These days, there’s no denying that cruise lines are focusing their efforts on building mega cruise ships that are bigger and more innovative than ever before. While newer cruise ships are certainly flashy and stylish, all cruise lines still rely on their older ships to cater to specific destinations and demographics.
Older ships built in the 1990s and early 2000s are fairly small compared to today’s cruise ship standards. For the most part, you won’t find the top-of-the-line amenities and offerings on a cruise line’s oldest ship. Instead, you can find ships build in a no-frills era of cruising where most never dreamed of riding a rollercoaster, zip line or waterslide at sea.
However, I find that older cruise ships have a lot of charm. Sure, you will find outdated decor and rust around the vessel. But, at least for me, you’ll also find a more intimate cruise ship that allows you to connect with the sea and your itinerary’s incredible ports.
I had a busy travel year within the last year, which has taken me on 13 cruises over the last 12 months. As someone who cruises very often, I’ve sailed on ships of all sizes and ages. In fact, I just returned from a two night European cruise on Norwegian Sun, which is one of the oldest ships sailing for Norweigan Cruise Line currently.
Come along as we compare these three of the oldest cruise ships from Norwegian, Royal Caribbean and Carnival.
Back in August, my sister and I sailed on Carnival Ecstasy from Mobile, Alabama before her retirement later in the year. Built in 1991, this cruise ship was notably older than almost every other cruise ship sailing in the industry last year.
I had never sailed on a cruise ship that was 31 years old! It was a crazy experience, to say the least, especially considering I hadn’t taken a cruise with Carnival in more than a decade.
Before retirement, Carnival Ecstasy weighed around 70,000 gross tons and could hold 2,052 passengers at maximum capacity. Surprisingly, Carnival Ecstasy was one of the biggest cruise ships in the industry when she debuted. In fact, she was one of the last remaining cruise ships of Carnival’s wildly successful Fantasy-class of cruise ships, which revolutionized the cruise industry back in the day.
However, sailing in 2022, Carnival Ecstasy was one of the smallest and oldest ships operated by ANY major cruise line.
Within the last year, I also sailed twice on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas, which was built in 2003. My sister and I sailed on Mariner of the Seas in April 2022 for a very cheap spring break cruise to the Bahamas. At the very start of 2023, I celebrated the new year with my husband and our group of friends as we set sail again on Mariner of the Seas.
Mariner of the Seas was built as part of the Voyager-class of ships, which debuted in 1999. This class of ship was a momentous achievement for Royal Caribbean and not just because of the vessels’ sizes. The Voyager-class also introduced the innovative Royal Promenade - an open space in the middle of the ship that has since become a staple for Royal Caribbean’s ships.
At maximum capacity, Mariner of the Seas can hold 4,252 passengers, weighing around 140,000 gross tons. This is double the size of Carnival Ecstasy!
Finally, I just disembarked Norwegian Sun after a quick two-night cruise from Malaga, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal. This cruise ship is the second oldest in the cruise line’s fleet, as it was built in 2001.
Norwegian Sun was the third and final ship of the cruise line’s Sun-class of ships. While Carnival and Royal Caribbean were pioneers for cruise innovation during this time, Norwegian was building cruise ships that were standard for the early 2000s.
Norwegian Sun is similar in size to Carnival Ecstasy, although she was built around the same time as Mariner of the Seas. This cruise ships only weighs 78,000 gross tons and can hold 1,976 passengers at maximum capacity.
When comparing these old cruise ships in terms of design, I’d argue that Carnival Ecstasy’s age was most reflective in its ship design while Mariner of the Seas was certainly ahead of its time. Norwegian Sun falls somewhere in the middle, where the design felt like a ‘no-frills’ approach.
(Main atrium located onboard the Norwegian Sun)
In fact, I have a hard time believing that Norwegian Sun was built around the same time as Mariner of the Seas. Although similar in age, Mariner of the Seas is more modern and stylish while also having more character than Norwegian Sun. The Royal Promenade is certainly a dazzling design feature, even on a 20 year old cruise ship.
