Conversation with Stanley B. McDonald -- Founder of Princess Cruises
This interview took place in 2005 during the inaugural event for Regal Princess on November 5, 2014. Mr. McDonald was featured in a special video tribute while he watched virtually from his home. This special event officially kicked off the 50th anniversary celebration for Princess Cruises. He passed away 15 days later at his home in Bellevue, Washington, on November 20, 2014, at the age of 94.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of starting a cruise line?
During planning for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, we determined that there weren't enough hotel rooms for people coming to the fair. So we decided to bring in several ships to operate as a hotel while people attended the fair. We bought a ship and brought it out to the west coast from the Caribbean and it sailed from San Francisco to Victoria B.C. then down to the Seattle World's Fair for a 10-day cruise. For four days of the cruise the ship was used as a hotel while our people onboard visited the fair. This was a howling success and it continued operation during the entire fair.
From that we got the idea of a cruise ship. I saw that people loved to cruise. And remember, jet service had just come in. Before, cruise ships were merely transportation — now they were going to be something for a vacation. And so we searched around and came up with a ship that we could operate as a cruise ship — the Princess Patricia. I liked the name, and that's where the name Princess came from. It turned out to be very successful —we operated it in Seattle and Los Angeles, and had an office in San Francisco. That was in 1965 — the year we sailed the first Princess ship to Mexico.
From there we started to look for something else that was more in keeping with what people would want here on the west coast. And we came up with the Princess Italia — a brand new cruise ship built in Italy. The builder went bankrupt, so I negotiated with the bank that held the ship to finish it. We took it on a long term charter and brought it to the United States where it was a success from the beginning.
Q: Why the name Princess Cruises? Where did that come from?
Princess Cruises came from the name of the first vessel we chartered from Canada, Princess Patricia owned by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. I liked it very much and I got permission to use the name Princess. We had to have something that would be well liked, that had quality in it — and this is what we determined using the name Princess would be.
Q: When was the first cruise and where did it go?
The date of the first cruise was in November of 1965. It was the first Princess cruise to Mexico.
Q: What was your original logo and how was the current logo created?
Originally, because we were going to Mexico, we had a character painted on the stack. But it was a little too Mexico-focused if we were going to more places like Alaska and the Panama Canal. So, an artist came up with this concept and did the head of the princess that we now know, the colors and all. I looked at several different designs and said 'this is the one'— and it's been that ever since. The old logo was used for two years and the seawitch came in on the third year. The current logo has been very telegraphic for people; they recognize it right away and it's gotten a lot of publicity. I think we paid $50,000 for the designer to do it and I would say now it's worth millions of dollars.
Q: Some people refer to you as the father of cruising. How does that make you feel?
I feel we were the fathers of the modern day cruise business in the world; that's my opinion. We were ahead of the others and we saw it as an American legacy. I am very proud that we were at the forefront of it and I would say one of the leaders — if not the leader — of cruising. We were certainly proud of the ships. Others just had a few cruise ships down in the Caribbean out of Miami and they were old ships that were transportation ships. We said "Hey, this is cruising, it's entirely different." The hardest thing was getting people to understand what a cruise was all about. Today it is common knowledge.
Q: What do you think of today's cruise ships compared to those when you were starting Princess?
I'm very proud of the fact that cruise ships are now the destination for the guest. They want to go see foreign countries and ports, but the ship really becomes the destination. It's entirely different than in the days when cruising was transportation. It makes me feel proud; these ships with 3,000 guests are tremendous and wonderful. The quality of the ships has increased so much that the general public has just embraced it and enjoyed it.
The Italia was the first modern built ship for cruising only — probably one of the first, if not the first one. It was a modern, sleek ship that carried about 460 people and a lot of new amenities and entertainment.
My daughter came up with the idea of having a gym on board, now every ship has one.
Q: What are some of your early memories about this new vacation experience you had created?
I remember one of the biggest things was that people wanted to gamble while onboard. So we got some slot machines. The first time we put them on the ship we were coming out of Florida on the way to Los Angeles. The first night out everybody was up there gambling, I thought to myself, "This is a big success." The second and third night, same thing — then I found out the machines were put together wrong and they were all paying off a tremendous amount. Matter of fact, I had to put up thousands of dollars myself in order to pay the people using the machines. So that was our introduction to gambling!
Q: Were there other funny incidents as you started cruising?
On our inaugural season on Princess Patricia, we'd go down to Acapulco and back. The Princess Patricia didn't have a laundry onboard because it wasn't a big enough ship. So we told guests they could have their laundry done in Acapulco. We got down to Acapulco and all the laundry was sent out and we were going to sail the next morning. But the laundry came back as one owner: "Princess Patricia" with hundreds of people's laundry all mixed together. So we had to set up tables in the lobby and take out the clean laundry so people could come down and identify their clothes.
Q: What about shore excursions?
