Once passengers crossed the gangway to Empress of the Seas, they were greeted by smiling servers in Panama hats with Cuba libres, and another salsa band got people dancing in the ship's atrium.
For Royal Caribbean veterans Raimund Gschaider, associate vp hotel operations, and Maggie Levay, director, guest port services, it was an emotional moment.
In 1983, Gschaider, who had just started with the company aboard Song of Norway, remembers passengers asking 'When are you going to Cuba?'
'This is why we brought the ship back,' he said of Empress of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's smallest vessel, which had sailed for sister brand Pullmantur for some years. 'This is the maximum size that can fit in the Havana terminal,' he said.
Gschaider has been busy working on the Cuba program for some time and made his first trip aboard Azamara Club Cruises' Azamara Quest on its inaugural Havana cruise a few weeks ago.
'It's an exciting moment. I got emotional,' Levay said in the PortMiami terminal, with Empress of the Seas visible through the big windows behind the check-in counters. 'Just to see it all come alive and the check-in going so smoothly is a proud moment.'
Levay added more check-in staff because of the extra documentation required for the Cuba voyage. 'We wanted to meet our commitment to have a high level of guest service,' she said.
Empress of the Seas, originally called Nordic Empress when it began sailing in 1990, was one of Levay's first ships when she started working at check-in for Royal Caribbean in 1991.
'It's nice to see it still here, still around, still looking beautiful,' she said.