(Mariner of the Seas' Royal Promenade, which is lined with bars, shops and cafes)
Nothing about Norwegian Sun’s design left a lasting impression on me. The ship’s decor and design felt very bland with little charm. Norwegian Sun has a more classic and traditional ambiance. Of the three old ships, Norwegian Sun was the most elegant.
(Main atrium located onboard the Norwegian Sun)
On the other hand, Carnival Ecstasy’s design could best be described as entering a time machine. The bright neon walls were only accentuated by the ship’s dark and dim lighting. The ceilings felt cramped and claustrophobic. Even on a small cruise ship, we found ourselves getting lost and confused.
(Staircase found on Carnival Ecstasy - before the ship's retirement in late 2022)
However, Carnival Ecstasy certainly had more character than Norwegian Sun, albeit a little flashy and perhaps borderline tacky to today's standards. There was no denying Carnival Ecstasy’s age once we were onboard.
(Duck tape found on Carnival Ecstasy's window)
While clean and fairly well maintained, we could certainly tell the ship was nearing her retirement, such as duck tape on the windows and plenty of rust.
Dining and Drinks
Food is one of the most important aspects of a cruise for me. It’s the heart and soul of any cruise vacation!
We were super impressed by the dining options onboard on Carnival Ecstasy, despite the ship’s old age. Honestly, we had very low expectations for the food given the ship's age. Onboard Carnival Ecstasy, we found many of Carnival’s classic dining staples like Guy’s Burger Joint, BlueIguana Cantina, SeaDay Brunch and even Afternoon Tea.
(Burger from Guy's Burger Joint located on Carnival Ecstasy)
All of these quick-casual dining options were complimentary onboard. In addition, you could choose to dine at Carnival Ecstasy's Lido Marketplace Buffet and the main dining room each day. Carnival Ecstasy also featured classic bar venues for the cruise line like the chemistry-themed Alchemy Bar and poolside RedFrog Tiki Bar.
(Reved-up Mojito from Alchemy Bar on Carnival Ecstasy)
For being 31 years old, Carnival Ecstasy was decked out with places for us to eat and drink. We loved trying some of the signature venues for Carnival and we were impressed with everything we ate.
The only dining area we didn’t enjoy was the Lido Marketplace buffet, which has been standard for my Carnival experiences. Their buffet always feels lack-luster, which leads me to other dining options whenever possible. Comparatively, the onboard buffet was where Norwegian Sun really shined for me.
(Lunch from Garden Cafe onboard Norwegian Sun)
Although the Garden Cafe was small and not well designed, everything I tasted during our two night cruise was really delicious. I was impressed with the quality and variety that was offered in the buffet on Norwegian Sun during my short time onboard.
(Garden Cafe onboard the Norwegian Sun)
Since the cruise was so short, we didn’t have time to try any of the many specialty dining restaurants onboard Norwegian Sun. Instead, we dined both nights in the main dining room. The food and service was good, but nothing outstanding.
(Main dining room located onboard the Norwegian Sun)
Norwegian Sun also had a few bars throughout the ship, but I would have loved seeing some classic Norwegian venues like the Mojito Bar or Vibe Beach Club. It would have been great for Norwegian to incorporate some of these in the ship's refurbishment in 2018.
For dining, Mariner of the Seas falls in the middle. I’ve never been disappointed in the ship’s onboard buffet, although the food options are fairly standard and predictable. Of the three old ships, Mariner of the Seas had the best food in the main dining room.
(Food options in the Windjammer Buffet onboard Mariner of the Seas)
Mariner of the Seas features a slew of unique bars onboard, including my personal favorite, a tiki-themed bar called The Bamboo Room. You can also find poolside bars, a British pub and a wine bar. I love trying all of these themed bars and lounges during a cruise.
