This is What Turnaround Day is Really Like on a Giant Cruise Ship

A behind-the-scenes peek at the "organized chaos" of turnaround day on a giant cruise ship.

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set sail pool
Photo: Jason Nuttle

Cruise Ship Staff Reveal What Turnaround Day is Really Like

It’s just past 7:30 in the morning, and the Carnival Magic, one of Carnival Cruise Lines’ most popular ships that regularly plies the Caribbean on week-long cruises, has docked minutes ago at its home port in Miami. Passengers on the ship’s 15 accommodation decks are just beginning to disembark.

I am deep in the bowels of the eight-year-old, $740 million cruise ship, standing on Deck Zero, which runs nearly the length of the 1,004-foot ship and is strictly off limits to passengers. It’s also known to the crew as “I-95,” because it is said to be as busy as the famous U.S. interstate highway of that name. (German-flagged boats call this deck, “the Autobahn.”) Today, I-95 lives up to its name. It’s “turnaround day,” when the crew readies the ship for this week’s cruise, and I-95 is buzzing with people hurrying by. Some are carrying cleaning supplies, others are pushing carts piled high with trash to be recycled, still others are rushing to help wherever they will be needed today. Workers man scores of small forklifts or “pallet jacks,” and zip in and out of storerooms as they deliver food and supplies that have just been loaded from the port.

Everyone who passes by me has the same determined look on their face. There’s no time for small talk on turnaround day, the busiest day of the week for this army of workers. In the next eight hours or so, the crew will offload departing passengers (and their thousands of pieces of luggage), clean the ship, and take on new passengers (and their luggage), as well as a week’s worth of food and supplies.

“Incredible, isn’t it?” says Donato Becce, the ship’s hotel director and the person responsible for overseeing this logistical tour de force. Becce, an affable, 53-year-old Italian and a veteran mariner, confesses that even he is amazed at how the crew and shoreside helpers—more than a thousand people altogether—turn the Magic around so quickly and efficiently.

“Think about it,” he says as we walk down I-95, dodging pallet jacks piled high with stacks of everything from shrimp to Maine lobster to champagne to light bulbs and new mattresses. “Over the next hours our crew will change the sheets and clean 1,845 passenger cabins and bathrooms. They will also clean the entire ship, load a week’s worth of food and supplies onboard and welcome our next cruise’s 3,690 passengers. And we do this every week, 52 weeks a year.”

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Photo: Jason Nuttle

Race Against the Clock

As the New York Times once noted about turnaround day, “Getting everything ready in time is part NASCAR pit stop, part loading of Noah’s Ark.” Industry insiders often call this operation “organized chaos.” Becce shakes his head and recalls that when he started with Carnival, a “big” ship had 350 staterooms and maybe 800 passengers. The Carnival Horizon, the firm’s newest ship, has 1,980 staterooms with room for 3,960 passengers, while the world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean International’s Symphony of the Seas, has 2,759 staterooms and a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers. “As ships get bigger, we have to work faster and smarter,” he says. “We are always running to keep in place.”

Becce pauses to answer one of the several phones and ship’s radio he carries with him. As the point man for turnaround day, with 22 departments reporting to him, he is in constant demand. “That was my group coordinator checking if we could schedule a customer party for this evening.”

His ship’s radio buzzes and he gets an update on how the porters are doing offloading the luggage from this week’s cruise. To speed up the turnaround, passengers had to set out their luggage, more than 15,000 pieces, the night before for offloading to the nearby terminal this morning. “So far so good,” he sighs. “But we’re behind schedule due to a change in our itinerary that got us to Miami a bit late this morning. We’ve got to make up a half hour or so. It could be tight.”

Every second counts and delays can have serious repercussions. If departing guests are not offloaded, or “debarked” on time, oncoming guests who start boarding around 11 a.m., will be delayed. As Terry Thornton, senior vice president of Carnival Cruise Lines, earlier explained to me, “Delays can upset embarking passengers and can cost us money. The sooner a guest embarks, the sooner he or she can start their vacation and spend money aboard our ships.

“And if the ship leaves late and has to speed up to reach its destination on time; that can cost us more fuel.” Adds Becce, “There are five other Carnival ships at the port today; if we don’t make our 4 p.m. departure slot, we will lose our place in line and could be seriously delayed.”

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Photo: Jason Nuttle

Due Diligence

Although The Magic did not tie up until 7:30, the port’s terminal was abuzz with activity throughout the night. More than twenty 18-wheeler trucks were offloading food and supplies onto forklift trucks ready to load them onto the Magic through its port side cargo doors as soon as it arrived.

Security teams, including sniffer dogs, scan—and scamper over—everything that is due to be onloaded. Also, before the hundreds of pallets of food are loaded onto the ship, Executive Chef Wellington Dias or a member of his team checks them to make sure they are not spoiled. An inventory manager keeps careful count of the food and beverages. “We don’t want to run short of anything during the cruise,” explains Becce. “Because of health restrictions, we cannot purchase food from ports outside the United States.”

