in to the guest areas — they are bringing the FUN.

PETU: It’s a large crew from all over the world and yes, they were affected by Covid and have even said, they waited and anticipated coming back as much as our guests and to see their faces and how happy they are…it’s amazing.

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