(Mojito from The Bamboo Room onboard Mariner of the Seas)
Considering Mariner of the Seas is double the size of Carnival Ecstasy and Norwegian Sun, having more space onboard for these unique venues really enhances the onboard experience despite the ship’s age.
One of my favorite parts about cruising is experiencing all of the onboard entertainment that’s available. Finishing your day with dinner and a show is a quintessential cruise day for me!
Mariner of the Seas’ entertainment was the most impressive compared to Norwegian Sun and Carnival Ecstasy. This is mostly because Mariner of the Seas features something that most cruise ships do not have: an ice skating rink!
(Ice show performance onboard Mariner of the Seas)
As part of the Voyager-class’ revolutionary debut, Royal Caribbean introduced an onboard ice skating rink; this was a first for the cruise industry at the time. The ice skating rink is home to a jaw-dropping ice skating spectacle called Ice Under The Big Top. Despite the rink’s small size (it is on a cruise ship, after all), the skaters are insanely talented with twirls, tricks and flips galore.
Honestly, Norwegian Sun and Carnival Ecstasy don’t hold a candle to Mariner of the Seas in terms of entertainment because of this.
When I cruise, I love attending the comedy shows onboard. Lucky for us, Carnival Ecstasy featured the cruise line’s iconic Punchliner Comedy Club where we could attend nightly comedy shows. This is a staple among Carnival cruise ships and we were thrilled to see this onboard Carnival Ecstasy.
(Punchliner Comedy Show onboard Carnival Ecstasy)
Lastly, Norwegian Sun had very minimal entertainment during our short cruise. Of course, two nights is barely enough time to get a real taste of the type of entertainment offered. We listened to a live musician on the pool deck and attended one main production show called Cosmopolitan, which we enjoyed.
Shockingly, Norwegian Sun’s onboard theatre was probably the smallest theatre I’ve ever seen on a cruise ship. As such, there really isn’t much room to host big productions.
On all three of these old ships, I stayed in an inside stateroom guarantee during the duration of my cruise. I prefer to stay in an inside cabin because they’re very affordable and little time is spent in the stateroom anyway.
(Inside Cabin Guarantee during our cruise on Carnival Ecstasy)
When we arrived to our stateroom on Carnival Ecstasy, we were initially pleased with the room’s size and appearance. It was clean and comfortable. The biggest disappointment was only having one outlet on the desk for us to use, which is pretty representative of the 1990s I suppose.
Our stateroom's bathroom onboard Carnival Ecstasy was our least favorite part of the stateroom experience. The bathroom had bright blue, squishy flooring! The toilet was so close to the wall that we had to sit nearly sideways. Finally, the shower just had a curtain that didn’t cover the floor very well, which left a little bit of sitting water.
(Carnival Ecstasy's inside cabin bathroom)
Similarly, our bathroom onboard Norwegian Sun was equally as colorful with bright green color everywhere! This must have been a trend back in the 1990s and 2000s, as colorful bathrooms are certainly an interesting design choice these days. The shower also had a clingy shower curtain that didn’t properly cover the space and also left some sitting water.
(Lime green colored bathroom onboard the Norwegian Sun)
Our stateroom on Norwegian Sun was more modern and spacious than Carnival Ecstasy. We had a small vanity, closet and chair in our room, although the cruise was so short that we barely spent any time in here. The stateroom also featured lamps above the beds with USB ports, which must have been an addition during refurbishment.
(Inside cabin guarantee stateroom onboard Norwegian Sun)
In comparison, Mariner of the Seas’ staterooms feel a bit more dated when looking side by side to Norwegian Sun’s. Our bathroom of Mariner of the Seas felt equally as dated as my staterooms on Carnival Ecstasy and Norwegian Sun, although it had much-appreciated plastic shower doors compared to the dreaded, clingy shower curtain.
(Inside cabin guarantee stateroom onboard Mariner of the Seas)
Both Norwegian Sun and Mariner of the Seas were refurbished within the last few years. Research backs up my observation that Norwegian prioritized stateroom upgrades while Royal Caribbean focused on amplifying public spaces during refurbishment.