The ship maintains a several-day reserve of food in case severe weather or an emergency keeps the ship at sea longer than scheduled. “We have to think of everything,” says Becce. “We even stockpile baby formula and diapers in case we are delayed at sea and passengers run short.” For the next several hours, the forklifts will keep feeding the Magic with pallet after pallet of food for its weeklong cruise.

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set sail man sheets
Photo: Jason Nuttle

No Cause for Delay

As soon as passengers start to leave—all must be off the ship by 10:30 a.m.—room stewards begin the laborious process of cleaning and sterilizing staterooms. Each steward is assigned to clean 30-35 rooms. Thanks to years of practice and advice from time-and-motion study experts, stewards can thoroughly clean and prepare a room in less than 15 minutes. To save time, duvets are covered by two separate sheets rather than with duvet covers.

Becce takes me to a deluxe typical ocean-view cabin on Deck Two and explains that while the steward does the bed making, vacuums the carpet and stocks amenities such as water glasses and notepads, only the assistant steward cleans the bathrooms and removes the used sheets from the bed. “This is to prevent any cross-contamination,” he says. “We’re very particular about cleanliness and sanitation.”

Details matter. After a room is cleaned, a head steward will inspect it to make sure everything is shipshape. This includes checking that the pillows are plumped just so, the sheets are neatly fitted and squared and that one or two room towels have been properly fashioned into a fun “towel animal” and placed on the bed. (Most popular are elephants, followed by swans, rabbits, and monkeys.)

Before oncoming guests arrive, a two-man security team checks each room safe to make sure nothing has been left behind. Jewelry and other valuables are often forgotten in the safes and are returned to passengers. Oddest item left behind by a departing passenger? A prosthetic leg.

One of Becce’s cell phones ring. It’s a call from the maintenance department updating him on the progress divers are making during a hull and propeller blades inspection. “Nothing wrong yet,” he says. “But let’s hope there’s no cause for delay.”

But there is a delay that is causing Becce and his team concern. It is 10:50 and there are still nearly 600 passengers who have not yet left the ship. “Because we were delayed getting into port, we’re behind schedule,” he says. He makes a few calls and moments later the ship’s cruise director announces to remaining passengers over the Magic’s loudspeakers: “All Zones; you are clear to proceed to the gangway, have a happy holiday, and we will see you soon.”

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Photo: Jason Nuttle

Clean Up on Aisle Five

By 11:30 the ship is empty except for crew members who are feverishly cleaning, mopping, repairing, restocking. In any minute new passengers, each of whom have been given specific embarkation times to stagger the crowd, will board the ship. On the ship’s Lido Deck, I meet 26-year-old Eden Rollan, a hotel stewardess from the Philippines who started working on the Magic just seven months ago. “Turnaround days are crazy busy, and everyone pitches in to help get the ship ready,” she tells me. “It’s hard work but it’s also fun. In a couple of hours the ship will be full of new, smiling, excited passengers.”

By one o’clock several hundred new passengers have come onboard and are eagerly exploring the ship. Becce checks up on housekeeping and seems a bit concerned that rooms still need to be cleaned. “Naturally, oncoming guests are always eager to see their staterooms. We need to hustle.”

To cut down on congestion on the accommodation decks as room stewards ready the staterooms, passengers will not be allowed to enter their rooms and be reunited with their luggage until shortly before the ship leaves port. Indeed, the elevators are reprogrammed during this time to prevent guests from going to the accommodation decks.

At Deck Zero, 58 crew members have checked out and left on home leave, and 58 workers are checking in. Depending on their jobs, crew members work several months on and have several months off. The company flies them home. With more than 55 nationalities represented among the 1,400 crew, passports, visas, and other documents have to be scrutinized, and security checks can be time consuming.

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Photo: Peter Gonzalez / Courtesy Carnival

Where the Magic Happens

It’s nearly 2:30 and Donato Becce is smiling. The divers have finished their hull inspection and everything is A-OK. The housekeeping department reports that room cleaning is ahead of schedule. Most of the ship’s supplies, including 1,200 tons (384,000 gallons) of fuel, have been loaded and stowed away. “And best of all,” says Becce, “my phones have stopped ringing!”

I join Becce for an espresso in the Lobby deck where we watch arriving passengers “oohing” and “ahhing” at the Magic’s dramatic, 12-story glass-enclosed atrium. A boisterous DJ is spinning reggae and calypso music. Suddenly, it’s show time again as new passengers fill the ship. The atrium bar is already packed with passengers knocking back a welcoming drink.

Becce tells me, “This is one of my favourite times, watching excited, happy passengers thrilled to be coming aboard to start their holidays. You can’t help but smile.” Although, like most of the crew, he works an extra long shift on turnaround day, he says that the challenges and rewards make it worth all the effort. As he sips his espresso, he smiles and says, “Just think, we will do it again next week and the week after that and…”

Just then, one of his phones rings. Happily it’s good news. “We’re making up for our late arrival,” Becce tells me after he hangs up. “Looks like we have a great chance of leaving on time.”

Thanks to the crew’s experience and efficiency, the Magic cast off from port at 3:55 p.m.; five minutes earlier than its scheduled departure.

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Originally Published in Readers Digest International Edition

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