The day the Mardi Gras ran aground on its maiden voyage was a typical outing for the early fleet of the Carnival line. The boat was an old rusty scow that Ted Arison, Carnival’s head honcho, had “rushed into service before it was anywhere near to meeting the standards set by competitors…Many of the cabins lacked electrical outlets, and some didn’t even have toilets or showers…entire sections of the ship…were cordoned off, still under renovation.” On board, Ted stayed at the bridge, afraid to come down until the ship got under way, while his son and heir Mickey partied below with the guests, everyone drinking a new concoction dreamed up by a witty bartender: “Mardi Gras on the Rocks.” Ted managed to get the ship to its destination – Puerto Rico - by off-loading fuel to lift it from the sand. To refuel and get home to Miami, he and Mickey raided the slot machines and paid for gas with quarters and dimes.
Carnival was the bottom feeder of the cruise industry which burgeoned in the latter half of the twentieth century, built on the reconstructed ocean liners of a by-gone era and the principle that “the ship is the destination.” Not for the very rich to see the world, but for the lumpen proletariat to have the experience of feeling very rich. It was a formula that worked, and made fortunes. The TV series Love Boat came along serendipitously to charm the masses into believing that cruises had a special magic. And now, they were affordable.
The staterooms of old became tiny cabins with a bare minimum of luxury packed in a several-story floating building that also included pools, bars, buffets and gymnasiums. The few stopovers were a mere punctuation mark, allowing the ship’s officers to “recommend” certain shops over others in exchange for bribes from the merchants.
Throwing a couple of thousand sensation-hungry passengers together at close quarters on the high seas in tropical heat can be a recipe for a nightmare, such as outbreaks of food poisoning summoning forth the “vomit squads.” There’s also the problem of keeping the crew contented. On the lowest strata and the bottom of the boat were the foreign workers – Hondurans mostly – who cleaned and cooked. There was the entertainment crew with their various rankings from pros to college kids hired on for the summer, and there were the elite who kept the boat afloat, often Scandinavian. To add to the confusion, the ships were registered in Liberia or Panama, built in Western Europe, and sailed mainly out of Miami, a low-level vice pot that saw the cruise-ship image as good for business.
When Ted Arison died, the Jerusalem Post called him “the richest Jew in the world.” How he got that way, built a dynasty, fought off the competition, and rose from the “K-mart of the cruise ship lines” to master of the seas, is the story that Kristoffer Garin tells in this fun-filled, fact-rich romp amongst the modern pirates of commerce.