- Canadian Pacific Lines in 1972, faced with dwindling passenger numbers on the North Atlantic, sold the RMS EMPRESS OF CANADA to Micky Aronson’s new Carnival Cruise Lines Ltd.
- Aronson was very clever and lucky to select one of the Canadian Pacific ships.
- They had maintained the ship; it was only 12 years old and far better than the old pre-war dated ships offering cruises out of Miami to the Caribbean.
- The former trans-Atlantic liner was to become Carnival’s pioneer ship and was renamed MARDI GRAS on February 14, 1972.
- Her departure from Tilbury was delayed by the National Union of Seamen protesting the crews of convenience (non-British or Canadian) that would serve the Mardis Gras.
- Tug crews and lock gate men at Tilbury ‘blocked’ the MARDI GRAS and she did not sail for Miami until February 26th.
Carnival Cruises was initially in a fragile financial position, and it was essential that the MARDI GRAS should earn money immediately. There was no time for a refit, and on March 11, 1972, the MARDI GRAS left Miami on her first cruise for Ted Arison.
At that point, she was the largest liner using the port of Miami and was too deep-drafted, with the result that in the fully laden condition the MARDI GRAS ran aground on departure. After twenty-four hours of fruitless effort to free her, the passengers were disembarked.
- She was eventually refloated and inspected and not found to be taking water.
- It was front page news and for the moment damaged Carnival Cruises reputation.
- One newspaper headline read, “Mardi Gras on the Rocks.”
- The story goes that the ship’s personnel served free drinks from the ship’s bar and kept the party going.
- By 1975, with three booming years for Carnival, Ted Arison urgently needed a running-mate for the MARDI GRAS, which he found in the QUEEN ANNA MARIA, the former RMS EMPRESS OF BRITAIN, then laid up at Piraeus.
In August 1979 the MARDI GRAS sailed on a cruise to Canada, and upon arriving in Montreal, she received a fireboat welcome on her first visit to the port for eight years. Another Canadian cruise was operated in 1980, but as it turned out, this was the last time that the MARDI GRAS ever sailed in Canadian waters.Carnival added a slide for the ship’s pool for a first in cruising.
In the late 60s and early 70s, cruising began to undergo a renaissance. Rather than serving as a more comfortable means of transport, lines started to market the ships as destinations in themselves. Many lines claimed to have “invented” Caribbean pleasure cruising, but Carnival, in particular, excelled in the new marketplace and began purchasing ocean liners and converting them to early prototypes of their “Fun Ship” model. The Mardi Gras, Carnivale, and Festivale introduced familiar concepts like tiered decks, indoor and outdoor pools, casinos, sports decks, and lounge-style entertainment, with each ship adding more innovations than the last. Festival even featured the first cruise ship water slide, although it was little more than a playground slide.
- Tropical pleasure cruising was a huge hit with travelers, starting a pop culture phenomenon embodied by the hit TV show The Love Boat, which ran from 1977 until 1986. Not content with simply repurposing ocean liners, Carnival decided to design a ship from the ground up with these innovations in mind. The Tropicale was completed in 1982 and featured more onboard entertainment, activities and dining options than any of its predecessors.
- The attraction of brand-new cruise liners in the now rapidly expanding Carnival fleet could not dim the enduring popularity of the MARDI GRAS, and early in 1982, the aging ship was given an extensive refurbishment.
- Even by 1989, after seventeen years with Carnival, the MARDI GRAS was still recognizable as the former EMPRESS OF CANADA.
By 1992 Carnival was operating eighteen ships and carried 1.1 million passengers that year.
- Towards the end of 1990 Carnival announced that it would transfer the MARDI GRAS (ex RMS EMPRESS OF CANADA) to join the CARNIVALE (ex RMS EMPRESS OF BRITAIN) operating out of Port Canaveral.
- The two former Empresses sailed on an identical schedule to the Bahamas, in convoy and never out of sight of each other.
In 1993 the MARDI GRAS was chartered by Carnival Corp for a ten-year service to a variety of secondary cruise lines with the ship’s name changed to the Olympic, Star of Texas, Lucky Star, Apollo, and Apollon.
- Finally, in 2003 the former RMS EMPRESS OF CANADA sailed to Alang India, where the ship was hauled to the beach and reduced to a pile of scrap metal.
As for cruise history, the MARDI GRAS will always be the cornerstone of Carnival Cruise phenomenal success.