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Planting the seeds of success for family cruising and Port Canaveral

Bruce Nierenberg is known for new product development and start-ups. He launched family cruising at Port Canaveral four decades ago
Bruce Nierenberg co-founded and led Premier Cruise Lines in 1983 as the first cruise brand dedicated to families. Known as the Big Red Boat, it operated from Port Canaveral and was licensed as the official cruise line of Walt Disney World, pairing a short Bahamas cruise with a Disney Orlando vacation.

Before this, as EVP at Norwegian Caribbean Lines (now Norwegian Cruise Line) in the 1970s, he had conceived the first mega cruise ship, the former ocean liner France which was converted into the Norway, and developed the first out-island concept, Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.

Nierenberg shared this commentary on the news that Port Canaveral cruise traffic soared to 6.8m passengers in fiscal 2023.

It always gives me a warm feeling to read how successful Port Canaveral has become.

My little Premier Cruise Lines — the original one — certainly started something with potential that has continued to drive cruise growth.

Welcoming families with kids

It introduced a family cruise product that, for the first time, really made families with kids feel welcome.

And it used a cruise embarkation point in the heart of the fastest growing vacation destination in the world, Central Florida.  

The port's growth is significantly supported by the same short three-/four-day cruise products as the Big Red Boat developed, combined with hotel, attraction, rental car and related experiences for an obviously popular vacation choice that spreads across all demographics. 

In many of the projects I have developed, I usually had a gut feeling whether it would be successful or not. This family cruise concept from Central Florida was never in doubt.

Few early believers

It blew me away that when it was announced many cruise industry players, including the biggest ones, said we would be out of business in 90 days. Why? They said there were not enough people living in Melbourne and Cocoa Beach to fill the ship.

I knew that on top of the inbound vacationers to Central Florida, the numbers on the existing three-/four-day cruises out of Miami on NCL's Sunward II — which were very popular due to the private island exclusive at the time — were 50% booked by Floridians, half who lived in Central and Northern Florida.

Exclusive product

So, we were about to have an exclusive product right in the sweet spot of 75% of the traffic that was sailing out of Miami. 

The 50% of out-of-staters that sailed in the Sunward II typically rented cars and drove to Central Florida for part of their trip, which often included a visit to retired grandparents who lived in Central Florida.

The concept of family travel on cruises spread from the Big Red Boats to all other segments, and cruise companies from Alaska to Europe to the Caribbean.

Same dynamics exist today

The same dynamics that caused Port Canaveral to grow into the largest volume of passengers remain today: the port's proximity to Central Florida tourism destinations, largest volume of annual visitors in the world and the importance of family travel by ship.

As long as people still bring their families to Florida, particularly Central Florida, the demand for cruises to combine with those plans using Port Canaveral will grow, only limited by how many new berths they can build.

When markets stay fresh and healthy in demand, this trickles down through the whole cruise dynamic. Ports add berths, more ships are built and travel agents enjoy the growth of selling more and more of these types of family vacations. 

Bruce Nierenberg, who specializes in new product development and start-ups, may be reached at [email protected].