Increased traffic boosts Port Canaveral to No. 1 spot on cruise list business
What started out as a small fishing port in the 1950s has blossomed into the world’s No. 1 cruise port and it’s still growing. Port Canaveral is the reigning king of ports, having been designated Best Home Port by Cruise Hive, a cruise industry news blog. Miami ranks second and Fort Lauderdale is third.
The cruise industry today is booming in the aftermath of the pandemic, which shut the industry down in 2020. Today there are more ships and bigger ships.
Canaveral is homeport to 20 ships, serving more than 50 destinations.
Six cruise lines list Port Canaveral as their home port for cruise destinations in the Bahamas and Caribbean. The world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Sea has a capacity of nearly 7,000 passengers on 18 decks. It began using Port Canaveral as its home port in late 2022.
Other cruise lines at Canaveral are Disney, Carnival, Norwegian, MSC and Marella. All together they boarded 4.21 million passengers in 2022, the most of any port in the world. Carnival uses the port as home to its Mardi Gras, one of the world’s first cruise ships powered by liquified natural gas.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
What makes Port Canaveral so popular? Obviously being in the tourism capital of the world helps. Within the cruise industry, Canaveral is regarded as a “drive in” port with most cruisers coming by car. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are regarded as “fly in” ports. Port Canaveral also bills itself as a family cruising port, whereas Miami and Fort Lauderdale cater to adults.
“Seventy-five percent of our cruise guests drive into the port,” says Port Canaveral CEO John Murray. “You look at cars in our garage and you see [license plates] from all over east of the Mississippi, even Texas.” According to Murray, many passengers do three- to four-day cruises after visiting the Orlando theme parks.
According to Lars Ljoen, vice president for Carnival Cruise Line, “millions of residents in the Southeast are within a day’s drive. Along with the easy access to the airport in Orlando, it makes getting to and from the cruise convenient and affordable.”
Because of the port’s popularity, cruise lines are basing some of their newest ships at Canaveral. “We have newer ships, larger ships,” Murray says. Cruise lines know “they can fill their ships and that’s the bottom line … everybody is running full.”
Larry Jackson, owner of Cruise Holidays of Viera, calls Port Canaveral “the very best embarkation port in the world.” His travel company specializes in cruising vacations and rates Canaveral as his No. 1 booking destination. He says the port is popular for a number of reasons … people can drive to the port from all over the Southeast; the proximity to Disney World and the Central Florida tourist center; and access to cruise destination islands in the Bahamas.
Jack Valenti and his wife, Sandra, of Suntree are regulars at the port, sailing four to five times a year. They used to sail almost monthly, but have cut back as they got into their 80s. They like the easy parking and priority boarding they get for being Pinnacle members on Royal Caribbean ships. Jack says the port’s advanced technology makes the boarding easy. Coming home, facial recognition software makes clearing U.S. Customs a snap … “you just walk right by them, just go.”
All of this success comes after COVID dealt the cruise industry a heavy blow, shutting them down for 17 months, beginning in 2020.
“It was bad,” Murray says, “almost like the cruise industry was blamed for the spread of COVID.”
The shutdown meant nearly half the port’s workforce was laid off. “We lost 80 percent of our revenues in one day,” Murray explains.
Murray says they used the shutdown to work on maintenance around the port, to make the port more modern and efficient.
In addition to the cruise industry, Port Canaveral is also a major cargo port, transiting more than 5.5 million tons of cargo in 2022. Murray, a former Merchant Marine ship captain, forecasts more growth in the cargo business in the years ahead. The biggest cargo shipments are construction materials like lumber and granite from Canada used in road construction and to bolster rail beds by Brightline, the high speed rail system that connects Orlando and Miami.
Two new cargo berths at the port are under reconstruction to handle larger cargo ships, which currently cannot fit in the port.
The port also has a role in the space program. Space X has six vessels that work out of the port retrieving reusable rocket boosters from the Atlantic. Murray says that role will most assuredly increase in the years ahead.
Robyn Hattaway, who was on the port’s board of commissioners until last year, stresses how important the port is to Central Florida.
“The huge expansion in cargo is critical to serve Central Florida,” she explains. “Port Canaveral isn’t moving containers like many ports, but they are bringing fuel for our cars, food for our tables, lumber to build homes and materials to improve our roads and infrastructure.”
She also sees the cruising boom as a natural reaction to the COVID restrictions. “That is not unique to Port Canaveral. The entire state is seeing record tourism numbers.”
Port Canaveral is also an economic port of call for some cruise ships sailing from New York and Europe, bound for the Bahamas, the Caribbean and even the Panama Canal. They pull into Port Canaveral for a day or two to take on fuel and provisions because it’s far cheaper than their home ports.
SUBMARINES VISIT OFTEN
In addition to the cruise lines and cargo, the port is used by the Navy as a base for servicing Trident class nuclear submarines. The USS Indiana was commissioned at Port Canaveral in 2018 and other subs come and go from the port on a regular basis while participating in sea-based weapons testing in the Atlantic.
What lies ahead for the port? Murray foresees increased cargo traffic when the new berths are completed. The port is also adding to its parking capacity. There are about 10,000 parking spaces, with plans to add up to 1,300 more. Parking is a huge revenue generator, amounting to more than 20% of the port’s revenue.
The future of cruising is also changing. Larger ships carry with them their own mini-theme parks, complete with water slides and even rollercoasters. There are more and more things to do on board the ships.
“The ship has become the destination,” Murray says, “the newer ships are designed that way.”
According to Murray only 5% of the American population has been on a cruise. He sees that as an untapped market and expects cruising popularity to increase even more in the years ahead.
Port Canaveral has come a long way from those days in the 1950s when the first channels were dredged.
Fred Mays is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in Satellite Beach. He is a retired television journalist, and active on media issues with the Brevard Indian River Lagoon Coalition. His blog is www.floridaunplugged.net.