Little touches like USB chargers and new carpet in the stateroom gave Norwegian a one-up when it comes to stateroom comparisons among the three old ships.
Onboard Thrills, Innovation and Technology
While newer cruise ships have an abundance of onboard innovation and technology, older cruise ships often lack this type of advancement. Of course, this was more of the standard back in the 1990s and early 2000s compared to ships being built now.
Similar to design, Mariner of the Seas’ innovation, technology and onboard thrills are unmatched compared to Carnival Ecstasy and Norwegian Sun. Royal Caribbean has certainly invested a pretty penny into the ship’s onboard thrills, as the ship has multiple waterslides, a surf simulator, rock-climbing wall, miniature golf and a splash playground for kids.
(FlowRider and waterslides located on Mariner of the Seas)
However, the ship’s Royal Promenade and ice skating rink pioneered the industry towards innovation advancement. Mariner of the Seas was certainly ahead of its time in terms of technology and onboard thrills, which is still evident today when comparing ships of similar age.
Carnival Ecstasy and Norwegian Sun featured a few main pools and hot tubs on their top decks with an abundance of sun loungers everywhere. However, Carnival Ecstasy featured a kid’s splashing area with waterslide on the aft of the ship, which was certainly an addition later on. This area was great for families, as the main pool was quite crowded otherwise.
(Slide and splash area on Carnival Ecstasy called WaterWorks)
Norwegian Sun's top deck was very basic and simple. The ship features a small basketball sports court overlooking the pool, but that was really all you could find. This left the top deck to be extremely bare with very little amenities other than rows and rows of sun loungers.
(Sport deck overlooking Norwegian Sun's top pool deck)
Overall, Norwegian Sun felt like a great place to relax in the sun while hanging out by the pool; however, if you were looking for onboard thrills or entertainment, this was not the ship for you.
While some people always prefer sailing on brand new cruise ships, I certainly don't mind setting sail on older vessels. If a cruise line invests enough into refurbishment and maintenance, these older ships can continue to provide great cruises.
Typically, older ships are smaller and able to visit more unique ports. You can find these older vessels visiting ports that the bigger mega ships cannot visit. As such, the itineraries can be more exciting and immersive than newer ships offer.
Additionally, cruise lines invest millions into their older ships to ensure they are still comfortable, clean and safe to sail. Some cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean and Carnival, seem to prioritize adding onboard thrills and public spaces while Norwegian chose to refresh staterooms and specialty dining during refurbishment.
(Main atrium located on Carnival Ecstasy)
When comparing these cruise ships, it’s hard not to notice how well Mariner of the Seas has aged over the last 20 years. The revolutionary technology and innovation is still apparent today when sailing onboard, especially in comparison to the rather bleak Norwegian Sun, which was built at the same time.
(Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas)
This isn’t to say Norwegian Sun felt outdated or rundown, but more so that the ship reflects a very traditional and classic era of cruising. There are very few frills onboard. I'd be totally comfortable sailing on Norwegian Sun for a port-intensive itinerary, but would maybe get bored with too many sea days.
(Top pool deck onboard Norwegian Sun)
Finally, given Carnival Ecstasy’s age, the cruise ship was well equipped with more dining and bars than I ever expected. I was shocked to find venues like Guy's Burger Joint onboard the ship, but also appreciated how much was offered on the oldest ship in Carnival's fleet. This was impressive, to say the least.
(Overlooking Carnival Ecstasy's pool deck)
Overall, it’s evident Carnival didn’t just let the ship deteriorate overtime. Instead, the cruise line made necessary investments to keep the ship not only sea worthy, but also up-to-speed with some signature venues.
At the end of the day, cruising on an older ship is all about perspective. Of course, ships that are 20 to 30 years old will not have the same amenities and design features the newest ships. It’s important to keep your expectations realistic when you set sail on an older ship.