Think COVID’s killed the cruise ship? Now there’s one with a roller coaster on board.

In cold, dark Finland, in the middle of the pandemic, shipyard workers at Meyer Turku were hard at work setting a roller coaster on top of a cruise ship. Others were installing a brewery that could produce craft beers using filtered sea water, intended to entertain an on-board audience of up to 6500 passengers.

Their work at the shipyard is now complete. Mardi Gras, Carnival Cruise Lines’s largest “Fun Ship” ever, is ready to set sail.

An artist's impression of the ship-board roller coaster.
An artist’s impression of the ship-board roller coaster.

Of course, it will be months before even the first traveller steps on board, and questions abound as to when the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention will lift its no-sail order and allow ships to resume operations.

Carnival is planning an April debut, with week-long itineraries throughout the Caribbean. That target may be a pipe dream, given the CDC will require all ships to apply for as-yet-undetermined certifications and carry out test cruises to prove pandemic readiness.


There’s also the issue of persistent border closures and the fact that virtually no ship that has left its port has made it back without a confirmed case of COVID-19 on board – or at least a good scare.

The most tricked-out ship

Regardless of when it makes its maiden voyage, and whether Carnival Corp can shake its reputation of being a superspreader early in the pandemic, this ship is sure to be the most tricked-out new cruise ship for 2021.

Five luxury cruise ships are seen being broken down for scrap metal at the Aliaga ship recycling port in Turkey in October, as the global coronavirus pandemic pushes the industry into crisis.
Five luxury cruise ships are seen being broken down for scrap metal at the Aliaga ship recycling port in Turkey in October, as the global coronavirus pandemic pushes the industry into crisis.Credit:Getty

Besides the top deck roller coaster, the $US950 million ($1.25 billion), 180,000-ton vessel, which is 1.5 times the size of Carnival’s next-largest ship, has two theatres, five waterslides, a zipline, and a 1972 Fiat parked strategically for Instagram-posing purposes in an indoor “piazza”.

It will also be the first cruise ship in North America to run on liquified natural gas, which reduces particular matter by more than 95 per cent and eliminates up to 20 per cent of carbon emissions compared to marine diesel fuel. That gives Mardi Gras bragging rights as the “greenest” megaship (eco-bona fides being relative in this segment) sailing from the US to the Caribbean and Mexico.

For typically egalitarian Carnival, which has always been everyman’s and everywoman’s cruise line, this ship is a step in a fancier new direction. Gone from all cabins are floppy plastic shower curtains, replaced with glass shower doors. And those who want to splurge may do so to the tune of $US7000 a week for two in new Excel Suites that come with their own outdoor plunge pool-style hot tubs-plus access to a private sundeck with plush loungers and cabanas.

It’ll also come and go from a new glass-walled, $155 million terminal at Port Canaveral, an hour east of Orlando, Florida, which represents the largest single construction project in the port’s 65-year history.

So far, the ship’s pandemic-proofing plans include a state-of-the-art medical centre, the largest in Carnival’s fleet. But guests looking for specifics on additional precautions will find that there’s not yet much concrete information available.

Instead, the company is focusing on bells and whistles.

‘Going turbo’

The rollercoaster known as “Bolt: the Ultimate Sea Coaster” will carry two passengers in motorcycle-like cars down an 800-foot track, with dips, twists, and hairpin turns around the ship’s giant funnel. The attraction can be customised for kids or experienced thrill-seekers: a throttle inside the car lets riders control the speed. Going “turbo” gets you up to 65km/h.

There’s good reason nobody has tried to build a rollercoaster on a cruise ship before this.

Cruise ship Queen Victoria anchored in the English Channel off the Dorset coast as the industry remains at a standstill.
Cruise ship Queen Victoria anchored in the English Channel off the Dorset coast as the industry remains at a standstill.Credit:Getty

“At New York, New York in Las Vegas, by the pool, you can hear the noise and vibration of the [Big Apple] roller coaster. We didn’t want that on a ship,” says Ben Clement, Carnival’s senior vice president in charge of shipbuilding who helped hatch the idea.

Then Clement came across Maurer Rides, a German company with unique self-propelled systems to make roller coasters practically inaudible. “Instead of working with chains and rigs, it uses an electrical motor on a track,” explains Clement.

“It was much more silent than anything else we had seen, and had a lot of great acceleration-and it was safe and lightweight enough to put on top of the ship.”

Bolt was built, assembled, and tested on land in Germany, reassembled on the ship in Finland, and then tested during intense sea trials. Ten companies and consultants worked on safety, vibrations, backups, certifications, and other areas. Rolling, pitching, and corrosion caused by saline air all had to be examined.

“We did a lot of modification, customisation to make sure it would stand to the conditions of the ship,” Clement says. “As an engineer, it has been an incredible adventure, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done.”

COVID safety?

With up to 6500 guests on board, finding a way to spread out the crowds was always going to be a key concern. In the era of COVID-19, that logic takes on additional relevance. The design, drawn up five years ago, features six themed “zones.” It never even had to be rethought for social distancing.

The French Quarter has a live jazz club, a voodoo-themed bar serving colour-changing cocktails, and a resident “ghost” whom you’ll hear about only by asking the bartenders. Guests willing to pay a la carte prices at celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse’s first shipboard bistro will be able to dine on raw oysters, jambalaya, and cochon de lait (suckling pig) po’ boys.

At the top of the ship is the Ultimate Playground, which in addition to the roller coaster has five waterslides, a dangling ropes course, mini-golf, and a basketball court. Other zones are themed after summertime, Italy, the South Pacific, and Grand Central; the latter is less a tribute to New York than a truly grand and central space with an unusual atrium that features three decks of floor-to-ceiling glass that showcases the sea. By day it will serve coffee and cocktails; at night it will transform into a theatre with aerialists floating from triple-height ceilings.

Dispersed throughout the public areas are dozens of restaurants and bars, including an outdoor Street Eats area meant to evoke a food truck festival, with open-air kiosks serving bao, falafel, and kebabs. “We didn’t want food service with long lines,” Clement says of the decision to provide so many different establishments.

One thing that will likely be missing, on account of the pandemic, is the classic self-serve buffet. The Carnival HUB app, which guests on all Carnival ships are encouraged to download before cruising, may be the encouraged way to order food and drink wherever reservations can’t be made.

As for the name? It’s a tribute move. The first ship in Carnival’s history was the 1240-passenger TSS Mardi Gras, which launched from Miami in 1972 and promptly ran into a sandbar, where it got stuck in view of the city.

A front-page newspaper headline called the event “Mardi Gras on the Rocks.” Carnival hopes the roller coaster will be the talking point this time.


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