The main thing we did first was to recognize that people wanted to see the port and the people there. We had to plan for that through shore excursions that were interesting. So we did do that and we were very proud of our tours. As a matter of fact, Princess Tours started entirely because of this and today it's a big company.
Q: Who were your early competitors and what was that like?
The only competitor starting out that we had was the Matson Line. They had ships that went to Hawaii and back. They were nice ships and they were under an American flag so they could operate between any ports in the U.S. They were very successful at that time but costs were rising and they started to have trouble.
There were also some ships that would be en route to, for example, Australia or London, and they would come into Los Angeles. We did have to compete with them, but basically we didn't have any true competitors until Sitmar Cruises came in. Sitmar was a west coast operator with good ships. They were still around when I left.
Q: How did "The Love Boat" come about?
"The Love Boat" is kind of an interesting story. Looking back, it was a very difficult decision to make.
Before "The Love Boat" we had various movie companies using our ship from time to time. Remember Columbo? We had various ones like that. It was fine, but they took up guest cabins which was bad because we were sold out. It gave us exposure, but they were somewhat of a nuisance, from the viewpoint of the guests who could be irritated because they were out on the deck. It didn't turn out to be too big of a problem but it was costly.
But during this time one of our cruise directors was writing a book. And she gave it the name "The Love Boats." It was submitted to us as a movie, onboard Island Princess. But it required 106 cast and crew, I believe, who we had to carry at our cost. We debated this quite a while because it was a huge commitment for us and certainly for the studio. Subsequently it was at Spelling that they decided to make a T.V. show of it.
Q: Is it true that Princess nearly said "no" to the Love Boat opportunity?
I will never forget the time when an executive came in to tell me: "I got rid of this person who wanted to make a deal with us on putting a T.V. show aboard the ship." He told me a little bit about what it was, and that night I left the office and came back the next morning and said, "Hey, I've been thinking about this more — let's put this back on the front burner." It was a big commitment for us, the small company that we were. And carrying this 100-some crew was costly. It turned out that it was "The Love Boat" that we nearly threw out — but it was an incredible success. And the show made the cruise industry jump way ahead, years and years with that one program.
Q: How did the purchase by P&O come about?
When we sold to P&O it was my feeling that there was an opportunity to grow. They had the ability to build the new ships that were necessary to support growth for cruising in the U.S. And they were willing to do that. Under the agreement, I would stay and manage the company and be president of P&O North America for five years. I enjoyed very much working with them to build the company so it would be attractive to people in the U.S. And that was exactly what happened — we did it the way Americans wanted and it worked.
Q: Didn't you coin a phrase that has been long used to sell the Mexico experience?
The call of the 'Mexican Riviera' was coined by our people as I remember. Now everyone refers to it as the Mexican Riviera. I believe that it really spoke to the quality and beauty of what people would see down there. We all know the French Riviera — the Mexican Riviera was something we had in the western hemisphere.
Q: Explain what it was like to create ports of call in the early days.
When we first started cruising to Mexico it was unknown what was going to happen. The one port that no ship had ever gone to was Puerto Vallarta -- a beautiful place. I traveled down there from Mexico City and it took me more than a day on an airplane. Because the airplane had to stop at this little town, then that one, and we changed engines — it was unbelievable. And here was this quaint little town with people doing their washing out at the creek and so on. Well, this was going to be an interesting port of call!
But we didn't have pier there, so we decided to drop anchor. But we didn't even have a small pier to get the people off the launch. So we talked to the local community and they said they would build a pier -- we were going to pay for it but they wanted to help. We began to build the pier, and then a storm came in and wiped out what had been built so far. For the first cruise -- remember no ship had ever been in there — we had to get something to get people off, because we couldn't get in close enough to shore with the launches. So, they got a barge and sank it on the beach, so the people could get off, walk up and across the barge and back down to the sand on the beach. Well, that solved our problem and saved our first cruise to Puerto Vallarta. The whole city got out there and finished the pier that is still there today.
Q: What would your reaction have been if someone told you 40 years ago what Princess is like today?
I wouldn't have been surprised at all. I think that I saw it there. I knew we could use a lot of ships. The length of time it would take to build the ships and to set the itineraries was going to take time, we knew that. But they were coming along very rapidly, ships of 600, 800, 900, then 1,200, 2,500 and now we have 3,000 guests. We could see that people wanted to cruise, I knew the demand would be there and I knew that you could put on the ships everything that anybody would want for a nice vacation.
Q: What are your feelings when you see the ships today?
There's a tremendous amount of pride, seeing those ships come in. A lot of sweat and tears went into each one of them. I was always very glad and very proud for the people that worked at Princess. I think every one of them did a wonderful job.
Q: Do you miss the cruise business? Do you still cruise for vacation?
Sure, I miss every bit of it. I enjoyed every minute, and cruising has been good to us. We still cruise a couple times a year. Vacation wise, I think it's the most outstanding vacation there is.