Life on the Empress of
Canada before she became
Carnival Mardi Gras
Richard H. Wagner
The Empress of Canada was an unlikely candidate to revolutionize the passenger ship business. She was built by
Vickers-Armstrong Shipbuilders in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England in 1961 towards the end of the ocean liner era
to do transatlantic crossings between the United Kingdom and Canada. At 27,284 gross tons she was much smaller
than the great ships of her day - - the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth, the United States and the France. With a
service speed of 21 knots, she was also not a transatlantic greyhound. Instead, she was a well-built ship that her
owner Canadian Pacific Steamship Company could rely upon to handle the mundane traffic between Liverpool and
Montreal and to do the occasional cruise.
As the jet airliner finally brought the ocean liner era to an end, Canadian Pacific decided to exit the passenger
ship business and retired the Empress of Canada in 1971. The ship, however, still had plenty of life in her having
done only 121 crossings over a little more than 10 years.
Miami-based entrepreneur Ted Arison saw the potential for the neglected, laid-up ship to form the nucleus for a
cruise line he envisioned creating. He persuaded some business associates to help him purchase the Empress of
Canada for $6.5 million and renaming her the Mardi Gras, he started his cruise line.
It was not an immediate success. Mardi Gras ran aground in the Port of Miami on her first cruise in 1972. The red
ink mounted. By 1974, the business associates who had financed the acquisition of the Mardi Gras wanted out and
offered to sell Arison their stake in the ship for one dollar and Arison's agreement to take on the debt that the
enterprise had incurred. Arison agreed and together with two other investors, Arison now owned the Mardi Gras
and the fledgling cruise line, which he had named "Carnival Cruise Lines."
Of course, Carnival went on from there to become the world's most successful passenger ship company. The Fun
Ship approach to cruising that led to this success and which changed the industry was first implemented on the
Mardi Gas. As such, the very ordinary little liner turned out to be quite revolutionary.*
In order to see this revolution in perspective, it is helpful to look at what life was like on this ship before it was
acquired by Carnival. Accordingly, presented below are a bar list and a daily programme from her Empress of
Canada days. (Beyondships thanks Captain Paul Wright for providing these items).
*The Mardi Gras continued to sail for Carnival until 1993 when she was sold to Epirotiki Lines. After changing
hands several more times, she was sold for scrap in 2003.
|Its all about ships
The Bar List from the early 1970s contains
prices that appear to be an amazing bargain even
considering the effects of inflation.
A Daily Programme from the late 1960s
reveals that there was little in the way of organized
entertainment. For the most part, the activities
consisted of films, some music and a musical quiz.
Guests were not given a list of choices like they are
The reminder that guests should return all
board games and playing cards to the purser
indicates that the ship did try to assist the
passengers in entertaining themselves. However,
we also see that the ship's pool was only open
during specified portions of the day. It was
apparently closed from noon until 2 p.m. and again
from 3:30 until 5 p.m.
Cruise ship article - Historic Ships - Empress of Canada (Mardi Gras)
(Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines)