Micky Arison, the chairman of Carnival Corporation, is one of the most powerful men in the cruise industry and owner of NBA team Miami Heat. But he is an intensely shy person who rarely allows any glimpses into his soul.
On board his company’s newest ship – Majestic Princess – he made a rare exception, during which we learnt how Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 might never have been built without a nudge from his daughter, and whether he might be ready to build more ships for Cunard.
Micky took part in a partially scripted Q&A session with Carnival president Arnold Donald, and also agreed to take questions from his audience of international travel agents and select media. I was determined to make the most of the opportunity … but more of that in a moment.
The warm-up question brought out the story of how Micky’s father, Ted Arison, kicked off the cruise industry as we know it by co-founding Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1966 and inspiring the creation of Miami Cruise Port.
Then came the launch of Carnival in 1972, which Micky recalled made front page headlines across America – for all the wrong reasons. The ship, Mardi Gras, ran aground on a sandbank within sight of Miami and could not be refloated until most of its fuel had been pumped out.
When the ship reached Puerto Rico, the only way the captain could raise cash to buy enough fuel for the journey back to the mainland was by emptying the tills in the bars and casino..
The rest, as they say, is history, and it was brought up to date when Donald brought up a picture of Micky with The Queen, at the christening of P&O Cruises’ Britannia in Southampton in 2015.
It was not the first time they had met, as The Queen had previously officiated at the christening of Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth. But for the first time, she agreed to stay for lunch on board.
Micky went on: “She has an amazing energy for a 90-year-old. For my wife – who is English – it was just an unbelievable day.
“Just before went into lunch, The Queen and Prince Philip asked for a few moments, and when they made their entrance to the dining room she was holding a glass containing a dark liquid.
“I said to her – and my wife was mortified because you’re not supposed to speak to The Queen unless she speaks to you – ‘What are you drinking?’
“She replied, ‘I’m not sure I should tell you, but it’s Dubonnet.’
“’I remember Dubonnet,’ I said, “but isn’t that very sweet?’
“’Not if you put a little gin in it’ was her response.”
Returning to the subject of Queen Mary 2, Micky told how he was just five when his family – originally from Tel Aviv – emigrated to the United States on board Cunard’s Mauretania. As a child in New York, he became fascinated by the ocean liners tied up at the Manhattan piers.
Many years later, as the man in charge of Carnival Corporation, he became aware that Cunard was for sale, but he said its ships did not fit with the Carnival brand and he was not really interested. “It wasn’t much of a business, to be honest.”
Then his daughter persuaded him to watch the film Titanic – “not something I was particularly interested in, but she convinced me to go and see it. In that movie, you get the nostalgic impression of the glory years of Atlantic crossings, and I realised there was a great affection for ocean liners in the US because so many people arrived in the country on board one of them.
“I decided that if we built the next great ocean liner it would be really successful. It was not easy to design because it’s not a cruise ship – we had to put restaurants and big open public rooms in different places, and there were many issues such as the strength of steel, and the speed the ship has to be able to go.
“But it has indeed been a great success and is looking even more magnificent after her re-mastering last year.”
Micky’s affection for the Queen Mary 2 is something special, so when the opportunity came for questions from the audience, I reminded him that when naval architect Stephen Payne was designing the ship, Arison told him “You’d better get it right, because you’ll only get one chance.”
Could there be a possibility, I asked, for Payne to get a second chance, and be commissioned to create a Queen Mary 3?
“Well, Queen Elizabeth 2 lasted 40 years and Queen Mary 2 is still a very young ship,” Arison replied. “I wouldn’t rule out additional ships for Cunard – I never say never – but it’s not in our plans today.
“But there is really only room for one ship in the Transatlantic and QM2 does 22 crossings a year. It sells out a year in advance at ridiculously high prices and there might be a temptation to consider another, but really it’s a one-ship market.
“And I have to say that it was outrageously expensive to build Queen Mary 2 then, 13 or 14 years ago. It would just be incredibly expensive now.”
Perhaps Micky’s daughter could have another word in his ear …